In general, it’s been a down year for the Kansas City Chiefs’ offense — which is strange to say when they’re averaging 25.5 points per game and the second-most total yards per game in the NFL.
On top of that, they convert third downs at the highest rate in the league: 51.5%. Only one other team this year has a rate above 47%. In head coach Andy Reid’s tenure, the team has never had a rate that high — but you wouldn’t know that from how the team speaks of their third-down performance.
In three of their last four games, they’ve converted less than half of their third-down attempts — including only four of 12 attempts against the Dallas Cowboys. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes believes there’s room for improvement in the situation they succeed more than any other NFL team this season.
“The great offenses in history and obviously in today’s age, they really do a great job of third downs,” Mahomes told reporters during his Wednesday press conference. “I just feel like in these last few weeks, here and there we just didn’t execute at a high enough level in certain parts of the game in third downs — and just like every week, we kind of evaluate and try to find plays we know we can have success with.”
Immediately following the Cowboys game, Mahomes detailed what kind of third-down defense has given them the most trouble.
“I think when you get in those third-and-medium areas, where teams are playing that man-thief coverage, just finding ways to beat that. A lot of teams are playing it to us. We have to be better there... finding ways to beat coverages that have given us some funks here and there throughout the season. At least you know what they’re going to play, so you can try to find ways during this bye week.”
But it’s not just about having a good game plan for the defenses.
On Thursday, offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy explained to media members that it’s more about what the offense is seeing on the field and in the moment.
“Pre-snap recognition,” Bieniemy noted. “All the key indicators that will give you a sense of what is about to take place. Then — once that ball is snapped — from what you see, you have to have a post-snap reaction; then you just have to react and play. Teams are doing a good job of mixing up different coverages, whether they’re playing some form of 11 robber — bringing that guy down late — or they’re playing a shell defense and cheating another guy down late. That’s all a part of it.”
Making the correct reads before and after the snap is much easier said than done. When the bullets are flying, there is a different level of focus that it takes to account for everything a player needs to account for on a given snap.
“There’s about 16-18 things our guys have to think about as they break the huddle and come up to the line of scrimmage,” Bieniemy said. “It’s all about your alignment. It’s all about knowing your assignment — then you have to have a pre-snap indicator of what’s taken place. Then when that ball is snapped, everybody needs to know exactly what just took place. They aren’t going to just stand there like Electric Football when we grew up... these guys are going to move, so you have to have post-snap awareness of what is taking place not only on the back end but the front end.”
The requirement of such recognition is vital on any play — but especially third down. That all-important down is typically when the defense will try to confuse an opposing offense the most, or they’re just more likely to cause general chaos.
Mahomes and company have excelled at converting in those situations this season, but they aren’t resting on their laurels. Reid knows that being satisfied with a particular phase of the game can only lead to a regression.
“We put a ton of emphasis on third down,” Reid pointed out during his Wednesday press conference. “The situational football in this league is huge, and you’ve got to stay on top of it... If you don’t stay on top of it, then you’re going to be back in the bottom, and you don’t want to go there.”
That’s the opposite of where the Chiefs want to end up — and also the opposite of the direction they’re currently headed. Despite the subtle drop-off on third down, the offense has quietly found a rhythm and a groove.
An uptick in performance during the most important in-game situations can be the thing that propels the team back to being among the NFL’s undoubtedly elite.