The Buffalo Bills and the Kansas City Chiefs will renew their rivalry Sunday afternoon, and the clash between these two AFC powerhouses will be settled in the red zone. The Chiefs’ red zone offense has the third-highest touchdown percentage (78% efficiency) this early NFL season. Kansas City has simply been magic in the most important area of the field. Look no further than their win against the Las Vegas Raiders on Monday Night Football, when unicorn tight end Travis Kelce caught four touchdowns in the red zone—and finished with seven catches for 25 yards.
Bills fans know Kelce well. In his last four games against Buffalo (the Chiefs are 3-1 in those contests), Kelce has accumulated 32 receptions for 336 yards and six touchdowns. He has, quite simply, been a player the Bills could not slow down. Kelce is especially deadly in the most condensed part of the field.
On this play, receivers Marquez Valdes-Scantling, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Kelce are to the left with quarterback Patrick Mahomes in the gun. At the snap, Valdes-Scantling picks the corner and leaves for his route as two defenders follow him. Smith-Schuster breaks right, and a corner follows him. This results in Kelce turning around wide open. The safety gets to Kelce too late, taking a poor angle and attempting a bad tackle as well, and he bounces off the safety into the end zone. The Bills are going to need a higher level of situational awareness when facing Kelce and the Chiefs.
Kansas City gets Kelce the ball in a variety of different ways. Kelce is lined up on the left pre-snap, and three receivers are lined up to the right (one of which is wide receiver Mecole Hardman). At the snap, Hardman cuts off the linebacker who’s supposed to have Kelce in coverage. We see the linebacker trip as he intersects with Hardman. Kelce keeps his balance and continues to run wide open to the right until Mahomes throws it to him. Kelce then runs up the field with a good angle until he reaches the end zone.
Playing against the Chiefs in the red zone means teams must be successful using pressure. Here the defense rushes four, and Kansas City blocks it perfectly. Mahomes has a clean pocket and finds Kelce wide open—having just beaten the linebacker on a crafty route running across the middle. Kelce turns up the field with no one able to make a clean hit on him before he reaches the end zone.
I found this play mind-boggling as it relates to the play on defense. If it’s 3rd & 2, who is Mahomes going to? Probably the best tight end in football, right? At the snap, Kelce crosses the face of the linebacker, who goes out to cover running back Jerick McKinnon. The linebacker could have given Kelce a quick jam to redirect him. Instead, Kelce gets a free release on third down, and ends up wide open heading for the first-down marker to extend the drive. In most red zone situations where the Chiefs need less than three yards for a first down, it makes zero sense to give Kelce a free release.
Here, Mahomes fakes a throw then tosses a shovel pass to the running back, with Kelce drawing the attention of multiple defenders in coverage. Defenses always have to be aware of this happening because Mahomes—due to his baseball background—utilizes the most unorthodox arm angles of any NFL quarterback, and head coach Andy Reid is here for all of it. Even when the tackle blocks down and the defensive end has a free path to the quarterback, it is imperative that teams know what the running back next to Mahomes is doing near the end zone. Left unaware, it’s possible the back goes right behind the defender for Mahomes to fake a throw and flip it underhand to the back. Edge rushers Von Miller and Greg Rousseau will need to be very aware of this situation.
Here we have Mahomes in the shotgun, with running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire to his left. At the snap, Edwards-Helaire comes out of the backfield with a ton of space between himself and the Colts linebacker assigned to him. Mahomes also has a clean pocket to step into his throw with no pressure whatsoever. All that space creates an easy throw for Mahomes to Edwards-Helaire right in stride.
The Chiefs will be tough to stop in the red zone, that much is certain. Mahomes, Kelce, and Reid work together to craft a lot of magic near the end zone. Kelce is a major reason why, and the entire defense needs to be aware of where he’s lined up at all times. Teams can’t relax at all, otherwise Mahomes will throw a shovel pass as the defensive end goes for him. It’s paramount for players to be fundamentally sound and patient, and to make Mahomes uncomfortable with pressure.