As I reminisce about the 2022-23 NFL season, one of the questions I asked the most is: How the heck is Travis Kelce always WIDE open? When the Chiefs need it, Kelce gets it about 70% of the time. Every defender and opposing coach could see it coming, yet no one could even slow the guy down. When he catches the ball, there is rarely another guy in the frame.
The entire preparation time and strategy is built around stopping this guy week in and week out, yet no one can get close. Why is it? Are NFL defenders that far behind technically? Could defensive schemes be causing this level of separation? Or is Kelce that much of a difference-maker? Does Reid have that big an advantage over everyone else?
Zone Will Kill You Against Reid, Mahomes, & Kelce
Andy Reid is probably the most creative play-callers of all time, offensive or defensive; it doesn’t matter. Kanas City utilizes pre-snap motion and shifts better and more often than just about any other team in the league.
This season, the Chiefs have used pre-snap shifts and motions on 81 pass plays (third-most in the league), per Next Gen Stats. Patrick Mahomes has been pressured on 27 percent of his total dropbacks, but just 23.5 percent of the time when using shifts and motions. The Chiefs have used motion at the second-highest rate in the league (72% overall, 70% on passing downs) Tom Childs Arrowhead Pride
This type of motion does various amount of things for the Chiefs. First, Mahomes can tell if they are in a man or zone depending on who mirrors the motion man. Second, it gets the defenders at a positional disadvantage. Then Kelce is such a great route runner and understands spots in the zone that it gets shredded.
Travis Kelce WIDE OPEN TD gives Chiefs (+5.5) bettors life 🔥🔥🔥 (via @NFL) pic.twitter.com/PV3xc2vxU6 — br_betting (@br_betting) October 28, 2019
Mahomes & Kelce Connection
Playing zone against the Chiefs at this point sets you up for abject failure. So how did Brady and Edelman play against zone? It really didn’t matter how nice of a concept you came up with. The connection shared between pairs of great players like these gives them the advantage. This connection creates perfect timing and in-sync thinking.
The amount of adlibs that Mahomes gives to the Chiefs helps Kelce beat these coverages. For example, he runs left-right around in a circle, but Kelce can feel that movement and uses that and his knowledge of beating zone; I think this is a big reason Kelce is the only player in the frame on big plays.
Jonathan Abram leaves Travis Kelce wide open for the go ahead TD. pic.twitter.com/sWU6ci4b60 — Tyler Bischoff (@Bischoff_Tyler) November 23, 2020
Kelce Is A Unicorn
I won’t be one of the people who doesn’t give Kelce his credit; everything around him enhances his skill, size, and speed. He is essentially a wide receiver in a mismatch against almost any defender. I’ve been saying not to play zone, but it’s not like man-to-man works much better. He doesn’t have a route tree because he doesn’t run things drawn on paper. Instead, he adlibs as much as Mahomes does.
This doesn’t mean Kelce isn’t technical. Quite the opposite; you have to understand so much about the craft to ablid when things go haywire but stay within the offense and the play.
He may be 33, but his career has been relatively injury-free, guys are playing longer, and he and Mahomes have an excellent connection. We could watch this guy run free of stress for another three to five years. I don’t know how to cover the guy consistently, but hopefully, people can get closer to him cause he makes it look so easy. I feel like I will be asking the same question at the end of next year.