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’re using statistics, film and quotes we’ve heard this offseason to preview how different aspects of the unit could look in the coming season.
In the final edition, we’ll examine the offense in third-down situations.
The 2021 Offense
Last season, the Chiefs were historically great at converting third downs.
They led the league with a 52.2% third-down success rate; no other team had a percentage higher than 48%. In fact, no NFL team has had a single-season rate over 50% in the last decade.
They averaged 6.5 yards to go on each third down, electing to pass on 80% of the conversion attempts. That leads to the player who primarily converted these situations: Hill. He led the team in targets and receptions on third down, moving the sticks nine more times than any other player. He caught 73.2% of his third-down targets: a monster number compared to tight end Travis Kelce’s 62.9% rate.
Working on how the 3rd down offense could look different in 2022— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) July 28, 2022
Tyreek was such a cheat code on any 3rd and short. Defenses were still giving him plenty of cushion on these plays, and KC loved to take advantage pic.twitter.com/jsBuSAqmzS
The big conversions on third-and-long speak for themselves — but another aspect of Hill’s performance on third down might be even more irreplaceable. One of the Chiefs’ go-to plays in a short-yardage scenario was a simple quick throw to Hill in the flat. The large cushion defenses would give Hill extended to third downs, which made it very easy for Hill to find space off the line.
Even when the defense was able to get in better tackling positions, Hill’s rare suddenness — and his ability to make defenders miss in space — overcame it.
#Chiefs leading rusher on 3rd downs in 2021 -- in attempts, yards and conversions -- was Patrick Mahomes— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) July 28, 2022
He's gotten so good at climbing the pocket and attacking LOS, instead of escaping around the outside
Athletic enough to stay in throwing position as he starts to take off pic.twitter.com/HHCA4Tx0r5
When running the ball on third down, the Chiefs’ leading rusher was actually quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who turned 13 rushes into 10 first-down conversions, averaging 8.5 yards on each attempt.
The third-down scramble is something at which Mahomes has progressively improved. Now — when pressure comes — he naturally climbs the pocket, staying in a throwing position and scanning the coverage until the last possible second. His rare skillset allows him to move forward at a good speed — while still being able to fire off a pass if a receiver comes open.
When the Chiefs ran the ball, running back Darrel Williams had the bulk of the carries, converting 12 carries into seven first downs. Derrick Gore had the second-most among the backs with four carries; Clyde Edwards-Helaire only had two rushes — although both moved the sticks.
And then there was fullback Michael Burton, who had seven rushes and a target on eight third-down plays. On those eight touches, he earned seven first downs — including a touchdown.
What could change in 2022
It’s likely there will be a new Chiefs player who will lead the team in third-down targets: tight end Travis Kelce. But it’s also likely that opposing defenses won’t make that connection easy.
The duo of Hill and Kelce made it difficult for defenses to key in on both of them on third down. Without Hill, opponents will be much more likely to sell out, thereby preventing Mahomes from going to his most comfortable target.
Mahomes and the coaching staff are smart enough to understand this. So they should be able to take advantage of the attention on Kelce by throwing elsewhere.
With no more Hill, defenses can feel even more confident keying in on Kelce on 3rd downs, knowing he's Mahomes' preferred target— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) July 28, 2022
Here, a good example of how that attention can open things up for others. The Cover 3 CB comes up, leaving a big window for Mahomes to throw into pic.twitter.com/VpES59ixoh
Here we see a great example of how that can work: the defense plays a form of Cover 3, where the cornerbacks cover an entire third of the field on their side. The corner on Kelce’s side sees the tight end run a curl route, reacting to cover it and prevent the catch at the sticks. However, his reaction to Kelce opens his zone for a deep completion to wide receiver Byron Pringle — who gets there by way of a deep crosser.
Defenses have always tended to play Cover 1 — with the safety on Kelce’s side coming down as a robber to take away intermediate targets to the future Hall of Famer. But with Hill gone, defenses will feel even more comfortable keeping only one safety deep — which will challenge Kansas City’s new weapons to take advantage.
Running back Darrel Williams led the backfield in third-down usage last year, totaling 22 opportunities to catch or run the ball — while Edwards-Helaire had only five.
Now without Williams, the current backfield needs a new top back for third downs and other passing situations. In the postseason, veteran Jerick McKinnon appeared to take the reins for the hampered Williams, turning in a very productive postseason: 315 total yards and a touchdown on 48 touches.
However, I project that Edwards-Helaire will take over that role — evolving into a playmaker who will more closely resemble the player he was at LSU. In part, he’ll earn the job by being Kansas City’s most experienced back — but also because of the receiving skills we have seldom seen the Chiefs fully utilize.
Someone will have to take Darrel's place as the primary 3rd/pass down back. McKinnon will make his case, but I see CEH getting the opportunity— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) July 28, 2022
We know what he can do on screens / in space, but plays like these from his rookie yr show he can be asked to do more as a receiver pic.twitter.com/9r36MARuX5
In his rookie season, Edwards-Helaire was given many more opportunities to impact the passing game — even on plays like this one, in which he’s making tough, downfield catches.
I believe Williams’ impact last year — plus some injuries — kept Edwards-Helaire from continuing to progress in the receiving game. This year, his backfield partner Ronald Jones’ strengths come in the running game and on early downs — so it’s natural for Edwards-Helaire to be used in the other phase.
It will be important, however, to see Edwards-Helaire provide strong pass protection. If he isn’t good enough, it may reduce his third-down (and receiving) opportunities.
The bottom line
As I’ve laid out the different ways the Chiefs’ offense may change, I’ve tended to show how a particular phase of the game can improve. However, it’s nearly impossible to ask the Chiefs to improve on 2021’s historic third-down success.
Hill’s loss will likely have the greatest impact on the team’s third-down offense. Not only will the offense be losing a rare playmaker capable of converting in any situation, his loss will also make it harder to get the ball to Kelce on crucial downs.
The best way to counter that natural regression is for the Chiefs to play better on the early downs, putting themselves in more manageable third-down situations. And one of the biggest keys to that will be a strong running game.