By Nick Shook
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It was like a 1960s Batman fight scene — Bam! A zone sprint up the middle. Boom! A screen to tight end Travis Kelce on the edge. Biff! Receiver Tyreek Hill on a jet sweep around the edge. Thwack! Kelce on a quick slant over the middle. And pow! Quarterback Alex Smith on the read option, scoring around the edge.
That was Kansas City’s offense in a nutshell against the Denver Broncos on Sunday night of Week 16. And really, it’s been that way for much of the season.
The Chiefs don’t air it out deep frequently, or deploy some revolutionary running scheme that leaves opposing coaches frustrated and flabbergasted. Kansas City wins with efficiency and reliable, sound execution. It comes quick, and from all angles.
That first drive embodied this approach. The Chiefs started with a run up the middle, handing the ball to Spencer Ware, who runs angrily and rarely ever goes down after first contact. Then they turned to Kelce with a screen in space, a play they used often with Kelce and Hill. Quick passes are Smith’s forte, and they used that next. Then it was back to the run, and finally, the quarterback with surprising agility finding pay dirt.
Balance is the key for this team, balance and variation. They run the ball out of a handful of formations — shotgun, singleback, offset I-form — and use Ware, Charcandrick West, and Hill in a role similar to that of Green Bay’s Ty Montgomery. They run route concepts out of bunch formations and four-wide, they flex Kelce out wide (he had seven catches for 122 yards when lined up wide), and they love to get the big uglies out on the edge to block for screens.
Kelce’s touchdown reception, which blew the game open at 21-7 in the second quarter, was a perfect example of why Kansas City likes to get its playmakers in space. The tight end caught a throw that was fairly wild, moved forward and read his blockers well, shooting through an opening created by three downfield linemen. From there it was a footrace, and a hesitant pursuit step by Aqib Talib and last-ditch blocking effort by Jeremy Maclin sealed the score.
That was Kelce’s biggest play in a half filled with major contributions from the stylish tight end. While we love to replay his catches, his scores, his dances and even his disgusted towel toss at officials, he makes plenty of his money doing the less glamorous half of his job: run blocking.
Kelce was the man sealing the edge for Smith on his touchdown run, and was front and center on an even bigger play on the Chiefs‘ next possession.
With Hill lined up in the backfield, Kelce pulled behind guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif on what was an inside run play and became a sprint around the edge thanks to Hill’s decision to bounce it outside. Kelce wrapped around the edge and flattened safety Darian Stewart, clearing a path for Hill, who made a defender miss and outran the rest to the end zone, sending Arrowhead Stadium into a frenzy. Kelce’s block was magnificent, and probably had the film room roaring the next day (I know I’d have whooped it up for him in that session).
Hill is the diminutive dynamo powering Kansas City’s perimeter offense, and has become a weapon that other teams have been forced to respect. NBC broadcaster Al Michaels provided some context for Hill’s impact on the game, calling a run of his by saying “right there, Tyreek Hill, who will of course draw a crowd every time he touches the ball.” And that’s true, thanks to the big plays we see nearly every week from the rookie wideout. But take a look at how Denver played Hill on plays when he didn’t touch the ball, especially in the third quarter.
On Kansas City’s second possession of the second half, Hill carried the ball on a stretch play, and safety Darian Stewart beelined to the edge to shut him down for no gain. Just two plays later, Kansas City handed the ball to Spencer Ware on an inside run with Smith carrying out a jet sweep fake afterward. Linebacker Shane Ray, sucked into the read option earlier in the game, made sure to stay home and keep contain against Hill, who didn’t even have the ball.
It happened again early in the fourth, when Smith ran a read option with an inside shovel pass option to a crossing tight end. The pass went to Kelce immediately after the fake to Hill, which left Von Miller diving at the ankles of a player who again didn’t have the ball. Denver went from aggressive to disciplined at best, because there’s nothing else a defense can do when a team is attacking it from all angles.
The biggest hole in the Chiefs‘ offense moving forward is also the reason many of their drives stalled: Kansas City can’t throw the ball beyond 10 yards with consistency. We can chalk some of this up to the night being a rather wet one thanks to a torrential downpour earlier in the game, but that doesn’t explain the season-long numbers on Smith in terms of air yards. Kansas City’s offense is 10 yards and in, so much so that Smith’s season-long average of intended air yards is a whopping 7.57 (5.51 completed air yards). That dropped even lower in Week 16, with marks of 5.05 intended air yards, and 3.09 completed air yards. Watching Smith run Kansas City’s offense is both a marvelous example of efficiency, and also a frustrating showcase starring Captain Checkdown.
Want to beat Kansas City? Stack the box and play press coverage, and dare the Chiefs to go deep. But you better bring your pass rush and deploy it often, because there’s only one quarterback faster at getting the ball out than Smith (2.37 seconds per snap), and it’s his backup, Nick Foles (2.36 seconds). It’s by design — of the league’s fastest to throw, the top two are the Kansas City quarterbacks, and Smith was even faster in Week 16 at 2.24 seconds per throw.
You also need to trust your corners and safeties, because with Hill’s speed, he’s able to take the top off of defenses, especially if Smith is afforded the time to let the play develop. Rush few and lean on additional men in coverage, or rush many and hope your defensive backs can keep up. Don’t forget to take into account the hard-running style of Ware, the edge speed of Hill and Kelce, the reliability of Jeremy Maclin and the deceptive quickness of Smith’s feet.
See where the conundrum lies? Kansas City’s offense is so simple on the surface, and yet, its variety makes it difficult to stop. It’s the best example we’ll see today of what made Bill Walsh’s 49ers so tough to stop, which should make sense, since head coach Andy Reid is a member of Walsh’s coaching tree. Perhaps Reid can ride that same near-perfect play in the short game deep into the playoffs as his mentors (Mike Holmgren, understudy of Walsh) did before him.
Other notes from Week 16 in Next Gen Stats:
1. The Falcons are peaking at the right time, and much of it is due to the play of Matt Ryan. Blitz him if you must, but be prepared to get carved up. Ryan posted a passer rating of 127.5 against the blitz, which Carolina dialed up 12 times as Atlanta rolled to another win.
2. The winner of the most efficient running back award of Week 16 goes to Oakland’s DeAndre Washington, who covered 2.4 yards per yard gained. Washington finished with 99 yards rushing. Maybe that can serve as a silver lining for those still downtrodden in the aftermath of Derek Carr‘s leg injury.
3. Week 16 brings another set of passing and receiving charts, which can be viewed by clicking here.
4. Jay Ajayi‘s latest monster game came against a decently stacked front. Ajayi carried the ball against eight-plus defenders in the box 15 times for 58 yards, averaging 3.9 yards per carry.
5. With all the hoopla surrounding how Minnesota covered (or didn’t) Jordy Nelson, it was Green Bay’s Geronimo Allison who was left open most. Allison had an average of five yards of separation when targeted (seven targets). Not a good look for the Vikings moving forward.
6. The Bills were running all over the fake grass in Buffalo in pursuit of Dolphins. Free safety Corey Graham covered 33.4 yards per tackle (seven total), and linebacker Zach Brown covered 23.3 yards per tackle (eight).