When it comes to winning the way the Chiefs did on Sunday against an extremely underrated Lions team, one that I didn’t expect to put up that kind of fight, there has to be a consistent presence on offense that isn’t the quarterback. Mahomes was the vocal leader we all have come to expect from him but on the field, he needed a safety net that he knew he could go to when he needed a play. By now you know I am talking about Travis Kelce. He didn’t blow everyone away on the stat sheet but amassing seven catches for 85 yards felt like a hell of a lot more in this game and he did it all through the most physical game of the season.
The Lions were more concerned with Kelce than any other Chiefs player and it showed with the number of hits at or near the line of scrimmage he was absorbing. He never complained to the officials, he didn’t get down about it, and he didn’t let it impact his effectiveness. He was finding holes in their zone, manipulating defenders in one on one situations, and putting moves on guys while being exhausted at the end of the game. Kelce had his best game of the season, not in terms of yards, but when the Chiefs needed him the most. This is not the same Kelce we saw a few years ago. Here’s a little reminder of the player he was and what he’s learned he doesn’t need anymore.
I have to admit, I loved this. I thought it was one of the best reactions to a bad call I have ever seen and to this day it still makes me crack up. My wife, on the other hand, was not a huge fan and still rolls her eyes at me when I laugh at it. But the fact remains, she was right, and I know she is. It’s just wasted effort and only serves to hurt the team when you lash out at the officials, as we saw with the 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. He is no longer that player on the field. He’s still going to have fun and celebrate with his teammates when they or he scores, or when anything good happens, but he has taken out the side of him that was costing the Chiefs penalties. He knows this team is special and the best way he can help is to be the best version of himself on the field, and he has been doing it all season.
Kelce currently holds the fifth spot for most receiving yards in the NFL with 369 through four games and he’s averaging nearly 92 yards per game. That goes to show you how important he has been for this offense and how consistent a player he has been for the Chiefs for years now. This is what Kelce is; the best tight end in the NFL on the best offense in the NFL, showing teams week in and week out why he has been the best and continues to be the best and against the Lions he did something that no one saw coming.
I am not gonna lie, I have never seen a “hook and ladder” play outside of the end of game antics with a team trying to score in desperation. This was not an act of desperation, but a brilliant decision that Kelce made on the fly. The Chiefs ran most of their routes on this play to the right of the formation, leaving a huge area to the left open. Mahomes is forced out of the pocket and both McCoy and Kelce flow to the open area of the field. Mahomes makes the throw to Kelce and at that moment, Kelce knew this was an opportunity to create a spark that the team needed. He knew the only player that could stop this play was about to tackle him so he lateraled the ball to McCoy and off he went.
This is a dangerous play that was not scripted by the offense, but Kelce took a calculated risk that paid off with a big play, one that the offense needed to get through this game. The Chiefs would go on to score at the end of this drive and Kelce was a huge reason why. For an even more in-depth analysis of this exact play go to Ryan Tracy’s RGR Football YouTube page here. He does a great job breaking down the ins and outs of this play and does great work in general.
Kelce’s football IQ is off the charts and the way he understands opposing defenses is under-appreciated when it comes to how he always finds ways to get open. One of the things I love about watching him play is during one-on-one situations. He is so good at understanding leverage and getting exactly what he wants out of man coverage.
This play is rather simple and isn’t going to go for a huge gain, but it’s a drive-continuing play that Kelce creates on his own. He releases to the inside, which gives the defender a false sense of where Kelce is going to go, then at the “top” of his route Kelce steps and looks inside like he is going to run a slant route. The defender bites on the fake and Kelce steps back outside and runs into the open space to his left waiting for the ball to get to him for a 16 yard gain.
Kelce put the defender in the spin cycle with his fake to the inside and forced him to turn all the way back around to try to pursue him. It’s subtle little things, like understanding leverage and getting down in coverage gaps, that make him so dangerous and effective as a weapon in this offense. Kelce was a catalyst on Sunday helping, the team with subtle plays like this one and not-so-subtle plays, like the lateral. He’s the best in the NFL and continues to get better, but even he can’t overcome a bad play call. I loved this play a few years ago because it was new and defenses didn’t expect it but now, they see it coming and it puts Kelce in a tough situation.
This play-action end-around screen broke into the Chiefs’ playbook in Alex Smith’s final season, if I recall correctly (if not please feel free to comment below and correct me), but it freed up Kelce multiple times and added more variation to the offense. But defenses have since noticed him, and in short-yardage situations like this Kelce is a defensive key. I’d love for them to try something a little different, maybe throwing it to Hardman? I’ve heard an argument against it, but I think Mahomes has time to pump to Kelce and then throw it to Hardman, which I think is a walk-in touchdown. A man of his short-area quickness and burst in space against a linebacker? I’m giving him a shot on this play.
I think going forward we will see more innovations with these type of plays, Reid is always working on formations and using speed in space. Robinson also had a great block on the outside that could have helped Hardman stretch this to the outside even further and into the end zone. I’m getting more comfortable with my scheme recognition, and while I was watching the game over again, I noticed something that could have helped the Chiefs’ receivers in this game and going forward against more man coverage style defenses.
The use of “stack” formations forced the Lions to play off-coverage when they didn’t want to, and Watkins was able to use that to get open downfield on this play. He’s running a simple slant route but he’s faster than Coleman and is able to beat him across his face to get to the open field first. Coleman played great in man coverage when he can get up inside and stay on the hip of a receiver but doesn’t have the speed to keep with Watkins in the open field.
For those of you that don’t know, a stack formation is when you have two receivers line up within a yard of each other, one on the line of scrimmage and one off the line. This forced the Lions to play one of the receivers in off-coverage because of movement in short yardage. You don’t want to trip over one another trying to keep up with your man. I counted 5 different plays that the Chiefs used stack formations and on all but one there was a receiver running open. The one that wasn’t had Robinson running to the end zone with the defender trailing him by a step, so at that point it’s a toss-up.
Now we’re going to talk about the most awkward part of the game on Sunday, the fumbles. The Chiefs had four fumbles and lost three of them. All three that were lost were punched out by Lions defenders, there was even a touchdown that should have been caught by Watkins that was punched out. The Lions had to have seen something on film to tell them to do it and it was extremely successful. On this play, Coleman baited Watkins into getting up off the ground to try for the first down. He knew that the ball would be less protected if Watkins tried to get off the ground and move forward a few yards. He punches the ball out from Watkins’s arm and it was the latest in a long day of turnovers for the Chiefs.
I know that from an objective observer’s standpoint this was a fun game to watch go back and forth in the third quarter, but for Lions fans and Chiefs fans alike, this was stressful. But, in my opinion, this game couldn’t have happened at a better time. The team hasn’t truly faced any adversity. The Raiders put ten on them early, but that game was never in doubt. This type of game happening early in the season without Hill or Damien Williams or Eric Fisher and on a day where the offense just looked “off” should help them going forward, and it taught them a few lessons, too.
Every team they face is going to give them their best shot, week in and week out, and it is important that they don’t take weeks off, because they could see a team come out like the Lions did and beat them this time. They also learned that they need to take care of the football every time they catch it or run it. The number of fumbles they had last Sunday could beat them on a day where the opposing team doesn’t turn the ball over. They have to be ready for anything, there are no easy weeks anymore. The Chiefs have a bullseye on their back and they should all be welcoming it. Getting the best shot from the teams you face is the only way to get better.
This was a great team win from the Chiefs, and I’m sure it taught them to not be complacent and to always give it their best. Having leaders in Mahomes and Kelce on this team is going to help make sure they never take a week off. Kelce’s growth as a leader on this team is invaluable and I expect him to have one of his best seasons ever. Sunday Night Football this week, I’m going to be at the game! If anyone else is going to be there let me know. Go Chiefs!