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Finding the green: how the Chiefs get yards after the catch

The key to the Kansas City offense isn’t that Patrick Mahomes can throw the ball 80 yards on a rope.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

For ancient alchemists, the ultimate goal was to take something that was worthless, break it down to its base elements and then use those elements to create something new and beautiful. This pursuit often took the form of Chrysopoeia, which was the alleged process of transmuting lead into gold.

Somewhere in the deepest reaches of Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid’s hermetic knowledge of football plays is the formula to take something simple — such as a seven-yard crossing route — and turn it into a 14-yard gain. Reid has dedicated his life to the pursuit of finding these additional yards after the catch (YAC).

Just like an ancient alchemist, his spellbook is now so vast that many of the incantations within its bindings will never again be uttered aloud.

Syndication: Arizona Republic Michael Chow/The Republic / USA TODAY NETWORK

Armed with the NFL’s greatest player — quarterback Patrick Mahomes — the Chiefs have finished in the top three in YAC during each year that Mahomes has been the starting quarterback. In 2020 and 2021, they ranked first.

Last week against the Arizona Cardinals, the Chiefs unleashed a monster of a YAC gameplan that tallied 192 yards after the catch. While this is by no means a sustainable pace to maintain for a season, it shows us what is possible when the Kansas City offense is firing on all cylinders.

Earlier this week, Mahomes said that lot of the YAC success they had against the Cardinals was due to his receivers getting open quickly.

“I think you saw there were certain times,” he explained, “where I got the ball out of my hands fast and got it to those guys and they were able to get the ball and get upfield.”

But is it that simple?

Methods to the madness

Reid deploys a variety of looks to manufacture YAC. One of them is lining up with four wide receivers and motioning the running back out wide to further spread out the defense. Then he utilizes a sail concept to get the ball into the hands of a receiver in space.

Sail Concept Definition:

Sail overloads one side of the defense with three routes at three different depths. As long as the offense works within that framework, there’s almost an infinite number of ways to run Sail. At it’s most basic, Sail has:

A receiver in the flats

A receiver at the intermediate level (12-15 yards)

A receiver deep

The sail concept is effective against both man and zone defenses. With zone defenses, it can create confusion when a wide receiver transitions from one level to the next. This can cause defensive backs to be caught in no-man’s-land as they pass off the deep route to the safety, leaving them out of position and unable to drive downfield to cover the underneath route in time.

In the play shown here, the Las Vegas Raiders are playing man coverage — but due to the number of receivers overloading the left side of the field (and the depths of the routes being run), each defender is isolated one-on-one with the receiver. This is a favorable matchup, because the odds of one of your receivers beating single-man coverage are far greater than every one of the defensive backs playing perfect coverage.

Similar to the Sail concept, the Chiefs like to run routes at multiple depths on the field to create confusion for the defenses.

Here we see the Tennessee Titans lined up in Cover 3 zone.

To beat this, the Chiefs overload the left side of the formation and run two routes at different levels inside toward the hashes — plus a single curl pattern on the outside, isolating the receiver. The zone defenders responsible for the underneath routes are pulled toward the middle of the field, while the outside receiver on the curl route is left wide open as the deep defender backpedals to take away anything over the top.

But you can’t talk about YAC without mentioning the screen pass. Out of all of the methods to generate extra yardage, this might be Reid’s favorite. Reid will throw a screen pass to anybody — a running back, wide receiver, tight end — or even Dontari Poe.

These plays weaponize a defense's eagerness to rush the passer — and turns it against them. The offense is essentially pulling the rug out from under the defense, allowing them to slip right past.

And then sometimes, the Chiefs just look at what the defense is giving them and run to the open spot. That’s what happened with Travis Kelce on the play that set up Harrison Butker’s game-tying field goal during that immortal 13-second comeback against the Buffalo Bills in 2021’s Divisional round game.

Afterward, Kelce said that he deliberately did not run the play’s designed route.

“I told [Mahomes], ‘I’m probably not going to run the route that’s called, I’m just going to run to the open area’ — and probably midway through his cadence, he was screaming at me at the line of scrimmage, ‘Do it! Do it!’ And I was just like, ‘OK, here we go, boys.’”

So despite all Reid’s brilliant play designs, part of why the Chiefs are so good at generating YAC is because when the situation calls for it, the head coach trusts his guys to play out of structure.

Chiefs YAC (2021)

Player Pos G YAC YAC/R
Travis Kelce* TE 16 564 6.1
Mecole Hardman WR 17 502 8.5
Tyreek Hill* WR 17 444 4
Darrel Williams RB 17 435 9.3
Byron Pringle WR 17 187 4.5
Clyde Edwards-Helaire RB 10 169 8.9
Jerick McKinnon RB 13 125 9.6
Derrick Gore RB 11 90 11.3
Blake Bell te 16 67 7.4
Demarcus Robinson WR 17 62 2.5
Michael Burton RB 16 36 12
Noah Gray TE 16 18 2.6
Joe Fortson WR 6 9 1.8
Marcus Kemp WR 16 8 4
Josh Gordon WR 12 5 1
Mike Remmers T 4 -2 -2
Team Total - - 2719 6.1

A few things jump out when you look at these numbers.

First of all, it’s no surprise that in 2021 Travis Kelce was first in total YAC. But I was surprised that Mecole Hardman was second — although maybe I shouldn’t have been. When you think of Hardman’s 2021 campaign, you think of a bunch of bubble screens — so it makes sense that over 500 of his 693 yards came from yards after the catch.

I think the biggest surprise of all was Tyreek Hill. Ranked third on this list, he averaged a meager four yards per reception. In comparison, Byron Pringle averaged a full half a yard more than Hill. For somebody who possesses as much speed as Hill, you would expect him to get the ball in space more often. My guess is that Hill’s lack of YAC is related to the number of double-teams he saw in 2021.

Springing forward to 2022, Week 1’s NFL YAC stats tell us something else that’s interesting: despite Mahomes throwing for 192 yards after the catch, the Chiefs do not have a single receiver in the top 15 in YAC. The closest is Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who is 17th with 42 yards after the catch.

This is a testament to how well Mahomes is spreading the ball around.

The final word

One thing is certain: whether they are utilizing something like a sail concept or duping over-aggressive defenses with a screen pass, the Chiefs are going to find the green and run toward it every time.

During Thursday night’s game, this will be a key for both offenses; in 2021, the Los Angeles Chargers were among the top 5 teams in yards after the catch.

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