The crazy part is that both things could be — and absolutely are — true.
After the Texans jumped out to an early lead, it felt like the Chiefs offense was struggling. But what if I told that struggle wasn’t predictive of how the rest of the game was going to play out? What if I told you the start of the game was actually foretelling a huge offensive output for the Chiefs?
I know: it sounds crazy. But when you look back on the game without the emotions of the moment, the Chiefs offense showed you exactly why they were going to put up a 50-burger.
It’s true: in their first four possessions, they gained only 41 yards, committed two turnovers — and scored zero points. But even so, the Chiefs offense looked like it had the Texans’ defense completely outmatched — both in scheme and talent level.
These are big claims off the top. So lets head down to the AP Laboratory and look at the film. I’ll show you what I mean.
Early game “struggles”
The Chiefs had a good idea how to attack the Texans from the get go despite falling down quickly— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) January 14, 2020
After moving the ball past midfield attacking man coverage on Hill and Kelce, the Chiefs got a free man on this mesh, levels concept w/ room to run.
Not ideal placement but a drop pic.twitter.com/L8X9Ire8xC
The Chiefs’ first drive of the game stalled when Travis Kelce droped a pass while in the soft spot of a zone — and was quickly followed by a blocked punt returned for a touchdown.
Now down 14-0, the Chiefs get the ball back and start diving deep into their man-beating route concepts. After chunk plays to Tyreek Hill and Kelce, the Chiefs are facing third-and-short. They dial up the mesh concept shown here — one that attacks all the levels of the defense over the middle of the field. Demarcus Robinson comes out of the mesh wide open — and while the ball isn’t thrown perfectly, it is more than catchable. Robinson, however, doesn’t bring it in.
That made it the second drive where a dropped pass prevented the Chiefs from moving the sticks. While drops certainly have to be accounted for, they are hardly predictive of future performance — especially when they are made by wide-open players.
The Chiefs slow start was almost all due to a few self-induced errors. A couple drops on 3rd down ended the first 2 drives, then called up this staple— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) January 14, 2020
- DS is topping #3 (Hill)
- Mahomes attempts to look off the S who doesn't bite
- Hardman beats CB on the post w/ no help left pic.twitter.com/7KPQ4hElu7
In the following drive — now down 21-0 — the Chiefs are desperate to sustain a drive and score some points.
On the third-and-long snap shown here, they call one of their staple concepts: one that stretches the field vertically to both sides — and incorporates a form of a shallow cross. To the Texans credit, they have done their film study — and are prepared to bracket Hill.
Mahomes gets the right idea against single-high coverage, trying to look off the safety before hitting Hill on the corner. Unfortunately, the safety is already planning to top Hill. So despite Mahomes trying to look him off, the safety isn’t taking the bait. But this means Mecole Hardman is left one-on-one against man coverage — with no help over the top. Once Hardman gets a step on the cornerback, it would be an easy six points — that is, if Mahomes sees the safety topping Hill the whole time.
So it’s another turnover on downs — but once again, the Chiefs had gotten the look they wanted; they were just unable to take advantage of it. Like wide-open drops, Mahomes’ failure to see a wide-open player isn’t something that is predictive of future performance.
So while the Chiefs found little success on these plays, it allowed them to see the Texans were going to play man coverage — and dedicate hard help coverage to Hill.
That's about where the struggles ended for KC vs the Texans; theme = Iso'd matchups— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) January 14, 2020
- Kelce iso'd vs a rookie w/ no inside help, quick whip route into big YAC
- EDGE tries to jam Kelce to help, double rub creates traffic as an OLB tries to catch Dame on the wheel https://t.co/oMyjALwAA4 pic.twitter.com/nFKQrfPioi
Now the Chiefs know how to attack the Texans defense. It only takes them two plays to cash in.
The first play shown here is a Y-Iso look in which the deep safety is going to top Hill again. That leaves Kelce isolated against a rookie cornerback on a whip route that is an easy completion — with big yards after the catch.
On the next play, the Texans opt to give Kelce a little chip off the line of scrimmage — but they do so with an EDGE defender who is also assigned to cover Damien Williams. Working through traffic — and chasing a more-athletic player — leaves Williams wide open for an easy touchdown.
Continuing the same trends— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) January 14, 2020
- Y-Iso with Hill in the slot to the trips
- CB in press with OZ leverage
- DS - tops Hill playing for the cross field vertical
- CB has 0 help vs Kelce and takes hard INS leverage
- Kelce goes double move
- Strength + speed forces def holding pic.twitter.com/bG2zOXqVzw
Here, the extra attention being paid to Hill becomes something the Chiefs can to attack.
From the same Y-Iso look, the cornerback isn’t getting any help. Kelce takes advantage of it with his out-and-up route, forcing a holding penalty on the defense. The cornerback has to play inside leverage without receiving help from a safety or linebacker underneath — and when Kelce breaks outside again, he has to drive to the sideline. When Kelce turns upfield, there is nothing left for the cornerback to do except grab him and hope for the best.
As the half went on, the Texans adjusted their D to use the extra defender to double Kelce— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) January 14, 2020
- Two players cross with Kelce
- Splits the hi-lo and crosses clean
Running Man Free w/ the Hill bracket as much as Hou was, that extra def walling a TE left Mahomes unaccounted for pic.twitter.com/l0dXWQ6Uuq
Now realizing Kelce is a problem for which they can’t account while trying to bracket Hill, the Texans use their final help defender to help wall him off in the middle of the field.
The Chiefs identify this quickly, motioning Kelce across the formation and getting two defenders to mirror the motion. Despite the extra attention, Kelce is too big and too fast; he simply splits the wall for an easy completion.
On the next play, the linebacker tries to wall Kelce, getting a chip on him as he comes off the line of scrimmage — but since he has to turn his back to help wall Kelce, Mahomes is free to scramble. Playing so much man free — that is, man coverage with one deep safety — leaves only one help defender. He is now dedicated help defend against Kelce, so no one can watch the quarterback scramble. Mahomes sees this and takes off for a chunk play.
The Chiefs take the lead on this drive. By now, the offense looks unstoppable — but they always were. Unpredictable unforced mistakes slowed them down — but the signs of a big score output were evident right from the beginning of the game.
Flexing their muscles
Coming out of halftime with the lead, I’m sure many fans were nervous the Chiefs would take their foot off the gas — but they absolutely did not.
Out of the break, Houston tried mixing it up and adding in more zone coverage.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) January 14, 2020
- Free play w/ the offsides
- Tampa-2 from Hou
- Strong side: Slant-slant follow to beat man
- Weak side: Smash concept to stress CB
- Watkins on the corner in the soft spot pic.twitter.com/T3CBDGVO2O
Here, the Texans feel the pressure and are trying to change things up to make plays. Playing zone coverage behind it, they’re trying to pin their ears back to get after the quarterback to force a turnover or big play. Mahomes does an excellent job seeing the change, hitting the corner route in the hole of the Tampa-2 coverage.
Hou was pressing in the 2nd half trying to get a jump on the snap, pressure Mahomes into an early throw, and have guys sitting in zone behind it— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) January 14, 2020
- Cover 3 w/ a high hole runner
- Free play again
- The 3 verts coming from the trips side
- Stressed outside CB in a 2on1 pic.twitter.com/LWGpIjLxbN
Here’s another zone coverage snap — with a jump offsides that gives the Chiefs a free play.
The way the Chiefs can get into three/four verticals looks from different formations makes it incredibly difficult for defenses to stop them. This is another Y-Iso look with a cross-field vertical. It gets the attention of both the safety and high hole player — but leaves the near cornerback on an island against two vertical routes. With no help coming from the inside, It’s easy for Mahomes to hit the seam, moving to inside the 10 yard line.
The bottom line
Watching the game live, it was easy to conclude the Chiefs offense started slow — and the Texans defense was the root cause.
But looking back, the Chiefs had a great game plan right from the get-go. They knew exactly how to attack the Texans defense. During the second quarter, the anomalies in the Chiefs offensive disappeared — allowing them to rack up the points.
The Chiefs out-schemed (and simply out-talented) the Texans defense on every level. Whether they faced man, zone, bracket or trap coverage, Kansas City could consistently connect on big — and drive-extending — plays.
If we use this playoff game as a barometer for the level at which this offense is executing, the Chiefs are going to be nearly unstoppable — unless opponents can match them score-for-score over 60 minutes.