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How Andy Reid toys with opponents’ defensive coordinators

Kansas City’s head coach loves to bait the opposition by putting plays on film.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Houston Texans Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

“The offense is putting that play on film.”

How many times have we heard that during an NFL broadcast? The league’s best coaches always know the core tendencies of their own team — and especially those of their opponents. They need this information to devise strategies to attack their opponents — and keep opponents from succeeding against them.

They do this by studying film.

Sometimes, coaches will also run plays — that is, “put a play on film” — specifically to toy with opposing coordinators. If you can get an opposing coordinator to notice a tendency of yours, you can use it against them by attacking them with something else when they see that tendency again. At the professional level, football is a game of chess. You have to stay several moves ahead of your opponent at all times.

It’s possible that no NFL coach uses deception more than Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid, who often uses regular-season opportunities to put specific plays on film — so that in the postseason, he can trick defensive coaches. He is hoping to hold some of his best plays for the playoffs.

In the last three weeks, Chiefs wide receiver Kadarius Toney and running back Jerick McKinnon have both had their best stretches with the team — but they have done it in so many ways that defensive coordinators are scrambling for answers.

In what ways has Kansas City been utilizing these players?

Jerick McKinnon

While McKinnon isn’t the most talented back Kansas City has had during Reid’s tenure, you can easily argue he’s the most versatile. He’s the best pass-protecting running back the team has had — and he’s also very dynamic as a receiver.

On this play, McKinnon’s lined up as a No. 1 receiver in an empty formation. Typically in this circumstance, a running back will just stand still or run a short hitch route. But the Chiefs have McKinnon run a skinny post route — that is, breaking a post route to the right at 13-14 yards downfield. McKinnon recognizes a hole in the zone coverage — and then works with quarterback Patrick Mahomes to exploit it.

Most running backs can’t run a route like this — it’s normally a wide receiver route — but now that McKinnon has put it on tape, defensive coordinators must add new checks against empty formations. That can help create matchups with tight end Travis Kelce against a linebacker — something that no defensive coordinator wants.

Here, we again see McKinnon out wide as a receiver — but Kansas City motions him out of the backfield. They’re showing a 4-strong formation — but with a fullback as a sniffer. McKinnon motions him out into a stack. Then the Broncos don’t properly communicate who’s going to push against him. The Chiefs run a pick play to get McKinnon open in the flat — and it’s an easy touchdown.

From this play, defenses learn that they have to worry about empty checks in the red zone — so they’re not going to want to put a linebacker on McKinnon. This opens up possibilities for a shovel pass — or even having a tight end run a quarterback sneak. While multiple plays can be run from this look, the film forces defenses to play it a certain way.

Reid loves using McKinnon in the red zone, where the running back has seven receiving touchdowns. That’s tied for the league’s second-most.

Reid’s favorite way to do it is this play-call, where the Chiefs align in a bunch formation to the field. This forces the Cincinnati Bengals to call man coverage to deal with it. To clear the flat, Kansas City sends all three receivers on crossing routes. This allows them to run McKinnon to the flat against an out-leveraged linebacker — who has no hope of chasing him down.

Teams are now forced to account for McKinnon in man coverage, which limits their blitz calls. If you want to send pressure, the Chiefs will burn you with McKinnon. By presenting this on film so many times, it limits what defensive coordinators can call in the red zone.

McKinnon’s value doesn’t just come as a receiver, but also as a blocker.

Here, the Chiefs come out in a split-gun formation — running backs on each side of the quarterback — but what McKinnon does is fascinating. They motion him down into a sniffer role, which is basically an off-ball tight end. A defense might expect a shovel pass to McKinnon, but the Chiefs actually run a G-H Counter, where McKinnon is the lead blocker. They did this twice against the Raiders. Both went for touchdowns.

Kadarius Toney

After Toney was acquired midseason from the New York Giants, he’s added some remarkable elements to the offense; our colleague Caleb James wrote about him this week.

He’s also returned a lot of the Tyreek Hill playbook back to the offense — especially in the past two weeks. Since Hill left, Kansas City hasn’t been able to run the deep Over routes on which Hill was so dynamic — but with Toney, those are back in the playbook.

Here, the Chiefs hit Toney on an Over against the Broncos. Defensive coordinators now have to be more careful dropping a safety into a Robber spot — because otherwise, Toney could burn them.

Reid has isolated a lot of different players on the back sides of formations — but no one is as dynamic as Toney.

Here, the Chiefs isolate Toney on the back side of a 3x1 formation — but right before the snap, they motion McKinnon to make it a 4x1. With the Raiders forced to push their coverage to the strong side, Toney is isolated against a cornerback — against whom he gains a ton of separation with a terrific whip route.

Toney’s route-running ability (and skills after the catch) leave defensive coordinators in a tricky position. Can they push coverages to the strong side — or must they double Toney on the back side? Either way, the Chiefs can hurt them.

These were my two favorite plays of these past two weeks.

Recently, we’ve seen Kansas City get into split-gun formations more often — but with Toney in the backfield. The famous — I mean, unsportsmanlike“Snow Globe” play that ran against the Raiders on Saturday was an example of it, but we’ve seen the Chiefs use Toney from this formation in a variety of ways.

Against the Broncos, he runs a wheel route from the backfield while Kelce essentially runs a pick route, letting Toney get free access to a vertical shot on the sideline. Toney makes a great grab — but that type of vertical threat from the backfield is something most defenses don’t account for.

Against the Raiders, they run a Sprint Draw with Toney. Faking a swing route, they run inside zone right behind it to set up a touchdown. The slot defender and MIKE linebacker both push when Toney fakes an outside release — expecting a screen — but running right at the open hole almost generates a touchdown.

When Toney’s in the backfield like this, it’s hard for the defense to make a good call. By putting both running and passing plays on film from this alignment, opponents will be confused about what checks to call when they see it again — and the Chiefs should be able to take advantage of that.

The bottom line

Kansas City already presents a lot of issues on tape. Dealing with Kelce and Mahomes is already enough to handle. When players like Toney and McKinnon are also in the mix, it forces defenses to go into particular checks to account for them. Reid’s going to be able to attack those in other ways.

That’s the reason he puts these plays on film. He wants defensive coordinators to notice them — and account for what they have seen with very particular checks. Once Reid sees those, he’ll be able to find — and exploit — the weaknesses that have been created.

Playoff football is about being as versatile as possible. With McKinnon and Toney now in the picture, the Chiefs have a great deal of versatility in their offense. In the postseason, they’ll have a diverse menu of plays to call — which should terrify the NFL.

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