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Film review: KC Chiefs have just been setting up defenses

The Chiefs reached the halfway point of the NFL season this past Sunday with their win over the Denver Broncos, but the fact that they played an opponent for the second time this season meant the mind games, counter attacks and building on/going against the tendencies that you expect in the second half of the season started a week early.

Just because they’ve had one of the most productive offenses in the league this season — ranked first in points per game (36.2), tied for first in yards per play (6.9), first in Football Outsiders’ DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) and third in yards per game (425.2) — that doesn’t mean the Chiefs don’t need to stay ahead of the opposition.

“(Opposing coordinators) try to give you a different look every week,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “We kind of bank on what we have installed in the OTAs and during camp. We’re able to draw from that a little bit.

“We are always trying to give you a different look so that when you get here, you don’t have to go back or run out of things. We keep it pretty fresh and it keeps the guys fresh every week. It’s a nice little challenge for them. Are you going to change everything? No team’s going to do that. We throw enough things in there for them to have some fun with it and work with it.”

What Reid isn’t saying, but alludes to, is that if they’re drawing from things installed in OTAs and training camp then they were clearly holding some of those things back early in the season and/or setting them up with the variations they have showed in games.

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Patrick Mahomes, option quarterback

Situation: Fourth-and-1 at the Denver 23, 5:19 remaining in the third quarter

Alignment: The Chiefs broke the huddle with “12” personnel, featuring one running back (Kareem Hunt), two tight ends (Demetrius Harris and Travis Kelce) and two wide receivers (Sammy Watkins and Tyreek Hill). Harris and Kelce are both split out on the line of scrimmage — Harris left and Kelce right — with short splits. Kelce was just outside the hash marks and Harris a few steps inside the numbers on the opposite side.

Watkins lined up in a tight slot on Kelce’s side, and Mahomes was in the shotgun, with Hunt, behind him and to his left, and Hill, behind and to his right, giving a pro-set backfield look.

At the snap: Kelce and Watkins step outside as though positioning themselves to block for a run coming around the corner. Hill opens up as though expecting to receive an option pitch. Mahomes took the snap, gave a hop-step and one step parallel to the line of scrimmage to his right. On the edge, the Chiefs left outside linebacker Bradley Chubb (55) unblocked.

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At that point, everything on the offense’s right side showed speed option coming around that end. That was only intensified when Mahomes gave a ball fake as though pitching to Hill as he stepped with his right foot down the line. However, the Chiefs pulled left guard Cam Erving and Hunt took a path behind the offensive line and in front of Mahomes, where he received a shovel pass and turned up field behind Erving.

“We knew if we had the shift motion, we’d have a good chance of getting a two-on-one and we weren’t thinking it was going to be Von (Miller),” Mahomes said. “So, I just kind of tried to press him as much as I could and give it to Kareem and let him outflank, and he made a good play and got the first down. It was just one of the game-plan runs that we had in the game plan.”

Hunt turned up-field past a diving Chubb, picked up the yard needed for a first down. He continued to run through an attempted arm tackle, hurdled a defender and dragged another one into the end zone.

“It was a good play call by Coach Reid and (I was) able to have the opportunity as another defender went low at my legs and just jump over him” Hunt said. “After that, I knew I was on the six yard line or something and I was going to have to fight and drag someone to the end zone.”

From the end zone angle, it’s clear how crucial the blocks by left tackle Eric Fisher (72) and center Austin Reiter (62) were to the play. With Erving pulling and Hunt’s path tight to the line of scrimmage, penetration on the backside could have blown up the play or thrown off the timing if a defender had been able to slow up Erving or impede Hunt.

What you don’t see is how the Chiefs set that play up earlier in the game by running a speed option, with Hunt getting a pitch from Mahomes coming around the right end to pick up a first down on third-and-1 from the Denver 31-yard line in the first quarter.

(Side note: Don’t sleep on the trips bunch the Chiefs shifted into on the other side of the formation. They lined up with both tight ends and fullback Anthony Sherman to the left side in a similar alignment to the one in which Sherman caught a pass on a wheel route for a 36-yard touchdown in the season opener. They’ve shown that trips bunch with the two tight ends and fullback split out together a few times in recent weeks. Gotta expect some variations off of that are being set up.)

And if that looked familiar, it’s because the Chiefs didn’t simply set up the fourth-down play with the speed option earlier in the game. It was set up throughout the first half of the season by Mahomes’ option plays, several in short yardage situations, coming around the right end.

Here are a few examples from games against the Chargers (Week 1), 49ers (Week 3), Patriots (Week 6) and Bengals (Week 7) of Mahomes running different versions of the option with Hunt and Hill as pitch men out of different formations, and one without a pitch man.

You forgot about Sammy?

Chiefs receiver Sammy Watkins, a former fourth overall draft pick by the Buffalo Bills, spoke to The Star a couple weeks ago about having matured since the start of his career and being comfortable in his role.

Sunday against the Broncos, he made a big mark with his second 100-yard receiving game of the season (eight catches, 107 yards). He also pulled in a pair of touchdown passes.

The Chiefs have put defenses in a bind early this season by forcing them to decide whether to devote multiple defenders to Hill or Kelce. Either has the ability to dominate a one-on-one matchup. Kelce’s mixture of size and athleticism make him a nightmare cover. They’re also good enough to make big plays even when a defense devotes multiple defenders to them if the defenders fail to execute.

It’s easy to forget that as defenses make decisions on how to take away Hill and Kelce, they likely leave themselves vulnerable against Watkins, a former No. 1 receiver who is capable of beating one-on-one coverage consistently.

In the example below, there’s hardly anything fancy or elaborate involved. The Chiefs faced second-and-10. Four eligible receivers were on the right side of the formation, which allowed Watkins to work against cornerback (Bradley Roby) in space — he lined up outside the numbers — with the corner playing off and no underneath help. Watkins runs a hook and makes a catch for nine yards, which was basically like stealing.

On Watkins’ second-quarter touchdown catch, the Chiefs spread the field by motioning to an empty backfield with Spencer Ware moving outside the numbers on the left side of the formation. Chris Conley and Watkins lined up inside of that, with Watkins the third receiver from the sideline. His location afforded him a matchup against inside linebacker Todd Davis (51).

Watkins, who’d shown himself to be a red zone threat earlier in his career, came off the line and angled toward Davis. Davis maintained inside leverage until Watkins stopped at five yards out, opening up his hips to show his numbers to Mahomes as though making himself available for a short hitch. Upon seeing that, Davis bit and came up as Watkins accelerated into a break towards the opposite hash mark and created enough separation for Mahomes to flick a pass to him on a line (Mahomes didn’t step into the throw). Watkins easily won the race to the goal line with Davis chasing.

While they were fighting

Watkins’ biggest gain of the day (24 yards) came on the play where Hill and Broncos defensive back Tremaine Brock got into a scuffle downfield. Brock was flagged for holding during the play, and at the end of the play the two were rolling on the ground exchanging shoves before they were separated. Reid had to calm Hill down on the sideline.

Lost in that scuffle, Watkins again showed how he can take advantage of the space created by defenders who must devote attention elsewhere on the field or are stuck in a bad matchup and forced to operate without help.

Situation: First-and-10 from Kansas City 31-yard line, 3:55 remaining in the second quarter.

Alignment: Similar to the touchdown catch, which actually came late in the same possession, the Chiefs broke the huddle with “11” personnel: one running back (Hunt), one tight end (Kelce) and three wide receivers (Conley, Hill and Watkins). They motioned Hunt out wide and made it an empty backfield, with Hunt outside the numbers to the left side of the formation, Conley a step inside the numbers and Watkins a step outside the hash marks. Kelce lined up in the slot on the right side with Hill split wide on the line and outside the numbers. Mahomes worked out of the shotgun.

At the snap: Hill took off one-on-one against Brock, while Kelce released into his pattern at a deliberate pace before breaking on a slant that caught the attention of the slot defender as well as the linebacker in the middle of the field. Hunt runs a deep post, with Conley running an in-route at 10 yards.

Conley’s break comes right underneath Watkins’ post route out of the slot against inside linebacker Brandon Marshall (54). Marshall tried to get hands on Watkins, but the 6-foot-1, 211-pound Watkins didn’t alter his route and turned Marshall completely around as he accelerated out of his break. Marshall appeared to get caught looking back at Mahomes as Watkins angles his route away from the deep safety and behind the linebacker pulled toward the line of scrimmage by Kelce’s slant.

From the end zone camera, it looks like Mahomes glanced to his right before he threw a rope to Watkins coming across in front of the safety.

“It just feels great. Not just to score two times but to get the win,” Watkins said. “To do it at a high level and just go out there and play my style of game running around having fun, throw some good blocks and have everybody catch a lot of balls.”

Lynn Worthy

Lynn Worthy covers the Kansas City Chiefs and NFL for The Star.

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