Of course, Taylor Swift’s presence accounted for some of Kelce’s notoriety. But football fans recognized the superstar tight end had played his best game of the young season, leading the team in receptions (seven) and receiving yards (69) while scoring a red-zone touchdown that capped off seven straight possessions ending in scores.
Quarterback Patrick Mahomes also had his most productive game of the year — and it was no coincidence. Mahomes leaned on Kelce throughout the day, converting three third downs with throws to the All-Pro tight end.
Leading into the game, Mahomes admitted that zone coverage was disrupting Kansas City’s passing attack. Part of the reason was that Kelce was out with an injury in Week 1 — and then wasn’t back to 100% in Week 2. But in Week 3 against the Bears, Kelce and Mahomes’ connection fueled the efficient performance the team needed.
Settling into throwing windows
This season, imprecise routes by Chiefs’ receivers have sometimes caused incompletions — and at other times, have kept Mahomes from throwing the ball. On Sunday’s first offensive drive — a three-and-out — rookie wide receiver Rashee Rice simply slowed down at the top of his in-breaking route; as a result, he wasn’t at the spot where Mahomes threw the ball.
But starting with the second drive, Kelce put on a clinic, demonstrating how coverage can determine where routes should go.
One theme of Sunday was Travis Kelce's instincts helping the #Chiefs' pass attack beat zone defense more— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) September 25, 2023
Here's an example: 87 slows & sits in his wheel route, because he feels the Flat defender (on him at LOS) suck inside and fail to gain proper depth pic.twitter.com/C4Yb3PHnbu
For example: on this first-down, play-action pass, the Chiefs run Kelce on a wheel route that pairs with wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling’s curl route to put conflict on the outside cornerback covering that third of the field in a Cover 3 look. Depending on how hard he covers Valdes-Scantling, Kelce could hit a home run down the sideline on a long throw.
But Kelce feels the flat defender trailing him, so he slows down for an easy 24-yard completion. The linebacker over him at the line of scrimmage fails to properly gain depth — taking away an underthrown pass — so both quarterback and receiver take advantage of an opportunity for a more-likely completion.
Mahomes and Kelce break the rules all the time— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) September 26, 2023
CHI runs a Cover 3 look, meaning Mahomes is reading the CB on this Smash concept. If he's up on MVS, Kelce should have room -- but he stays soft, taking away the corner route
Except 87 adjusts & sits down, and Mahomes knows he will pic.twitter.com/rgzVsCKa2G
On a third down later in the game, the Chiefs only need three yards. But Mahomes feels confident enough to throw downfield to Kelce — who is between zone defenders — for a 15-yard completion.
It’s because Kelce makes himself available — even though defenders are closing to him in a way that should take away his corner route. Against this Cover 3 look, Mahomes should be reading the outside cornerback to see whether he plays up on Valdes-Scantling’s out route, or gains depth to take away Kelce’s corner.
He does the latter — but Kelce cuts off his route before running into him. Mahomes sees it, and puts it the ball in a good spot for Kelce to secure the pass without being hit by the oncoming defender.
The throw-and-catch on Kelce’s third-quarter touchdown was very impressive; the ball just barely cleared a leaping linebacker’s hands. On Tuesday evening, the team released a mic’d up video that revealed more about the play.
This third-and-goal play is similar to Kelce’s earlier 15-yard gain. It’s a Smash concept, where one player runs a quick out and another runs a corner route to the same side, thereby attacking two levels of the defense. But Kelce doesn’t like what he sees, so he runs to the post — and Mahomes was on exactly the same page.
“I’m glad you saw it,” Mahomes exlclaimed to Kelce after the play. “I didn’t know if you were going to do it!”
This mic'd up #Chiefs clip gave us some insight on Travis' TD: https://t.co/19CR0XzqmN— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) September 27, 2023
Play call is Kelce to the Corner, but he feels the S get outside leverage, so he adjusts to a Post on the fly
The craziest part is how seamless 15 reacts, layering a throw over 49's head pic.twitter.com/pKjhm2xPhf
As Kelce goes to the corner, he notices the safety outflanking him to the outside. That makes the corner route tougher to run, so Kelce turns to the post.
“He just does what he wants,” Mahomes tells teammates on the sideline afterwards. “He had a corner route — but he said, ‘[bleep] it’ and got open over the middle.
“He had a corner route — [but the] safety buzzed out, [so] he was like, ‘Nah.’ That’s why I threw the ball like that. He’s supposed to run an out route. [But when] I went to throw it, I was like, ‘Oh, there he goes.’”
This is the sixth season in which Mahomes and Kelce have been connecting for touchdowns. In Week 2’s 17-9 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, they broke the franchise record for most touchdown passes between a quarterback and pass-catcher with 47, eclipsing a mark set by Len Dawson and Otis Taylor almost 50 years ago. Over time, the two have built (and strengthened) their chemistry together; it’s no surprise Mahomes had a feeling Kelce would adjust his route.
“The craziest part? I knew he was going to do it,” Mahomes revealed to teammates. “I was like, ‘He ain’t running the corner.’”
Kelce even admitted that the on-the-fly adjustment may have been unneccssary.
“What’s crazy is I probably could’ve still ran to the corner and scored,” Kelce told tight end Blake Bell on the sideline. “I had ‘em outflanked. [But] I was just like, ‘Nah. This is tempting.”
The bottom line
On Sunday, Kansas City’s passing offense did not look nearly as clunky as it did during the season’s two games — and Kelce’s return to full health was a huge part of that. He not only has Mahomes’ confidence and trust — allowing him to beat tight windows in zone coverage — he also opens opportunities for other receivers.
Week 3 reminded us (along with everyone in the NFL) of how unstoppable this duo can be. The next time a defense sells out to stop them, the Chiefs’ other pass-catchers will be prepared to step up — and continue to develop their trust with the quarterback.