Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith doesn’t find himself on ESPN SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays list often. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying he’s a bad quarterback. His is actually a great redemption story, and he is absolutely the unquestioned leader of the Chiefs’ offense. He’s just not going to take over many games.
In years past, that guy was Jamaal Charles, who was capable of breaking a long run for a touchdown at any time. After several injuries, though -- this year included — he’s not the threat he used to be.
Really, the same can be said about most of their offensive players. They aren’t a team that is built to wow you on offense. Rather, they have a defense that can take the ball away at any time, and an offense that can suck up the game clock with long, sustained drives.
They are, basically, an overall slightly less talented version Bill Cowher’s Steelers. And only slightly.
They do have two secret weapons on offense, though: wide receiver Tyreek Hill, and tight end Travis Kelce.
During the regular season, the two accounted for 26 plays of 20 yards or more, and each broke plays of more than 60. Three of them, in fact — and here they are.
Week 15, 1st Quarter, 11:55 Remaining, 2nd & 4
The first thing that stands out about Hill is simply that he’s fast. As in, Dri-Archer-without-pads fast. Chris Johnson fast. As soon as he clears the line of scrimmage on this play, he simply entered a new dimension of speed. It’s possible the sonic boom is still reverberating back and forth between Missouri and Kansas.
But he not indefensible. Far from it, really, just like every other NFL player. The most important thing? Probably to not do what Titans safety Kevin Byard does.
First things first: most of the success of this play does not fall at the feet of Byard’s goof-ups. It’s an excellent design, and picture-perfect execution. Before taking the handoff, Hill looks for all the world like he is simply helping to pick up a blitz. He demonstrates his excellent quickness in cutting back across to take the ball, and had two different holes to choose from because the line did its job, too. Wide receiver Chris Conley also gets a good block on the outside, holding it long enough to spring Hill for a long gain.
By Byard makes two huge errors. His first is extremely slow recognition. Hill had already committed to the hole by the time Byard stops backpedaling, which put him at an instant disadvantage against a fast guy like Hill.
Because of that, Byard then commits the cardinal sin of open-field pursuit, attempting to force a play before it was there. He aggressively cuts into Hill’s lane, but is positioned ahead of him, which allows Hill to simply cut back inside. Byard was so off balance that he ended up falling. If this rings of deja vu, remember back to week three, when it looked like Eagles running back Darren Sproles was chasing Steelers cornerback Artie Burns down the field, en route to a long touchdown of his own.
Truth be told, this play is just about the hardest possible one for a defender to make, because it flips the role of read-and-react to the guy with the ball, meaning he can wait to see where the defender goes before making his move. The best way to defend it is to give up yards for a more likely tackle, running with the ball carrier and letting him close the space a little, forcing him to be the one who flinches first.
Week 16, 1st Quarter, 5:33 Remaining, 1st & 10
One week later, Hill did it again.
One thing you can kind of count on when the ball carrier is 185 pounds is that he’s not going to do a whole lot of inside running. Still, on this play, the entire defense aggressively attacks the middle. That wads everyone up in a huge knot, right around the hash marks. Meanwhile, no one seems to read the pulling right guard and tight end to indicate the run is going left, and wide.
Once again, the guy who makes the biggest mistake is the safety. Like in the previous play, he is slow to read it, and despite the action moving from right to left, doesn’t even begin to drift toward the center of the field to give him better positioning if the run turns out to be legitimate. Worst of all, he tries to get in front of Hill for a tackle, but there was never any chance he was going to get there fast enough to square his hips to the play and set his feet, meaning he was likely going to be moving in a direction that wasn’t conducive to making a play — and that’s exactly what happened.
The execution by the Chiefs is, again, excellent, but what makes this play happen at all was the Denver defense playing the middle run aggressively, even when it was unlikely. The right play, especially with a guy who relies more on speed than power like Hill, would have been to play the inside linebackers more conservatively, flowing with Hill until he commits to the hole. If you remember back to the Steelers’ second game against the Bengals, they got beat like this often in the first half, but adjusted in the second half to keep at least one inside linebacker out of the pile, tracking the runner the whole time. They completely shut down the Bengals’ running game in the second half.
Failing that, the safety should have used the sideline to his advantage. Again, it requires giving up some yards, but a pro would sacrifice yards to save points, any day of the week and twice on Sundays.
Week 16, 1st Quarter, 1:08 Remaining, 2nd & 6
Now we see what makes Kelce so dangerous. Aside from being an excellent blocker, as was obvious in the previous play, he’s also a deceptively fast and skilled receiver. Here, he catches what is essentially a wide receiver screen, and takes it 80 yards for a touchdown.
The trend you should be seeing by now is that the Chiefs may not be the most exciting offense in the league, but they may be the most mechanically precise, even more so than the Patriots. That’s saying a lot.
Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz is the guy who made this play work, but Denver linebacker Todd Davis is the reason why. Schwartz gets outside to help form a blocking wall for Kelce, and he gets right in the face of Davis and gets a solid block. Because the only player left to beat behind Davis was a safety, the play was, for all intents and purposes, a done deal. And it’s really hard to fault Davis, here, because it all happened so fast.
However, what he could have done different was to simply play the screen more aggressively. He recognizes it for what it was before Kelce even had the ball, and begins to crash down on the play. But when Schwartz gets in front of Davis, he backs down and allows the block to happen. The better option here would have been to simply run by the blocker before he has a chance to touch Davis. Since the goal on most screens is to have a blocking wall that outnumbers the defenders in the way, the easiest way to beat them is to get behind the blockers before they can get to you.
This would have resulted in one of two things: either a) Kelce is forced back inside, to the heart of the Denver defense, or b) Davis simply makes the tackle himself, or slows Kelce long enough for help to arrive. This is an area where the Steelers’ safeties have excelled in the second half of the 2016 season, trusting their instincts and athleticism to let them play screens aggressively downhill.
As should be obvious by now, the Chiefs are capable of big plays, despite not having much in the way of superstar power on their roster. If an opponent can shut down both Hill and Kelce, then it’s going to be a long day for the Chiefs.
If not? Well, don’t say you weren’t warned.