The Kansas City Chiefs have enjoyed a spectacular turnaround season, sparked in part by a rejuvenated offense that recently has found its stride. Critics scoff at the notion of an Alex Smith-led attack striking fear in the hearts of defenses. Tell that to Kansas City's last four opponents, who've surrendered a combined 167 points (41.8 average) to the Chiefs. I believe the unit is rounding into form as a juggernaut capable of knocking off an AFC heavyweight or two in the playoffs.
1) Jamaal Charles has become the NFL's scariest backfield weapon.
Andy Reid has endured plenty of criticism through the years for his wavering commitment to the ground game. However, the head coach has turned several backs into spectacular multi-purpose threats in his career, traditionally building his attack around a dynamic weapon like Duce Staley, Brian Westbrook or LeSean McCoy. As a longtime proponent of the West Coast offense, Reid uses the short passing game as a complement to the running game, preferring to give his feature back an assortment of touches (in the form of both carries and receptions) on the perimeter, rather than pounding the ball between the tackles on old-school powers and isolation plays.
When he took the Kansas City job, Reid inherited one of the NFL's most explosive runners in Charles. The sixth-year pro, who eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing this season for the fourth time in his career, boasts the highest yards-per-carry average (5.6) of any qualified running back in NFL history. From a scouting perspective, Charles is a terrific stop-start runner with exceptional speed and quickness. He excels at turning the corner on off-tackle plays and sweeps, and he's also an exceptional cut-back runner adept at hitting creases in the middle, as evidenced by the video clip to the right.
Charles' running style is conducive to big gains on the perimeter; he's a home-run threat capable of scoring from anywhere on the field. To take full advantage of Charles' explosiveness, Reid has featured his top playmaker prominently in the passing game. Yes, Charles was utilized as a receiver by previous regimes, but with Reid in charge, the Chiefs have added more screen passes and various route concepts to the playbook in an effort to maximize Charles' talents as a dual-threat running back in the open field. Given more touches in space, Charles has been able to produce big plays against stretched-out defenses.
In Sunday's 56-31 win over the rival Raiders, Reid made it a point to get Charles the ball in space on a variety of screens. Although he changed formations and some of the backfield action, Reid essentially ran the same screen three different times to score touchdowns with Charles, as the following screengrabs illustrate.
To set up the first screen-pass touchdown, the Chiefs motion into a dubs formation, with Charles positioned on the left. Receiver Junior Hemingway is running a shallow cross, with tight end Sean McGrath running a go-route up the field; this route concept is one of the Chiefs' favorite combinations. Charles will fake an inside block before slipping out to catch the screen on the left:
The Raiders are forced by the shallow-cross concept to drop deep into the zones. Charles snatches the screen pass in the flat with a convoy of blockers ahead:
With the Oakland defenders outnumbered in the open field, Charles notches a 49-yard touchdown.
On Charles' second screen-pass score, the Chiefs break the huddle in a trips formation, with the running back aligned to Smith's right. In a long-yardage situation (third-and-19), Oakland is bringing a corner blitz in an attempt to force a quick throw from Smith:
Kansas City's play call is the perfect counter to the blitz, with Charles slipping across the formation to catch the screen and guard Jeff Allen pulling around the corner to lead the way:
With a blocker and a lot of green grass in front of him, Charles scoots down the sideline for a 39-yard score.
Charles bobs and weaves through traffic en route to a 16-yard touchdown.
The numbers show that Reid's decision to feature Charles in the passing game has been a resounding success; the Pro Bowl runner has tallied 100-plus yards from scrimmage and scored at least one touchdown in 11 of 14 games, including seven straight contests to open the season. And while I've focused extensively on Charles' explosiveness in the screen game, his ability to run routes from the backfield is what could make him nearly impossible to defend down the stretch.
In the following screengrab, also taken from the win over the Raiders, Kansas City is facing third-and-short. The Chiefs line up in an off-set formation with Charles positioned at halfback. Hemingway is motioning across the formation to run a go-route (and simultaneously pick Charles' defender in the flat). Charles is instructed to run a wheel route down the boundary to take advantage of the Raiders' man coverage:
On the snap, Hemingway rubs his defender into the linebacker assigned to cover Charles:
This gives Charles just enough space to run past the defense and catch a deep ball down the boundary before rumbling untouched for a 71-yard score.
2) Alex Smith has found his groove in Andy Reid's system.
When Reid acquired Smith last offseason, most observers expected the veteran would play well in a quarterback-friendly system that has enabled the likes of Donovan McNabb, A.J. Feeley, Koy Detmer and Jeff Garcia to produce big numbers. Although the Chiefs got off to a sizzling start as a team, Smith didn't exactly light it up in the early going, sparking concern about his ability to generate enough points to give K.C. a chance against elite opponents.
In recent weeks, however, such concerns have subsided, as Smith has found a rhythm. The veteran signal-caller has connected on 63 percent of his passes in the past six games, with an impressive touchdown-to-interception ratio of 14:2. This success partially can be attributed to Charles' contributions in the screen game, but I've also noticed more aggressive play from Smith in the pocket. He has taken more shots down the field against man coverage -- while continuing to take superb care of the football. Although the deep throws haven't regularly resulted in explosive gains, the threat of the long ball has allowed Smith to efficiently "dink and dunk" his way down the field with his playmakers, Charles and Dwayne Bowe.
Of course, Smith's critics will continue to cast the veteran as a "game manager" incapable of carrying the offense on his shoulders, but winning is largely dependent on sound decisions being made in the pocket. If Smith continues to make a handful of plays in the passing game while avoiding the kinds of costly turnovers that typically lead to losses, the Chiefs will have more than enough firepower to battle the AFC's best at home or on the road.
3) The Chiefs' return game has delivered explosive plays.
McCluster, in particular, has been a monster punt returner for the Chiefs this season, averaging 11.7 yards a pop and taking two to the house on spectacular open-field runs. I've been impressed with the decisiveness, elusiveness and vision he's shown on film. McCluster has an uncanny knack for finding the soft spot in coverage, leading to big gains against undisciplined opponents. McCluster missed last week's game with an ankle infection, but fortunately MRSA has been ruled out.
McCluster's 74-yard return score in the Week 14 win over the Washington Redskins, shown in the video to the right, is a prime example of his ability to spot the weakness in the coverage. He fields the ball with plenty of room, setting up the return with a nifty jab step to the left. The Redskins' tacklers overreact to his initial steps, and McCluster brings the ball back to the right, attacking a seam between the hash and sideline. McCluster -- a man few defenders can bring down in the open field -- races nearly untouched to the end zone.
These returns don't just produce points; they also help give the Chiefs short fields, greatly benefitting the offense. That's why Demps, one of the NFL's most explosive return guys, also deserves a tip of the cap. He's averaging 30-plus yards per kick return, routinely setting the Chiefs up across the 30-yard line.
This part of the complementary football formula (winning the turnover battle/kicking game typically leads to wins) has helped the Chiefs return to the ranks of the elite this season.
4) It's only a matter of time before the defense regains its swagger.
I know there has been some concern about the Chiefs' defense in recent weeks. The lack of a consistent pass rush has allowed opposing quarterbacks to target a secondary assigned to play man-to-man coverage on nearly every down. And while the Chiefs are among the best in the league at suffocating opponents with their tenacious style in the back end, there isn't a secondary in the world that can hold up against elite quarterbacks (such as Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers, whose Broncos and Chargers rank first and fourth, respectively, in passing yards per game) without some form of pressure.
However, I don't think this will be a major issue heading into the playoffs, not with the eventual return of a healthy Justin Houston on the horizon. I wouldn't spend a lot of time worrying about a unit that continues to hold opponents, on average, to fewer than 115 rushing yards per game while producing turnovers at a fearsome pace (the Chiefs lead the league in takeaway differential at plus-21; the next closest AFC squad is at plus-seven). That the Chiefs excel at two of the critical aspects of playing winning defense makes me think this unit is poised to lead a deep postseason run despite its recent struggles.