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The Reid Remix: How the Chiefs’ play-action passing game can expand in 2022

After last week’s look into rushing, the play-action game is the natural follow-up for the next installment of this series.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

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 this edition, we’ll take a closer look at the team’s play-action passing.

What we know

As I noted last week, the Chiefs’ primary running game has felt like more of a time filler than a featured part of the offense during recent seasons. Naturally, opponents have started disrespecting it — which has impacted the effectiveness of Kansas City’s play-action passing game.

In 2021, Patrick Mahomes earned 6.7 yards per attempt on play-action passes. This was not only the lowest mark of his career (by over a yard) but also the third-lowest rate among full-time starters. He was one of only three quarterbacks who had a lower yards-per-attempt rate on play-action passes than on direct dropbacks.

Still, Mahomes led the NFL with 17 play-action passing touchdowns, while also earning the fourth-highest adjusted-completion percentage among starting quarterbacks.

These numbers paint a picture of an offense that had the downfield elements of its play-action passing taken away by its opponents — but was still able to use it as a key part of its scoring.

So how do they get closer to the 8.5 yards per attempt Mahomes averaged on play-action passes in 2020? Let’s try to get to the bottom of it.

Play action versus light boxes

The reduced efficiency shown in these statistics reflect something I’ve talked about over and over this offseason: how often the Chiefs played against light boxes.

With these light boxes, defenses tend to deploy two-safety shell coverages. That limits a lot of the vertical passing concepts the Chiefs like to run from play action. The team countered by using play-action passes less frequently; it was used on just 27.5% of Mahomes’ dropbacks, which was the lowest rate in any season in his career.

One of the Chiefs’ favorite ways to use play-action against these two-high safety looks is Y-Cross, where the primary receiver — typically tight end Travis Kelce — runs across the field from the back side of the formation, finding space behind the linebackers who are (hopefully) biting on the fake. He runs to the space cleared by the front-side vertical route, while the quarterback typically rolls that direction.

On this snap, the defense is in Cover 2 man, meaning that the two safeties play deep halves over everyone else’s man-to-man coverage. As it does here, this usually creates a mismatch: a linebacker covering Kelce.

Against a typical Cover 2 zone, this almost becomes easier for an intellectual player like Kelce. The alley in which he runs — behind the dropping linebackers — can be a blind spot for them. His feel for how to manipulate their awareness of his route is incredible. Add in his chemistry with Mahomes, and the two of them usually find the right window for the completion.

Then there’s the deep post going the other way to take advantage of the attention on Kelce’s route — but here, you see Mahomes fail to pull the trigger on what appears to be a big play opening up.

It’s a reminder that Mahomes had stretches of play last year where he didn’t look comfortable dissecting these soft, deeper coverages — and it might have been as simple as how many defensive jerseys were in his vision on each dropback. When you’re consistently seeing seven or more defenders in the secondary (rather than six or fewer), the windows typically look — and are — much tighter.

Traditionally, play-action passes open windows by making defenders respect the run — but when second-level defenders are bailing in coverage no matter what, that advantage disappears.

How it can open up in 2022

As I broke down in last week’s Reid Remix, the first step is forcing defenses to respect the run. Once the offense is no longer seeing historic numbers of light boxes and two-safety shells, it will have more opportunities to run play-action passes effectively.

If the offense can get defenses to bring another player closer to the line of scrimmage, it can get more looks against single-high (Cover 3) coverages. Whenever he saw them last year, Mahomes was able to take advantage.

On these two plays, the single safety goes with wide receiver Tyreek Hill — which opens up a huge window for a downfield pass to the other deep route.

The team that played the most Cover 3 last year was the Las Vegas Raiders under defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. Far from coincidentally, the Chiefs scored 41 and 48 points in their two games against the Las Vegas defense.

In the second game against the Raiders, the Chiefs used one of their most creative play-action designs to score a touchdown.

Wide receiver Byron Pringle attacks a linebacker like he’s blocking for an outside run, then pivots and runs towards the corner of the end zone, where he is well above the wave of defenders who are flying to the flat to stop the run.

With a more impactful running game in 2022, the creativity of Kansas City’s play-action passing can be taken to another level; it’s easy to see how new wide receivers Juju Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling could fit into this specific design.

The bottom line

If the Chiefs can have a more impactful running game, it can open up the possibilities for their play-action passes — which were heavily neutralized in 2021.

Thanks to the available talent (and the coaching staff), they found ways to take advantage of these limited opportunities in 2021 — but it still wasn’t maximized. By forcing defenses into more favorable coverages with a legitimate running game, the Chiefs could easily create more chances for vertical passing concepts from play action.

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