After the Kansas City Chiefs’ 41-10 drubbing of the Chicago Bears on Sunday, all anybody could talk about was tight end Travis Kelce — whether or not they were football fans.
Of course, Taylor Swift’s presence accounted for some of Kelce’s notoriety. But football fans recognized the superstar tight end had played his best game of the young season, leading the team in receptions (seven) and receiving yards (69) while scoring a red-zone touchdown that capped off seven straight possessions ending in scores.
Quarterback Patrick Mahomes also had his most productive game of the year — and it was no coincidence. Mahomes leaned on Kelce throughout the day, converting three third downs with throws to the All-Pro tight end.
Leading into the game, Mahomes admitted that zone coverage was disrupting Kansas City’s passing attack. Part of the reason was that Kelce was out with an injury in Week 1 — and then wasn’t back to 100% in Week 2. But in Week 3 against the Bears, Kelce and Mahomes’ connection fueled the efficient performance the team needed.
Settling into throwing windows
This season, imprecise routes by Chiefs’ receivers have sometimes caused incompletions — and at other times, have kept Mahomes from throwing the ball. On Sunday’s first offensive drive — a three-and-out — rookie wide receiver Rashee Rice simply slowed down at the top of his in-breaking route; as a result, he wasn’t at the spot where Mahomes threw the ball.
But starting with the second drive, Kelce put on a clinic, demonstrating how coverage can determine where routes should go.
For example: on this first-down, play-action pass, the Chiefs run Kelce on a wheel route that pairs with wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling’s curl route to put conflict on the outside cornerback covering that third of the field in a Cover 3 look. Depending on how hard he covers Valdes-Scantling, Kelce could hit a home run down the sideline on a long throw.
But Kelce feels the flat defender trailing him, so he slows down for an easy 24-yard completion. The linebacker over him at the line of scrimmage fails to properly gain depth — taking away an underthrown pass — so both quarterback and receiver take advantage of an opportunity for a more-likely completion.
On a third down later in the game, the Chiefs only need three yards. But Mahomes feels confident enough to throw downfield to Kelce — who is between zone defenders — for a 15-yard completion.
It’s because Kelce makes himself available — even though defenders are closing to him in a way that should take away his corner route. Against this Cover 3 look, Mahomes should be reading the outside cornerback to see whether he plays up on Valdes-Scantling’s out route, or gains depth to take away Kelce’s corner.
He does the latter — but Kelce cuts off his route before running into him. Mahomes sees it, and puts it the ball in a good spot for Kelce to secure the pass without being hit by the oncoming defender.
The throw-and-catch on Kelce’s third-quarter touchdown was very impressive; the ball just barely cleared a leaping linebacker’s hands. On Tuesday evening, the team released a mic’d up video that revealed more about the play.
This third-and-goal play is similar to Kelce’s earlier 15-yard gain. It’s a Smash concept, where one player runs a quick out and another runs a corner route to the same side, thereby attacking two levels of the defense. But Kelce doesn’t like what he sees, so he runs to the post — and Mahomes was on exactly the same page
As Kelce goes to the corner, he notices the safety outflanking him to the outside. That makes the corner route tougher to run, so Kelce turns to the post.
This is the sixth season in which Mahomes and Kelce have been connecting for touchdowns. In Week 2’s 17-9 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, they broke the franchise record for most touchdown passes between a quarterback and pass-catcher with 47, eclipsing a mark set by Len Dawson and Otis Taylor almost 50 years ago. Over time, the two have built (and strengthened) their chemistry together; it’s no surprise Mahomes had a feeling Kelce would adjust his route.
Kelce even admitted that the on-the-fly adjustment may have been unneccssary.
The bottom line
On Sunday, Kansas City’s passing offense did not look nearly as clunky as it did during the season’s two games — and Kelce’s return to full health was a huge part of that. He not only has Mahomes’ confidence and trust — allowing him to beat tight windows in zone coverage — he also opens opportunities for other receivers.
Week 3 reminded us (along with everyone in the NFL) of how unstoppable this duo can be. The next time a defense sells out to stop them, the Chiefs’ other pass-catchers will be prepared to step up — and continue to develop their trust with the quarterback.