The Power of Playcalling: A Patriots Preview

Believe it or not, we may, in fact, have a football season on our hands. After a dreadful opening game against the Tennessee Titans at Arrowhead, the Kansas City Chiefs have now established a little something I like to call momentum

Pardon my crimson-colored glasses for a moment and embrace the last six quarters of FUN:

  • 16 points allowed by the Chiefs defense
  • Only one TD allowed, coming on a 14-yard drive
  • North of 70% time of possession
  • Outscoring our opponents 41-18

 

Any fool can see that Andy Reid has this team playing a new brand of football – not just from the first six quarters of the 2014 season, but maybe a different style altogether.

During the second half against Denver, the Chiefs had their first 10-minute drive in something like 16* years. They were so effective at ball control that the Broncos only had TWO possessions in the final 30 minutes of play. Somehow Andy Reid pulled this off without his best player (Jamaal Charles) and two starting linemen (Don Wayne Stephenson and Jeff Allen).

Feel free to fact-check me on this… I couldn’t manage to find the stat on the fly, but I remember it being a remarkable stretch of time.

Unfortunately, all the positive signs against Denver didn’t result in a win. In fact, the Chiefs ran 44 second-half plays and managed just seven points. Clearly there was still work to be done.

The conversation leading-up to last week’s game against Miami was of moral victories and whether or not the Chiefs could build off of their performance in the second half of the Broncos game… then Andy Reid proceeded to call 40 handoffs in South Beach. FORTY.

Chiefs' Reid argues a call with an official during their NFL football game with the Eagles in Philadelphia

I’d be willing to bet that Big Red has coached more back-to-back games with less than 40 combined rushing attempts than he has individual games with 40+. What can you say? The man loves to pass.

So now the question becomes two-fold: first, will Andy Reid stick to this new-look offense and second, is a run-first approach sustainable for the Chiefs? The short answer is “don’t count on it.”

One statistic that jumps off the page is the difference in rushing volume between starter Jamaal Charles and backup Knile Davis. Andy Reid has coached 20 games in KC and he’s been without his star running back just three times. In games when Davis was the primary back, he’s received 22, 27 and 32 carries. Charles on the other hand, has just four games with 20 carries or more and has not eclipsed 22 carries in a game under head coach Andy Reid.

In fairness, Jamaal is a more of a “complete” weapon so tracking his touches may paint a different picture… except… no, nevermind. Knile Davis’ 32 rushing attempts last Sunday were five more offensive touches than Jamaal has received in any game during Reid’s tenure.

Numbers would suggest that merely having Charles in the lineup will result in more passes, which is kind of crazy when you think about it.

As far as sustainability is concerned, I absolutely think the Chiefs are capable of turning back the clock on the rest of the league. The NFL is a flat circle. Over the last decade and a half(ish), we’ve seen defensive trends go from the Tampa-Two to 4-3 to 3-4, back to 4-3 and now most teams are playing nickel as their base package. It’s the same merry-go-round on the other side of the ball. Hell, Anthony Sherman is one of… what – five or ten fullbacks still in the league?

Regardless, running the football will never actually go “out of style” at this level. The best teams are able to limit possessions and control the clock, especially against high-powered offenses like the division-rival Broncos.

If you look a little deeper, the real trend right now is all about matchups. The days of stubbornly imposing your will regardless of outcome are (hopefully) extinct. Offensive playbooks are focused on forcing defenders to make a decision and reacting accordingly.

See: the read-option.

Here’s my plan: while most of the NFL is trying to spread teams out (thus shifting their focus that way defensively), why not buck the trend by utilizing more two and three tight-end sets and bring defenses out of their comfort zone? This instantly becomes an issue for a lot of teams because they can’t rely on the systems they’re using on a weekly basis.

Plus, ladies – the more we see two-tight formations, the more we see Travis Kelce. //whistles //

There’s no certainty that Big Red will continue to evolve this offense into heavier sets, thereby eliminating playing time for the Chiefs lackluster receiving corps. What should be somewhat obvious by now though is that Kansas City can get more use out of the talent they have at Tight End and Running Back than they seem to be able to from their receivers… at least in the immediate term.

Offenses typically develop/improve/transform over the course of an NFL season, especially when they’re still in the preliminary stages of installing a new system. Keep in mind, Monday night will be just the 20th regular season contest for the Chiefs under Andy Reid’s guidance.

alex handoffMy advice – not that they’re asking for it – would be to stick with what’s working. The commitment to running the football, thereby “hiding” quarterback Alex Smith as often as possible, well… it’s working. Clearly Alex isn’t expected to carry this team on his back, nor should he be. All this offense requires of him is to distribute the football to the skill position players and rise to the occasion when called upon.

 

The incarnation of that philosophy: Alex Smith has completed 45 passes in the last two weeks, with 32 of those resulting in a first down.

Coach Reid has also done a great job mixing-up his playcalling out of 12*, 13* and 22* personnel the last couple weeks. Against Miami, he was damn near 50/50 run and pass out each of those respective formations. At this stage of evolution for the NFL, three-tight sets are so rare that it almost always signals a running play – same if you see a fullback in the game.

*** For future reference, this format for personnel groupings refers to running backs and receivers. The first digit is for RB’s and the second is for TE’s, meaning 10 personnel is one RB, no TE and four WRs while 12 personnel would mean one RB, two TE’s and two WR’s… and so on and so forth.

Andy’s ability (or willingness… or cognizance) to keep defenses guessing in these traditionally run-heavy formations is absolutely paramount. The cardinal sin in the NFL is predictability.

Here’s a little context: New England’s offense lines-up in 11 personnel (3WR) on nearly half their offensive plays and have been throwing the ball close to 75% of the time in that formation. While that doesn’t mean Bob Sutton should simply ignore the possibility that the Patriots could call a running play out of three-wide, it certainly gives him a good idea of what they plan to do.

Which brings us to Monday night’s game at Arrowhead.

A quick glance at the schedule had most Chiefs fans worried about this week four matchup with the most indomitable franchise of the last decade… and rightfully so, as Bill Belichick has led New England to a 160-51 record since 2001.

New England’s defense is rated fairly high in most statistical categories thus far in 2014 but that’s more than a little misleading. Four of their league-leading six interceptions came in week two against Matt Cassel, for instance. They also sacked him six times that day but have registered just one more in their other two contests combined.

Both the Patriots and Chiefs were extremely flat in week one, losing by a combined 29 points. Since then, New England has dispatched of the Vikings (fresh-off the Adrian Peterson scandal) and the lowly Raiders but the latter of those two games was in question until the very end, with New England eeking-out a victory at home 16-9.

It’s that week one loss at Miami that Kansas City will look to in order to find the correct formula for taking down the Patriots. After all, the halftime score was 20-10 New England but Miami was willing to stick to their gameplan in the second half and was able to outscore Brady & Co 23-0 primarily through the running game.

That’s rather fortunate for the Chiefs, as they don’t have to change much of anything offensively from their last six quarters in order to replicate the Dolphins’ domination. In their week one matchup, Miami ran the ball 38 times (for 191 yards) and attempted 32 passes. Josh McDaniels on the other hand – he asked Tom Brady to attempt 56 (!!!) passes in that game.

brady-fumbleThe cumulative Pro Football Focus pass blocking grade for New England’s starting offensive line is -22.0, which is more than twice as bad as the Chiefs -10.0 rating. Both teams look to be struggling across the board up front but its especially true on the interior, where the likes of Dontari Poe and Vince Wilfork might steal the show against sub-par competition. I don’t think you’re ready for this jelly.

Listen: I’ll tell you that PFF is a wholly imperfect science, but a valuable tool nonetheless. If we’re to take their numbers as gospel, however… let’s just say the Quarterbacks are in for a loooonnnnnggggg evening at Arrowhead.

On paper, these teams look surprisingly even. The strength of New England’s defense is their secondary, which only solidifies my argument for the Chiefs to avoid volume passing. The stats on Tom Brady and the Patriots offense are remarkably underwhelming – they lack explosive plays in the passing game, Rob is no longer Gronk-worthy and they still haven’t figured-out how to use the combination of Ridley and Vereen effectively.

Neither team is especially healthy, but Kansas City looks to be in far worse shape than most teams at this stage in regard to injuries. Call it blasphemous if you like, but I’m crossing my fingers that Jamaal Charles is inactive once again this week. The Chiefs have shown an ability to punish their opponent in the run game when Knile Davis is the primary back and that’s exactly what they need to do in order to beat New England on Monday night.

Are you ready for some football? Wear the all-red’s, coach. See ya’ll at Arrowhead.

 

Chiefs 24 – Patriots 16 – Ryan 0 (voice left for Tuesday’s Nick at Night podcast)

One thought on “The Power of Playcalling: A Patriots Preview

  1. Pingback: Football Savages / Week 4 Staff Picks: More Like Magic Travis, imo. | Football Savages

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