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Film room: How the Chiefs use Travis Kelce, and what it means for the Patriots

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A look at how Andy Reid employs the tight end.

NFL: International Series- Kansas City Chiefs at Los Angeles Chargers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

By this point in his legendary career, we know a few things about Bill Belichick.

We know that as a defensive game-planner, he wants to “take away what you do best.” He wants to make the opponent “fight with one arm behind their back.” Odds are you will hear one or both of those cliches this Sunday afternoon when the New England Patriots host the Kansas City Chiefs.

We also know that Belichick is a student of Sun Tzu, given some of the promotions for the upcoming NFL100 special from the NFL Network. As Belichick is filmed saying:

You can go all the way back to a few hundred years B.C., Sun Tzu, ‘The Art of War.’ Attack weaknesses, utilize strengths and figure out what the strengths are on your team. There are some things you have to protect. Find the weaknesses of your opponent and attack. You can’t win a war by digging a hole. You gotta attack. You have to figure out where you want to attack, how you want to attack and that changes week to week and game to game.

We also knows that he fears tight ends. That was exemplified this week when in comments to the media, Belichick heaped praise on Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce. It was also exemplified over a year ago, when in their regular season meeting Belichick focused a ton of attention in #87’s direction. Using some combination coverages, some bracket coverages and often denying him a free release off the line of scrimmage — even when aligned well outside the box — Belichick and the Patriots were able to hold Kelce out of the end zone back in Week 6 last season.

That challenge is renewed this week when the Chiefs visit Gillette Stadium.

Belichick said of Kelce this week “[h]e’s good at everything. He’s big. He’s fast. He’s good after the catch. He does a really good job of gaining leverage on defenders. He also creates space for other players as well. He’s a very smart player. He’s a hard guy to tackle when he gets the ball.”

Furthermore, he is a tight end in name only. “Call Kelce whatever you want, he’s one of the best receivers in the league.” The TE has the route tree to back that statement up. “(His route tree) is probably bigger than anyone in the league,” Belichick said to the media. “He’s got every tight end route, every receiver route. There’s not a route he doesn’t run. He does everything but run routes out of the backfield. He probably does some of that. Maybe they’re saving that.”

Numbers back this up too. According to Pro Football Focus’s charting data, Kelce has been targeted 12 times this season on throws of 20+ yards, tied with Baltimore Ravens tight end Mark Andrews for the most among TEs this season. On those 12 targets? Kelce has eight receptions for 274 yards and three touchdowns. Only six wide receivers in the league have more touchdowns on throws of 20 yards or more.

Of course Andy Reid is no fool. He knows that among the many weapons at his disposal, including Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman, Kelce poses a unique challenge. That is why Reid often uses Kelce on Y-Iso alignments, forcing the defense to make a difficult choice.

(Something the Patriots would often do with Rob Gronkowski, but that is a discussion for another time).

Take this third down conversion by the Chiefs from last week. Facing 3rd and 10 against the Oakland Raiders, they line up with Patrick Mahomes (#15) in the shotgun and they employ a bunch look to the right, with Kelce isolated on the left:

Kansas City runs a sail concept here to the bunch side of the formation, while Kelce runs a deep curl. Oakland responds with a Cover 1 Robber look:

One of the safeties rotates down into the middle of the field to take away in-breaking routes, such as Kelce’s curl route which drifts towards the middle of the field. That leaves the Raiders exposed in man coverage situations along the boundary, and Hill (#10) is able to spin his defender as he breaks to the outside on a deep out pattern:

Mahomes hits the speedy wideout in stride, and the Chiefs have a first down.

This play highlights the difficulties facing this offense, which get magnified when the Chiefs use this formation. By putting Kelce isolated to one side of the formation, the defense needs to declare pre-snap their intentions. Do they play zone coverage with a cornerback over him? Man coverage with a safety? Man coverage with a cornerback, which either forces you to play man coverage with a safety elsewhere, some kind of combination coverage or go light with extra defensive backs in the game, exposing you to the run game.

You probably do not want to spot drop into straight zone coverage against this look, as the Los Angeles Chargers tried on this play from Week 11:

The defense spot drops into a basic Cover 2 scheme on this play, and it is like taking candy from a baby. The Chiefs run a Flat-7 Smash concept, and Kelce is wide open for the touchdown.

In their regular season meeting last year, the Patriots tried a few different things against Kelce and managed to have some success limiting his production. He had five catches for 61 yards and was held out of the end zone, and needed nine targets to produce those numbers. In addition, both of Mahomes’ interceptions came on passes thrown in his direction, such as this end zone pick:

If you notice on this play, Dont’a Hightower (#54) aligns on Kelce who is detached from the tackle and chips him on the TE’s release. Then, the Patriots bracket Kelce with Patrick Chung (#23) using outside leverage and Duron Harmon (#21) playing him to the inside. Mahomes is flushed from the pocket (in part by Hightower) and still looks for his tight end, and the pass is intercepted.

The extra attention does, however, come at a cost. On Hill’s stunning 75-yard touchdown with just over three minutes remaining, Kelce is virtually triple covered, and Harmon is left alone with the speedy Hill:

Devin McCourty (#32) has inside leverage against Kelce while his twin brother Jason (#30) is playing him to the outside. Kelce does not see the football, but the Chiefs see the end zone.

Returning to this season, often Reid will pair Kelce’s Y-Iso alignment and route with a multi-level passing concept to the other side of the formation. On this short completion to Hill against the Raiders, Kelce runs a corner route out of an isolated alignment, while the Chiefs have a “Peel” (post/wheel) concept to the outside, and Hill working underneath against a linebacker in space:

The secondary takes care of the peel combination, as well as Kelce on his vertical route, but that leaves Hill working underneath against a pair of linebackers. While this just goes for a six-yard gain, something tells me that Reid will take that every time, given the potential for Hill to get more with just one missed tackle.

Here is just one more example of this philosophy. On this second quarter throw to Kelce on a quick out pattern, Mahomes also has a levels concept working to the strength of the formation, His tight end is open quickly out of his isolated alignment, but had Kelce been covered Mahomes could have worked back to the concept with three receivers to choose from:

Kelce pulls in this throw, but Mahomes also had Sammy Watkins (#14) open on the backside of this play on his dig route.

It goes without saying, the Patriots’ defense will have their hands full on Sunday. Perhaps Reid is also a student of Sun Tzu, and he knows that Kelce and their Y-Iso alignments are a way to play to their strengths as an offense. More than anything else, these formations force a defense to make some difficult choices and decisions. The decisions the Patriots make — and the execution of those responses — will go a long way towards deciding Sunday’s contest.