Chiefs Offense Now Revolves Around Travis Kelce
NFL Week 2 - Months and months were spent trying to sort out how the Chiefs would rewire their offense in the absence of Tyreek Hill. Replacing Hill one-to-one was never an option, and the Chiefs were smart enough to not try to do that. They instead signed two starting-quality wide receivers in free agency and drafted another wideout in the second round, all bringing different flavors as a means to piecemeal this thing together. As useful as all the new pieces are, it turns out the real answer to shifting the offense away from Hill was already on the roster: All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce.
On Sunday, the Chiefs' game plan revolved around moving Kelce all over the formation to give the Cardinals defense headaches. Sometimes the play was designed specifically to get Kelce open; other times Kelce's "gravity" was used as a means to get everyone else open. Andy Reid's use of Kelce only got more and more creative over the course of the game, finding new ways to gash the Cardinals defense seemingly every drive. Kelce ended the day with eight catches for 121 yards and a score, on top of whatever other yardage he helped open up for his teammates.
Kelce was a menace all over the field, but especially in the red zone. He regularly aligned as the lone eligible receiver to one side of the formation, either in a tight split or as a nub tight end, and forced the Cardinals to choose between leaving him in 1-on-1 coverage or tilting their coverage to handle him. Neither option did anything for Arizona.
This was Kansas City's first score of the day. Mecole Hardman (17) starts the play aligned by Kelce in a tight stack to the left, but shifts across the formation before the snap. This makes the Cards show their cards. Cornerback Marco Wilson (20) follows Hardman across the formation, while Isaiah Simmons (9) remains pressed up on the line of scrimmage over Kelce. Those are strong man coverage indicators and that's exactly what the Cardinals run, giving Patrick Mahomes the green light to throw the 1-on-1 to his favorite target.
Reid set up a nice sequence of calls starting with the play before this touchdown as well. With Kelce again as the isolated receiver to the offense's left, Reid used Kelce as an underneath option and ran crossing routes from the other side of the field to work over the top of Kelce's landmark. The Chiefs got a man open each time, first Hardman and then Kelce the second time around.
Kelce is aligned as a nub tight end to the left side. Arizona's defense is playing an eight-man box with Markus Golden (44) on the edge and Simmons aligned over Kelce, 5 yards off the line of scrimmage. It would be risky for the Cardinals to play some kind of zone coverage with Simmons effectively being the closest thing to a cornerback on the nub side, which means Kelce has man coverage again. Not only does Kelce get to check-release Golden to slow him down, but his short route keeps Simmons pinned down in the flat area, giving Hardman a good angle across the front of the end zone. Mahomes misses the throw, a rarity in this game, but the Chiefs got what they wanted out of the play call.
On the following drive, the Chiefs went back to a similar look on first-and-10 in the red zone, this time with Kelce in a tight split rather than attached to the formation. With more space to work with, and perhaps scared of the crosser getting open again from this very similar formation, the Cardinals kept a cornerback to Kelce's side and got into more of a bracket coverage. The cornerback to Kelce's side is playing outside leverage because he thinks he has help inside, but Kelce's initial outside break makes the safety believe it is safe to turn back to the middle of the field and look for the crosser coming from No. 3 (the inside receiver in the trips formation). As soon as that happens, Kelce has a void to work into underneath and picks up the easy first down.
Reid made sure to weaponize Kelce in the intermediate areas of the field as well, mainly in the second half. The Chiefs opened the third quarter with a play designed for the express purpose of getting Kelce running free on a deep over route. On top of being a nifty concept, Mahomes put a bow on it with one of the prettiest throws I can remember.
The Chiefs rolled out of the locker room with a 13 personnel (three tight ends) tight bunch formation. Kelce is the outside player in the bunch, with Jody Fortson (88) taking point and Noah Gray (83) closest to the formation. The Cardinals had no other choice but to respond with base personnel. More often than not, base personnel (especially on early downs) necessitates simple zone coverages because the defense has linebacker bodies on the field instead of coverage bodies. Kansas City gets exactly what they want as the Cardinals rotate weak into a Cover-3 look with the down safety, Budda Baker (3), playing the curl/flat area. The weak hook player, linebacker Nick Vigil (59), is left trying to turn and run back under the deep over route, but Kelce keeps Vigil out of arm's reach and the ball lands effortlessly into his hands.
Later in the third quarter, Reid got Kelce into another favorable position to work Simmons on a corner route.
This is third-and-6 for the Chiefs and they turned right to Kelce to bail them out of it. Kelce begins the play split outside to the right, but Mahomes calls for him to move into a stack inside and behind slot receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster right before the snap of the ball. Between the quick snap after the shift and Kelce's diagonal release towards the middle of the field, Simmons anticipates a shallow crosser and turns himself inside. Simmons guesses wrong, giving Kelce free access to cross Simmons' face and get vertical on the corner route. Simmons is left grabbing at grass while the cornerback, Byron Murphy (7), is stuck playing Smith-Schuster's route underneath. Not only do the Chiefs move the sticks, but they get an explosive play out of it and move straight into scoring range.
Kelce also got plenty of use as an ancillary piece. All throughout the game, Kelce's alignment, sometimes accommodated with a shift or motion, either gave the Chiefs information on Arizona's defense or helped them slow down Vance Joseph's loaded-box, blitz-heavy approach, just like on the second clip at the top of the article.
Kelce is once again aligned in a tight split as the only receiver to his side of the formation. In "normal" 3x1 spacing, the isolated receiver would be aligned somewhere on or outside the numbers to get space to win 1-on-1. In this instance, though, Kelce's tight split allows him to chip Golden at the line of scrimmage before getting into his underneath route. Kelce's quick block gives the Chiefs offensive line a ton of space to sort out the three pass-rushers to that side of the formation, letting them combo one rusher before picking up Golden later instead of dealing with a three-on-three situation immediately. Mahomes and Smith-Schuster failed to connect on the pass, but Kelce's alignment and chip gave the Chiefs time for this play to develop the way they wanted it to.
This time, the Chiefs put Kelce in a Y-off alignment to start. Mahomes calls for Kelce to shift across the formation, but the tight end returns to his original spot after two quick steps. The movement was just convincing enough to get Cardinals linebacker Ezekiel Turner (47) to start taking off and trail Kelce across the formation, giving Mahomes a hint that the Cardinals are going to be playing man coverage again. Mahomes takes the hint and looks straight to Marquez Valdes-Scantling 1-on-1 at the bottom of the screen for 12 yards. Kansas City kicked a 54-yard field goal to close out the first half four plays later.
It is tough to make sweeping conclusions over one game, but we already have a half-decade of evidence that Reid, Mahomes, and Kelce can make magic as a trio. What they showed this week was not far removed from what they did in their 2019 Super Bowl season. Though we have all become used to Hill being the engine for passing concepts, Kelce is more than capable of doing so considering all the other options the Chiefs now have around him. The Chiefs can mix and match their personnel and formations every which way, and Kelce looks to be the centerpiece for all of that creativity.