While the Kansas City Chiefs were able to secure the AFC’s top playoff seed by beating the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, the offense wasn’t exactly clicking on all cylinders. It struggled throughout the game, appearing to be out of rhythm. The Chiefs were able to muster only 17 points — and it took nearly everything they had to even pull that off.
As it’s been for most of the season, the one constant was Travis Kelce’s performance in big moments. On third down or broken plays — or just when the Chiefs had to string together a scoring drive — Kelce was always there. Sunday’s game was another reminder of why he is the NFL’s best tight end.
During the game — in which he had seven receptions for 98 yards and a touchdown — Kelce set the single-season NFL record for receiving yards by a tight end with 1,416. If he doesn’t play in the season’s final week — which seems likely — Kelce won’t have a chance to become the first tight end to lead an NFL season in receiving yards. But he should finish in the top five — which would still be quite a feat for a tight end.
In a game in which the Chiefs definitely didn’t put their best foot forward, Kelce still found a way to shine. Let’s look at the film to see how he did it.
NFL’s best receiver against zone coverage
I can’t say with 100% certainty that Kelce leads the NFL in yards against zone coverage — but I’d set the odds as greater than the Chiefs’ to win the Super Bowl. Like most tight ends — through alignment and sheer size — he’s always been a quality receiver against zone coverage, but over the last three or four years, he’s just become unstoppable.
Kelce may be the best receiver in the NFL against zone coverage just in terms from his ability to identify and exploit zone cov— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) December 30, 2020
He has an uncanny feel for where the openings will be and consistently opens up into the best throwing lane for the QB. YAC threat still very evident pic.twitter.com/M2EeFnDcNF
This play isn’t a very difficult zone coverage look — it’s a simple three-deep, three-under zone blitz — but Kelce does a good job flashing the crossing route so the back-side zone defenders can’t collapse back to the middle of the field.
After Kelce influences the back-side hook defender to stay home, the defender reacts to the running back working out into the flat. When Kelce sees that, he immediately sits down — even working back toward the opposite side of the field. All of the underneath defenders are flowing one way. Kelce is aware enough to not only influence them but then also settle in behind them. And then after finding the soft spot in the zone and making the catch, he works his way through the secondary for big yards after the catch.
While Kelce may not quite have the same speed or explosion that he did earlier in his career, his body control has improved. He no longer has to rely on speed to outrun players. He understands defenders’ angles and body positions at a level that allows him to consistently find extra yardage, making subtle adjustments to his pace, gait or hip angle to alter defenders’ pursuit angles. He’s remained one of the best tight ends after the catch through his savvy — even while still displaying well-above-average athleticism.
We see plays like this one in every game — where Kelce just settles in right behind (or between) zone defenders, allowing Mahomes to find him in what looks like impossibly-small throwing windows.
As we’ll see later, sometimes we see miscommunication between them because they read the zone leverage a little differently — but I’d argue that Kelce appears to be right at least as often as Mahomes. He’s just a special talent that way.
There isn’t a more dangerous tight end alignment than when Kansas City goes Y-Iso with Kelce. When he’s split out by himself to one side of the offense — and the defense doesn’t have a player dedicated to bracketing him — you know what’s going to happen. He’s just too big and strong — and too good a route runner — to have a defensive back lock him up.
When in doubt; Iso Kelce out[side]— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) December 30, 2020
The ability to put any level of CB in the NFL through the ringer because of the route running and size is unique for a TE. When the Chiefs go Y-Iso on the backside, defenses have to have a plan other than M2M w/ a CB or S pic.twitter.com/wD6YgRMDF7
On this play, Kelce comes off the line of scrimmage pressing vertically. Then he swims up and over the cornerback with his outside arm. At this point, the play is essentially over; Kelce is just too strong for the defensive back to re-route him or try to close the distance. Kelce easily keeps him at bay, then using his strong hands to shoot out and snag the football — and keep going for extra yards after the catch.
Out on an island against Kelce, you can’t blame a cornerback for respecting an outside or vertical stem.
I knew Kelce got a top 5 CB but I really thought they just got tangled to Lattimore's benefit...— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) December 22, 2020
Nope, he got completely sauced and in desperation trying to recover tripped Kelce. I'm not sure how you don't call that standing right here. pic.twitter.com/1PK8q5tmLb
In another game — this time, working from that Y-Iso alignment against one of the NFL’s better cornerbacks — Kelce absolutely torches him vertically. Somehow, defensive pass interference isn’t called — but the defender doesn’t have much choice: he can’t overplay inside, outside, deep or short because Kelce can beat him in all four cases.
Given Kelce’s size and strength advantage, all it takes is is for the corner to have one mistimed step; Kelce can box him out or stack him, making the throw wide open.
Red zone targets
Since Kansas City’s rough game in the red zone against the Denver Broncos during Week 13, they’ve started mixing in some more-traditional plays. With the profile and skill to be a red-zone weapon, Kelce has been the main benefactor.
Travis Kelce; good at football.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) December 29, 2020
Regains the single season receiving record for TEs and top 5 for yards and TDs on the season.
Great concept to attack the stack rules but great attention to detail.
Release looks like a basic pick, subtle avoidance, and pulls ball tight to chest pic.twitter.com/Kc9WzD9AiS
While this play’s design — and Patrick Mahomes’ throw into this tight window — is the star of this touchdown, Kelce’s nuance can’t be ignored.
His release — all the way up into the stem of his route — makes it look like he is just running a rub route to free up the number one receiver to that side. As he comes off the line of scrimmage, he squares up where the cornerback over the outside receiver is going — as if he’s trying to run right at him to free up the receiver.
It’s not until the last second that Kelce slides away from the contact over the near defender, opening up right on the goal line. Settling in at that spot places him in the middle of the “box” distribution of the defense — four defenders covering three receivers who are all taking a specific release pattern — making it unclear who should be driving on him. That split second allows Mahomes to fit the ball into the very tight window.
Shoulda had another on this amazing route.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) December 29, 2020
No way to know if the ball shoulda gone front or back pylon but QB and TE were just on slightly diff pages.
Kelce works the two way go iso'd and uncovers a huge chunk of space in the EZ. He works near pylon, ball goes back pylon. pic.twitter.com/6v9czo8xl3
On this play later in the game, Kelce should have had another touchdown — but he and Mahomes were on slightly different pages.
Kelce is able to easily beat the cornerback on the two-way go, breaking his route flat to the front pylon. He knows that he has outside leverage. He can box out the cornerback if he tries to close, so the shortest throw leaves the least amount of time for the cornerback to recover. But Mahomes throws the ball toward the back pylon — where there is more space for Kelce to continue to separate — forcing the cornerback to cover more ground.
Considering how badly Kelce was able to beat the corner, it’s hard to say either one of them was incorrect. The defender couldn’t stop either throw; Mahomes and Kelce just took it in different directions. It’s likely that immediately afterward, they discussed it on the sideline — just to make sure that if it happens again, they’ll see it the same way.
The bottom line
Travis Kelce is really good at football. Quite simply, he’s the best tight end to ever play the game. Despite his years in the league, he’s as dangerous as ever. Week to week, he finds different ways to win; you’re never going to cover the entirety of what he can do. Heck... for what feels like only the third time this season, he wasn’t a lead blocker on a rushing touchdown.
As great at Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid are — which is really, really good — this offense wouldn’t operate the same way without Kelce. He is the safety net — the constant — and is one of only two Chiefs players who don’t need scheme help in order to make an impact. Outside of quarterbacks, Kelce probably causes NFL defensive coordinators more sleepless nights than any other player. There is just no simple way to stop him.