Chiefs receiver Albert Wilson caught a shovel pass and scored a first-quarter touchdown in Sunday’s game against the Chargers. Robert Gauthier TNS
Chiefs receiver Albert Wilson caught a shovel pass and scored a first-quarter touchdown in Sunday’s game against the Chargers. Robert Gauthier TNS

Sam Mellinger

Inside the Chiefs’ ‘unstoppable’ play

By Sam Mellinger

smellinger@kcstar.com

September 24, 2017 10:14 PM

UPDATED September 25, 2017 02:43 PM

CARSON, Calif.

The other team has access to video and coaches on salary so they know the play is coming, and that might be the best compliment possible because they still can’t do anything about it.

Three games in and it’s obvious the Chiefs are a Super Bowl contender. They beat the Chargers 24-10 here on Sunday, pushing their record to 3-0. They are more than two years removed from their last loss in a division generally regarded among the NFL’s best. They have won 25 of their last 29 regular-season games.

They have stars in every position group, a terrific mix of young (Kareem Hunt just turned 22) and not as young (Derrick Johnson turns 35 in November), strong (Justin Houston manhandles men 75 pounds heavier) and fast (Tyreek Hill, duh), grunt (Eric Fisher did an entire postgame interview answering every question with “Fired up!”) and star (Travis Kelce, duh).

They’re innovative, too. Like, impossibly innovative, and if that seems like hyperbole then ask yourself what the defense is supposed to do against a play with at least these three options — Hill sprinting to the edge on one side, Hunt doing the same on the other, and then Kelce or someone else running up the middle behind athletic 300-pounders.

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Come on.

We are talking about the read-option shovel pass, and on this day, the package gave the Chiefs their second touchdown, and Albert Wilson an opportunity to go Keith Cash (he didn’t get the reference after the game, but still) in rifling the ball against a Chargers sign behind the goal post.

“As you’ve seen,” Hill said, “that play is unstoppable.”

For all of the hilarious genius Chiefs coach Andy Reid showed in turning Dontari Poe into the Hungry Pig last year, now comes a more useful, strategic, and diabolical version.

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Blair Kerkhoff The Kansas City Star

This is the second consecutive week the Chiefs have scored on a shovel pass — last week it was Travis Kelce leaping in from the 5-yard-line — and that doesn’t include key first downs in wins over the Patriots and Eagles.

The package — and we’re using that word, because it’s far more than one play — is a major part of what the Chiefs do and presented to defenses in subtle and unbalancing ways. The ball is snapped and then given to a playmaker in less than a second, with a matrix of possibilities overloading what a defense can do.

Alex Smith usually knows where the ball is going at the snap, but sometimes makes the decision based on the defense’s first move.

So Hill may literally be the fastest man in major American sports, but drift too far to his side and you leave the other wide open for Hunt, himself capable of outrunning angles and one of the NFL’s most prolific breaker of tackles.

That would be hard enough, but while you’re trying to decide which sideline to cover, you leave yourself vulnerable up the middle, where the Chiefs’ agile linemen get a running start on your linebackers or — if you’re really unfortunate — your safeties.

“Would I be able to stop that?” asked Justin Houston, one of the game’s best defenders. “That’s tough to say. I’m glad I don’t have to try.”

The keys to the play working are many: a versatile group of playmakers, Reid picking the right moment, Alex Smith making the right read, and the linemen making the right blocks.

The moving parts are so varied it risks overcomplicating, in which case the play goes nowhere and Reid is cursed as going too cute. There is a reason the play is working better now than ever, too. The offensive line is young, but they’ve been together a few years now, making progress in committing each of the play’s reads and packages not just to memory but to muscle memory.

“It just took a while for us to get used to it,” said guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif. “Because you have to know how the defense is going to react to know who to block. You never block the same guy. You just have to identify it.”

That’s important. It’s more zone blocking than man, which is complicated enough, but it’s more than that because the linemen are asked to block different zones based on different reactions they see from defenders.

On Kelce’s touchdown last week, for instance, left tackle Eric Fisher pushed the defensive end toward the middle of the field. On Wilson’s touchdown Sunday, he chipped a defensive lineman before getting downfield to wipe out a linebacker. On the same play, Kelce blocked a defensive back, but if the defense reacted a different way that may’ve been Duvernay-Tardif’s man.

Instead, he pulled behind the center and took out a linebacker five yards downfield.

“The blocks are different every week,” Houston said. “That’s coach Reid. That’s the genius in it.”

Well, that’s the creative genius, but there’s a more practical element to this, too.

Because the read-option shovel pass package is more than fun — it’s Reid’s way of covering one of his team’s major weaknesses with one its undeniable strengths.

The Chiefs’ offensive line is not strong with straight-ahead, short-yardage blocks. The Chiefs lost to the Titans at home last year in no small part because they could not convert third- and fourth-and-shorts. It’s a flaw that’s been shown, over and over again.

But the Chiefs’ line is athletic. Those guys are good in space, and they’re smart, and they’ve all been in the system since at least last season. The run-pass option shovel pass helps them maximize their advantage in preparation and athleticism, while minimizing their collective weakness in straight-ahead blocking.

It really is a thing of football machinery, the perfect match between a coach’s creativity and his roster’s versatility. When done right, it is both coldly efficient and almost rhythmically beautiful.

This season will always be judged on whether the Chiefs can advance further in the playoffs, which means looking for areas they have improved. Those spots are all over the field, from Smith to the defensive line.

But they struggled in short yardage a year ago, and if that’s been covered by a package that presents the defense more problems than possible solutions, then the key difference could also be the most fun plays to watch.

Chiefs leave the field after 24-10 victory over Chargers

Chiefs leave the field after 24-10 victory over LA Chargers at the Stub Hub Center in Carson, Ca.

Blair Kerkhoff The Kansas City Star

Sam Mellinger: 816-234-4365, @mellinger