The Kansas City Chiefs' 27-17 win over the New England Patriots on Sunday pitted the Kansas City offense against one of the league’s best red zone defenses. The Patriots rank sixth, allowing touchdowns on just 47.6% of opponents’ red zone drives. This — along with the NFL’s best run defense (only 3.1 yards per carry) — has been among the few bright spots in New England’s otherwise dreadful season.
Not counting the final kneel-down drive, the Chiefs made four trips to the red zone on Sunday, coming away with three touchdowns.
Let’s see how they did it.
It has been a while since the Kansas City offense has looked much like the unit fans have grown accustomed to seeing. So in an attempt to find a way to generate points — and create some fun — head coach Andy Reid reached back to the 1930s to demonstrate another way to run his power shovel.
I love the touch with Joe Thuney snapping the ball against his former team. The core look of the play is a counter with an extra blocker inserted. Rice comes through and gets the shovel from McKinnon and follows his blockers though. Good work by Smith to seal the DT. pic.twitter.com/wfYrsdI0ts— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) December 18, 2023
As the offense breaks the huddle, the first thing we see is that right guard Joe Thuney is lined up to snap the ball, while center Creed Humphrey aligns to his left. The line is overloaded to the left — but having Thuney snap the ball (against his former team, no less) throws the Patriots for a loop.
Quarterback Patrick Mahomes is in a three-point stance behind Humphrey, while running back Jerick McKinnon is lined up behind Thuney. Wideout Rashee Rice is lined up just off the ball as a wing and tight end Blake Bell is lined up as a fullback.
The snap goes to McKinnon and they run a counter-lead look, in which Humphrey and Jawaan Taylor pull while Bell serves as a lead blocker. Rice comes in behind the blocks — and McKinnon shovels the ball to him.
While blocking isn’t as clean as it might have been, Trey Smith’s strong down block — and the defense’s general confusion — led to a big lane opening up for Rice.
McKinnon heating up
After a remarkable 2022 season, McKinnon has had a quiet 2023 campaign. While a core injury sidelined him for a few weeks, McKinnon might still reprise his role as a red zone threat during the season’s final games.
In Week 14, McKinnon scored his first rushing touchdown of the season — and on Sunday, Mahomes found him for his first receiving touchdown.
McKinnon motions and sets up where he typically has on downs where he is in to pass block. The defense is locked in on Kelce, and with some burst out of the backfield McKinnon finds space in the flat. I assume the red zone looks with McKinnon will ramp up. pic.twitter.com/LT5odxoGlI— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) December 18, 2023
On this play, McKinnon motions late to the strong side. The Chiefs have often used this look to put the running back closer to the line of scrimmage so he can help in pass protection.
But this time, McKinnon fires out of the backfield, working his way into the flat. Skyy Moore’s in-route, Marquez Valdes-Scantling’s out-route — and as usual, Travis Kelce — draw the secondary’s attention.
Moore gives the linebacker responsible for covering the flat a small shoulder, which gives McKinnon enough space to operate. Mahomes quickly slings it to the running back, who turns upfield and gets into the end zone.
As the stretch run begins, it’s nice to see McKinnon back in in this role.
This season, the Chiefs' offense has been missing its wow plays. With the team’s issues at wide receiver, we have seen fewer of Mahomes’s spectacular improvised throws downfield. On Sunday, Mahomes utilized his ability to manipulate the pocket to set up a spectacular play to running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire.
NE rushes four but the Chiefs get it blocked. No one is open, but Mahomes starts to scramble and CEH gets behind the defense. Mahomes puts it up, and CEH gets vertical to go get it. Great concentration to bring the ball in and good awareness to read the defense on the fly. pic.twitter.com/fx3kYIDdQN— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) December 18, 2023
We see Mahomes hit the top of his drop as the offensive line holds off the Patriots’ pass rush. No one comes open, so the quarterback looks for a way to make something happen. At first, Edwards-Helaire appears to be running an option route — choosing to go inside — but when gets behind both linebackers he finds himself in a big open space.
Mahomes recognizes it — and with a defender closing in, Mahomes delivers a dime to Edwards-Helaire. The running back gets vertical, making a brilliant contested catch for a score.
These instinctual plays have been missing from Kansas City’s offense in 2023, so it was nice to see this happen — and to see Edwards-Helaire see some success in the offense.
The bottom line
Finding the end zone three times against one of the league’s best red zone defenses should give the Chiefs offense a boost of confidence.
Against the Patriots, Mahomes was extremely efficient in the red zone, completing seven of nine passes for two touchdowns and a passer rating of 123.8. Seeing Kansas City turn to its running backs near the goal line was another welcome trend. Observing McKinnon and Edwards-Helaire produce is a good sign for things to come — and Isiah Pahceco’s return will only strengthen what the Chiefs’ offense can do inside the 20-yard line.