Are the Chiefs becoming a big-play offense? With Kareem Hunt and Tyreek Hill they are
Two weeks into the season, the Chiefs keep creating long touchdowns. Can they keep it up?
For years, the Kansas City Chiefs have run one of the most conservative offensive schemes in the NFL. Andy Reid's timing-based, West Coast offense, as powered by Alex Smith and Jamaal Charles (and last year, Spencer Ware), did not often create big plays. Instead, the Chiefs were content to methodically attempt to move the ball downfield, rarely taking risks along the way. When your defense is as good as Kansas City's has been, you can play that style and still win plenty of games. Despite ranking just 23rd in yards gained and 12th in points scored, the Chiefs compiled a 43-21 record during Reid's first four seasons with the team, the fourth-best mark in the NFL.
How conservative have Reid's Chiefs been? Let's stipulate that a "big play" is one that gains 20 yards or more, which seems like an apt benchmark. During the last four seasons, the Chiefs ran 3,936 offensive plays, and according to Pro-Football-Reference, just 225 of those plays gained 20 yards or more. That rate of 5.72 percent ranked 24th in the NFL during that time -- comparable to decrepit offenses such as those of the 49ers and Jets, and south of even the Browns.
The first two games of the 2017 season, though, have seen a reversal of fortune. Led by rookie running back Kareem Hunt and sophomore wide receiver Tyreek Hill, the Chiefs have already created eight plays of 20 yards or more. That raw figure ranks tied for ninth in the NFL with four other teams. Against their total of 116 plays from scrimmage, the Chiefs' 6.90 percent big-play rate checks in eighth in the league.
Look at that rate again, though: 6.90 percent. And now take a look at the chart above, where the Packers ranked first in the NFL with a 6.73 percent big-play rate over the last four years. That's right. The conservative to a fault Chiefs are currently creating splash plays at a rate that would have led the league over the first four seasons of Andy Reid's tenure. The sample is small, of course, and there's always the chance that this is a mere fluke, but given the seeming abilities of Hunt and Hill, it also might not be.
For example, Hill last season created 12 plays of 20 yards or more (eight catches, four runs) while playing a limited role in Kansas City's offense. Though he gradually took on a larger and larger role, he was on the field for only 41.8 percent of the Chiefs' offensive snaps overall. And still, he had 12 big plays on just 451 snaps. Already this season, Hill's role has been expanded even more. He's been on the field for over 80 percent of the Chiefs' offensive snaps and has 14 offensive touches in two games. That puts him on pace for 112 touches this season, 27 more than he had a year ago. He's already got a 75-yard touchdown, and surely more big plays are on the way.
Meanwhile, Kareem Hunt also looks like a big play waiting to happen. Hunt set the all-time record for most total yards in a player's NFL debut, racking up 148 yards on the ground and 98 in the air. He scored three times, once on a 78-yard go-route from Smith, and twice in short yardage.
He followed up that performance by gaining 109 yards on 16 touches against the Eagles, including a 53-yard jaunt up the middle for a touchdown. In so doing, he became just the third player ever to start his career by scoring 50-plus yard touchdowns in consecutive weeks.
The presence of two home-run threats has done wonders for Smith, who looks far better throwing the ball downfield than he ever has in his career. Smith is still not going deep all that often (his seven pass attempts intended for receivers 20-plus yards downfield through two weeks account for 11.1 percent of his throws, only slightly higher than last year's rate of 9.4 percent), but his downfield throws have been much more productive. He's 5 of 7 for 257 yards and two scores on those attempts, compared to 15 of 46 for 521 yards, two touchdowns and two picks a year ago. Two weeks into the year, he's already matched his touchdown total and racked up half the yardage on deep passes that he did in 2016. It's quite a jump, even with most of that total coming on two plays in Week 1.
The relevant question, of course, is whether the Chiefs can keep this up. Smith isn't going to keep completing 71 percent of his downfield throws, but Hill should continue giving him opportunities deep down the field. Hunt isn't going to keep breaking 50-plus yard touchdowns every game, but the design of the offense and trickeration Andy Reid has built in should continue providing lanes for chunk gains on the ground and through the air. Add in a dose of tight end Travis Kelce, Smith's ability to gain yards with his legs when his protection breaks down, the ability of backup running back Charcandrick West to catch the ball out of the backfield, and more, and it's not hard to see the Chiefs being an offense that's not necessarily consistently explosive, but opportunistically so. And that would be a big step forward from where they've been in previous seasons.
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