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How Jerick McKinnon became a favorite target of Patrick Mahomes in the red zone

The running back became a staple of the Chiefs’ offense in the red zone in 2022.

NFL: Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Chiefs' historic 2022 red-zone offense was built around multiple characteristics — with one of the key factors in the team's offensive production. The domination of Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce once again became the driving force all season long, but the Chiefs had another red-zone ace.

Veteran running back Jerick McKinnon put together a career year in 2022. He finished tied for second in the NFL with seven red-zone touchdowns, trailing only Kelce, who had 10.

McKinnon joined the Chiefs in 2021, and after not playing for much of that regular season, saw his number called in the playoffs, where a trio of productive games helped him find his way back to the roster in 2022.

The season started with McKinnon playing sparingly, but, by the end, he was entirely in the mix and found his home in the Chiefs’ high-powered offense.

The team was able to get the most out of his receiving ability, and they did so with a couple of different looks:

Flat concepts

The running back flat-pass concept is one of the most basic in football, but the Chiefs used it extremely effectively around the red zone. On normal plays, the running back will often run to the flat, servicing as a check-down option — a safety valve for the quarterback.

With the number of weapons the Chiefs have in their offense, teams have to make the choice to place extra defenders downfield in coverage, which can leave these flat routes open. This makes them particularly effective in the red zone.

With all eyes on Kelce and another pair on JuJu Smith-Schuser, McKinnon darts into the flat quickly off the snap. Mahomes wastes no time and fires the ball out to McKinnon, who finds himself in space with room to operate.

With an excellent spin move, he makes the first defensive back miss and is able to use some good contact balance to finish into the end zone.

This is the most basic passing concept in football, but after a long drive of being dissected, smashed and embarrassed by the Mahomes-to-Kelce connection, most teams have no choice but to pay him full attention in the red zone.

This is where the opportunities for other players open up, and McKinnon took full advantage of his chances.


The basic, flat concept was not the only quick-passing pattern the Chiefs used with McKinnon.

The veteran running back took on the role as not only the Chiefs’ red-zone back but also their third-down, passing-situation back — largely due to his ability to pass block. This particular skill made him the perfect candidate for the leak play.

The running back leak is a basic concept that involves the player running another flat pattern. Instead of releasing to the outside, he must release to the inside of the tackle and get to the flat from the inside of the line of scrimmage.

This play is not new to the Chiefs' playbook; McKinnon just became the latest back to execute it.

The Chiefs had three pass-catchers to the left with all the targets running inside routes designed to clear out the left side.

McKinnon initially approaches the line of scrimmage looking like he is about to assist left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and sit in pass protection. Instead, once he gets to the B-gap, he accelerates through and Mahomes quickly dumps the ball to him for a touchdown.

With the defensive back and linebackers scrambling to keep up with Kelce and the wideouts, McKinnon was able to sneak into the end zone with ease.


As much versatility as McKinnon showed, perhaps his greatest strength was developing chemistry with Mahomes.

Over the course of their two seasons together, McKinnon went from the last back on the roster to one of the team's most important contributors. This was due in large part to him gaining the trust of his quarterback, and he was rewarded for it.

The Chiefs go have three pass-catchers to the left, much like they did against the Bengals in the play above. McKinnon does not leak. He instead heads straight for the flat— avoiding some traffic along the way.

In Week 19 of the regular season, the Las Vegas Raiders had seen enough film to know that McKinnon had become a favored target of Mahomes in the red zone.

Instead of flowing with the inside routes on the Trips play, the defensive backs sit in zone coverage. With pressure in his face, Mahomes evades the pocket.

As Mahomes heads to the pylon, the defense tries to pounce. McKinnon finds a pocket of space and he flips it to McKinnon for six. With trust and chemistry on display, McKinnon finished the season as a key staple in the Chiefs' offense.

The bottom line

McKinnon became an unlikely contributor on a roster loaded with talent in 2022. At the start of the 2023 season, it will be interesting to see how his role continues to develop. Versatility and knowledge earned him the job, but it was his shared trust with Mahomes that allowed him to put up a career year.

Part 3 of this series will examine the Chiefs' offensive line and its impact in the red zone.

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