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Why the Chiefs are struggling to finish off red-zone drives

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The loss to the Titans gave many examples of the problems the team has faced in the red zone all season

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Chiefs are coming off what is arguably their worst loss of the season at the hands of the Tennessee Titans.

Many different things went wrong. It was a total team loss that will hopefully spark a fire in the team to finish the year strongly — or they could miss the playoffs.

That being said, one under-the-radar flaw the Chiefs have had all season has been their red-zone offense — an issue repeatedly demonstrated in the Titans game.

Scoring hasn’t been a problem for the Chiefs — the team currently ranks fifth in points per game. Moving the ball hasn’t been a problem, either; the Chiefs rank third in yards per game. The problem has been their ability to score touchdowns when the field shrinks and they are operating in the red zone — that is, inside the 20-yard line.

During the 2018 season. the Chiefs had a red-zone touchdown efficiency of 73%, which was second in the NFL. This season, the team is 25th with a paltry 47%.

The Chiefs are scoring points on explosive plays at an amazing clip, but they have lost the ability to finish their drives with touchdowns — and it’s starting to cost them games.

Leading up to this game, you could see various reasons why that could be happening — Tyreek Hill being out, Patrick Mahomes being out (or playing at less than 100%), injuries along the offensive line, playing a quality defense... and so on. But with the exception of the offensive line — which we’ll address — none of those were an issue against the Titans, and the Chiefs still struggled mightily to finish their drives.

So let’s get the AP Laboratory cooking and see if we can pinpoint the struggles — and how the Chiefs can (hopefully) fix them. To get a better sample size out of the Titans game, we’ll extend the red zone out to the 30-yard line.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Tennessee Titans Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

The Chiefs had seven trips to our expanded red zone and came away with only two touchdowns, four field goals and a turnover on downs after a mis-imed snap on a field goal attempt. The touchdown efficiency was an abysmal 29% — and the Chiefs lost the game by just three points.

The good

It wasn’t all bad for the Chiefs in the red zone; their very first drive of the game was extremely successful — but also happens to be one of Andy Reid’s famous scripted plays.

The Chiefs are driving with ease into the red zone. A nice man coverage-beating route to Tyreek Hill on third down set up this first-down run. Damien Williams takes the handoff on the outside run, and the blocking is excellent. Every blocker is latched on. Truth be told, if Williams shows a little patience, he probably jogs into the end zone as the blocks finish.

The Chiefs followed up the run with a staple goal-to-go play: the tight end shovel.

It’s very hard to defend. The RPO look freezes and unblocked defender, and the tight end gets lost behind the offensive line.

This first red-zone trip was coached and executed perfectly. Traditional passes and runs — and even the Andy Reid designer plays — were all working.

A pair of Darrel Williams touches brought the Chiefs down to the 21-yard line for this first-down play: the tight end slip screen, which is another staple the Andy Reid playbook.

The pre-snap orbit motion by Hill — plus two vertical routes to the back side of the screen — holds plenty of eyes. The running back working out into the flat creates the image of a screen — which draws defenders — while Travis Kelce sells his block before settling down for the screen.

Here, the Chiefs catch the Titans in a Cover-0 look. Patrick Mahomes makes the protection check, and it’s game, set and match. With no help across the field, the cornerback can’t keep up with Hill on the over route — and Mahomes drops in a great touch throw.

Again, a great red zone drive — finished off with good coaching and execution.

The bad

This play comes with a caveat: two backup offensive linemen are in the game, so while calling a screen against three down linemen isn’t ideal, personnel restrictions dictate it. Even with the reserve offensive linemen, though, the screen pass is set up well enough to continue the drive. But then both Austin Rieter and Nick Allegretti miss blocks in space, allowing Damien Williams to be tackled just short of the first-down marker.

Here’s a third-and-2 play designed to stress both zone or man coverage.

As the play unfolds and zone coverage is revealed, the hole behind the apex defender opens up — but both Demarcus Robinson and Hill are running into the space. Mahomes’ pass to Robinson is a little high.

There’s an easy argument to make here: that the play design should have called for Robinson to press the sideline — which would open the quick hitch by Hill even more. While trailing in the game in such a short to-go situation, the goal should have been to simply move the chains — rather than making a slightly bigger play. Maybe Hill ran the wrong route and was never a thought for Mahomes, but he seemed to be the better option — even if he was overcrowded by the play design.

The ugly

By this point, everyone knows Cameron Erving is a liability on the field — not just for the success of the team but also for their health. That sounds dramatic, but there have been multiple instances where Erving has missed a block, fallen or been driven back into another players’ knee or ankle. While that’s not something that can be placed entirely on him, his inability to even get his hands on a rusher — or his body in front of one — is a real issue.

This play isn’t the first time this year — or even the only time in this game — an edge rusher is completely untouched and gets a pretty direct line to the quarterback. The out route to the field side is coming open. Mahomes appears to be looking that direction, but he simply doesn’t get the two seconds he needs to make the throw.

Here we see a general lack of discipline that erases two big plays in the red zone.

First, Austin Rieter is just supposed to block and release so he gets out into the screen. But instead, he tries to yank the defensive tackle to the ground — and gets caught.

The next play is Tyreek Hill setting a pick route for Travis Kelce. While the infraction is not egregious, Hill very easily could have just settled down in the linebacker’s path — rather than hitting him.

The general lack of discipline shown in these plays is simply unacceptable. It would be easy enough just to blame the specific players, but these kinds of mistakes plagued the Chiefs throughout the game.

The bottom line

The Chiefs’ red-zone offense has struggled throughout the year. Pinpointing the exact reason is difficult. We see drives where the coaching and execution come together, and the team resembles the 2018 offense. But far more often, we see mistakes that cost the team points. Whether it’s unnecessary penalties, questionable coaching decisions that don’t take down-and-distance into account — or simply Mahomes not always playing his best in the red zone — more often than not, something sets them back.

The good news is that many of these flaws can be corrected with better discipline from both the players and coaches. Reducing the overall number of penalties will help the Chiefs set themselves up for success, but the team’s two offensive leaders — Mahomes and Reid — have to make sure they are on their A-game in the red zone, too.

It doesn’t always have to be a long touchdown pass or a well-designed screen that goes for big yardage. Instead, let the players execute good, basic plays at a high level — just like last year.