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Examining the Chiefs’ third-down success during Sunday’s win over the Patriots

Let’s see how Kansas City performed in third-down situations against New England.

NFL: DEC 17 Chiefs at Patriots Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

During Sunday’s 27-17 victory over the New England Patriots, the Kansas City Chiefs’ offense turned in an up-and-down performance. It struggled to find consistency while running the ball. In many cases, tight end Travis Kelce had difficulty getting open. Wide receivers continued to drop passes and display poor ball security.

But there was one encouraging thing: the offense performed well on third-and-long. In Week 14’s 20-17 loss to the Buffalo Bills, the Chiefs converted just 13% of its third-down attempts in which at least seven yards were needed. But on Sunday, the offense converted 33% of these — and all of them were in crucial moments.

These don’t even include the critical third-and-4 conversion to wide receiver Rashee Rice in the fourth quarter, which allowed the Chiefs to burn another three minutes off the clock after the Patriots cut Kansas City’s lead to 10 points when they converted an interception into a touchdown.

What was the difference? It was quarterback Patrick Mahomes making crazy plays with a hint of great pass protection.

Let’s take a closer look.

Film review

After failing on their first two third-and-longs, the Chiefs completed a huge third-and-10 pass to wide receiver Justin Watson that was good for 31 yards.

Here we see the Patriots are in a Cover 1 double coverage, in which they’re doubling Kelce with a single high safety and man coverage across it.

In a middle-of-the-field closed coverage like this one, we typically see defensive backs play with outside leverage against wide receivers who are inside the hashes. This funnels these routes to the defender’s help — in this case, the free safety.

The Chiefs know this, so they dial up a Flag route for Watson — something with which he has been terrific in Kansas City. This is a route where the receiver stems to make it look like a deep Over route — but then breaks outside to the corner. Watson executes it very well — but Mahomes’ ball placement is also tremendous.

On the same drive, we saw more great quarterbacking from Mahomes — but it was more about his mental processing.

The Chiefs are once again in third-and-10. New England shows a pressure look, so Mahomes changes the play, bringing Kelce in to form a seven-man protection. He has the offensive line do a full slide to the right, with Kelce able to block the back side edge with the help of running back Jerick McKinnon.

The route concept is Dagger, a two-man concept with a clear vertical and a back side dig route. Rice runs the dig, doing an excellent job of finding a zone hole in Cover 3. Mahomes navigates pressure coming from the right side B-Gap, avoiding a hit and easily getting it his rookie wideout.

Another third-down conversion used one of Reid’s excellent play designs — one that features multiple coverage beaters and takes advantage of a defense that is keying on Kelce.

Since the Patriots had been committed to doubling Kelce, Reid decides to put him on the back side of the formation, opening space to the field. On the other side, the Patriots are in some version of a man-match coverage, distributing routes by depth and release. But since Kansas City uses motion to change the releases, the Patriots’ rules are compromised — forcing them into some quick communication. After the two vertical routes clear the space, Rice is able to get open on the out route with good leverage.

Then there’s the critical third-and-4 from the fourth quarter. The play displays excellent pass protection — and a mistake by Mahomes.

We see that the Chiefs are running a mesh — two crossing routes intersecting with each other — while Kelce runs a corner route. The Patriots bait them with a zone coverage. Tight end Noah Gray reads the coverage properly — sitting down on his route to give Mahomes a zone window — but the quarterback misses it entirely.

But since the pass protection is excellent across the board, Mahomes has the time to find (and hit) Rice on the back side crossing route with great velocity.

On Sunday, the Chiefs did give up two sacks on third-and-and long — but on this play, they held up long enough to sustain the drive — and reduce New England’s chance of a comeback.

The bottom line

Was the Chiefs’ offense good on Sunday? Not necessarily.

Looking at expected points added (EPA) and success rate, the offense performed poorly, particularly on early downs; its performance in the running game would have placed it at the bottom of the league.

Coming into Week 15, the team ranked 18th in early-down rushing EPA and 27th in success rate. The early-down passing performance was actually worse against New England. Coming into Sunday’s game, Kansas City ranked 11th in early-down dropback EPA and fifth in success rate.

However, this game proved that when Mahomes is in his bag on third downs, the Chiefs can move the football. For most teams, this wouldn’t be a sustainable formula — but we’ve seen Kansas City do this for years. Mahomes has always thrived in these situations, so it’s something the Chiefs can bank on moving forward.

After Sunday’s game, I’m still dubious about the Kansas City offense. But if it can find some semblance of a sustainable early-down offensive formula — and rely on Mahomes to create magic on third downs — that might be enough to get the Chiefs over the finish line in the playoffs.

But until that happens, I’m going to remain skeptical about Kansas City’s chance to win postseason games with this offense.

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