Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce somehow always open: ‘Who’s going to man-up?’
By Ryan Dunleavy,
There are surprisingly few examples of Travis Kelce climbing a defender’s back for a catch or wrestling away a near-interception featured on a seven-minute highlight reel of the best plays of his career.
Then again, how is Kelce supposed to make those types of 50/50 plays when he is always open?
The skill that defines Kelce’s greatness — and makes the Chiefs’ offense look unstoppable — is that the perennial All-Pro tight end often is running in open space despite defenses spending all week prioritizing ways to minimize his impact.
“He just kind of uncovers,” NFL Network film guru Brian Baldinger told The Post. “There’s really nobody else like him.”
When the Chiefs traded speedster Tyreek Hill in March, logic dictated that Kelce would face more double teams and experience a decline in production as quarterback Patrick Mahomes leaned on other receivers. Instead, the connection was more prolific than ever, resulting in Kelce’s 10-year career highs of 152 targets, 110 catches and 12 touchdowns, plus the most yards after catch (628) of any non-running back on the way to 1,338 receiving yards.
It raises a simple question: How is Kelce always open?
“I’m sure there are plays drawn up where he has to run an out route on a sail-route technique — or whatever it may be — and they do run certain plays on timing, but I think he has the green light to freelance anytime he wants,” Baldinger said. “As soon as Mahomes moves, he moves. As soon as he moves, Mahomes moves. Mahomes is so good at extending plays and playing beyond the X’s and O’s, and Kelce is the ultimate player to play with him.”
Other receiving tight ends are matchup problems because of designed underneath clear-outs and crossing route pick-plays, but the Chiefs empower Kelce, post-snap, to quickly diagnose man-to-man versus zone coverage, possible double-teams and whether the defense is playing one-high safety, two-high safeties or four-deep defensive backs. Defenses opened the season playing more man coverage against the Chiefs — 43.3 percent of snaps after five games — than any other offense because of Hill’s departure. It didn’t work.
“You have a couple problems,” one defensive coach who faced the Chiefs this season said. “Who’s going to man-up Kelce? Not a linebacker. You might struggle with a safety who is not athletic enough. And the size difference for a corner is going to kill you. Then, if Mahomes gets out of the pocket and everyone is playing man-to-man, he is going to take off.”
But zone defenses feed right into Kelce’s strengths.
“Once Mahomes starts to scramble, all the targets know where to go as good as anybody in the NFL,” the coach said. “It’s like synchronized swimming. It’s not just backyard football. There is a rhyme and reason for what they are doing based on what they get from the defense. Kelce always finds the soft spots in the zones.”
The Chiefs frequently send Kelce in pre-snap motion. Not just for the clues of zone or man coverage, but also because it helps combat the popular defensive strategy to jam him at the line of scrimmage: The Raiders held Kelce to his two-lowest receiving totals (25 and 38 yards) by jamming him with a defensive end, but he scored four red-zone touchdowns in one game just by improvising with Mahomes.
Kelce leads the NFL in snaps, receptions and receiving yards after going in motion or shifting since 2020, according to NextGenStats’ latest update. Defenses give him a 6.3-yard cushion at the line of scrimmage, and Kelce generates an average of 2.9 yards of separation — about the same as elite wideouts Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith, Davante Adams and Stefon Diggs.
During the AFC Championship game, Mahomes rolled the pocket to his right — three receivers on that side — and connected for a 14-yard touchdown to Kelce on a fourth-and-1.
“The play doesn’t even look like a play,” Baldinger said. “Mahomes just throws it away from the safety and Kelce adjusts and catches it for a touchdown. It looks way too easy.” Baldinger compared Kelce’s ability to uncover on extended plays to that of two great receivers: Terrell Owens, when catching passes from Donovan McNabb, and Antonio Brown, when teamed with Ben Roethlisberger. Compared to even the great tight ends, such as Tony Gonzalez or Rob Gronkowski, Kelce’s knack is “next-level.”
“If you just watch Kelce in pregame warmups, he’s a great route runner,” Baldinger said, “but most of his routes are just sort of, ‘What is the defense doing? I’m going to adjust and run to the open area.’ He has a great awareness of what’s around him. If it’s third-and-6, he’s going to settle at four yards, and he’s so good after the catch that he instinctively knows where the tackler is coming from and he’ll run away. A four-yard stick route becomes 6 ½ yards.”
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