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2 things the Chiefs offense needs to improve during the season’s second half

For 2023’s stretch run, Kansas City’s offense will have to step up in a couple of areas.

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NFL: Frankfurt Games-Miami Dolphins at Kansas City Chiefs Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Through the first 10 weeks of the 2023 season, the Kansas City Chiefs rank 13th in points per game, eighth in yards per game and second in turnovers per game. These numbers show that the Chiefs’ offense isn’t operating at the level anybody is accustomed to seeing.

Still, the team sits alone atop the AFC standings, boasting a 7-2 record that includes only one in-conference loss. The remaining schedule includes opponents like the Philadelphia Eagles, Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals — but once again, it’s clear that Kansas City will be in as good a position as any other team to go on a deep postseason run.

But for that to end in a second consecutive Super Bowl title, the offense will need to improve. The defense’s elite play will continue to be an important factor — but in the most important games, victories will come to teams that can score in crucial situations. The Chiefs know this better than anyone.

Two aspects of the Kansas City offense need improvement during the season’s second half.

1. Running the ball against light boxes

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at New York Jets Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The Chiefs are averaging 4.1 rushing yards per attempt. That’s the lowest rate for any Kansas City team since Patrick Mahomes became its starting quarterback. Since racking up 204 rushing yards against the New York Jets in Week 4, the Chiefs haven’t topped 100 yards in a single game.

Even so, the team now ranks fourth in yards per attempt before contact. This suggests how often the Chiefs face a favorable defensive look for their running plays — which happens because opposing defenses are prioritizing pass coverage. It also pairs with a negative statistic: the Chiefs are tied for the lowest rate of yards per attempt after contact.

We might think this means Kansas City running backs are being tackled too easily — but starter Isiah Pacheco is one of the league’s most violent running backs; at his position, he has the league’s third-most broken tackles. Or we could suppose that change-of-pace backs Jerick McKinnon and Clyde Edwards-Helaire are unable to maximize their opportunities.

But unfortunately, it isn’t that simple.

By multiple metrics, Kansas City’s run blocking has been among the NFL’s worst in 2023. Running lanes are not as wide as they were last season. The difference is most apparent at left tackle, where veteran newcomer Donovan Smith doesn’t have the power to create space on the front side — or seal the back side — on the team’s bread-and-butter zone runs.

As a whole, the offensive line is not manufacturing enough room in which the running backs can operate — even against light boxes. The team’s offensive linemen will need to step up — but the coaching staff can also help by improving its game planning.

The Chiefs need to get to their downhill running plays from lighter personnel packages — as they do in this clip. Against a three-receiver set, a defense will typically match with their lighter personnel — and then naturally spread out, which loosens up the box. On a down-blocked run, that makes everyone’s blocking angles easier — and naturally widens the running lanes.

It also removes some of the pressure on offensive tackles, who simply cave in on the defenders to the inside. It’s up to the guards and tight ends to make blocks in space — which is where guards Trey Smith and Joe Thuney are currently at their best. Tight end Travis Kelce still doesn’t get enough credit for how well he can hold a block — and his backup Noah Gray is also a strong blocker.

2. Completing deep passes

NFL: Frankfurt Games-Miami Dolphins at Kansas City Chiefs Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

If the Chiefs can be more dangerous on the ground against light boxes, it will help open up the downfield passing game — and that is desperately needed. This season, Mahomes has the second-lowest passer rating on passes 20 or more yards downfield — and is tied for the NFL lead with five interceptions on such throws.

But until Kansas City can force defenses to put another player near the box, the Chiefs simply have to be better downfield — starting with catching passes in tight windows. The team now leads the NFL in dropped passes (25) — and that is magnified on downfield attempts.

While wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling is considered to be the team’s primary deep threat, he has consistently struggled to complete passes in traffic. This has made Mahomes (and the team’s play-calls) focus more on Justin Watson; he’s been targeted downfield nearly twice as often as Valdes-Scantling. The two of them are the only receivers who have caught a deep pass since Skyy Moore found space on a busted play in Week 2.

Since two-high safety shells are continuing to put a lid on the Chiefs’ vertical attack, downfield throws need to go to players who can finish catches when a safety is bearing down on them. While Watson has shown that ability, players like Kadarius Toney and Rashee Rice haven’t had those opportunities this season.

Last season, Toney caught all three of his deep targets for Kansas City — one of them a contested catch against the Jacksonville Jaguars. In his last collegiate season, over 25% of Rice’s targets were thrown at least 20 yards downfield; he turned those into four touchdowns on 18 catches — eight of them contested.

Until defenses give the Chiefs enough room for true vertical shots, the offense needs to pivot to a wider variety of receivers on downfield patterns. It will improve chances for completions in traffic — and also help increase Mahomes’ confidence when throwing into tight windows.

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