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How the Chiefs’ red-zone offense improves in 2021

You have to look back to look forward sometimes. I did that with the Chiefs’ red-zone offense to learn how good it can be in 2021

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Las Vegas Raiders Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

As we excitedly wait for Kansas City Chiefs training camp to open in late July, it’s a good time to recall the 2020 team’s performance in specific areas of the game and determine if it is set to improve or regress in 2021.

The team has expressed its desire to improve the red-zone defense so far in 2021, but the red-zone offense wasn’t perfect last year either. I took a closer look at the situational offense and evaluated the positives and negatives.

The numbers

Before digging deeper into this phase of the game, I’ll lay the foundation with how the Chiefs performed statistically.

  • In the 2020 regular season, Kansas City entered the red zone on 59 of its possessions — the ninth-most in the NFL. They scored a touchdown on 61% of those possessions, which ranked 14th in the NFL. They did not improve in the postseason, finishing with a 60% conversion rate in three games — including zero touchdowns, one interception and nine total yards on nine red-zone plays in Super Bowl LV.
  • The Chiefs had the third-most red-zone passing attempts in the NFL last year but had the eighth-lowest yards per attempt rate. They also finished middle of the pack in completion percentage and passer rating. They had the 10th-fewest red-zone rushing attempts in the league.
  • The lack of red-zone rushing attempts points to the Chiefs’ distrust in their traditional short-yardage run game — and this Football Outsiders metric shows us why: the Chiefs’ offense finished last among all NFL teams in Power Success Rate; I explained the stat in an article from a few weeks ago.

The film

To make up for its lack of traditional rushing success, the Chiefs offense relies on head coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy’s creativity in designing unique short-yardage plays. The most constant way they give their players an edge is the heavy use of misdirection.

The simplest way they utilize misdirection is with jet motions and end-around motions by wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman. The threat of either player getting around the edge on a defense puts a lot of pressure on individual defenders. They aren’t decoys either; the Chiefs hand the ball off on those motions frequently, which forces the defense to always respect it.

After dealing with the head-spinning misdirection, the defense now has to account for two of the best pass-catchers in the game. Hill and tight end Travis Kelce finished in the league’s top nine leaders in red-zone targets; the biggest reason for their success was the variety of ways they’re able to get the ball in their hands.

When the Chiefs aren’t relying on their most talented players, they’re always a threat to break out an incredibly unique play — whether it’s pre-snap quarterback motion or a pass to the left tackle — but they depended too much on them in 2020. These “gimmick style” plays came up more frequently last season than in the previous one — and it was likely because of the Chiefs’ failure to traditionally run the ball in short-yardage situations.

In Week 1 of 2020, the Chiefs had a noticeably hard time punching in runs from inside the 2-yard line. On two separate fourth-quarter drives, the offense had two consecutive rush plays get stuffed at the line. This is when the offensive line was completely healthy, and the Chiefs still weren’t able to get any push on the goal line.

For the rest of the season, you can notice that there are few traditional rushing attempts in those goal-line scenarios. They began to lean on play-action, sprint out passes or the “gimmick plays” a lot, and I believe the coaching staff correctly understood that they had no choice but to rely on those.

General manager Brett Veach did everything in his power this offseason to help re-gain confidence in the run-blocking.

Looking forward to 2021

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The simplest way to see the Chiefs’ red-zone offense taking a step forward is the offensive line’s overall performance rising. There will almost certainly be four new starters from the 2020 team — and possibly a fifth. The biggest difference from last season to this year will likely be the size difference; possible 2021 starters like Orlando Brown Jr., Joe Thuney, Creed Humphrey and Lucas Niang are all either better or more powerful players than those who made up their spots on the 2020 line.

A better rate of success on short-yard runs in 2021 would make life a lot easier on the red-zone offense, and give running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire more opportunities to produce.

When given space, Edwards-Helaire has been an impressive ballcarrier, making defenders miss and earning extra yards after contact. He just didn’t have the same open space and holes that past Chiefs’ running backs have had.

With the improvement up front, I believe Edwards-Helaire will have a great statistical season — and a much greater impact on the offense’s red-zone success. The innovative misdirection and schemed plays to Hill and Kelce will still be there, but they should not have to be relied upon in short-yardage situations as they were in 2020.

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