The Chiefs were having no trouble with anything the Titans Defense threw their way in the first half on Saturday. Maybe the biggest reason for that was Alex Smith. Smith consistently made the right reads and the right throws to beat the coverage. He hung in the pocket, calmly scanned the field, moved defenders, and made sharp throws at the intermediate levels, which is a requirement in the playoffs. Smith led the Chiefs to a 21-3 lead at the half, and the game looked like it would get out of hand quickly. Unfortunately for Kansas City, they did not score again. So what happened? Was it the absence of Travis Kelce in the 2nd half? Was it Kareem Hunt not getting enough touches? Was it questionable play-calling? Perhaps it was a little bit of everything.
The Chiefs were still able to move the ball through the air without their play-making tight end, as evidenced by their touchdown drive before the end of the half after Kelce went down with a concussion. It’s not like they didn’t miss their injured tight end, though. A talent like Kelce gives the Chiefs options and puts significant strain on a defense, as shown on the play below. Here, Kelce was aligned to the left with safety Kevin Byard ready to take him 1-on-1. This would be man-to-man coverage, and Byard on Kelce was Tennessee’s preferred matchup.
The Chiefs sent tight end Demetrius Harris in motion from the other side of the formation. He would end up outside of Kelce.
The Titans reacted to this by bumping Byard outside to take Harris.
With two tight ends to the same side of the field, Tennessee likely wanted to have Byard, a safety, take the outside tight end, and have the inside defender, a linebacker, take the inside tight end. This left Kelce in 1-on-1 coverage versus linebacker Avery Williamson.
There is more than a good chance that the Titans have a tendency to react to this formation in exactly this fashion, and Andy Reid likely picked up on it (something the Patriots will also likely be very aware of next week – hello Gronk).
The mismatch in Kansas City’s favor is evident here.
The result was an easy touchdown.
Kelce’s absence in the 2nd half meant that Andy Reid had fewer ways to attack Dick LeBeau and the Titans’ defense. It also meant that the Titans had fewer dynamic weapons and mismatches to worry about. Any 2 tight-end sets or play designs, as shown above, would not yield such a distinct advantage for Kansas City.
Additionally, Tennessee was able to devote more attention to Tyreek Hill. They provided safety help to his side in multiple key moments throughout the 2nd half, as shown below. This was the first play of the 2nd half.
This was a 3rd-and-13 in the 3rd quarter.
This was a 3rd-and-9 on the Chiefs’ final drive of the game.
This was their next play – 4th and 9.
You can see that no matter where Hill aligned, Tennessee was ready to take him out of the play.
Even with Kelce sidelined and Hill taken away by the defense, the biggest reason for Kanas City’s offensive ineptitude in the 2nd half was probably their inability to convert when they had the opportunity.
On their first drive of the 2nd half, after Tennessee cut the lead to 21-10, the Chiefs faced a 3rd-and-1. Andy Reid, for some reason, dialed up a speed-option play out of a run-heavy formation. The Titans were all over it. Still, the Chiefs immediately got the ball back at Tennessee’s 28-yard line after a muffed punt on the next play. Kareem hunt lost a yard on 1st down, Tyreek Hill lost 2 on a swing pass, and Alex Smith decided to scramble immediately on 3rd-and-13 when he had a receiver open in the middle of the field. Had Smith stayed in pocket and made this throw, it at least would have set up an easier field goal try, if not converted the 3rd down. The result was a missed 48-yard field goal.
The next time the Chiefs had the ball, their lead was down to 21-16. KC faced a 3rd-and-2 near midfield. Alex Smith hit Orson Charles with a perfect pass on a quick slant that should have been a first down. Instead, Charles dropped the pass, and the Chiefs punted the ball away. Yes, Travis Kelce likely makes that play.
On KC’s final drive, the Chiefs faced a 4th-and-9. This was the game and Kansas City’s season. This was where the coach pulls out his best possible play, perhaps the one he keeps in his back pocket for dire situations. And maybe that’s exactly how Andy Reid viewed his play-call, one that sent 3 receivers on verticals versus 2-man coverage, with two additional receivers sitting in the flats. Not one player was anywhere near the first down marker… Not exactly a high-percentage possibility for a conversion on your biggest play of the season.
Many have argued that Andy Reid didn’t give Kareem Hunt, the NFL’s 2017 rushing leader, enough carries to put the game away. He only ran the ball 5 times in the 2nd half despite coming out of the locker room with an 18-point lead! At first glance, this stat is somewhat eye opening. Upon further inspection, though, it isn’t quite so simple. Hunt wasn’t exactly tearing up the Titans defense. In fact, his 5 carries in the 2nd half gained just 17 yards. Not to mention, the Chiefs were still able to move the ball through the air, even with Kelce out of the game. Had they converted on any of their 3rd-down misses, they likely would have given Kareem Hunt more carries.
In reality, Hunt’s 2nd-half workload wasn’t such a glaring mistake. After all, the Chiefs only ran 11 offensive plays with the lead in the 2nd half. They never actually ran an offensive play with an 18-point lead. In fact, they touched the ball for the first time in the 2nd half with 6:30 remaining in the 3rd quarter and the score 21-10. We’re not sure how good of a strategy it is to try and milk the clock up by just 11 points, with 21-and-a-half minutes to play, and the NFL’s 4th ranked rushing defense lined up against you.
No, Kansas City’s offensive failures resulted from their inability to convert in the pivotal moments of the 2nd half. Their self-inflicted wounds came back to bite them. Unfortunately for the Chiefs, they couldn’t overcome their mistakes, and they’ll once again have to go back to the drawing board this offseason.