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3 factors that led to the Chiefs’ offensive success against the Bengals

Sunday’s game might have shown us what Kansas City’s offensive strategy could look like during the playoffs.

Cincinnati Bengals v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

After a long, discouraging string of games after the bye week, the Kansas City Chiefs’ offense came out firing in Sunday’s 25-17 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.

The Chiefs scored a touchdown on the opening drive for the first time since before the bye week, quarterback Patrick Mahomes completed his longest pass of the season and the unit totaled more yards (373) than it had in any of the previous eight games.

Keeping in mind that Cincinnati has had one of the league’s worst defenses this season, Kansas City came out with a focused, simplified game plan: hand off to running back Isiah Pacheco, then execute explosive pass plays around those plays.

The offense didn’t feature a lot of pre-snap motion or shifts. Only four players touched the ball more than once — and the group went up and down the field as seamlessly as it had in quite a while.

I believe it was a preview of what the postseason strategy will look like. Here are three factors that went into the game plan:

1. Feeding Isiah Pacheco

The lead running back was the only one to take a carry on Sunday. It won’t be that extreme in the playoffs — running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire was inactive against the Bengals — but Pacheco is a difference-maker in the rushing attack.

This started on the game’s first play, which gained nine yards and immediately set the offense up ahead of the sticks.

The run play is Power right, which calls for players like right tackle Jawaan Taylor and right guard Trey Smith to simply fire and down-block defenders to the inside. That pries open a running lane, which left guard Joe Thuney seals with a pulling block on the linebacker.

These plays also depend on strong blocks by tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling. This gives Pacheco a runway to gain steam and maximize his breakaway speed — as we see in his 37-yard run.

Here we see the same thing on Pacheco’s 35-yard gash — but the play is simply outside zone. A key detail: the handoff comes from under center, allowing Pacheco to read the flow of the defense. This allows him to identify cutback lanes more effectively than he can from shotgun.

This is one of the best runs Pacheco has ever had. He reads the front side linebacker overcommitting, turns to the cutback lane and quickly bounces back outside toward the sideline. The maneuver narrowly avoids defenders — and the back is once again aided with strong blocks on the second level.

That’s because the skill-position players aren’t running routes for run-pass option plays. These are run-only calls, allowing these blocks that pop runs for more than just 10 or 15 yards.

2. Finding explosive pass plays

To go along with its stronger running game, the Chiefs found chunk plays through the air on nearly every scoring drive.

On the opening drive, wide receiver Rashee Rice aligns tight to the offensive line in the slot. This allows him to quickly get to the opposite side of the field on a play-action bootleg. The hard run fake fools the back side defenders — especially because Kelce stays in to block.

Rice led the team in explosive receptions against Cincinnati, adding two more before the final whistle.

This 24-yard gash is a great example of Rice continuing to improve his chemistry with Mahomes. In Week 16, a very similar route fell incomplete — but this time, it is executed seamlessly.

Rice’s 67-yard reception was an encouraging sign for both the wideout and the quarterback. The Bengals blew their Cover 2 shell — and both Rice and Mahomes saw the opportunity for a vertical pass. So Rice adjusted to keep moving upfield and Mahomes threw it to him without a hiccup.

The Chiefs also executed a vertical shot without the help of a blown coverage.

On this third down, the Bengals commit to taking away underneath options — just like so many other teams have done this season. The one-high look gives wide receiver Justin Watson space to operate on a corner route that shows great spacing and timing. Mahomes’ beautiful throw gains 41 yards.

This is where Watson is at his best — and why he is the one receiver with whom Mahomes appears to be the most confident on downfield throws. In the postseason, teams will continue to bait Kansas City with one-high looks. In order to get the best advantage, Watson — not Marquez Valdes-Scantling — needs to be the primary deep-route runner.

3. Conservative execution

The lowlight from Sunday’s offensive performance was the lack of touchdowns: only one of the seven scoring possessions ended in six points; after the opening drive, the two remaining red-zone trips turned into field goals.

In the first-and-goal play on the opening drive, Mahomes plays it safe while passing in the red zone. Wide receiver Justyn Ross runs a post pattern, which actually opens up a window underneath for Watson. Once Mahomes passes that up to scramble, Ross puts himself in position for a jump ball in the corner of the end zone — but the gunslinger keeps it in his holster.

The next play shows a third down later in the game, where the Chiefs align Ross in position to run a goal-line fade. Mahomes doesn’t give him the one-on-one shot — and eventually loses yards on the checkdown. Throughout the afternoon, Mahomes refused to force a throw into the end zone.

It wasn’t the cause of every red-zone stop — there was also some conservative play-calling — but either way, each drive still ended in points. Those still added up to a win — and may indicate how this offense will operate in the postseason.

The bottom line

Let’s face it: the Kansas City defense is very good. It is primed to make a difference in postseason games. It feels like the Chiefs’ offense needs to lean on that, helping its cause with a strong rushing attack, solid execution on explosive passes — when they’re there — and being careful not to force anything.

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