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Film review: What to take away from the Chiefs’ preseason offense

Starting Sunday, Kansas City’s games will count. Let’s take a closer look at the games that didn’t.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Chicago Bears Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports

It’s finally time for real football. That’s what we’ll get this Sunday, when the Kansas City Chiefs go on the road to open the 2022 regular season against the Arizona Cardinals.

To get an idea about what to expect from the Kansas City offense, I took a close look at the unit’s preseason performance, looking for trends and themes that could tell us how players will be utilized to start the new campaign.

Let’s start with the position group with which are the least familiar.

Wide receiver usage

Wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster only participated in the 11-play opening drive of the first preseason game — and wasn’t targeted. A sore knee kept him out of the final two exhibitions. But during training camp, Smith-Schuster’s connection with quarterback Patrick Mahomes made it fair to believe he can be the group’s leader in production.

But I believe that at least initially, there’s evidence that Marquez Valdes-Scantling could be on the field more than any other wideout.

This is because when the Chiefs line up with 13 personnel (1 running back, 3 tight ends) or 22 personnel (2 running backs, 2 tight ends), there is only room for one wide receiver to be on the field. Those formations will typically lead to a running play — and opposing defenses will anticipate that. A play-action fake for a deep shot can be a great way to take advantage of the defense in those moments — and Valdes-Scantling is the team’s best overall deep threat.

His combination of size and speed — along with experience understanding how to manipulate safeties and cornerbacks with his routes — make him the best option for the early-down plays where Mahomes wants to take a chance deep.

It can just be the threat of a deep throw, too. The Chiefs’ usage of run-pass option (RPO) plays can allow Mahomes to take advantage of a defense that is worried about staying over Valdes-Scantling on a given play.

Before the snap on this first down against the Washington Commanders, Mahomes is able to read the soft coverage, which indicates there is an opportunity with Valdes-Scantling on a speed out. The play easily gains 11 yards.

The Chiefs did this a lot with Tyreek Hill. They can obviously run it with the other receivers — but in these situations, using Valdes-Scantling will put the most stress on a defense’s deep coverage. Besides... his bigger physique will allow him to contribute as a blocker when Kansas City runs from these formations.

It is, however, a long season. We can expect things to change and progress.

Rookie wide receiver Skyy Moore has already looked like a dangerous deep threat; his two preseason targets from Mahomes took advantage of Moore escaping attention behind the safety. Right away, that’s how we’ll see Moore introduce himself as a playmaker: taking advantage of the defense’s respect for Kansas City’s other pass catchers.

Moore could even progress into being as much as a downfield threat as Valdes-Scantling. But I don’t believe that will happen with Mecole Hardman. While defenses will perceive his speed as a threat, they won’t feel that way about his route-running — or his ability to win contested catches. So far, it seems like he’ll play a role similar to what we’ve seen in previous seasons: being an explosive player for whom the team can design about 10 plays where he will get the ball.

Attention on Travis Kelce

Speaking of safety attention, now it’s all going to be on the veteran tight end.

Without Hill in the picture, defenses will be even more certain they know where Mahomes will want to go in situations like third down, the two-minute drill and so on. It’s going to be Kelce — and this preseason has given us a few examples of how that attention can lead to opportunities elsewhere.

In a two-safety shell — like we see in this play — the safety on Kelce’s side may be asked to come down late to try to take away a quick throw to him. That leaves more space for deeper routes from the receivers aligned on Kelce’s side of the formation. Here, Valdes-Scantling is able to break open deep.

Here’s another play — this one from preseason Week 1 — where another opportunity for a deep completion to Valdes-Scantling opened up for the same reason.

Especially early in the season, this attention on Kelce may lead to some unexciting stat lines for him — but it may provide openings for big plays from others.

The running game

For most of the preseason, it was evident that we were seeing the same old Kansas City running game: zone runs that functioned as time fillers between passing plays — or even sometimes to get into passing plays. The production in the first two games backed that up, with just 24 yards on 10 carries combined for Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Isiah Pacheco.

It feels like that’s what we’ll get out of the gate — because that’s the offense with which head coach Andy Reid and Mahomes are most comfortable. Still, the third preseason game gave us an example of how the running game could evolve.

Afer all... the Chiefs did keep Ronald Jones — and if they didn’t envision a role for him on this year’s team, they wouldn’t have. His effectiveness on downhill run plays (such as Counter and Power) make him valuable in that limited role. But it’s a role that could expand (or even shrink) depending on the matchup.

For some games, Jones could be inactive — and then, a week later, have game-changing, explosive runs. If the Chiefs think they can exploit a specific team with those kinds of plays, he’s the best option to run them.

Other offensive notes

  • Don’t be shocked if tight end Jody Fortson sometimes spells Kelce in the red zone. Not only is this where Fortson seems to be at his best, it could also be a natural way to save some wear and tear on the veteran — especially when defenses will likely be double-teaming him in those situations. At least at the beginning of the season, Fortson won’t garner the same attention.
  • Veteran running back Jerick McKinnon will start as the third-down back; against Washington, he took all four snaps when the Chiefs lined up on third down in a passing situation. During the preseason, Edwards-Helaire got no live reps in that role.

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