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Playoff X-Factors: The best of the Chiefs’ red-zone offense is yet to come

When Kansas City gets inside the 20-yard line in the playoffs, they have the pieces to be unpredictably dangerous.

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

In the 2022 regular season, the Kansas City Chiefs’ offense earned the second-highest red-zone conversion rate in the NFL, scoring touchdowns on 69.4% of their drives advancing inside the 20-yard line. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes led the NFL with 34 red-zone passing touchdowns this season, while tight end Travis Kelce (10) and running back Jerick McKinnon (7) were first and second in the NFL in red-zone receiving touchdowns.

They had such success with stretches of absence from wide receiver Mecole Hardman, who scored five of his six touchdowns this season in the red zone. Plus, wide receiver Kadarius Toney was a midseason addition that has yet to show his full potential in the offense.

The theme of Kansas City’s red-zone strategy: passing the ball. I looked at its favorite ways to exploit defenses as they near the end zone.

Attacking man coverage

The closer an offense is to score, the less margin for error the defense has to work within its pass coverage. The defenders can’t just allow completions and then rally to tackle, anymore, and that’s why zone coverage has to be abandoned. Instead, defenses have to play man-to-man — and the Chiefs love to take advantage of that.

It’s how McKinnon racked up so many touchdowns. Someone has to be responsible for the running back if he releases on a route, and that linebacker or safety will line up on the side of the ball the back is. So when the Chiefs send McKinnon across the formation after the snap and into the opposite flat, the defender has to chase across the field — but he will also have to maneuver through a wave of receivers running routes back across the grain.

Since every defender is locked into their man, McKinnon will end up alone and in space as he catches the pass. Even when it’s not the design of the play, a dump-off to McKinnon in the red zone can lead to a score when wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster’s route naturally disrupts the path of McKinnon’s defender, as it does in the third play of the clip above.

The McKinnon plays are a subtle example of misdirection — but the Chiefs don’t try to hide their use of it in the red zone. It’s another way to keep defenders in man coverage uncomfortable and out of position, and Kansas City will counter with crossing routes in the end zone.

In these plays, multiple-tight end sets combine with play action to make defenders initially react one way, then have to recover and follow routes going the opposite direction. The two crossers going away from the initial fake are helped by a third crosser that runs the opposite way — hoping to rub a defender and give the primary routes more space to complete the pass.

Stressing defenses sideline to sideline

In the same way that the condensed space forces defenses to play man coverage, it also requires them to cover all 53 and a half yards from sideline to sideline around the line of scrimmage. Any level of a leak in that wall of defenders can be enough to allow six points.

That makes Hardman so dangerous when the offense closes in on the goal line. His elite speed on horizontally-directed plays like jet sweeps and quick screens put stress on defenders to anticipate and get out in front of them — and even that fails to work when the tight ends are blocking well out in front. Noah Gray has been excellent in these spots this season, and Hardman has improved at cutting off blocks and making the most of these plays.

If the defense does anticipate too much, it can be that initial layer of misdirection that’s followed by crossing routes — messing with the eyes of off-ball defenders.

While Hardman stresses the width of defenses, Travis Kelce takes advantage by finding the in-between throwing windows created by some pre-snap motion or post-snap misdirection. He is elite at taking advantage of a coverage defender’s leverage, using jab steps and disciplined eyes to not reveal where his route is going until the last possible second.

When you pair that with a locked-in quarterback, you get the historic red-zone season these two had.

The fun stuff

We saw the “snow globe” play debut against the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 18. The pre-snap motion stole the headlines, but there’s a wrinkle to the play that we could see more of — even if it isn’t paired with a ring-around-the-Rosie huddle beforehand.

In Week 4 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Chiefs scored from within five yards away on a formation that featured a direct snap to running back Jerick McKinnon — just like the snow globe play. Here, he is running the read option; he reads the end man on the line of scrimmage away from the run action — knowing that if that defender crashes down on the handoff, McKinnon can keep it and have Kelce out in front as a lead blocker in space.

It’s a good reminder that McKinnon was a college quarterback, one that ran the triple-option offense at Georgia Southern. Using him as an option quarterback in the red zone gives the Chiefs a numbers advantage in terms of having an extra blocker.

Don’t be surprised to see them break this out again in the postseason.

The bottom line

The Chiefs’ offense has been very successful in the red zone — and that’s with inconsistent availability for most of its key pieces down there.

There’s reason to believe we have just scratched the surface of the things this unit can do with Kelce, Hardman, Toney and McKinnon all on the field at the same time inside the red zone. That unpredictability will be hard to strategize for defensively, and something that Chiefs’ head coach Andy Reid will be sure to use to his advantage.

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