When a good team loses, people wonder aloud if there’s now a blueprint for how to beat them. Usually it’s overblown, if not outright nonsensical. But every once in a while, it’s legitimate. Like right now, and the blueprint to beat the Kansas City Chiefs.
On October 15, the Chiefs took the field against Pittsburgh with a 5-0 record. They had been averaging an NFL-best 32.8 points a game, and Alex Smith was deemed an early MVP candidate. That day, however, the Steelers beat the Chiefs 19-13. Alex Smith had 246 yards thanks to some fluky, late-in-the-down big plays, but overall Kansas City’s offense had been stymied. And it has remained stymied. Since the Steelers’ plane touched down in K.C., the Chiefs are 1-5. They’re averaging 18 points per game during that stretch, including their 10-point performance in defeat at home against a reeling Bills team on Sunday.
So what blueprint did the Steelers set? A passive one. Instead of attacking Smith and Co., they stayed back in soft zone coverage. They kept everything in front of them and rallied to the ball. It was a simple, but brilliant, approach.
The gadgets and gimmicks that comprise Andy Reid’s offense, the tools they had used to light up the Patriots in Foxboro on opening night, suddenly stopped working. The misdirection that had given opponents fits, with ploys like speedy Tyreek Hill racing one way and the ball optioning back another, became null. If defenders don’t match up and follow offensive players, then those gadgets and misdirections are less effective. Instead of following Hill (or any Chiefs player) and becoming out-leveraged pawns against Reid’s designs, defenders now guard an area of the field, forcing Reid to play to them.
Against the Chiefs, it’s especially important that edge defenders play with zone integrity. This includes cornerbacks underneath. Those are the men who handle Hill on the perimeter and force Smith to read a suddenly shrunken field inside.
So yes, there’s a blueprint. How do the Chiefs respond? Some are calling for first-round rookie quarterback Patrick Mahomes to take over. But the only reason Reid would bench Smith is if the head coach truly believed that those gadgets and misdirection concepts can never work again. Because if Reid went with the more talented but inexperienced Mahomes, he’d have to throw out much of those concepts, along with many of his multi-progression designs. At Texas Tech, Mahomes played in a spread offense, which, notably, he ran with very little discipline. Raw sandlot playmaking prowess works in college, but it does not transfer to the NFL—not as a quarterback’s foundation, anyway. It will take at least an offseason (and probably more) for Mahomes to develop the awareness and discipline to run a full-fledged NFL offense, particularly one as comprehensive as Reid’s.
What the Chiefs must do in the here and now is punish defenses for playing zone. You do that by going for big plays. Re-establishing a sustainable ground and screen game with rookie running back Kareem Hunt is important, sure, but the threat of steady, sustained drives is not what worries defensive coordinators—especially coordinators who are playing zone. Big plays worry them. And it’s that worry that will drag defensive play-callers away from soft zones, giving Kansas City’s foundational misdirection and gadgetry a chance to start working again.
You beat zones by attacking them vertically. Instead of aligning Hill and all-world tight end Travis Kelce all over the formation and finding creative ways to get them the ball, align those two together on the same side and run them downfield against the same zone defender. In football parlance, that’s called sending “two through a zone.” It forces zone defenders to make either-or decisions.
Most of this occurs near the seams and middle of the field, where you’re facing safeties and linebackers. In that scenario, even when the defender is right his result can still be wrong, given that few safeties and linebackers can match up with Kelce, and none can match up with Hill. One or two big plays like this and the Chiefs can get a defense adjusting (or even abandoning) its zone coverages.
For Kansas City, the tricky part with this approach is that you bump into some of Smith’s limitations. A quarterback must throw with velocity and anticipation when attacking zone coverage downfield. That has never been Smith’s game. There was a play in the first half of the Buffalo loss that made the rounds on Twitter. Kelce got open on a deep “over” route, running diagonally across the field. Smith didn’t target him. Instead, he threw underneath the instant the pocket started to crumble. To hit Kelce, Smith would have had to climb up in that crumbling pocket and throw from an unideal platform. That takes arm strength that Smith doesn’t have. When the action gets messy around Smith, his instinct has always been to tuck the ball and look for space. That throw to Kelce would have also required some anticipation, which Smith—smart as he is—rarely throws with. Generally Smith must see an open receiver before turning it loose.
This probably doesn’t sound like a great case for keeping Mahomes on the bench and Smith on the field, but remember: With strong pass protection, Smith has been more than serviceable for Kansas City in recent years, including on downfield zone-beating designs. (For example, ask the Texans how fun it is to play Cover 4 against Smith.) And if the zone-beating designs are really sharp—which, with Reid’s knack for forecasting coverages, they often are—then Smith can get your offense functioning on-schedule snap after snap. You almost certainly would not get that with a 22-year-old Mahomes.
But again, Smith needs space for this to work. A lot rides on Kansas City’s O-line, which has been up and down. The misdirection and gadgetry naturally slowed defenses early in the year, aiding that line. But since defenses have started playing straight zone, their pass rushes have been more decisive and destructive. The Chiefs face five dangerous pass rushing teams to finish out the schedule:
• The Jets, who have no edge rushers but can collapse your pocket inside
• The Raiders, who have grossly underachieved in their four-man rush but still have Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin
• The Chargers, who have the league’s best edge-rushing tandem in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram
• The Dolphins and all of the stunts and twists they do with their strong defensive tackles and limber ends
• And the Broncos, who build around the game’s best defensive player, Von Miller.
It’s imperative Kansas City’s O-line rise to these challenges and give its veteran quarterback the space he needs. If it doesn’t, then a conversation about Mahomes must commence earlier than they would like.
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