For the first time in the Patrick Mahomes era, the Kansas City Chiefs’ offense will not feature what has been the league’s most dangerous, big-play threat: wide receiver Tyreek Hill. For this reason, the 2022 season won’t look quite the same.
So in this summer series — The Reid Remix — we’ll use statistics, film and quotes we’ve heard this offseason to preview how different aspects of the unit could look in the coming season.
We’ll start by explaining the basic ways that Hill’s absence can change the Chiefs’ play-calling tendencies.
Less reliance on RPOs
Last season, the Chiefs passed the ball on 58% of early downs (first and second down), which was the NFL’s third-highest rate. The early-down passing was taken to the extreme during the second half of the season.
early down pass rate in the second half of 2021. the lions established extremely hard. pic.twitter.com/aeDtcdp36j— Denny Carter (@CDCarter13) May 29, 2022
It’s a great way to keep the defense honest; they can’t sell out and expect a run on any first-and-10 or second-and-short situation. But I bring up this statistic to show how they were getting to those pass plays — and how Hill had an impact.
Kansas City had been calling run-pass option (RPO) plays as much as any team in the league. In fact, the team has been using it as its primary running scheme; most running plays have the chance of turning into passing plays. In a given rep, it’s not always easy to tell what the correct read should have been — but in the AFC Championship, it was evident that in some cases, Mahomes forced the passing option.
Not only did the #Chiefs not trust the run game in the 2nd half, they still leaned on RPOs instead of designed runs too much— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 31, 2022
Mahomes forces the pass option here, leading to the crucial INT pic.twitter.com/nZY4Ra1QNM
There are many benefits to the RPO’s post-snap read — but one of those benefits was exclusive to a Chiefs offense that featured Hill.
His special ability to turn a three-yard pass into a first-down conversion likely made head coach Andy Reid (and Mahomes) always want to go to it — especially when Hill was consistently facing soft coverage at the line because of his deep speed.
#Chiefs have been as RPO-heavy as any NFL team, because knowing this could happen on any snap is a huge, unique advantage -- but one they no longer have— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) June 1, 2022
Hill demanded a big cushion, which backfired on these quick-hitting out routes off RPO reads pic.twitter.com/9QKrbkj15U
These explosive plays could happen on any given snap — which just wasn’t the case for every player on the receiving end of these passing options. And it wasn’t just on out routes, either. The Chiefs mixed it up with quick-hitting slants and bubbles — but no player made these options more valuable than Hill did.
Without Hill in the offense, the coaching staff might be dissuaded from leaning on those plays — and it could change as early as the offseason. With the team’s new group of receivers, it may not be worth it to drill those plays as much as before — which may make them less of an offensive centerpiece.
A more-impactful running game
The first point leads into this one: even if it’s a little more predictable, the Kansas City rushing attack could transition to more designed runs, trusting the offensive line to create positive plays against what should still be advantageous box counts of six or fewer players. Last year, no team saw more light boxes than the Chiefs.
After accounting for situation, offensive personnel and defensive play caller tendencies, here are the offenses who see 8 or more men in the box most often:— Timo Riske (@PFF_Moo) June 1, 2022
Here is who sees 6 or fewer more often:
The statistics show that the unit is ready. Last season, the Chiefs ranked eighth in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards formula, which assigns how much credit the offensive line deserves for the team’s rushing yards. They also had the fifth-lowest “stuffed” rate, which measures how many times the ball carrier was tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage.
Last season, Pro Football Focus ranked the offensive line as the NFL’s fifth-best — and ESPN had them with the third-best figure in their Team Run-Block Win Rate (RBWR) statistic.
#Chiefs' first 3 run plays were traditional Power from 21p, G-H Counter from 12p, and one-back Counter from 11p. All gains of 7+ yards— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) November 9, 2021
Wish they'd spam these a little more instead of defaulting to zone runs so much pic.twitter.com/XWsT3MPqNG
There were times last year — like this Week 7 matchup against the Green Bay Packers — where the Chiefs did lean more heavily on a traditional ground game.
In these three reps from a seven-play sequence, Kansas City churned out 8.3 yards per rush. None of these plays had a pass option — nor were they zone runs. Instead, they were gap runs that allowed the offensive line to do what it seems to do best: manhandle defenders and take them away from a specific point of attack.
Defenses will likely still respect Mahomes too much to load the box, so the Chiefs will need to force teams into making that decision. I believe the running game can be dominant enough to lean upon, forcing opponents to bring more defenders to the line of scrimmage.
If defenses adjust — and the Chiefs see more advantageous looks for shot plays and effective play-action plays — the offense could reach an incredible level of efficiency. But that will happen only if Kansas City is willing to make opponents pay for their light boxes (and soft off-ball alignments) more than they did in 2021.
Different passing concepts
At the beginning of the Mahomes era, defenses didn’t respect the Chiefs’ offense as much as they do now — meaning they were much more willing to take chances in man coverage or with one or fewer safeties over the top. Over the years, defenses progressively got more conservative — primarily to counter the lethal, big-play combination that Mahomes and Hill represented.
Last year, opponents took it to an extreme.
Defenses have adjusted to slow down the Chiefs explosive offense this season, aligning with two high safety shells and light boxes at an outlier rate.— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) December 3, 2021
Defenses vs KC (2021)
72% two high shell rate (BUF: 57%, 2nd)
81% light box rate (PIT: 70%, 2nd)#ChiefsKingdom pic.twitter.com/BNbaFzHtLs
On top of the soft coverage meant to prevent deep passes, teams also played very little man coverage when Hill was on the field. More complex defenses (like the New England Patriots’) would double-team Hill in man — but most of the time, his presence resulted in traditional Cover 2 or 4 zone coverage.
Without Hill, defenses may not be as fearful of being beaten over the top, which will make them feel more comfortable about deploying press-man coverage — even though the Chiefs will still have legitimate speed threats like Mecole Hardman and Marquez Valdes-Scantling. This could lead Kansas City to use more man-beating passing concepts — which typically lead to big plays more often than zone-coverage concepts usually do.
We got a taste of Mecole playing in Tyreek's role last year in Wk 17— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) March 24, 2022
They run Wasp, w/ Mecole as the primary route on the post-corner. A fantastic route not only shakes the CB, but makes deep S throttle down -- widening & maximizing the space for Mahomes to throw into #Chiefs pic.twitter.com/z3VUhdlkga
In Week 17 last year, Hill was not on the field for this long third-down conversion attempt. The Cincinnati Bengals trust Cover 1 man coverage — but Hardman makes them pay by running a great post-corner route that results in a 53-yard gain.
Hardman’s route is part of everyone’s favorite pass concept: Wasp. So this play gave us a preview of how it could look without Hill: it could be Hardman or Valdes-Scantling on the deep route.
Now that the Chiefs may see man coverage more often, there could be increased usage of traditional man-beating concepts like rub routes (“pick” plays), go routes and quick passes to receivers coming across the formation in pre-snap motions.
We’ll dive into further detail on the roles of specific players — and the types of plays they could run — in future editions of The Reid Remix.