Part 27 of my 32-part series breaking down every team’s performance in 2021. Check out part 26 here: Denver Broncos. Part 28 now available: Las Vegas Raiders.
|Eff. Rating||Adj. Rating||Rank|
|Pass EPA||Rush EPA||Adj. Pass Rate|
The Chiefs once again boasted the best offense in the NFL despite a turbulent season. Early on they looked unstoppable moving up and down the field, but weren’t getting credit because of some very fluky turnovers and a defense that struggled to stop anybody. They lost to the Ravens and Chargers In back-to-back weeks as a direct result. But starting in Week 7 against the Titans, this offense started legitimately struggling for a stretch of 5-8 games. They eventually adapted and turned it around down the stretch, outside of a crucial offensive no-show in the second half of the AFC Championship game against the Bengals.
The struggles were new for the Chiefs. Opposing defenses devoted everything to taking away the deep ball. Teams rolled out two-high safety shells and flooded coverage, particularly shadowing Tyreek Hill deep. Linebackers did not bite on play action and basically ignored the Chiefs’ run game. The result was a new style of offense in which Mahomes threw mostly shallow passes (9th-lowest ADOT) to create yards after the catch (3rd-highest yards after the catch per completion). All told, the Chiefs finished dead last in the percentage of total passing yards gained through the air (as opposed to after the catch).
Mahomes was not as comfortable in this style of offense, especially at first. He had grown accustomed to being able to make big plays happen in the passing game, and knew he had talent and elite weapons. The most effective way to coax defenses out of these looks is to run into these defenses successfully, but Mahomes and Reid knew that running the ball when you have Mahomes at quarterback is not ideal. And when they did run, the running backs were not great. Defenses let the Chiefs’ running backs pick up the 2nd-most yards per carry before contact in the NFL, but those same backs had the fewest yards after contact. All the rushing yards were created by the line and the scheme (and defenses playing in coverage). So opposing defenses never had to come back down and play the line of scrimmage.
But the Chiefs figured it out. Andy Reid, Eric Bieniemy, and Patrick Mahomes worked on the offense and adapted on the fly. They finished 1st in passing success rate, much like the Packers did in 2020. This means they took what the defense gave them. Mahomes is the best in the business at avoiding sacks and making plays in negative situations. With an improved offensive line, they didn’t really have a weakness. They led the leage in converstion rate on 3rd and 4th down because Mahomes plays his best when his back is against the wall. They did all this while facing – by far – the most difficult schedule of opposing defense in the NFL.
Tyreek Hill’s departure changes this offense a bit. But I think the Chiefs knew what they were doing when they traded him. The truth is, defenses have adjusted to Hill and essentially taken away the explosive elements of his game. In four years, his average depth of target has decreased from 14.8 to 12.9 to 12.9 to 10.4 yards in 2021. His yards after catch per completion has decreased from 6.1 to 5.0 to 4.7 to 4.0 yards in 2021. Yet despite these trends, the number of first downs Hill picked up in those years was 66, 57, 39 and then 75 in 2021. By the end of the season he had essentially become a possession receiver. He’s a great player, but the Chiefs had already lost the most dangerous elements of his game and already had to adapt.
This is why I think the Chiefs offense will barely miss a beat. They will continue to adapt with the new weapons they have. Elite quarterbacks thrive regardless of specific weapons. Mahomes has played 8 games in his career with Hill injured for all or most of the game. In those games, he has averaged 341 yards passing with 17 touchdowns and 1 interception. The Chiefs are 7-1 in those games with an average margin of victory of 10.3 points. It’s a small sample size, but it backs up my point: this offense should be just fine.
They also should be able to run the ball more effectively. Whether Edwards-Helaire bounces back after a tough season or Ronald Jones capitalized on the soft fronts, I expect the Chiefs to find a way to exploit defenses that refuse to play the run. It could be a bumpy road, but I think they figure it out. With a strong offensive line, the best quarterback in the league, and a deep stable of wide receivers who can do different things, it could even be better. Defenses may not know who to key onto (other than Kelce). Expectations are appropriately tempered but I see no reason to think the offense will stumble, even without Hill.
|Eff. Rating||Adj. Rating||Rank|
|Pass EPA||Rush EPA||Blitz Rate||Pressure Rate|
If you’re looking for reasons to doubt the Chiefs, look no further than the defense. In 2021 they were inconsistent at best. Early on they were terrible, in part because Tyrann Mathieu was out and Chris Jones was playing out of position. It looked like a total disaster, especially against opposing ground games. But they turned it around on defense as well, thanks to Spagnuolo making the right adjustments and the timely acquisition of Melvin Ingram to shore up some strength in the middle.
This defense was all about dialing up pressure and forcing turnovers. They were awful on a per-play basis, allowing the 2nd-highest yards per carry to opposing running backs and the 6th-highest net yards per pass to opposing quarterbacks. They saved themselves (somewhat) with the 4th-highest turnover creation rate. In other words, they consistently gave up yards to methodical offenses but captitalized against mistake-prone teams. This approach did not work out very well against run-heavy teams, as shown in Chart A, which shows the Chiefs’ Adj. Eff. Rating on defense ranking each opponent by its share of total yards gained on the ground (versus through the air):
They basically excelled against really bad quarterbacks. When you are confident your offense can create and maintain a lead, this is good structure. Opposing teams will often be playing from behind and obvious passing situations create opportunities for turnovers. This created some synergy in games where things were clicking. But many of the AFC contenders have strong ground games and take care of the ball, which created issues.
The off-season has been rough. The Chiefs lost Charvarius Ward, their best cover corner, Tyrann Mathieu, a talented player and vocal leader, and Melvin Ingram, the part-time player that sparked their defensive resurgence last year. There’s a chance this defense really struggles, especially early. They did draft two first-round rookies to plug gaps at edge and cornerback, but it’s a lot to ask for them to immediately be impact players. Spagnuolo has shown time and again that he can make things work, but it might take some time for all the pieces to fit.
When to bet on the Chiefs: For years the Chiefs have struggled to consistently cover big spreads, but they are still an excellent team that knows how to win. As underdogs or with a small spread, just trust them. The look-ahead lines have the Chiefs in tight matches (3 points or less) in 11 games this season. Expect more spread wins than spread losses in those games if those spreads don’t get wider.
When to fade the Chiefs: The Chiefs are vulnerable to teams that can bully them on the ground and keep the offense off the field. Be particularly wary if the opposing defense can also get pressure without blitzing, because that’s necessary to stop Mahomes.
Evaluating the offseason so far: The loss of Tyreek Hill is the headline, but with Juju Smith-Schuster, Marques Valdes-Scantling, and Skyy Moore, I think they’ll get the job done. However, it remains to be seen whether the rookie draft picks on defense can make up for the substantial losses on that side of the ball.
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