The mixture of scheme, individual ability and cohesiveness — timing, chemistry and trust — displayed weekly by the Chiefs’ offense continues to awe.
The production may not be unprecedented (the New England Patriots in 2007 were slightly ahead of the Chiefs’ pace in terms of scoring: 36.8 ppg compared to 36.3 ppg). But the options available to Chiefs coach Andy Reid and the way the offense builds upon itself have given off a special vibe thus far.
Of course, seven regular-season games remain, and outlooks change extremely quickly in a week-to-week league like the NFL with so many teams within a game or two of one another. However, there’s no denying that the Chiefs (8-1) have found an offensive rhythm with a first-year starter at quarterback, a starting wide receiver playing his first year in the system (Sammy Watkins) and multiple injuries to starters on the offensive line.
While the Browns (2-6-1) are muddling through a tough season that has already included multiple coaching staff changes, their defense came into Sunday’s game having had success forcing turnovers (first in the NFL) and getting third-down stops (sixth).
The coaches’ film is courtesy of NFL Game Pass. The game-day television broadcasts, a condensed 45-minute version of every game and the coaches’ film are available with an account at www.nfl.com/gamepass.
Going down the rabbit hole
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Last week’s Kareem Hunt shovel-pass touchdown got plenty of traction as another hurdling highlight for the second-year pro running back. That play used the offense’s own tendency, and presumably the defense’s scouting and recognition of that tendency, to set up a big play.
This time around, against the Browns, the Chiefs used another derivation of the quarterback-option runs and did it out out of a similar setup as last week’s shovel pass. The result? A 50-yard catch-and-run on a screen pass by Hunt, which combined outstanding scheme and outstanding athleticism.
Situation: Second-and-10 at midfield, 8:25 remaining in the first quarter.
Alignment: The Chiefs broke the huddle with “12” personnel with one running back (Hunt) and two tight ends (Travis Kelce and Demetrius Harris) as well as two wide receivers (Sammy Watkins and Tyreek Hill). Quarterback Patrick Mahomes lined up in the shotgun.
Kelce and Harris were split out on the line of scrimmage, but both splits were tight. Kelce was at the top of the formation split to the right and just outside the far hash mark. Harris split left a step and a half inside the top of the numbers. Watkins lined up in the short slot on Kelce’s side, and his alignment gave a wingback look to the formation — Watkins has carried the ball on jet sweeps and the Chiefs have run multiple shovel passes out of similar looks. Hill lined up in the backfield to Mahomes’ right, while Hunt was even with Hill to Mahomes’ left in a split pro-set backfield look.
If that looks familiar, that’s because it’s identical to the formation the Chiefs ran the shovel pass out of last week (below).
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Back to the play against the Browns ...
At the snap: Mahomes took the snap, made the same hop-step as he did on the shovel pass and one additional step parallel to the line of scrimmage. He showed the ball in an exaggerated fashion to give the impression he intended to pitch to Hill going around right end. At that point against the Broncos, Hunt had slipped behind the offensive line and in front of Mahomes, with left guard Cam Erving pulling in front of Hunt as a lead blocker.
This time, Hunt stepped toward the line of scrimmage and to his right and mimicked setting up to pass-block/blitz pickup. He deftly found the opening to slip out by stepping around Erving’s block and behind center Austin Reiter. He got his head around quickly, which was crucial because Mahomes faced an unblocked blitzer in cornerback T.J. Carrie (38) off the edge. All the receivers to that side released into the pattern and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz and right guard Andrew Wylie each blocked men who’d lined up on their outside shoulder.
“It’s a lot of timing and you have to make sure you don’t get grabbed by the defensive line,” Hunt said.
Mahomes gave a little ground in order to get the pass off with Carrie closing on him. Hunt caught the pass just before he reached the numbers on the field, and he had Erving, Reiter and Wylie getting out to form the screen. Harris went downfield attempting to block cornerback E.J. Gaines (28) in space: Gaines had given a 10-yard cushion at the snap. Gaines recognized the screen, and avoided Harris, but he couldn’t make the tackle while diving at the legs of Hunt.
From the end zone angle, you see Hunt simply bent his path slightly to the inside and ran through the attempted arm-tackle, stiff-armed another potential tackler and then picked up blocks from Kelce and Harris that paved his way into the end zone.
Asked about the difficulty of having all the elements of the screen in sync, Mahomes said, “Yeah, but with how well Coach (Andy) Reid explains it, everything goes off of each other. I think we had a screen and it went off of the shovel pass to Kareem the week before. Things like that, we build on top of each other every single week. We are never set in our way; we always want to make the plays better.”
While last week’s shovel pass served as the immediate reference point for setting up the screen, it’s almost assuredly not lost on defenses that the Chiefs have run the option out of similar sets ... and that Hill has also carried the ball as a running back from split-backfield alignments.
Not enough help
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Situation: First-and-10 from the Kansas City 44-yard line, 5:46 remaining in the second quarter
Alignment: The Chiefs broke the huddle with “11” personnel, which they’re in most of the time, with one running back (Hunt), one tight end (Kelce) and wide receivers (Demarcus Robinson, Watkins and Hill). Hunt motioned out wide to leave the backfield empty with Mahomes in the shotgun.
Hunt split wide between the numbers and the sideline to the left, while Robinson lined up between the numbers and the hash marks and Watkins aligned inside of Robinson just outside the harsh marks and about equal distance from left tackle Eric Fisher and Robinson. Kelce was in the slot to the right a step and a half inside the numbers, while Hill was a couple steps outside the numbers on the line of scrimmage.
The Browns showed man-to-man across the board, with a single-high safety and the middle linebacker Jamie Collins Sr. (51) at the line across from the center as though he may blitz. The Chiefs know they’ve got five blockers to account for the potential rushers.
At the snap: In theory, Mahomes had multiple options with the defense playing man-to-man and a safety playing deep middle. He could pick out the matchup he wanted to attack. He had Hunt out on the sideline matched up with a linebacker. Robinson, Watkins and Kelce all had one-on-one matchups. The potential blitzer in the middle of the field, Collins, doesn’t drop deep enough to undercut Robinson’s route in the middle of the field and in front of the deep safety.
Mahomes knew as soon as he saw the single-high safety that he had an opening to go to Hill. The defender lined up across from Hill wasn’t the concern: The safety was the defender Mahomes had to manipulate. From the back angle, you see Mahomes kept his eyes in the middle of the field long enough to keep the safety from immediately flying over the top of Hill’s route. That was the mental manipulation, and it coupled well with Mahomes’ willingness and confidence to risk the throw — something Reid addressed back in training camp.
Then came the physical part. It showed up in Hill’s speed and ability to win the one-on-one off the line of scrimmage and Mahomes’ combination of arm strength, accuracy and touch to drop the pass over Hill’s shoulder and not lead him into a bone-crunching hit from the safety that could’ve dislodged the ball — if not more.
Just not fair
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Kelce’s second touchdown catch of the game came on another play that highlighted the meld of physical dominance and boldness that has quickly become the trademark of this offense under Mahomes.
Play design aside, Kelce got a free release off the line of scrimmage and up the seam against zone coverage, put a move on the safety, and just used his 6-foot-5, 260-pound frame to go up and snatch the ball out of the air.
Once gain, Mahomes kept the defenders where he needed them with his eyes. Two linebackers were in the middle of the field: Tanner Vallejo (54) and Collins (51). Vallejo walked up to the line to show blitz pre-snap and never got enough depth to factor into the throw. The fact that Collins opened up with his hips facing the opposite sideline from Kelce simply let Mahomes know he had no chance of getting to the pass because of the velocity with which Mahomes throws. By positioning alone, Mahomes knows he can beat those defenders with the throw.
That left the 5-foot-11 safety Jabrill Peppers (22) against Kelce, and Mahomes put it high enough and hard enough that Kelce had the only realistic shot at getting to it.
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Travis Kelce, his second <a href="https://twitter.com/Chiefs?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@Chiefs</a> TD of the day against the <a href="https://twitter.com/Browns?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@Browns</a>. <a href="https://twitter.com/KCStar?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@KCStar</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/SportsDailyKC?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@SportsDailyKC</a> <a href="https://t.co/lCrdhhSWcq">pic.twitter.com/lCrdhhSWcq</a></p>— John Sleezer (@jsleezer) <a href="https://twitter.com/jsleezer/status/1059174149128683521?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">November 4, 2018</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
“We got presented another challenge by the offensive coaching staff,” Kelce said. “(Offensive coordinator) Eric Bieniemy keeps dialing up these plays, and Coach Reid is putting together these unbelievable packages where the ball is being fed all over the field to everybody. Fifteen (Mahomes) is doing an absolutely unbelievable job of finding everybody, while the big line is keeping him clean.”
The Speaks experiment
Rookie outside linebacker Breeland Speaks started his fourth consecutive game Sunday for the Chiefs. The 6-foot-3, 285-pound Ole Miss product made the switch from defensive line to linebacker and edge rusher during mini-camp and training camp.
“Playing outside linebacker we do a lot. Just getting lined up, understanding the call and the coverage, all that stuff,” outside linebackers coach Mike Smith said during the week leading up to the Broncos game at Arrowhead Stadium. “Now he’s getting to the point where he’s understanding offenses. Now we can talk about formations and backfield sets. He’s seeing that, he’s understanding what he’s getting.
“That’s becoming a good football player, and that’s really as a coach what you’re coaching. You can coach technique and stuff — that’s huge — but you’ve got to understand what offenses are doing and how they’re attacking. To me that’s what made me really proud with Breeland (Speaks) this week. He came to a point on the sidelines, he was talking, he was comfortable, he was understanding what he was getting. That’s a big step for him and I think that’s the direction that we’ll keep going and he’ll continue to get better.”
While the Chiefs have been fairly open about the fact that Speaks may ultimately end up moving to a different position, he has worked his way onto the field behind Justin Houston and Dee Ford at outside linebacker. Houston’s injury catapulted Speak into the starting lineup against the New England Patriots, and he’s started each game since.
Sunday’s game against the Browns showed both his progress and shortcomings as he continues to adapt to the responsibilities of playing linebacker, including pass coverage.
The Browns took advantage of the matchup with Speaks (57) having to cover Duke Johnson out of the backfield on fourth-and-2 in the second quarter. Speaks got caught up on a rub/pick by the receiver along the line of scrimmage and had little chance of catching up to the back, who ran 4.5 in the 40 coming out of college. The cornerback on that side stayed with his man, the rub/pick man. With a single-high deep safety in the middle of the field, the Browns dialed up the right play to take advantage of the matchup with Speaks left alone to handle the running back in space.
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Johnson’s reception went for 23 yards on that play, and he gave trouble to defenders besides Speaks. He led the Browns with nine receptions for 78 yards. Speaks had four tackles, including a season-best two tackles for loss (one on a pass to Johnson on another fourth-down play) as shown in the video.
“I think just playing, just having the opportunity to play and going, ‘I can do this,’” Reid said of Speaks on Monday. “He is different. He is different than the other guys because he is big. That is a big human being right there. He plays a different game, but it can be effective. He sees that now. Spot playing, it is hard to get into that groove. Even when he was in the rotation when he increased his play there, he was able to see, ‘I’m going to be alright here.’”