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Film review: The key to what is hurting the Chiefs offensively

Kansas City hasn’t been good in 12 personnel — when they use one running back, two tight end and two wide receivers.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Indianapolis Colts Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

In the NFL, the health of an offense doesn't come through big plays or third-down conversions. Good offensive health is built through being an efficient first and second-down offense.

Since 2018, 54% of teams in the top 10 in early-down success rate also ranked in the top 10 of yards per play and scoring offense. If we filter it down to just the top five, that number rises to 68% of offenses. 66% of offenses that rank top 10 in success rate rank in the top 10 of yards per play or scoring offense as well. While explosive plays and third downs generate the most highlights, being an early-down machine correlates to a healthy offense.

In Week 1, the Chiefs were ruthlessly efficient on first and second down. The Chiefs averaged 6 yards a play on first down with a 51.4% success rate. That's an insane efficiency, but they were somehow even better on second down. The Chiefs averaged 9 (!!!) yards per play on second down with a breathtaking 68.2% success rate. Week 2 wasn't as efficient, but the Chiefs improved their first down YPA (7.3 YPA, 45.5% success rate) yet did notice a drop in second-down success (4.9 YPA, 38.9% success rate). Against a very good Chargers defense, that made sense. We expected a bounce-back performance in Week 3 on early downs.

This week? The Chiefs averaged an abysmal 3.9 YPA on first downs, having a success rate of 35.7%. On second down, the Chiefs only averaged 4.8 YPA on a 45% success rate. Over the course of a season, that would rank 27th in first-down success rate and 19th in second-down success rate.

Quarter Yds Avg Success
Q1 47 4.7 30.0%
Q2 55 3.2 41.2%
Q2 (2 Min) 1 0.5 50.0%
Q3 128 6.7 52.6%
Q4 85 6.5 23.1%
Q4 (2 Min) 24 8.0 33.3%
Down Yds Avg Success
First 110 3.9 35.7%
Second 95 4.8 45.0%
Third 108 10.8 30.0%
Fourrth 2 2.0 100.0%
Distance Yds Avg Success
First and 10+ 11 5.5 50.0%
First and 10 94 4.3 31.8%
First and 6-9 - - -
First and short 5 1.3 50.0%
Second and 12+ 6 6.0 0.0%
Second and 8-11 36 5.1 28.6%
Second and 7-4 52 5.8 66.7%
Second and 3-1 1 0.3 33.3%
Third and 12+ 53 53.0 100.0%
Third and 8-11 0 0.0 0.0%
Third and 7-4 55 11.0 40.0%
Third and 3-1 0 0.0 0.0%
Fourth and 12+ - - -
Fourth and 8-11 - - -
Fourth and 7-4 - - -
Fourth and 3-1 2 2.0 100.0%
TOTAL 315 5.3 39.0%

That's the story of the game this week. The Chiefs weren't great on third downs (10.8 YPA, but only a 30% success rate), but the lack of efficiency on the early downs put them in terrible positions on third downs.

What caused the staggering drop in efficiency? After watching the film, I found one sweeping conclusion: the Chiefs were terrible out of 12 personnel (1 running back, 2 tight ends). I charted 20 plays out of 12 personnel, and the Chiefs only generated 53 yards of offense. That's 2.7 YPA. To make matters worse, the Chiefs only had a 40% success rate out of 12 personnel.

After so much early-season success out of 12 personnel, why was it such a problem against the Colts? There were many different factors that caused 12 personnel to fail this game.

Bad play design

One problem the Chiefs ran into this week was terrible play design. This season, it seems the Chiefs are wanting to build an offense out of 12 personnel, but unlike most offenses, the Chiefs want to attach a vertical element to the offense.

They want to punish teams for countering 12 personnel with nickel and dime personnel by being able to run the ball with an elite offensive line. When teams dedicate more resources toward the run, the Chiefs want to use their elite athletes at tight ends to generate explosive passes over the middle of the field.

In theory, this is a great concept. Modern defense in the NFL carries an opportunity cost, where there are tradeoffs to how you want to deploy your personnel. If you want to play light to counter the passing game, you give up the run game — and vice versa. Given the Chiefs have an elite tight end in Travis Kelce and a good run-blocking offensive line, theoretically, this formula should work.

The problem so far, however, is bad design.

Take this play, for example: the Chiefs are in 12 personnel and put two tight ends on the same side flexed out as receivers. Since both tight ends are aligned so wide, they present no threat to the run game. Still, the Chiefs attach a play-action fake to the concept, slide the protection to the fake and try and hit a deep vertical concept.

The problem? There's zero threat of a run for the defense. The Chiefs are at a numbers disadvantage in the box, so the Colts don't have to worry about the run. This allows their pass rushers to shoot gaps against the slide protection, and Mahomes is forced to check it down.

To make this design worse, the Chiefs send both their wide receivers on vertical routes, but the spacing is horrible. Both run into the sideline, and there's no space for Mahomes to get a ball to them. The protection doesn't give enough time for anything to develop, but the route spacing is also terrible.

This play is purely bad design. You lose all benefits of play-action if you're aligning your tight ends/wings out of the run formation. When you add the bad route spacing, this is just a questionable play call. So far, this has been a problem for the Chiefs, and it's shocking for an Andy Reid team to have such bad design.

These play designs aren't as egregious as the one above, but the identity of KC's 12 personnel passing game is bad. Teams aren't respecting the Chiefs' threats in space outside Kelce, and the Chiefs don't have the speed to punish teams vertically out of 12 personnel.

Noah Gray, Kelce, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and JuJu Smith-Schuster don't have the speed to get open deep quickly. Yet, the Chiefs are consistently asking these guys to win deep. It's a misuse of personnel.

If you're asking slow players to win deep, it's going to take a lot of time, and the offensive line isn't giving enough time for routes to develop. It's a tough balancing act offensively right now.

The Noah Gray conundrum

Blake Bell being out is hurting this team.

Bell's a great blocker, especially in the run game. The Chiefs trust Bell to iso block a defensive end on his own, which opens a lot of KC's interior runs. With Bell injured, that role has gone to Gray. Gray's been a solid player for the Chiefs, but he's not big enough to block defensive ends. This is the second straight week he's struggled to block defensive ends in the run game, and it's hurting it.

The tradeoff with playing Gray is you gain more speed at tight end, but Gray isn't separating well enough to threaten vertically. Gray's a talented route runner and athlete, but that's not his best role. But, with the way the Chiefs are operating offensively currently, Gray's inability to win vertically and run block basically means the Chiefs are wasting every play he's in.

That's harsh, but the Chiefs can't generate a successful offense with Gray in the game right now.

The bottom line

12 personnel wasn't the only reason the Chiefs were bad offensively Sunday. The offensive line was poor, receivers weren't separating, and the Chiefs couldn't run the ball. Everything was going bad for the Chiefs Sunday, so pinning all the blame on one personnel group would be entirely unfair.

Still, when I went back and watched the game, I kept writing down how bad the Chiefs offense looked out of 12 personnel. This was a problem in Week 2 that was exacerbated in Week 3. Teams aren't respecting the run game enough right now to put heavier personnel on the field.

Why? Because the Chiefs keep flexing Kelce and Gray out as receivers, which means they can't help in the run game. This kills the play-action game since there's no run threat.

Combine that with the inability to get anything going vertically out of 12 personnel, and the Chiefs lack identity in their offense right now. It's only Week 3, and it'll take time to build that identity. But, right now, the Chiefs' offense is better in theory than reality.

The Chiefs are going to have to solve their run game first if they want any chance to succeed offensively. If they can solve that, the play-action game will be open, and the efficiency will return.

But, until we reach that point, I'm very concerned about this offense.

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