Andy Reid has long been respected for the diversity of his offense, and this season, the Chiefs’ coach has not been afraid to add a little spice to his extensive West Coast playbook.
One of the ways Reid and offensive coordinator Doug Pederson have kept teams off balance is by occasionally mixing in “combination” or “packaged” plays, which blur the line of what a run or pass play should be.
There was a time — not all that long ago, really — when coaches would call either a run or pass play, and that would be that. But earlier this century, college coaches figured out a way to combine different types of plays — runs, passes, screens and draws — into one, which helped spur the rise of the dynamic spread offenses that are now common on that level and trickling into the pro game.
“We did a little bit of that with Donovan McNabb early in his career,” Reid said of his days in Philadelphia. “We backed off, then we brought a little bit of it back with Michael (Vick). Both of those guys had done that in college. They were really comfortable with it, but we didn’t do it quite as much as we’re doing now.”
Teams like Philadelphia and Miami now incorporate packaged plays extensively, and several other teams — including the Chiefs — occasionally break them out as well.
In their last game, a 24-20 loss to Oakland, the Chiefs, who had 66 offensive snaps, ran at least 18 packaged plays out of the shotgun for 103 yards — a respectable average of 5.7 yards per play.
“We’ve got several options,” Pederson said. “You crowd the box, we throw it. You walk guys out, you run it. The defense can’t be right. And that’s kind of the mind-set, the mentality.”
Against the Raiders, the Chiefs’ packaged play often looked something like this: out of shotgun, the offensive line uses zone-run blocking up front. Quarterback Alex Smith stretches the ball out, scans the defense and hands it to a running back, either Jamaal Charles or Knile Davis. Fifteen times this happened, for 74 yards.
“We felt like we could take advantage of certain things against the Raiders, and that’s what you do — you find and try to exploit a weakness,” Pederson said.
But two other times, Smith extended the ball to the potential runner — this is called “mesh” point — but instead decided to keep it and pass it to a receiver running a screen. One went to Albert Wilson for 4 yards, while the other went to De’Anthony Thomas for 5 yards.
But the options don’t end there. On some of these packaged plays, Smith also has the option of keeping the ball, depending on how a defensive end, who is left unblocked, plays it. Smith rarely keeps it, when he does, it’s been effective.
For instance, the Chiefs scored their go-ahead touchdown in their 17-13 win over Buffalo courtesy of a 8-yard Smith touchdown run off a read-option packaged play.
That’s still not all opponents have to defend when the Chiefs go to their “packaged” well. Occasionally, Smith will scan the defense at the mesh point, ignore the bubble screen and pass it downfield to a receiver, like he did for a 9-yard gain to Dwayne Bowe in their 24-20 win over Seattle a few weeks ago.
Finally, the Chiefs have also included screens on packaged plays. On one play against the Raiders, Smith scanned the right side of the field, where he had Dwayne Bowe running a “stick” route. After seeing that the strongside linebacker flowed to cover it, Smith instead dumped it to Charles in the left flat for a 20-yard gain on the “stick-screen.”
Add all of this to the already-extensive West Coast playbook — Reid likes to mix in conventional play-action passes, screens, etc. out of the shotgun, as well — and it leaves defenses with a ton to prepare for.
“I think our entire group takes pride in the fact we can do a lot of different things,” said Smith, who enjoys running packaged plays. “That’s one of our strengths, that we can do a lot of different things on offense and give you a lot of different styles and looks.”
Pederson said Smith’s prior experience running packaged plays (he played under noted spread guru Urban Meyer at Utah) is a significant reason why the Chiefs are so comfortable putting that run-pass option in Smith’s hands.
“He studies the opponent so well every week,” Pederson said. “He knows how the defensive ends are gonna close and scrape a ‘backer, or if they’re gonna box you in. He knows that, so going in, he has a great feel for the read game, and he knows what he’s looking for.”
Center Rodney Hudson said the offensive line enjoys the opportunity to pound on opponents.
“It gives you a few options on one play, stresses the defense in a different way,” Hudson said. “On those plays, we don’t know if he’s going to throw it or not.”
And neither do opponents, who often dislike defending packaged plays for that very reason.
“Everybody is adopting this college-type offense, a little spread offense into their game,” said Denver cornerback Chris Harris, who played his college ball at Kansas. “I thought I was done, definitely, with (it). This is all you see in the Big 12.”
Harris, it seems, has watched plenty of the Chiefs’ tape against Oakland in preparation of their Sunday night showdown at Arrowhead.
“With their runs, they always have a bubble slant attached to all of them so you have to be ready to play the slant at all times because you never know when they’re going to keep it or throw it,” Harris said. “For most of their runs, there is always a little pass threat … there is just a lot of misdirection, especially for me in the slot.”
Harris’ head coach, John Fox, has taken notice, as well. The Broncos fared well against the Chiefs’ packaged plays when they met in week two, as the Chiefs could only muster 15 yards in six attempts.
But Fox is still wary, and adds that it helps they faced the Dolphins a week ago.
“(It’s) a similar style as far as the zone-read stuff,” Fox said. “There’s no doubt that Alex has the athleticism in the pocket, some of those quick throws to escape.”
The Chiefs’ willingness to use packaged plays is no coincidence. Colleges are churning out players ready to execute them.
“Offensive linemen know how to zone read,” Pederson said. “Quarterbacks know how to read defensive ends or stack linebackers. People know how to run bubbles. They get it. Now, all they have to do is fit into our system, our terminology, and you’re off to the races.”
Reid has worked hard to stay ahead of the curve. Before last season, he hired former Nevada coach Chris Ault — the creator of the vaunted “Pistol” offense — as a consultant.
“He’s had a definite impact on some of those things we’ve done in there,” Reid said. “Very knowledgeable of it. He and Brad (Childress) have got a good relationship and have spent a lot of time talking through that stuff. It’s pretty good.”
And it likely will be, at least for a while. Defenses are getting better at defending packaged concepts, Reid said, but Smith said the Chiefs might have run more packaged plays against the Raiders if it wasn’t for the dreary weather.
“It’s hard to have some of that in the style of game it ended up being, with the rain and the mud,” Smith said. “There’s a lot of exchanges, so it’s tough. Maybe you would have seen a little more if it didn’t turn into that.”
For his part, Pederson said he doesn’t see the Chiefs getting away from packaged plays as a complement to their old-school West Coast stuff anytime soon.
“I don’t think so, because again, I don’t think they can be right,” Pederson said of defenses. “If you’ve got a quarterback that can handle it mentally, I don’t think the defense really, (can stop it). They can either crowd the box or not crowd the box.
“I think it’s unlimited, honestly, just with the formations and motions. We’ll be able to find some different ways and creative ways to (do it). And it’s fun for the guys. They like it ... so as long as they can handle and process it, and you don’t overwhelm them, I think the sky’s the limit.”