When the game is over, and the clock finally strikes zero, NFL players are free to chat amongst themselves on the field. During this brief period, they talk about all kinds of things, including the way they just played one another.
A few times this season, Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce hasn’t exactly liked what he heard.
“I’ve definitely seen a lot more attention (on the field),” Kelce said. “Talking to a couple players after games, it’s not a secret.”
Yet Kelce — a third-year pro in his first season as the Chiefs’ clear-cut No. 1 tight end — is still on pace for a career year. He finished the Chiefs’ 30-22 win over the Buffalo Bills on Sunday with four catches for 69 yards and a touchdown, bringing his season totals to 54 catches for 689 yards and four touchdowns.
Kelce is on pace to finish with 79 catches for 1,002 yards and six touchdowns, and only four other NFL tight ends — Rob Gronkowski of New England, Greg Olsen of Carolina, Gary Barnidge of Cleveland and Delanie Walker of Tennessee — are on pace to finish with that many receiving yards.
By doing so, Kelce would clearly surpass his numbers from last year, when he caught 67 passes for 862 yards and five touchdowns while generally receiving less attention from opposing defenses.
“Well, they adjusted to him in this game, they doubled him, bracketed him,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said of the Bills. “A couple of (teams) had (done that), but this was probably a little more pronounced.”
Some teams, like Denver, for instance, have started to stick cornerbacks on Kelce to account for his unusual athleticism for his size (6 feet 5, 260 pounds). When the Broncos’ Chris Harris wasn’t defending Jeremy Maclin, he’d sometimes move inside to the nickel, where he’d line up across from Kelce.
“He’s a hard matchup, even if it’s a corner, because he’s really agile to be so big,” receiver Jason Avant said. “And he’s craftier than you think … he is (too big for them), but he can beat them with his feet, too.”
Kelce’s touchdown against the Bills on Sunday came with cornerback Ronald Darby, a defensive rookie of the year candidate, in coverage. Kelce, who was attached to the line of scrimmage in a three-tight end formation, beat Darby — who was aligned several yards off the ball on his outside shoulder — to the inside on a skinny post.
“Now, you’re starting to get some more athletic guys starting to cover him a little bit,” Maclin said. “I think he’s a little too shifty for a non-cover guy.”
Teams have also opted to defend Kelce and Maclin — who often line up on the same side of the ball — with cloud coverage, where teams can roll safety help their way. And when that happens, quarterback Alex Smith — who has thrown an NFL-low three interceptions — will sometimes opt to throw away from them, which makes sense within the construct of the offense.
“It doesn’t really matter who gets the ball or not,” Avant said. “We’re just trying to get it to the right person. That’s what matters most. We know that each game it will be different, based on what we’re presented with, based on what they’re playing with on defense. That kind of dictates who gets the ball.”
“(You) just try to get open — some plays it works, some plays it doesn’t,” Kelce said. “It’s one of those things where you see what’s happening, and you kind of recognize it, and once you recognize the defense, you want to immediately get into Alex’s head, see what he’s thinking, what he sees.
“And if he sees a bracket coverage or some type of over the top with a trail or something like that, I still know he’s thinking of some way, somehow, he can get me the ball.”
That mentality — and the Chiefs’ recent five-game winning streak — has helped Kelce deal with the increased attention.
“You go out there and play your tail off,” Kelce said. “You keep your mouth shut, as hard as it may be for some guys. For me, it comes easy, man. I used to play (quarterback), so I understand all the scrutiny and everything that’s going on up in his head. I trust him with the ball.”
But Kelce is still getting the ball plenty, which might not have been the case were it not for the offseason addition of Maclin, who leads the team in catches (57) and yards (772). Teams cannot adequately double both players at all times.
If they try, that leaves juicy opportunities for the team’s No. 2 pass-catcher.
“You’re not going to be able to double everybody,” Reid said. “Again, Albert’s (Wilson) a good player, Chris Conley is a nice addition in there, too. You want to make sure that you have enough people out there that the defense respects. In particular, all your skill guys, you want to make sure if you’re not going to cover them, that they can take care of business.”
So far, they’ve been doing that enough to keep the Chiefs, 6-5, rolling during their five-game winning streak.
And Kelce, who has a better grasp of the offense than he did a year ago, could not be having more fun, even as actively seek to take him away.
“Obviously, you had the beginning which was (bad),” Kelce said, referencing their 1-5 start. “But I feel like everybody’s out there having a blast — it’s more fun when you’re winning.
“Compared to last year and the overall scheme of things, I feel a lot more comfortable and a lot more relaxed, and that’s make it easier to play and it won’t put that much stress or strain on you.”