When considering contenders for Coach of the Year, voters should take a long, hard look at Andy Reid -- and appreciate the work he has done in Kansas City. While there are plenty of deserving candidates, including Arizona Cardinals head man Bruce Arians, the adaptability Reid has showcased in retooling the Chiefs' offense has been extraordinary. In fact, Reid's work has been so impressive that Kansas City could overtake the Denver Broncos as the team to beat in the AFC West and make a legitimate run at the top playoff seed in the conference.
1) Andy Reid's clever ground game caters to Kansas City's top playmakers.
Reid is known as a pass-first proponent in NFL circles, but he has tweaked his offensive approach to maximize the talents of the Chiefs' most dynamic offensive weapons: Jamaal Charles and De'Anthony Thomas. Each is an explosive playmaker with the speed and burst to score from anywhere on the field, yet they both display the balance, body control and toughness to make plays in traffic. Reid has installed a deceptive running game that incorporates a variety of misdirection plays to help his home-run hitters get to the second level. These plays are commonly used on the collegiate level, but few NFL coaches have fully embraced misdirection and deception like Reid. Reviewing the tape of K.C.'s most recent triumph -- a 24-20 victory over the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks -- I spotted some of the concepts the Chiefs are using to befuddle opponents on the ground:
With the increased popularity of the zone-read, more NFL teams are using the threat of quarterback runs and bubble screens to open up lanes between the tackles. The Chiefs frequently employ backfield deception to create holes for Charles at the point of attack. One of their favorite plays is a traditional power, with the backside guard pulling through the B-gap. Reid instructs the quarterback and slot receiver to carry out the zone-read fake, but the play is designed to give the ball to the running back, regardless of the defense's reaction. With a guard pulling through the hole, Charles is accompanied by a lead blocker.
In the play depicted below, Kansas City motions into a dubs formation, with Charles aligned at running back and Thomas positioned in the slot. The Chiefs are running an inside power play with a pulling guard, but using zone-read action (with the threat of a bubble screen) to freeze the defense. Charles hits the hole quickly and runs behind his lead blocker to pick up 14 yards on a simple inside play with deceptive action (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Thomas entered the NFL viewed as one of the most explosive playmakers in his draft class. The former Oregon star is a dynamic weapon with the ball in his hands; his natural kick-return skills make him difficult to bring down in the open field in any situation. Reid takes advantage of Thomas' talents by using him on a variety of jet sweeps designed to get him to the corner with a full head of steam. With Thomas adept at finding running lanes in traffic, the use of a horizontal running play allows him to stretch the defense laterally with his speed and use his remarkable stop-start quickness to attack creases when defenders overrun the play.
In the next play breakdown, the Chiefs are aligned in a dubs formation with Thomas positioned on the outside to the left. Prior to the snap, Thomas starts jet motion across the field. Quarterback Alex Smith takes the snap and immediately hands the ball to Thomas on the sweep. Thomas runs around the corner to pick up 8 yards on the quick-hitting play (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
FAKE JET SWEEP, INSIDE ZONE
The Chiefs' running game frequently uses misdirection to create big-play opportunities. With Thomas viewed as a home run threat on reverses and jet sweeps, the Chiefs have used jet motion to enhance a potent inside running game with Charles. Defenders are forced to respect the motion in the backfield, which creates seams in the middle as defenders overreact or pause with the sweep action. This provides Charles with enough room to get into the second level and take advantage of one-on-one situations in space.
In the play just below, the Chiefs are aligned in a dubs formation with Thomas positioned in the slot on the left. Prior to the snap, Thomas goes in motion across the field, simulating a jet sweep. Smith takes the snap with Thomas directly behind him and hands the ball to Charles heading to the left. The timing and jet-sweep action pull a couple of Seahawks defenders away from the box, leaving a crease for Charles in the middle. The running back gallops for a 28-yard gain (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Reid has taken advantage of Smith's athleticism and Charles' speed by incorporating various option plays into the game plan. The utilization of the option near the end zone exploits the blitz-heavy, man-coverage tactics frequently employed by defensive coordinators in the red zone. Additionally, the option provides the Chiefs with another opportunity to get the ball to an explosive playmaker on the edge.
In the following play, the Chiefs are aligned in a tight ace formation with Charles positioned at halfback. Smith snaps the ball and then spins into a reverse option play to the right. When the unblocked defender attacks Smith, the quarterback pitches the ball to Charles, who waltzes into the end zone untouched (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
The reverse/end around rarely produces big plays in the NFL -- due to the speed of defenders on the second level -- but savvy offensive coordinators still feature the trick play prominently in the game plan because it keeps defenders from aggressively flowing to the ball. Reid has always been a fan of the play, going back to his days in Philadelphia with DeSean Jackson as the feature runner; he has continued to use it in Kansas City with Thomas. Given the amount of attention Charles receives as one of the premier runners in the NFL, the selective use of Thomas on the end around adds another dimension to a Chiefs offense that is becoming more difficult to defend down the stretch.
In the next play, the Chiefs break the huddle in a dubs formation with Thomas aligned in the slot on the right. Prior to the snap, tight end Travis Kelce motions across the formation to create trips on the right. After the snap, Smith fakes the handoff to Charles heading right before handing the ball to Thomas on the end around to the left. Notice how Kelce works back across the formation to serve as the lead blocker on the play. With the defense pursuing hard in Charles' direction, Thomas picks up 7 yards on the play (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
2) Travis Kelce has emerged as the centerpiece of K.C.'s passing game.
The presence of an ultra-athletic tight end has become a vital ingredient for elite offenses in today's NFL. Wily offensive coordinators are using the tight end as the queen on the chessboard, placing him in various spots to create mismatches and dictate coverage on the perimeter. As a former NFL tight ends coach, Reid certainly understands the nuances of the position and how to maximize a talented playmaker in the middle of the field.
In Kansas City, Reid has a budding superstar in Kelce. The second-year pro is averaging 12.8 yards per catch, having notched eight receptions of 20-plus yards this season. Although he's the team's second-leading receiver (just behind Dwayne Bowe in catches and yards), Kelce is unquestionably the focal point of the passing game. The 6-foot-5, 260-pounder is frequently Smith's primary read, and his ability to win between the hashes helps the quarterback string together completions to keep the offense in manageable situations. Kelce's combination of size, athleticism and ball skills makes him a huge asset on critical downs, particularly in the red zone.
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film on the Chiefs' offense, I was impressed with the way Kelce has been featured in the play-action passing game. Reid routinely sends his young tight end on vertical routes off play action, which allows him to sneak past linebackers lured to the line of scrimmage. This creates explosive plays for the Chiefs on high-percentage passes.
In our final play depiction just below, the Chiefs are aligned in an ace formation with Kelce positioned on the left side of the line. Reid has called a play-action pass with a flood concept on the perimeter. Kelce will run a sail route designed to exploit the void in the Seahawks' three-deep zone. On the route, Kelce makes a hard fake to the post before breaking to the corner away from the linebackers. With the run fake drawing Seattle's linebackers closer to the line of a scrimmage, Kelce slips into the open area for an easy 23-yard gain (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
The Chiefs rank near the bottom of the NFL in passing yards, but the team's aerial approach perfectly complements a blue-collar running game. With Kelce striking fear in opponents as a playmaker in the middle of the field, the Chiefs have just enough balance to move the ball consistently on elite defenses.
3) Alex Smith is the perfect quarterback to run Reid's system.
Effective quarterbacks in a West Coast system have three core qualities: accuracy, judgment and athleticism. Smith checks the box in each area and is one of the best game managers in the NFL today.
Now, I know the term "game manager" elicits eye rolls in the world of fantasy football, but quarterbacks who win consistently in the NFL routinely do the little things needed to succeed on a weekly basis. From making the proper checks at the line of scrimmage to avoiding costly turnovers, Smith rarely puts his team in harm's way with his play in the pocket. He currently sports a 92.5 passer rating with an 11:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Those numbers don't jump off the stat sheet, but Smith is asked to play games in a conservative manner to give his team the best chance to win.
The veteran quarterback understands how to win games and his ego isn't tied to putting up big numbers as a passer. Smith has failed to top the 200-yard mark in the last three games, yet K.C. has won each of those games and continues to roll despite pedestrian numbers from the passing game. In fact, the Chiefs are 6-0 this season when Smith attempts fewer than 30 passes.
Still, let's not overlook Smith's impact on this offense. A big part of the Chiefs' success is tied to this QB's unique skills at the position. The 10th-year pro is an underrated athlete with sneaky speed, quickness and agility; he uses these qualities to extend plays in the pocket and pick up positive gains on impromptu scrambles. Additionally, Smith's movement skills allow him to adroitly execute some of the zone-read and option concepts that have become a staple of the team's running game.
As a thrower, Smith excels in the short/intermediate passing game. He consistently gets the ball out on time and is willing to take the checkdown when coverage takes away his primary read. Although he rarely pushes the ball down the field -- Smith has zero completions of 40-plus yards in 2014 -- his ability to move the chains is part of a winning formula that should make the Chiefs a tough out down the stretch.