One of the best (and occasionally maddening, depending on the play) things about Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid is his fascination with unusual play designs. When these plays don’t work, Reid can be subject to criticism for being “too cute” for his own good. But when they do, they are hailed as master stokes by one of the league’s most innovative offensive minds.
The most egregious occurred early in the second quarter after both the Chiefs and Steelers had failed to score during the first frame. On a first-and-10 at its own 31-yard line, Kansas City tried a direct snap to wide receiver Mecole Hardman — who had played some quarterback during his high school career — in what appeared to be an RPO play.
Hardman opted to hand off to running back Darrel Williams — but the exchange went badly, putting the ball on the ground. Williams managed to scoop it up, but it was too late. Pittsburgh’s Cameron Heyward and Joe Schobert had bracketed the running back — and Heyward knocked the ball from Williams’ grasp. T.J. Watt turned it into a 26-yard scoop-and-score that put the Steelers up 7-0.
So that play was too cute.
But not all of Sunday’s creative play designs fell into that category. On a second-and-goal at the end of the next drive, the Chiefs evened the score with a play that they’ve used frequently: an underhand inside toss from Mahomes to a tight end or running back. Even though the play is now available on plenty of Kansas City film, defenses never seem to be expecting it — and it almost always works. As Pete Sweeney noted in these pages on Sunday night, the play’s most-recent iteration focused its misdirection towards Watt — who was completely fooled. Jerick McKinnon went into the end zone untouched.
For quarterback Patrick Mahomes, these kinds of postseason plays are like opening late Christmas presents from Reid, offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy and quarterbacks coach Mike Kafka.
“It’s my favorite time of the year — the playoffs — because Coach Reid, EB [and] Kafka go into the arsenal, finding these plays that we kind of haven’t run the entire season that go off the stuff we’ve done so far,” Mahomes told reporters after the game. “So to be in the game — and get to see the game plan when you come in on that Monday-Tuesday — it makes you super excited for the game on Sunday.”
But the Chiefs weren’t finished. Early in the third quarter — on a third-and-goal from the Pittsburgh 1-yard line — Mahomes hit wide-open reserve offensive lineman Nick Allegretti with a touchdown strike. Chiefs fans from the early 1990s were immediately reminded of a fan favorite from that era: reserve offensive lineman Joe Valerio, who was targeted in the end zone four different times between 1993 and 1995 — and also wore No. 73. Valerio now possesses one of the NFL’s most amazing career stat lines: four targets, four receptions and four touchdown catches.
Allegretti still needs three more opportunities to match Valerio — but he added his own touch to the catch. After reporting eligible, Valerio specialized in being invisible. In contrast, Allegretti took advantage of the opportunity to throw Watt to the ground before he leaked into the end zone.
“It wasn’t like a special play designed for him,” noted Mahomes. “I think he was the fourth read on that play. [Mike] Burton was kind of the first read — he did a great job of actually going in front of that defensive end to give me room to throw — and then it was Kelce, then it was a guy on the back end line. We kind of just tell Allegretti that he can kind of leak out late — not thinking that we’re ever going to throw it to him. It was funny because in practice this week, I threw it to him because everyone else was covered — I wasn’t trying to, it just happened — and then of course it happens in the game exactly the same way.”
The play may not have been specifically designed for the three-year veteran, but it’s also true that he’s been on the field for a handful of snaps as a sixth lineman in every game since Week 9. From now on, teams will have to pay attention when he walks onto the field.
But it was tight end Travis Kelce who drew the most attention from his unusual play on Sunday: a two-yard touchdown pass to wideout Byron Pringle. Kelce had already attempted three regular-season passes during his nine-year career, but things hadn’t gone well.
“I was just looking for a completion,” chuckled Reid after the game. “But we ended up with a touchdown. He’s struggled to get those before — but he sure did a nice job with that one. It didn’t end up the way it was necessarily supposed to end up, but the touchdown was great. They played a little bit different look, but he hung with it and threw through some seams there — and made a nice touch pass.”
“There’s not much to critique,” said Mahomes of the play, in which he had run a route to the left flat. “I mean, he slid in the pocket, he dropped his arm and made a little sidearm throw.”
But according to Kelce, the coaches had stacked the deck in his favor.
“Trying to throw the ball to Pringle, I was told to not read the defense at all — and just trust it.”
That had been one of the problems with his previous passing attempts.
“Last time I read it out,” Kelce recalled, “I threw a pick against New York. [So] I got the no-read clause: do not read it out. You’ve got one guy to throw it to.”
But Mahomes suggested that now that Kelce has actually made one of these throws, he might have more freedom the next time.
“If he wouldn’t have scored,” maintained the quarterback, “I would have been a little upset — I thought I was open in the flat — but they told him not to throw me the ball. So I’ll have to talk to Coach Reid about that — maybe be the second option there.”
More often than not, on Sunday night, Kansas City’s creative plays worked. That won’t always be the case. But history suggests that we’re likely to see more of them before the postseason is over.