Film Room
Analysis beyond the numbers

Film Room: Kansas City's Option Offense

Film Room: Kansas City's Option Offense
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Charles McDonald

There is a difference between an offensive trend and an offensive evolution. At times, trends can be misconstrued as evolutions and vice versa. The explosion of Ronnie Brown and the Wildcat formation in 2008 was more of a trend than a solidified, core piece of offensive philosophy. This was mainly because you can't run an offense in the NFL with a non-quarterback as your primary ball-handler (despite what the Jacksonville Jaguars may think). While teams still use the Wildcat formation occasionally in the NFL, it has dwindled in frequency.

One offensive evolution that has been mistaken as a fancy trend is the use of option plays in the NFL. In the current media landscape of the NFL, the term "option" or "read-option" has become a bit diluted, especially in the recent coverage of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. For some reason, option plays are seen as primitive for the NFL even though they have been prominent in the league for almost 15 years.

The first team to really rip through the NFL using read-options, run/pass options (RPOs), speed options, veers, etc., were the 2004 Atlanta Falcons, who had a three-headed monster of Michael Vick, Warrick Dunn, and T.J. Duckett. Vick ran for 902 yards on 7.5 yards per carry that season, with Dunn adding 1,106 yards and nine touchdowns. The Falcons finished third in run offense DVOA that season despite ranking 31st passing the ball.

The option didn't die when Vick left Atlanta in 2007 to serve a two-year prison sentence. Former New York Jets renaissance man Brad Smith had option packages to spell Chad Pennington. Vince Young lit up defenses in 2006 and 2009 on his way to Pro Bowls in both of those seasons. Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, and Kaepernick are more recent players who have had success in the playoffs running offenses with heavy use of the option. The marriage of the option and the NFL wasn't a flash in the pan; it has been relevant for almost 15 years, and with the influx of collegiate quarterbacks running spread-option attacks, it will remain a key part of offensive philosophy in the NFL.

Andy Reid and the Kansas City Chiefs are the most recent example of a team taking the spotlight with a dazzling array of option attacks. Walking into Foxborough and toppling the Patriots is no small task -- it takes a level of ingenuity and trust to get the job done.

Kansas City ran a bevy of plays that looked eerily similar to what Alex Smith ran at the University of Utah under Urban Meyer in the early 2000s. If you pay attention to Ohio State's current offense or watch old Florida Gator games featuring Tebow and Percy Harvin, you'll see a lot of the same exact plays run by Kansas City. However, the first play that Andy Reid ran probably even caught Urban Meyer off-guard.

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Not too many teams are comfortable running an inverted veer with their tight ends, but Travis Kelce is athletic enough to make it work.

Pre-snap, the play starts off with Charcandrick West motioning out wide and Kelce swapping positions with Smith, putting him in position to receive the snap next to Tyreek Hill.

At the snap of the ball, the Chiefs run a standard inverted veer play. This play is designed to stress the edge defender by leaving him unblocked. The left tackle and left guard will combo block the 3-technique to the linebacker, the right guard will pull around the combo block directly to the second level, and the wing (Hill) will run towards the sideline.

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That leaves the defensive end (Trey Flowers, circled) with a choice. Does he attack Kelce and risk Kelce pitching the ball to Hill? Or does he follow Hill, allowing Kelce to run up the middle with a lead blocker in front of him? Edge defenders are generally taught to stay home and play the quarterback (Kelce) in these situations, which is what Flowers does.

The Chiefs actually put themselves in a bit of a bind with Kelce running the veer instead of a normal quarterback. Patrick Chung (23) walked down to the line of scrimmage to play Hill on the option. Let's be real, Kelce isn't a legit threat to throw the ball, and having your tight end pitch the ball is a fairly risky play. New England was matched up with a man on Kelce and a man on Hill, but Kelce pulled a clever, albeit clumsy, fake pitch before turning back upfield for a short gain and a first down.

This wasn't the only time the Chiefs used a variation of the veer in short-yardage situations.

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Once again the Chiefs are going to run a veer, but this time Smith is staying at quarterback.

Notice the offensive linemen are running the same blocking scheme, except this time Albert Wilson is going to sneak in behind the pulling guard to make himself an option on the shovel pass to Smith. The same edge defender is unblocked, and he's forced to make a decision on whether to attack Smith or Hill.

In the split-second that the defender is frozen on an island, Smith tosses a shovel pass to Wilson, who follows the pulling guard into the second level for another first down.

The Chiefs ran veer out of 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end) on Kelce's first down and out of 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end) on Wilson's first down. What made the Chiefs' attack versus the Patriots so diverse was their ability to run veer in 32 personnel (three running backs, two tight ends). Does that style of offense with three backs and two tight ends sound familiar? It's the same style of offense that Army and Navy play, but the Chiefs tweaked it by putting Smith in the pistol instead of under center.

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This is basically the flexbone formation run out of a pistol. The flexbone has been around as long as football itself, and teams have constantly tweaked it to adjust to new styles of play.

32 personnel: three backs (including Hill, an RB/WR hybrid), two tight ends. Simple. Now add the veer blocking on top of it, as the Chiefs leave Dont'a Hightower (54) unblocked on the edge.

Hightower hesitates on his read of the mesh point just long enough for Smith to give the ball to Hill, who ran a 4.2 40-yard dash at his pro day. Kansas City has the blocking numbers that they want once Hill gets the ball.

The Chiefs have two blockers to two defenders with open space in front of Hill. Hill has created enormous gains out of these same situations when theoretically he doesn't have a defender to account for. However, Devin McCourty makes an unbelievable play, beating Kareem Hunt to the edge to make an open-field tackle on Hill. That tackle most likely saved a touchdown; Hill is absolutely dominant once he gets a step in the open field.

Leaving defenders unblocked to establish play-side blocking advantages is one of the signature advantages of the option attack. Kansas City toned down the optical complexity of their offense on a speed option to Hunt.

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The speed option is probably one of the better-known option plays amongst casual viewers. College teams fly up and down the field with it every week, and it was one of the most powerful plays in NCAA Football 14, may it rest in peace.

Like the aforementioned veer plays, the play-side edge defender (Hightower, 54) is unblocked. Leaving him unblocked before pitching the ball to the running back allows the tight end (covered by Hightower) and the right tackle to work seamlessly to the second-level defenders.

Again, this allows the Chiefs to match blockers to defenders as Hunt gets the ball and begins working upfield. The Chiefs are running to the boundary on the speed option. (The boundary is the sideline closest to the ball at the start of the play; the field is the sideline furthest away from the ball at the start of the play.) This forces the running back to get upfield, or else he'll just wind up running out of bounds.

Kansas City has the blocking numbers and the forced angle they need to get a significant chunk of yards on the play.

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All of these plays were instrumental in the Chiefs' fourth-quarter demolition of the Patriots. The five-time Super Bowl champions got sliced and diced by plays that Tim Tebow used to run in college. The option isn't dead -- it's an important piece in many offenses across the league right now. Kansas City showed that it could be advantageous to buck the trend and reach down to the college level for a spark on offense. Hopefully that game can be an eye-opener to the people who insist on erasing the option from the NFL. Innovation makes the game more enjoyable for everyone … except defensive players.


13 comments, Last at 15 Sep 2017, 12:09pm

1 Re: Film Room: Kansas City's Option Offense

How many teams run the option as a staple of their offense? I would guess very few but I could easily see this becoming more prevalent very quickly. If nothing else, it seems to give a good boost to your run game. I don't know if it can be run independent of your o line quality, maybe someone knows.

Also, great writeup

2 Re: Film Room: Kansas City's Option Offense

This game reminded me a lot of the Miami Wildcat game in 2008. Bill is the ultimate film junky, and that strength can be turned into a weakness if you can spring something on him. The problem is, of course, you only have one chance because the cat can never go back into the bag.

We'll see by the end of year how predictive this outcome was, but I wouldn't bet too much on it being so for either KC's offense or NE's defense.

7 Re: Film Room: Kansas City's Option Offense

I disagree with the pass rush comment; When the Chiefs ran offense that looked more like there 2016 dump & TE offense I thought the DL made life fairly difficult for Alex Smith without much blitzing. What this article aptly point out is that the linebacker play for the Pats was horrendous, even before Hightower went out. Good, disciplined, LB play (or in the box safety play when the Pat's play their dime) is the antidote for the option, the Pats didn't get that at all last Thursday.

All that said, you might be right that pass rush is a problem going forward. I was pleasantly surprised by how well Trey Flowers and the DT's played against the pass, but maybe they can't play that way going forward with the weakness behind them.

4 Re: Film Room: Kansas City's Option Offense

NE bungled the last play by functionally having two people on Smith -- Hightower and the MLB. That forced 32 into responsibility for both Kelce and the RB, and became pick-your-poison.

Should that happen again and teams overload for the RB, you can sneak Kelce out and hit him with a pop pass instead now that he's behind the secondary.

This all can be stopped, but it is difficult for a team with great DBs, but a shaky front seven. That construction will suffer against power running teams. Reid threw a tactical changeup at NE and it worked.

Incidentally, you can work TE passing in. VT played around with that some 5-10 years ago, when they had Greg Boone and Logan Thomas as TEs. They toyed with it with Bucky Hodges, but never busted it out in a game.

10 Re: Film Room: Kansas City's Option Offense

A lot of their chunk plays in the 2nd half were on more conventional looks though, right?

I get that in the 1st half, on those monster drives, they extended a few with some nice actions, but the deep shots to Hill, Hunt, Conley, etc., were mostly just conventional set-ups.

I don't think this is as gimmicky as The Wildcat. That truly was a 'break-in-case-of-emergency' offense - although for Miami it worked fairly well even into 2009. It was that so few other teams could replicate it. Baltimore had some nice stuff, iirc.

11 Re: Film Room: Kansas City's Option Offense

To my understanding, even in the conventional stuff, KC used a lot more motion than NE had prepared for.

I could be wrong, of course, but this has all the hallmarks of a game that NE meticulously planned for stuff that didn't happen. Those happen from time to time and look different than games where the other team just beats them (like Seattle last year).

8 Re: Film Room: Kansas City's Option Offense

"This was mainly because you can't run an offense in the NFL with a non-quarterback as your primary ball-handler (despite what the Jacksonville Jaguars may think)."
Comedy gold.

9 Re: Film Room: Kansas City's Option Offense

Real nice chip block by Kareem Hunt on the CB on the flexbone handoff to Hill. That underscores a key point. Innovative play calling is just wanking unless the team executes. The KC guys had the ability and the preparation to make solid blocks and pull off crisp exchanges. It's a pleasure to watch, especially when the QB also drops dimes downfield like Smith did in this game.

EDIT: I meant to compliment the film breakdown in this piece, but I forgot. Well done.

12 Re: Film Room: Kansas City's Option Offense

Great article. One thing to note that makes KC's option plays special is that Smith didn't get hit. In most option attacks the two options are Back Gets Pitch, Runs and QB Keeps, Runs. KC, helped somewhat by how NE defended it, often had options of QB Pitches or QB Shovels instead of keepers. That's similar to the idea behind some of the pop pass RPOs where schemes replace the QB Keep option with QB Throws Quick to Uncovered Guy.

13 Re: Film Room: Kansas City's Option Offense

In the first play, if the RG gets a hat on 37, that play goes for another 5 yards at least. Hard to believe his assignment was the backside backer given the play design and what occurs with the G/T double team at the point of attack.