How the Chiefs offense contained Khalil Mack, Chargers pass rush

Oct 12, 2023; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid reacts to a call
Oct 12, 2023; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid reacts to a call / Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
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The Kansas City Chiefs easily handled business this past Sunday, but fans should know any AFC West matchup is no cakewalk. The Los Angeles Chargers entered Arrowhead Stadium with a losing record but with some key areas on which to hang their hats. One such area was the pass rush.

The Chargers came to Kansas City with five different players recording at least 10 pressures through Week 6. With Joey Bosa on one side and Khalil Mack on the other, it is never wise to sleep on the Chargers' pass rush. Mack had a 6-sack performance against the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 5, then another in Week 6. He came in with the hot hand off the edge, with his running mate Bosa awaiting a dominant performance this season.

The Chargers defense left Arrowhead with Mack stifled and Bosa still looking for that performance. Linebacker Kenneth Murray did log a sack on Patrick Mahomes late in the third quarter, but that was the lone sack of the day. In fact, it is the fourth game in a row where the Chargers have only sacked Mahomes once, dating back to the 2021 season.

The Chiefs' offensive line is very good this season, but such a lengthy performance has to have a reason behind it. Protecting Mahomes from himself and pass rushers is a high priority for the Chiefs coaching staff. How did they accomplish that goal this past Sunday against the Chargers?

1.) The offensive line was more physical

This feels like a cop-out, but it is true. The Chargers defensive line had their moments, but Bosa eating dirt on this touchdown pass is just a perfect synopsis.

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Physicality overpowers finesse in many areas, and the NFL is no different. The Chiefs' offensive linemen did not win every single matchup, but they certainly won the majority of them.

Mecole Hardman drew some criticism for his decisions in the punt return game on Sunday. One such decision put the Chiefs offense on their own four-yard line with less than three minutes to go in the second quarter. Two-minute drives are hard enough, but starting with 96 yards to go is a big task.

The Chiefs made it look easy, capping off that 96-yard drive with a Travis Kelce touchdown with 21 seconds to go. That drive started off with a big 37-yard catch by Rashee Rice, which solid blocking up front made possible.

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The situation likely called for a blitz, but the Chargers bring four, and every man is able to handle their assignment soundly. Mahomes has a very clean pocket three yards deep in his own end zone. The Chiefs being physical in each of their matchups allows the play to develop and Kansas City to escape the shadow of their own goalpost.

2.) Using Jerick McKinnon, Noah Gray to delay extra pressure

Veteran running back Jerick McKinnon's pass blocking was a massive asset to the Chiefs offense in 2022. The 31-year-old may not be a top-rushing threat, but his ability to stock up on a defender and willingness to take a hit keep Mahomes clean and are another chess piece for Andy Reid to deploy.

This season, fans will see McKinnon line up less parralled with Mahomes and closer to the line of scrimmage. This is a strange adjustment at first. It not only screams pass to the opposing defense but could hinder McKinnon from blocking whichever defender runs free. That unorthodox change did not hurt the Chiefs' offense Sunday but rather helped McKinnon provide solid blocking up front.

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The play resulted in the lone incompletion thrown Kelce's way Sunday and saw Mahomes escape the pocket before the throw. But the line adjusts to an overloaded defensive front and holds them off long enough for Mahomes to move out.

Where the Chiefs put McKinnon on that play is also telling. Taylor will swing wide after his kickstep, leaving a sizable gap between him and Trey Smith. He is a very good run blocker, but Smith is not known for his pass-blocking chops. Putting McKinnon behind Smith's outside shoulder addresses that gap but also allows Smith to help inside instead.

McKinnon was one of two non-offensive linemen who stood out as a scheme piece against the Chargers pass rush. Noah Gray was all over the field in Sunday's game. He recorded his third straight game where he played in at least 50% of Kansas City's offensive snaps. The third-year player is seeing a bigger role in Reid's offense, and that is not limited to him catching passes.

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The Chiefs did not use this look often, but it was effective when they did. Gray knocks Mack off his path to the tackle before running a short hitch route. Gray is not the primary target in this play, and that flexibility allows for this two-part double team. On that play, Mack was knocked so far off his path that Mahomes had thrown the ball before Taylor touched Mack.

Using these looks should absolutely be situationally based and used sparingly, but both were effective in the pass-blocking game. The Gray play is a great way to utilize Kansas City's 12 and 13 personnel as well. It allows them to get the same number of pass catchers past the line of scrimmage, but remove one pass rusher from the equation.

3.) Play calling, play calling, play calling

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The Chargers defense started getting more desperate later in the game. The unit's blitz rate picked up in the fourth quarter as Kansas City held a 24-17 lead. Reid took advantage of this after Hardman's 50-yard punt return gave the Chiefs excellent field position. The Chiefs kept dialing up short passes, including a key third-down conversion on a Hardman drag route.

The Chargers took a timeout after the new set of downs. Kansas City had run on first down each time that drive, but Los Angeles' blitz looks more like they expected a pass. Well, Kansas City did pass but left Pacheco and Smith downfield with one man to beat. Smith dispatched the defender easily, and Pacheco waltzed into the endzone, putting Kansas City up by two scores.

That was the final nail in the Chargers' coffin on Sunday and came simply from them being outcoached. Reid dialed up short screens, such as Rice's hit-stick screen and McKinnon's negated touchdown, at precisely the right time. It could be scouting, it could be a show, it could be any number of things. But these plays completely took the Chargers pass rush out of the equation. These short screens were a big part of Kansas City's offense on Sunday and must have been deflating for Mack, Bosa, and company.

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