Despite having the best offense in the NFL, the Chiefs continue to struggle inside the red zone.
The Kansas City Chiefs defeated the Denver Broncos on Sunday night 22-16, but it wasn’t a game you walked away feeling good about. The offense struggled to get into the end zone until late in the third quarter, ultimately settling for five field goals on the night. There were two touchdowns that didn’t count, one due to Tyreek Hill not knowing he caught the ball and the other negated by a penalty. On the defensive side, Denver was able to run the ball for 179 yards on the night.
Every team is going to have ugly games throughout a season. Looking at just this week, did you expect the New York Giants with Colt McCoy at the helm to win against the Seattle Seahawks? The Pittsburgh Steelers barely beat the Baltimore Ravens last week despite Baltimore being without Lamar Jackson and a long list of other starters. Even the best teams in the league have bad games, but if you win, it doesn’t matter at the end of the day.
Maybe, as Chiefs fans, we’ve become so accustomed to winning, putting up massive points, and blowing out teams. We are talking about a team that is 11-1 and right behind Pittsburgh for the top seed in the AFC playoffs, which just got closer following Pittsburgh’s loss to Washington on Monday. Even the first few weeks of the season, fans were getting nervous about this team when they were losing in games shortly removed from a Super Bowl victory in which they made comebacks in every single postseason game.
To be clear, we aren’t panicking about the Chiefs and what they can accomplish this season. We are simply pointing out flaws that need to be addressed as we get closer to the postseason. Struggles inside the red zone have been an issue in the last two seasons. While the Chiefs ranked 11th in red zone success rate in 2019, they only turned those visits into seven points 60 percent of the time.
During Mahomes’ MVP season in 2018, the Chiefs ranked second in the NFL with a success rate of 73 percent. To put things into perspective for 2020, Kansas City ranks 24th in the NFL for red zone success rate with 57.45 percent. The Chicago Bears rank 25th in the NFL with a success rate of 57.14 percent. One of the worst offenses in football right now is right behind arguably the best offense in football when they get inside the 20-yard line of their opponent’s territory.
When digging into the problems surrounding the red zone, several factors make up the issue. One of the biggest contributors is the offensive line. Like many other NFL teams, the Chiefs have dealt with a significant number of injuries across their line. Just about every member of the starting five from Week 1 has missed time or is done for the season.
The offense has been without their best offensive lineman, right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, since Week 7 due to a back injury. The interior group has been juggled around as players sustain injuries. Nick Allegretti stepped in once Kelechi Osemeli went down for the season. He’s had good moments but leaves plenty to be desired, especially in pass protection. Andrew Wylie moved back over to right guard this season and continues his struggles from 2019.
Comparing the talent along the offensive line from this season and 2018, there’s a sizeable difference. That was the last season that Mitch Morse was snapping the ball in Kansas City for one. Even with five games missed, he was a significant piece in what Andy Reid wanted to do with the offense. Laurent Duvernay-Tardif only played five games before ending his season, but Wylie stepped in and looked like a promising guard that year.
Given the current starting five offensive linemen, the Chiefs don’t have the pieces they need to run the offense Reid wants to play.
A roster built for playing in space
Think back to that 2018 season when Patrick Mahomes lit the world on fire. The offensive line had the athleticism to get out into space and block for the running game. Morse was consistently pulling outside or climbing to the second level off of combo blocks to open up running lanes for the running backs. For the first 11 weeks of the season, the Chiefs had Kareem Hunt in the backfield. Reid utilized Hunt in every aspect of the offense from running the ball, in the receiving game, and pass protection.
Compared to 2020, the Chiefs don’t have offensive linemen that can be reliable in the open field, but Reid also doesn’t seem to trust his running backs to be utilized in the passing game. Some of that can be attributed to Clyde Edwards-Helaire having a few drops when getting his opportunities. However, not only was Edwards-Helaire arguably the best receiving back coming out of college when the team took him at the end of the first round, but they also brought in Le’Veon Bell, who has seen minimal opportunities there as well.
For whatever reason, Reid has taken his two running backs that have the most to offer as a receiving weapon and replaced them with Darrell Williams on third downs. Bell has been targeted a total of ten times in six games. When the running backs do get a look in the passing game, it’s usually as a last-second dump off with defenders already there in the flat.
As far as the running game itself, the offensive line has been a significant problem. CEH and company have consistently been met in the backfield with defenders. When the Chiefs run outside zone concepts to get them out into space, offensive linemen fail to get to their targets. In short-yardage situations, you might as well forget it. Hoping for any push for the running backs to have a fighting chance is a lost cause at this point. That was clear when Reid elected to kick a field goal in the opening drive against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week from the one-yard line.
When it comes to the receiving weapons, everyone knows the nickname “Legion of Zoom.” Most of the offensive talent is known for its speed and ability to beat you over the top. When the field is condensed, there’s a lack of that real estate. The offense isn’t built around possession receivers that win consistently above the rim; instead they beat you in space.
Reid is known for his offensive creativity, and when he dials up those plays, it’s amazing to watch. However, sometimes you have to run simple concepts and allow your playmakers to win their matchups. The trick plays are fun when they work, like against the New England Patriots in Week 4 when the Chiefs performed two shovel passes for touchdowns on misdirection.
How about the time when Eric Fisher caught a touchdown pass against the Ravens? No one could forget the touchdown against the Carolina Panthers when the ball was snapped as Mahomes was in motion. Those plays are exciting and creative, but sometimes you have to dial back the “gimmick plays” and run a normal offense.
Teams haven’t fallen for many of those plays as of late. Kansas City continues to run misdirections and trick plays, but they aren’t working. Just because this offense is known for speed that can kill you if you take a false step doesn’t mean that’s the only way it can win. Despite his size, Hill is a fantastic contested-catch receiver. He also has the elite lateral agility to break ankles with his route running.
Travis Kelce is the best tight end in football who can win anywhere on the field, and with Sammy Watkins back, he gives Mahomes another great weapon over the middle. What’s wrong with running simple concepts like slants and corner routes in the red zone? All three of those weapons could do massive damage on a simple slant across the middle. Sometimes the misdirection and trick plays can be helpful, but don’t let it be the only way you move the football in that area of the field.
At the end of the day, there are several issues that make up one glaring problem. The offensive line has to do a better job of protecting Mahomes and providing the running backs a chance. Reid has to take a step back from all of the fancy play calls and allow his players to win their matchups in more than one way. Penalties taking points off of the board shows a lack of discipline.
The Chiefs are still an unquestionable Super Bowl contender despite a blatant issue inside the red zone. Ranking second in points per game behind only Green Bay and first in yards per game, the offense can win games. Finishing drives off that don’t get into the end zone from an explosive play would be the icing on the cake.
Teams will continue to allow the underneath plays until the red zone, where they tighten up and play more aggressively. Holding Kansas City to field goals is about the only way to beat them at this point. Now it’s time for the Chiefs to prove that they can adjust to yet another change and show that they are up for the task.