Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce walked into the team’s practice facility early Monday morning, and almost immediately he distinguished an unusual feel. The place seemed quiet. Solemn. Or “drained,” as he put it.
A day earlier, the Chiefs had performed worse offensively than ever before in the Patrick Mahomes era, held to 13 points in a loss to the Colts. After a second straight human-like game, some are wondering if maybe, just maybe, teams are catching on. The word “blueprint” has been used, even once in a question to coach Andy Reid this week, which seems, well, premature. After all, Mahomes has still topped 300 yards in every game this season.
But the high-octane offense that makes it look so easy on one end and so impossible for the other side has instead looked like it’s running on fumes — all thanks to one theme. Or scheme, rather.
The old-fashioned, physical defense predicated on outplaying the man lined up across from you. The Chiefs saw it in Detroit. Saw it against Indianapolis. And you can bet they will see plenty of it in the future.
“Detroit did it last week. New England did it in the playoffs,” Mahomes said. “We have to beat man coverage at the end of the day.”
Just how concerning is the problem?
According to The Star’s film review, Mahomes was a perfect 9 for 9 against zone defense against Indianapolis though an NFL Network breakdown put the number at 8 for 9. (On a couple of quick throws, the coverage can be debated.) Mahomes completed only 12 of 29 throws against man-to-man coverage. There were dropped passes. There were missed throws.
But the crux of the issue is two-fold: Receivers couldn’t consistently create separation, and the offensive line often didn’t allow them enough time to even try.
“They just played us in pure man coverage and said, ‘Beat us,’” Kelce said. “And we didn’t.”
Initially, the Colts toggled back and forth between man and zone coverage. Traditionally, their scheme is zone-heavy. But they bypassed the notion of making teams adjust to their strength. They opted to exploit the Chiefs’ weakness.
On the initial two drives, the Chiefs scored 10 points. Mahomes was 13 of 17 on those drives, including that ridiculous touchdown throw to Byron Pringle. Among those first 17 drop-backs, the Colts played zone on eight of them. Mahomes didn’t miss once against it.
Afterward? Those looks disappeared. The Colts went almost strictly man to man, mixing in only one zone call over the final 22 drop-backs, telegraphing strategy enough that Kelce commented, “After the first quarter, we knew what we had in front of us.”
The Colts occasionally disguised the type of man-to-man coverage, but for the most part, they stuck with a single safety. Sometimes they blitzed a fifth rusher toward a hobbled Mahomes. Sometimes the linebackers played underneath spies to take away the short and intermediate throws in Kelce’s neighborhood.
But on the outside, the openings were muted.
“There’s a certain attitude that comes with man to man,” Reid said after the game. In follow-up news conferences this week, he added. “We have the guys that can do it. I have to make sure I get them in the right position, call-wise. And then you gotta defeat it. It’s truly man on man. You’re not working in space. You’re trying to defeat the guy over you. There’s certain ways to do that. Collectively, we’ve all got to get better at that.”
One of the most evident solutions to all of this sits on the Chiefs roster.
Largely because of his unique speed, Hill is one of the league’s toughest man-to-man matchups. Asking a cornerback to stick with him step for step is a tall order. Hill returned to practice last week as is inching closer to a return. Sammy Watkins, the Chiefs’ No. 2 option, though, remains out of practice with a hamstring strain.
Until those two return, the burden falls on Kelce, Demarcus Robinson, rookie Mecole Hardman and Pringle.
“I think we just gotta be more aggressive, Hardman said. “We gotta take a different mindset, a different mentality in the game. We know we’re going to see man (to man) now. We gotta show teams we can beat it. They’re going to keep playing it until we show we can beat it.”