The Kansas City Chiefs had a good outing against the Buffalo Bills — and much of it was in ways that most wouldn’t have expected.
The Chiefs were down two starting offensive linemen from the previous week and after their first series, lost their best offensive lineman in Mitch Schwartz, causing another mix-up. Despite those setbacks, the offensive line played arguably the best game of the season from a run-blocking perspective. Left guard Nick Allegretti and center Daniel Kilgore stepped in and were dominant up the middle.
As tempted as I was to focus on those hog mollies in the middle of the field, something else continually caught my eye.
Andy Reid dialed up some Split Gun — a shotgun formation with two backs on either side of the quarterback. The twist was that Travis Kelce played one of the running back positions.
With Anthony Sherman inactive for this game, there was a question as to who was going to take over the fullback reps for the team. The Chiefs looked significantly more dangerous with Kelce playing as one of the backs.
The threat of Kelce as a true vertical presence coming out of the backfield had an obvious effect on the Bills defense. Facing the lighter boxes, he didn’t have to clear out any running lanes but rather block in space. The most exciting part was the passing concepts out of the formation.
The final cherry on top was that everything that was presented on the field can be run back with new addition Le’Veon Bell taking Kelce’s place, allowing the tight end to move back to the line of scrimmage, generating even more weapons.
Let’s take a dive into the film down the Arrowhead Pride Laboratory and see how the Chiefs are setting up this package and where they could be looking to go.
The formation isn’t new.
In fact, it was quite popular in the 1980s and 1990s, but as football shifted more pass-heavy, it became less popular. The Chiefs have even used it sparingly with Sherman as one of the split backs or even kicking a wide receiver into the backfield. However, against the Bills, it saw a much higher usage (nine total snaps) than in previous games.
The run game
Mentioned a potential pre-21 Pony play package vs the Bills:— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 21, 2020
Kelce in the backfield darting straight through LoS forces the LB to retreat. Block is entirely in space which allows him to cut the LB.
An athlete sprinting straight through the LoS puts LB in conflict, creates space pic.twitter.com/ozocA3IGxR
This relatively simple inside zone run doesn’t ask anything difficult out of any particular player. Since the Chiefs are often running into a lighter box, the positioning of Kelce in the backfield stacks the odds further in their favor. The numbers in the box are even, which is something the Chiefs frequently see this year. Utilizing an athlete in the backfield with a running back helps generate even better blocking angles.
The weak-side linebacker on this play is threatened by the direct path Kelce is taking through the line of scrimmage, which actually forces him to step off and tilt his hips to run vertically. This allows Kelce to quickly climb and meet a linebacker whose feet had stopped moving in space rather than head-on in the hole.
In the second half, Bills began responding by spinning a S down.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 21, 2020
The threat of Kelce pushing vertically out of the backfield forces the S to tilt and not attack him until Kelce's feet stop. The threat of Kelce (or any top athlete *hint hint*) makes fillers late to the LoS pic.twitter.com/OHgdCTvfyT
Even in the second half — when the Bills started rolling safeties into the box on these looks — it still had a big impact.
Using a player that is a legitimate vertical threat out of the backfield to lead through an interior gap has such a significant impact on defenders assigned to fill gaps. Even a safety spinning down into the box takes a lateral angle and is forced to tilt his hips as the threat comes out of the backfield at full speed just in case he continues vertically.
The safety can’t react to the run until he sees Kelce’s feet stop in the hole to chip the defensive lineman, allowing one blocker to impact two defenders.
3rd and 2 and two defenders get caught with their eyes on Kelce working out to the flat. Not a single block attempted but two players influenced enough to pick up a 1st down.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 21, 2020
When DEs start squeezing down, I imagine the Chiefs are planning on working that pass to the flat pic.twitter.com/UzJtybIAR8
This is an entirely different concept, with the usage of Kelce on this inside veer/drive option play.
Normally on the triple option or traditional veer, the quarterback would be sprint out with the back-side back trailing for the pitch. The Chiefs’ adjustment looks to be more of a pass, as Kelce is sprinting out to the flat — and then the quarterback is following afterward. This sprint-out motion not only holds the play-side defensive end but also keeps the safety from fully spinning into the box.
This motion and the quarterback’s subsequent following holds both of these defenders in place on a third-and-2 dive play right up the middle for an easy conversion. Earlier in the game, Patrick Mahomes had pulled a ball in a similar situation and got caught as the defensive end took Kelce in the flat.
The downside to not having the back-side back in trail is that there is no real way to handle that scenario if the ball is pulled from the running back on the dive. The upside is one of the two backs will always have space to work if the quarterback makes the right read.
While the Chiefs weren’t able to capitalize in the passing game out of this formation, the groundwork was laid. The sprint out into the flat on the inside/veer above is one option in which you can take advantage with superior athletes on the field. There was no chance Andy Reid stopped there.
Here is the fun stuff; what a creative way to flood a zone with 4 players.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 21, 2020
Get a switch on the verticals w/ the Out-N-Up
Kelce out of the backfield on the over draws both Hooks
RB is free to the flat
Four players to 1 side w/o having to cross the field pic.twitter.com/w3HBx93kFw
Knowing opponents are going to continue to playing zone against them, the Chiefs got into a flood concept in an interesting way with some vertical elements.
Using one back out of the backfield as a deep over route paired with the other back working into the flat puts the hook/flat defender in major conflict. The running back is caught up getting to the flat and both hook defenders take the over route, but if the protection held up one more second, the flat would have been open for a big gain.
And now Levels.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 21, 2020
The athlete out of the backfield with Hill pressing the Over route quickly puts the MIKE in conflict. Flat route pulls a defender as well.
Again, 4 receivers to one side of the field this time operating at different depths creating throwing lanes. pic.twitter.com/cD71y49lZG
Later in the game, the Chiefs got into a levels concept to flood the zone in a less vertical manner. With both backs working underneath to the same side, it allowed the slot receiver to work the over route behind the hook defenders.
It’s really difficult for hook defenders to communicate and stagger to defend all of those routes. The way it’s timed with Kelce coming out of the backfield on the shallow crossing routes opens up a throwing window to every receiver.
The bottom line: what the future holds
The most exciting part of this play package is how flexible it’s going to be moving forward.
The question is whether the Chiefs want to continue utilizing Kelce out of the backfield with his athleticism, blocking ability and vertical receiving threat or if they choose to mix it up. It looks like it was set up to be a precursor to some potential 21 Pony personnel (two running backs, a tight end and two wide receivers), with Le’Veon Bell and Clyde Edwards-Helaire on the field together at the same time.
This is what makes this particular play package so exciting — and why we’re digging into it this week. It allows Travis Kelce to kick back out onto the line of scrimmage. You can then utilize him as part of the flood concepts, as a blocker or isolate him on the backside of some of these plays and get the same Y-Iso mismatches the Chiefs love to use.
The blocks Kelce was asked to make weren’t always pivotal to the play for it to succeed and were often made in space against defensive backs or flat-footed linebackers. A typical running back could make some of those same blocks. Most importantly, the Chiefs have the athleticism to threaten second-level defenders vertically and keep them from filling their run fits aggressively. Having one of the backs go vertical through the middle of the offensive line limits the effectiveness of a point-of attack blocker due to the threat it puts on the second level.
When the Chiefs elect to pass — whether an option or traditional passing play — out of this formation, I can only imagine what we’ll see next. I wouldn’t be surprised to see mesh concepts or even four verticals coming from this Split Gun look in the future because it allows the offense to pace the routes in such a way that they can attack the same area of the field at different times.