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Film Review: How the Chiefs are expanding Rashee Rice’s role

Kansas City has been looking for a weapon in the passing game beyond Travis Kelce all year. It may have found one in the rookie.

Kansas City Chiefs v Las Vegas Raiders Photo by Jeff Bottari/Getty Images

With much consternation about the wide receiver room this season, the Kansas City Chiefs were looking for a reliable option among the group. Nobody had stepped up to the plate, with the team looking at options all season.

On Sunday against the Las Vegas Raiders, Kansas City may have finally found a reliable option. Rookie wide receiver Rashee Rice had eight catches on 10 targets for 107 yards and a touchdown on Sunday. In a season with wide receiver struggles, Rice finally had a standout performance from the rest of the group.

How did the Chiefs get Rice going this week? Let's dive into the film:

Screen run options

One area the Chiefs have got Rice the ball in all year is with run-pass options (RPOs), but particularly SROs (screen-run options). Getting Rice going downhill with blocking has proven to be a fruitful part of the offense, but they hadn't done too much attachment with a run until this point.

If the defense gives the right look and numbers to Mahomes, it's an easy bubble or smoke screen to Rice. Rice is much more explosive and dynamic after the catch than any other Chiefs wide receiver, so getting him the ball moving forward with blocking is a way for the Chiefs to generate explosive plays on early downs.

Playing outside of structure

One challenge with every new wide receiver the Chiefs bring in is building chemistry with Mahomes outside the structure of the play. The Chiefs have unique scramble rules compared to most teams since Mahomes is such a special talent on the move. For Rice, it's been a bit of a struggle working with Mahomes out of structure, but he was able to get a nice catch in that situation on Sunday.

On this play, Rice runs a simple spot route from the slot, but once Mahomes bails to his left, the linebacker comes downhill to chase and tackle him. This opens up a hole for Rice, who decides to drift upfield behind the linebacker to give Mahomes a clean throwing window.

This is a simple play by Rice, but plays like this will garner more trust from Mahomes. With more trust comes more opportunities to get the ball. For Rice to hit his ceiling, he's going to have to work with Mahomes out of structure, so it's encouraging to see progress there.

Getting Rice on the move horizontally

The Chiefs have struggled at points to get their playmakers the ball in space, partially due to the fact that their wide receivers lack the dynamic ability after the catch to take advantage of the space given to them. Their best option after the catch continues to be Rice, so the Chiefs found multiple ways to get him the ball in space by using him horizontally.

On this play, the Raiders are in a Cover-1 Double coverage. Cover-1 Double is man coverage with a safety doubling Kelce and a centerfield safety over the top. With Kelce on the backside, that leaves four defenders to cover four wide receivers. Rice's defender is in outside leverage based on the bunch formation the Chiefs are in. The Chiefs run a couple of vertical routes to help clear space for Rice, who gets space horizontally against a trailing defender with bad leverage.

With Travis Kelce facing a lot of double coverage recently, there are pockets for space when they put Kelce on the backside. With that safety committed to covering Kelce, the Chiefs can get Rice more space horizontally with four underneath defenders covering four wide receivers. By setting picks with deeper concepts, they can get Rice more space to go downhill against a retreating cornerback, and Rice has the explosive ability to beat them to the sideline for yards after the catch.

This play is a variation of "Y-cross," where the Chiefs get Rice on the move underneath going across the field. The Raiders are in a match coverage, trying to distribute routes underneath. The Raiders mistakenly have their boundary and slot cornerbacks match Justin Watson's over route, but wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling should be clearing the boundary cornerback out if this play worked correctly. Regardless, both of those routes get Rice against an underneath linebacker, who's responsible for picking up any backside crosser. The linebacker reads it too late, giving Rice way too much space to run for a touchdown.

The Chiefs have struggled to get runaways for their wide receivers this year, and it's mainly because none of their options are that explosive after the catch. If the Chiefs can get Rice working in that department, it causes defenses to wonder whether they should play man coverage as much. With a player like tight end Travis Kelce, you want to face more zone coverage, but you have to force it. Having Rice work on the move like this might help that.

Free-access throws on the sideline

Something new the Chiefs did this week with Rice was play him on the outside. Rice only played 33% of his snaps from the slot — down from his typical 50%. Instead, the Chiefs decided to put him on the boundary more, using Rice as a "free-access" outlet for Mahomes.

A free-access throw is a part of certain progressions. The Chiefs made a living out of it with Kelce from 2018-20. If the quarterback likes a certain matchup or coverage against a certain route concept, they can break away from the progression and target that player. This week, that player was Rice.

The Chiefs asked Rice to run a variety of routes, such as slants from there, but they got him two targets on fade routes. We haven't seen Rice run many fade routes to this point, but it was a skill set he showed in college. Rice has a considerable way to grow as a route runner from these spots, but it's encouraging to see the Chiefs try and get Rice the ball in these situations. As he grows more comfortable in this role, we could potentially see that role expand even more for Rice.

The bottom line

As Rice's rookie season has gone on, it's clear the Chiefs have something with him. It's encouraging to see his skill set continue to grow. He's by far the Chiefs' most talented option in their wide receiver room, and it's imperative they get him the ball as much as possible.

Rice is their best outlet to get teams out of man coverage. Teams have lived in double coverages for three weeks, but the Chiefs haven't had outlets to beat that coverage. If they can get Rice on the move more in space, that will scare defenses. Rice is their best option to generate explosive plays against man coverage, so if they keep getting him the ball in those situations, defenses will have to counter with more zone coverage.

There is still a lot of room for Rice to grow. His route running is limited. He sometimes struggles to sight adjust against certain coverages. That being said, seeing him get more opportunities within this offense is still fantastic. Hopefully, this isn't a one-week blur and more of a consistent trend this season.

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