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Film review: the Chiefs’ passing game against the Broncos

What does the Chiefs’ offense need to do in order to hit its stride?

NFL: Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Chiefs — especially on the offensive side of the football with quarterback Patrick Mahomes and head coach Andy Reid — have set such a ridiculously high standard for their level of play that even in the midst of a five-game winning streak, they are being heavily criticized for their offensive production.

To some degree, this is understandable. High expectations are a privilege — and it sure beats the days prior to Reid’s arrival in Kansas City.

Rather than simply throwing around loose narratives about what is happening with the Kansas City passing game, let’s use the film to examine the finer details of its scheme and performance during Sunday’s 22-9 victory over the Denver Broncos.

The good

No matter what happens in the weeks, months and years ahead, we’ll always be able to count on Mahomes to create a little bit of out-of-structure magic from time to time.

In an effort to become more accustomed to his brand-new offensive linemen, Mahomes has been very careful about stepping up in the pocket away from pressure around the edges. He has elected to stand firm in front of his interior linemen for longer than normal, too. On the surface, this is a good thing that he did need to work on. Lately, however, there have been instances where he has stayed in that pocket a split-second too long.

He is at his best when he can slide through the B gaps (between the offensive tackles and guards) and keep his eyes upfield to find receivers — such as Darrel Williams on this play.

I particularly like these scenarios because they give him a clearer picture of the field as the play continues — and more time for receivers to come open against tight coverage. And if he doesn’t find a good receiving option prior to reaching the line of scrimmage, he can then find some open space to run for yardage.

The coaching staff is also having to be slightly more creative in the ways they get Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill opportunities for easy catches. Defenses are really going to great lengths to make life difficult on those players.

In this play, we see a subtle (yet effective) way for Mahomes to get Kelce an easy completion.

Also note Josh Gordon at the bottom of the screen. It would be nice to see him get an opportunity to win at the catch point. At this stage of his career, he’s not going to create tremendous separation from defensive backs. If he is going to make plays, it will be from plucking the football in those tight one-on-one spaces — much like we saw Jody Fortson do before his injury.

Here we see Clyde Edwards-Helaire featured as a receiver in space — and it is encouraging to see him used in this way.

Ideally, these types of reps are what he will need to be able to consistently do well. Catching the ball in the open field — and then making the first defender miss — are the college traits that made him a first-round draft choice.

In spite of some other issues (we’ll get to those), Mahomes’ decision-making on post-snap reads was very good against the Broncos; mentally, he was quite sharp.

Early in the game, we saw the Chiefs’ offensive staff pull out some really well-timed play-calls to keep the first drive alive — eventually leading to a touchdown.

As games become more important, the staff will have to push the limits of their creativity, making sure they are never being outcoached through the full course of a game. In recent years, Andy Reid and Eric Bieniemy have left plenty of tools in their bag for the postseason run — and this season, I don’t expect that to be any different.

The bad

To see this play broken down in greater detail, please take the time to watch myself (and the rest of the Arrowhead Pride film guys) on this week’s AP Film Room show.

Some will discount the thought, but dropped passes — and mistakes in general — can become contagious, creating nervous energy throughout the stadium. Rather than focusing on simply executing their jobs as they normally would, players begin to “play not to mess up” — and that is never a good thing.

There is a sports psychology element to this that is very real — and I believe it is largely to blame for the large number of dropped passes and turnovers this season. But the team can move past it. It might only take a couple of really good back-to-back performances to make it happen.

There’s a reason Denver’s defense is top 3 in points allowed this season. The unit is no slouch — and right now, head coach Vic Fangio is one of the NFL’s better defensive minds.

The Broncos have really talented players who get paid, too — especially in the secondary. When you blend that with quality coaching, you get a really good defense. Every game (and even every play) is a chess match. Snap by snap, the Chiefs’ offense will need to win more of these in order to get back to its very high levels of productivity.

The final play we’ll examine — also broken down in this week’s AP Film Room — is one that was very frustrating to watch live Sunday night. But now that the game has been won — and our collective blood pressure has been lowered — we can see that in some ways, it is a source of hope.

The play is set up perfectly; it’s likely to go for a touchdown.

Unfortunately — despite his admirable efforts these last few weeks while playing out of position — right tackle Andrew Wylie loses his one-on-one matchup just in time for the Denver defensive end to impact Mahomes’ throw. This one loss on the offensive line is very likely the reason the offense scored only 16 points — instead of 23.

This, of course, is why football is such an incredible game: everyone has to execute at a sufficient level for things to work. But we can now see how this small failure in execution shifted the perception of not only this game, but also what the Kansas City offense is capable of producing; if Mahomes connects with Hill for a 62-yard touchdown, the current narrative would be totally different. And with the confidence it would have inspired, the offense might have looked much better for the rest of the game.

These things matter. Hopefully — when the next opportunity presents itself — the offense will be able to capitalize on it.

The bottom line

As our John Dixon pointed out in a great article earlier this week, an NFL team (or one of its units) is probably never quite as good (or bad) as one might think. For all the offense’s woes — or the defense’s recent excellence — it only takes one off-day to end a team’s season. But one superb performance can extend it further, too.

During the Chiefs’ final four regular-season games of 2019 — all of them victories — their offense wasn’t a most flashy operation; it averaged only 24 points per game. But it — and the team — went on to do very well in the playoffs and eventually win a Super Bowl.

In 2020’s last four regular-season games played by starters, the offense averaged 24.25 points per game — even mustering only 17 points against the Atlanta Falcons. But when the playoffs came around, all looked right in the world — at least up until the Super Bowl.

I don’t bring this up to say this is certain to happen again. It isn’t. But it does provide some legitimacy to the thought that there is much left to be said about what the Kansas City offense (and a complementary defense) can do for the rest of the season. The track record is there.

This offense needs to remember who they are — and keep firing. What’s occurred in recent weeks for this team is behind them. All that matters is where they go from here.

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