Duffy: Why the Patrick Mahomes-Travis Kelce duo is so difficult to defend
Travis Kelce and Patrick Mahomes
The Kansas City Chiefs’ defense, deservedly so, has captured a lot of the praise surrounding the defending Super Bowl Champs (from an on-field, football standpoint at least), but you would be crazy to dismiss the potential threat of one of the most productive pass game combinations in recent memory going into Monday night.
Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce are still one of the most dangerous duos in the league, and their ability to beat you both inside the structure of the play as well as outside makes them so difficult to contend with, despite what some of the raw numbers may say over the last couple of weeks.
Two Sundays ago in Frankfurt, Germany, Kelce caught three passes for just 14 yards in the win over the Miami Dolphins. The week before, in a road loss to Denver, he caught six balls for 58 yards. He hasn’t scored a touchdown since October 22nd against the Los Angeles Chargers. Fantasy managers across the world are upset with the lack of production in recent weeks … but don’t let that fool you.
When you compare last year’s record-setting efficiency numbers to this year, Kelce is right in lock-step with 2022. Last year, Kelce averaged 2.21 yards per route run. That number is up to 2.45 this year. Last year, he caught 72.3 percent of his targets – this year he’s caught 81.1 percent. The raw numbers (receptions, yards, and touchdowns) are all down over the first 10 weeks, but remember that Kelce missed the season-opening loss to Detroit with an injury.
The important thing to note with Kelce is that he is attacking the same area of the field that he always has. The All-Pro has never been a seam-stretcher at the position, threatening defenses downfield. Instead, he made his bones catching passes in the intermediate area of the field. His average depth of target (ADoT) has been under 7.6 (which is right about the middle of the pack at the position) in every year since 2020. The Chiefs have consistently found ways to get him space in that part of the field, and the primary way has been with their various three-level stretch concepts.
These plays are all designed to stretch the defense at all three levels, putting stress on zone defenders by putting them into conflict. Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes have consistently found ways to do this with Kelce over the years, and that’s why he seemingly has been running wide open over the middle throughout that time frame.
Kelce and Mahomes have run these plays thousands of times over the course of their respective careers, and with Kelce racking up 150-plus targets in every season with Mahomes as the starter, they have developed a unique rapport. They both see things the same way, and Reid gives them the ability to ad-lib within the structure of that offense.
And that’s what is so frustrating as a defense. You have seen the Chiefs run these three-level stretch plays for years on tape. You do everything correctly, exactly how you practiced and walked through and discussed in the meeting room. You have the play covered … until you don’t! Because Kelce changes the route. He and Mahomes play a level of “backyard football” where Kelce can read the coverage and change the route, almost on a whim, based off what he sees as he approaches the second level of the defense. Mahomes often reads things the same way, and that has helped to create explosive plays in the passing game as a result.
What’s crazy about these plays is that, even though they technically happen OUTSIDE the structure of the play as it’s drawn up on the whiteboard, they still typically occur within the timing of the play. It’s not even technically a “scramble drill” situation for the Chiefs’ offense. That said, the scramble is something you have to prepare for, especially this year.
According to Next Gen Stats, Mahomes is scrambling at a higher rate this year than at any point in his career. Now, there are a few reasons why this could be the case (the Chiefs are working in new receivers and a new starting pair of tackles along with a new offensive coordinator), but regardless, the Eagles must be ready for it. And when Mahomes does break the pocket … who does he look for? TE87.
According to Pro Football Focus, Kelce has been targeted 20 times when the quarterback has been moved off his spot this season. That’s twice as many as any other tight end in football, and the most of any player in the league behind only Buffalo’s Stefon Diggs. Kelce’s 15 receptions on scramble drills also lead the NFL (Diggs has 11).
The Eagles have to have a plan for Travis Kelce in the intermediate area of the field. It will be one of the keys to stopping Mahomes and this offense on Monday night.