Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes on the Sideline

The Kansas City Chiefs’ Need for Speed (Option)

  • 2020
  • anthony Sherman
  • Chiefs
  • devin white
  • Jordan Whitehead
  • Kansas City Chiefs
  • Le'Veon Bell
  • NFL
  • Patrick Mahomes
  • Travis Kelce
By Mitchell Wolfe December 10, 2020 2 Comment
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In recent weeks, the Kansas City Chiefs have resurrected the speed option, one of football’s ancient concepts. As expected, the Chiefs are chugging along this season, boasting an 11-1 record. They clinched the first playoff spot in the AFC after defeating the Denver Broncos last Sunday night, and now lead the AFC after the Pittsburgh Steelers’ loss to the Buffalo Bills. The Chiefs receive significant acclaim for their explosive and diverse offense, most recently for incorporating quarterback motion.

However, the Chiefs have also resurrected some concepts from days of football yore, including the speed option. The run-pass option (RPO) is all the rage in today’s NFL, but the Chiefs incorporated the speed option into their offense as far back as 2017 when Alex Smith and Kareem Hunt lined up in the backfield. Patrick Mahomes even scored a rushing touchdown from the speed option in Super Bowl 54.

Diagramming the Speed Option

The speed option is a play when the QB receives the snap and runs outside, with an RB trailing him. At some point, the QB will encounter the ‘read’ defender and must choose to keep or pitch the ball. If the defender sits, the QB should pitch the ball back to the RB. But if the defender runs outside, the QB should cut upfield past him. Offenses can run the speed option from almost any formation or alignment, but the basic idea of the play can be seen in the picture below:

Speed Option Diagram

In this case, the Sam linebacker (S with the circle around it) is the read defender. The idea of the speed option is to remove a defender from the play and even the count of players on both sides of the ball. In most running plays, the defense has the advantage immediately because the QB is out of the play. This leaves the offense with nine blockers and one ballcarrier, while the defense has eleven players trying to make the tackle. However, with the option, the QB himself is a threat. By attacking one specific defender, if the offense executes it correctly, the read defender is eliminated from the play. Now we’ll look at a few examples and discuss why they succeeded.

Play 1: Kansas City Chiefs @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 10 – 0, Q1 5:22, 1st & 10 KCC 10

In the picture below, the Chiefs come out in 21 personnel (2 running backs, 1 tight end). FB Anthony Sherman aligned on the line of scrimmage as a TE. Mahomes sets up in the Pistol with Le’Veon Bell behind him, two WRs stacked left to the field (more open side of the field) and Sherman and Kelce attached on the right to the boundary (short side of the field).

Chiefs Speed Option 1

Traditionally, offenses run speed options to the field side. This gives the QB more room to stretch the play out, especially in college football when the hash marks are much wider apart. However, in this example, the Chiefs run it to the boundary.

In the play, we see the two guards take on the two interior defensive linemen, allowing their opponents to over pursue into the backfield and take themselves out of the play. Sherman blocks down, washing #92 into the backfield, while the C and the RT climb to the second level to take out the LBs. Kelce gets upfield to block the CB, leaving Anthony Nelson (#98) as the read defender.

Mahomes takes a fake step left after the snap before running right. He keeps his eyes on Nelson and once Nelson steps towards him, Mahomes looks right and pitches back to Bell. Bell has no one around him and charges upfield. Giving credit to the defense, LB Devin White (#45) makes the RT miss on the second level and gets outside. Additionally, SS Jordan Whitehead (#33) diagnoses the play and takes a very good angle to force Bell towards the sideline. But Bell still gains eight, setting up a very manageable 2nd and 2.

The play succeeds because of Sherman’s ability to block down and seal the edge, Kelce getting upfield and taking out the CB, and Mahomes’ timing on the pitch. The last part is extremely important. If the QB is hesitant, the defender can tackle him or can react quickly enough to tackle the RB. Furthermore, if the QB does not attack the read defender as Mahomes does, the defender will have enough time to read the play and make the stop.

Play 2: Kansas City Chiefs @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 20 – 10, Q3 8:29, 3rd & 1 TBB 43

Chiefs Speed Option 2

Midway through the 3rd quarter, the Chief’s dial-up another speed option, but from a very different formation. This time, Mahomes lines up under center, with the backfield in an offset-I alignment and two WRs to the field. Again, the offense is in 21 personnel. Sherman is lined up as a traditional FB while backup TE Daniel Helm is the attached TE. With this look, Tampa’s defense expects the run, with five down linemen and eight men in the box, giving the defense the numerical advantage…unless the QB is a run threat.

The offensive line flows to the offense’s right, indicating an outside zone run. The blocking is solid until the TE Helm (#48) fails to climb off his block and neutralize Devin White (#45). This is where the peril of the option becomes apparent; if two defenders can cover it, it will usually fail. So Jordan Whitehead (#33) takes the RB outside and White takes the QB. However, White gets just a bit too far outside, and Helm gets just a piece of White, allowing Mahomes to juke back inside and then get upfield a gain of seventeen on 3rd and 1.

The first iteration in this game succeeded because of Mahomes’ awareness and understanding of timing. The second worked because of Mahomes’ athletic ability and vision as a runner.

Play 3: Denver Broncos @ Kansas City Chiefs, 16 – 19, Q4 11:30, 2nd & 5 KCC 42

Chiefs Speed Option 3

This time, the Chiefs come out in the Shotgun. RB Darrel Williams is slightly offset behind Mahomes and to his left. The offense is in 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs) with the three WRs in trips to the field and Kelce flexed out a bit to the left. Again, the Chiefs run the option into the boundary.

Mahomes fakes a toss to Williams after the snap, then starts running with Williams. The right side of the offensive line (the left from the perspective of the video) hinge blocks to cut off the backside pursuit. The LT and LG combo block #57. Then the LT climbs to the second level and eventually finds an LB to cut off, leaving #97 as the read defender.

#97, Jeremiah Attoachu, is a seven-year NFL veteran from Georgia Tech, one of the premier triple-option programs in college football before Paul Johnson retired. So he has seen this kind of play before and does a decent job maintaining equidistance between Mahomes and Williams. But the key to the speed option is the QB understanding the timing and feeling when to make the pitch. Attoachu breaks down to attack Mahomes, at which point Mahomes makes the pitch, and Williams races up the sideline. Kelce does a nice job of blocking the CB and Williams gains ten yards and a new set of downs.

Conclusion

Naturally, fans and the media primarily fawn over Mahomes’ arm strength and ability to make off-platform throws. But adding the speed option to the Chiefs’ offense creates another wrinkle that takes advantage of Mahomes’ athleticism and instincts to keep defenses off balance. In the coming weeks, expect the Chiefs to keep using these types of plays, but adding more window dressing with motion and possibly even adding a forward passing component to their speed option game.

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I cover and write about the NFL, the NFL Draft, and the Pittsburgh Steelers for the Brawl Network. I am originally from Hershey, PA and was raised a Pittsburgh sports fan. I went to Boston College for undergrad and am currently finishing a Master's degree in Sports Business at Temple University, concentrating in Sport Analytics.

2 Comments

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Michael Schottey

December 24, 2020

As a former option junkie myself, I love this.

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Greg Kratzer

December 15, 2020

Nice Analysis Mitch. A wise man once told me (in a gravelly, old timey football coach voice), "If you're not good at blocking guys, just don't block guys." That was his justification for option football.

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