That’s all it took for national sports-talk radio and television pundits to start referencing the “Greatest Show on Turf” St. Louis Rams teams of the late 1990s and early 2000s when talking about the explosiveness of the current Chiefs offense.
Those Rams teams featured a bevy of talented skill-position players on offense, including Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Marshall Faulk, Ricky Proehl and tight end Ernie Conwell to go along with quarterback Kurt Warner. Warner, Holt, Faulk and Bruce were all Pro Bowl selections in 2001, and Warner and Faulk were first-team All-Pro selections. For three consecutive seasons, the NFL MVP came from that offense, between Faulk (2000) and Warner (1999, 2001).
In the brief time it’s been together, the Chiefs’ offense clearly hasn’t accomplished a fraction of what the Rams did. What the Chiefs have shown is an ability to involve multiple offensive threats in non-traditional ways, keep a defense off-balance through misdirection and creative play constructions, devise plays in order to get the ball into their playmakers’ hands in space, and force defenses to make choices that create big-play opportunities.
Sunday’s win against the San Francisco 49ers showed how the Chiefs’ offense continues to build on success of previous weeks while adding new wrinkles.
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Late night doodling
Situation: Third-and-1 at the San Francisco 37-yard line
Alignment: The Chiefs broke the huddle without a running back in the game, one tight end (Travis Kelce) and four wide receivers (De’Anthony Thomas, Chris Conley, Sammy Watkins and Tyreek Hill). Quarterback Patrick Mahomes waited for a shotgun snap with Conley split wide right, Kelce wide left and the trio of Thomas, Watkins and Hill off the line of scrimmage to Kelce’s side of the formation lined up in a staggered trips formation. Before the snap, Thomas motioned across the formation and reset, followed by Watkins, and the snap took place with Hill in motion before he crossed Mahomes’ face.
At the snap: Mahomes faked the handoff to Hill, running in front of him, and dropped back. The Niners’ defense only rushed four, so Mahomes was not hurried. Due to the motion, the Chiefs ended up with four receivers to the wide side of the field, where the defense dropped two defenders 10 yards off the ball at the snap. One defender was about 6 yards off the ball to the trips side and a middle linebacker shifted over as a result of the motion from Hill.
The two perimeter defenders closest to the line of scrimmage are linebackers Reuben Foster (56) and Fred Warner (48). Mahomes kept eyes toward the middle of the field, where the routes of Conley and Watkins occupied Foster’s attention. Then Mahomes simply dumped off to Hill on a swing pass, which is basically just a bubble screen to get Hill matched up in space one-on-one with a linebacker. Hill catches the ball at the numbers and no defender aside from Warner is within 10 yards of him.
Mahomes got the ball out quickly, which gave Hill a chance to make a move and get upfield. Hill turned a reception at or behind the line of scrimmage into a pickup of 9 yards. The pass pattern attacked the defense at three different levels, and Thomas may have also been open on the out-route breaking toward the sideline as Foster stayed closest to Watkins and also left a window to throw to Conley, who settled in between the hash marks.
“I am going to give credit to my assistants,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said on Monday. “They came up with that one. It was a little out of the box, but they are a little out of the box, so that’s alright. It fits their personalities well. Wrinkles and matchups are what you are always trying to do. More matchups than the wrinkles. ... Formations to create matchups to your advantage, potentially.”
When asked which of his assistants were the catalysts for this particular play, Reid didn’t say. But he gave the clue that neither of them have hair — seemingly a clear reference to offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy and quarterbacks coach Mike Kafka.
“Yeah, they were doodling,” Reid said. “Late-night doodling.”
This is just another example of the Chiefs’ coaching staff coming up with motion and formation variations in order to create a matchup with the fastest and quickest offensive playmaker and a middle linebacker in space.
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Tight end screen to Kelce
Situation: Second-and-10 from the San Francisco 49-yard line
Alignment: The Chiefs broke the huddle with their “11” personnel, with one running back (Kareem Hunt), one tight end (Kelce) and the wide receiver trio of Demarcus Robinson, Conley and Hill. Kelce lined up in a traditional tight end alignment next to the right tackle. Mahomes is in the shotgun with Hunt to his left. All three wide receivers begin on the side side of the field, with Robinson outside the numbers and almost at the sideline off the line. Conley was on the line between the numbers and the hash marks, while Hill was in the slot just outside the hash marks.
Hill went in motion before the snap and crossed Mahomes’ face and looped back around behind both the quarterback and Hunt.
At the snap: Mahomes looked at Hill, who ran a swing route to the wide side. With the two outside receivers set up as blockers, it looked like another catch-and-run opportunity for Hill in space. Mahomes faked the pass to HIll, spun and looked toward Hunt. Hunt crossed in front of Mahomes at the snap and swung out to the short side of the field opposite the three-wide receiver side.
From the end zone camera, you see the linebackers went left to pursue the Hill swing pass. Then the defense turned and ran toward the opposite sideline to cover Hunt swinging out. In the process, they ran past Kelce.
Kelce started off blocking the defender, who is head-up on him. Kelce released the defender and turned to make himself available to catch the screen from Mahomes as left guard Cam Erving (75), right tackle Mitchell Schwartz (71) and center Mitch Morse (61) got out in front of Kelce as blockers. Kelce made the catch as defenders ran toward the sideline and lost track of Kelce. He caught the short toss and went untouched for about 15 yards from the point where he hauled in the pass.
The threat of Hill on one side and Hunt on the other, combined with the play design, created an opportunity for Kelce — an All-Pro tight end who had 1,000 yards receiving last season and more than 100 yards receiving the previous week — to go ignored by the defense until the ball is in his hands.
Let that sink in for a minute. A 1,000-yard pass-catcher went completely ignored.
The Chiefs ran screens to Spencer Ware, Anthony Sherman and Kelce in their first two possessions.
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Mismatches lead to wide-open receivers
Here are two examples of how the Chiefs’ personnel forces the defense to divide attention too many ways to adequately cover the options at Mahomes’ disposal.
On the touchdown pass to Demetrius Harris with 3:37 remaining in the first half, simply lining up on the same side as Kelce allowed Harris to run uncovered into the end zone and catch Mahomes’ pass without a defender within 5 yards of him.
Kelce and Harris line up next to each other on the short side, with Hunt in the backfield next to the quarterback on that same side. Kelce broke toward the sideline at the snap and took both linebacker Will Smith (51) and cornerback Jimmie Ward (20) with him. Smith got depth but remained at the numbers while Ward dropped even farther outside the numbers with eyes on Kelce.
Middle linebacker Warner (48) didn’t get much depth in his drop as he kept eyes on Hunt, who did leak out into the middle as a check-down option. The deep safety in the middle of the field jumped to a step outside the opposite hash almost immediately to provide inside help on Hill, who was running up the seam. Because of the attention demanded by Hill, Harris ran his route with no defender over the top or underneath.
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The next example comes from a touchdown pass that wasn’t: a misfire to Robinson running 5 yards behind his defender for what might have been a 61-yard touchdown in the second quarter.
The 49ers rush five, which the offensive line and Hunt pick up. Hunt comes from Mahomes’ left to pick up the blitzer lined up over the slot receiver on the opposite side of the formation. The blitz left the slot receiver, Watkins, matched up with linebacker Foster (56). The mismatch resulted in Watkins turning Foster completely around. Mahomes kept his eyes in the middle of the field and the safety floated to the side of the field, where Foster runs with Watkins. Because the deep safety didn’t want to leave Watkins alone on a linebacker, he left safety D.J. Reed alone on Robinson. Robinson won that matchup, and it could easliy have been six points.
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Wrinkles to come
The Chiefs have found creative ways to line up in fairly standard personnel groups all season. Kelce’s ability to create mismatches has been a big part of that, but Hill seems to have moved around more each week. This past week against the 49ers, you saw him line up in the backfield as a running back and carry the ball with Hunt serving as the lead blocker.
Depending on how defenses match up with Hill out of the backfield, this could be something the Chiefs build on, with new wrinkles to take advantage of Hill being potentially covered by a linebacker.
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