Last week, I wrote a critical piece about the Chiefs’ usage of 12 and 13 personnel against the Colts.
On 20 plays I charted, the Chiefs generated 53 yards at a measly 40% success rate. The Chiefs averaged -.2 EPA (expected points added) out of 12 personnel, and .02 EPA out of 13. My conclusion from that piece was that the Chiefs potentially needed to abandon their 12-personnel playbook, especially without Blake Bell. The tight ends couldn’t block well enough to add benefit in the run game, and the vertical passing concepts weren’t working with slower players. It was a bad mix, and I was genuinely concerned about how the offense would perform on early downs if this was the plan.
Well, if Week 4 was an indication of the future, I was dead wrong on the Chiefs' efficiency out of 12 personnel. Against the Buccaneers, the Chiefs averaged .5 EPA every snap out of 12 personnel. Over those 18 snaps, the Chiefs added nine expected points by simply using two tight ends.
Here's the snaps by formation for Chiefs-Bucs. I added a couple extra rows for EPA/play and Pass Rates for each formation. Hope you like the changes! Skyy got Moore snaps!!! But only in 3 WR sets. LOL @ pass rates for KC defense. #nflverse #rstats #gtExtras pic.twitter.com/nW5ErZJo8V— Joseph Jefe (@josephjefe) October 3, 2022
Those numbers are mindblowing.
Going from a terrible efficiency to record-breaking efficiency doesn’t happen by pure coincidence. Something in the game plan was altered to let the Chiefs succeed out of 12 personnel. It was noticeable to me during the game, but the All-22 view helped clear up my observations even more.
Why were the Chiefs so efficient out of 12 personnel? It starts with their formation usage:
Unbalanced formations (Unbalanced Twins Stack)
Unbalanced formations are easy to understand. Defenses set their alignments by passing and running strength. The defensive front aligns with the run strength, which is where the tight end(s) align(s). The secondary aligns to the passing strength — or where they designate the most receiving threats.
The term “unbalanced” comes with how offenses align. If the run strength and passing strength are on opposite sides, this creates an “unbalanced” look. This is particularly relevant out of 12 personnel, where you can put both tight ends on the same side and stress a defense’s alignment.
Chiefs head coach Andy Reid relied heavily on an “unbalanced twins stack” formation this week, which is diagrammed above. Both tight ends stay tight to the line of scrimmage on one side while the receivers are “stacked”— one aligns behind the point receiver — to the passing strength.
As a defense, you have to make one of two decisions; either play with two-high safeties to help against the pass or drop a safety down into the box to help in the run fit. Regardless, when you make one of those decisions, you sacrifice some ability to stop the other. That’s what makes unbalanced formations so hard to cover. Defenses have to make choices, and you can build an offense around whatever that defense chooses to do.
Out of this look, the Chiefs were able to unlock their entire playbook, especially in the run game.
G-T Counter and gap runs
Reid got into his entire bag of run plays this week, especially out of this formation. When you put both tight ends on the line of scrimmage, your entire run game opens up, regardless of whether you’re in shotgun or under center. This week, Reid relied heavily on gap (using pullers in the run game) runs, particularly G-T Counter.
My favorite benefit of unbalanced formations: KC can get into all their runs, particularly their G-T counter game— Nate Christensen (@natech32) October 4, 2022
Even with heavier boxes, the numbers are good to get a favorable look, but KC was able to hit it vs lighter boxes with safeties filling out of quarters pic.twitter.com/HTCYvJdkln
G-T counter was popularized by Lincoln Riley and has slowly climbed its way into the NFL. This run uses both a guard and tackle pulling around opposite the rest of the offensive line, giving the running back two lead blockers to read off of.
It’s a longer-developing run and puts a lot of strain on your center and tight end(s) to make difficult blocks. If they can pull it off, the defense will have a numbers advantage based on the backside defensive end being out of the run fit, so it’s a strong run play.
Reid called G-T counter twice out of unbalanced formations, and both times, the Buccaneers were in Quarters coverage with the safeties deep. This gave the Chiefs a numbers advantage in the box, even if the safeties came down late to fit. Both Noah Gray and Travis Kelce blocked these up well, but — with a lightbox —Reid was able to exploit those looks with gap runs.
How Andy Reid Blends the pass game into these formations
Unbalanced formations don’t provide advantages just in the run game. You can get favorable passing looks out of them. If teams have to dedicate more bodies to the run strength, that leaves a lot of space for the twin receivers to get open space.
Reid was able to exploit that this week.
This doesn't go for a huge gain, but I enjoy the process of this screen. With KC winning on unbalanced formations, they have a clear advantage to passing strength (bottom of screen). I feel this could've gone for some more potentially but attacking that strength affects the D pic.twitter.com/G2nxwX04fT— Nate Christensen (@natech32) October 4, 2022
As I mentioned above, these unbalanced formations can lead to strengths in the passing game. If you drop that eighth defender into the box, that leaves a clear advantage in the passing game. Since the Chiefs were able to succeed running the ball against light boxes, the Buccaneers dropped an extra safety into the box to defend the pass.
This forced them into Cover 3 coverage, and the Chiefs got easy yards by just throwing a rocket screen to their stacked receiver side, where there were fewer defenders.
These unbalanced formations are a great way of getting Kelce free releases, especially if a DE doesn't feel like chipping and wants to get upfield— Nate Christensen (@natech32) October 4, 2022
Any way to get Kelce free space will always work, especially against a spot drop coverage that TB consistently played pic.twitter.com/grnDECrapU
Kansas City was able to exploit the Buccaneers with quick passes out of these unbalanced formations, particularly with Travis Kelce.
By aligning Kelce tight to the formation, the defense can’t press him, which gives him a free release. They can chip Kelce with their defensive ends, but that basically mitigates that defensive end from being able to rush the passer. With all the free releases, Kelce was able to operate against zone coverage, consistently finding openings in the coverage.
Mahomes loves hitting that PCP and it's not a bad read given the 1-on-1, but that over route was open.— Nate Christensen (@natech32) October 4, 2022
Still, with TB responding with C3 like most teams do to unbalanced formations (have to bring body down), these routes will be open with this type of formation generally pic.twitter.com/4JYZV0spa6
(sorry about the green, I couldn't fix that)— Nate Christensen (@natech32) October 4, 2022
KC was able to generate explosives off unbalanced formations (read article tomorrow)
TB had to respond with C3 but actually roll with 2-invert, but either way, this route was going to be open. LB has to carry MVS, great throw pic.twitter.com/glL6mgR0qN
The Chiefs had it all going out of this formation and were even able to hit explosive passes out of these looks. In the first clip, the Buccaneers responded with Cover 3 to the unbalanced look, and the Chiefs had a perfect play call to answer.
The Chiefs sent wide receiver Mecole Hardman on a “Slice” route, where he clears the middle-of-the-field safety out of the picture. This leaves a one-on-one with the post-corner-post (PCP) route, and while the over route is open due to a coverage bust, the bones of this play are strong. If teams respond to this formation with Cover 3 and a heavy box, that route will be one on one every single time. A better route and throw — and that is a touchdown.
In the second clip, the Chiefs attacked the seams multiple times against Cover 2, which was a change-up call for the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay actually rolled into an inverted Cover 2, using their field cornerbacks as a half-field player. The Chiefs run wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling right up the seam into open space, and with a middle-of-the-field open coverage, that seam is open every time.
The bottom line
Kansas City had it all going out of unbalanced twins. They could generate easy yards for Kelce, get into any run they wanted and hit explosive plays vs. any coverage. That opened Reid’s entire playbook. He could run whatever he wanted out of this formation while also being able to generate easy passes when the Buccaneers designated more bodies to the run.
Clearly, Reid was prepared for this matchup. The Buccaneers are an exotic defense, but the easiest way to beat Bowles’ defense is to make them play simpler. By using unbalanced formations, the Buccaneers either could play Quarters with two-high safeties or play Cover 3 with a heavier box. Each structure has its own built-in weakness, and Reid attacked both ruthlessly.
While this is just a one-game matchup, what makes this relevant is Reid attacking what defenses present. The Chiefs are going to receive a ton of different looks this season, and having the answers to all the defensive looks will be critical to offensive success.
Against the top defense in the NFL, Reid had all the answers. Once it gets to playoff time, attacking defensive structures is key to winning, and if this week is any indication, Reid will be ready to roll in January.