How The Steelers Must Learn From The Chiefs’ Simple And Smart Red Zone Offense

When the Kansas City Chiefs get inside the 5-yard line, you might as well just put seven points on the board. A touchdown just seems inevitable. They win with great talent, of course, a quarterback like Patrick Mahomes who is the ultimate cheat code. But what sends this offense to the next level is their creativity. Great scheme matching great talent. That was on display for two of the Chiefs’ second-half touchdowns Sunday night, a pair of the easiest touchdowns in Super Bowl history.

Twice, the Chiefs leaned on smart and simple concepts to take advantage of what they saw on tape. Touchdowns to WRs Kadarius Tony and Skyy Moore were nearly identical plays. “Return” motion that faked like the receiver was going to come across on a jet sweep only to pivot back out and run to the flat. Take a look at both.

To sum up the “why,” the Chiefs reportedly noticed on tape how the Eagles responded to jet motion. In an attempt to avoid getting out-leveraged and be behind the jet player, the Eagles’ defense teaches them to be extra-aggressive and get out in front of the motion. On true jet motion, that makes sense and would take that option away.

That’s where the chess game really starts. The Chiefs’ coaching staff used the Eagles’ own “rules” against them. They countered by faking the jet motion and then doubling back. Each time, the Eagles’ corner bit, completely overran the motion, and had no chance to mirror and follow it back to the flat. That’s how you get two walk-in touchdowns.

And it has nothing to do with how great Patrick Mahomes is. Make no mistake, he’s elite. The dude is 27, could retire today, and be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But you don’t need a great, or a good, or even an average quarterback to make that throw. It’s all scheme-based. It’s through tape study, the Jacksonville Jaguars ran the same concept against the Eagles earlier in the year for a score, and it’s the difference when you have two great teams. Great offenses, great defenses, and that little difference as a coaching staff is what becomes the difference. The Chiefs showed this in Week 1 and kept it in their back pocket for football’s biggest stage.

The Steelers don’t have Mahomes. They’re not going to be an elite-level offense racking up 30+ points per week. And sure, to an extent, having an elite-level player like Mahomes unlocks more of the playbook and allows teams to be more creative, to push the edges of what an offense can do. Still, there’s nothing stopping Pittsburgh’s offense from being inventive and creative like this. Canada uses a lot of motion. Some of it is effective but nothing of this magnitude.

To confirm that, I went through and sorted every shotgun pass the Steelers ran in 2022 at or inside the opposing 5-yard line. Eleven in total, including one two-point conversion, that you can see below. On seven of those 11 snaps, 63.6%, the Steelers used zero pre-snap motion. There were three defensive penalties on 1v1 throws but only once did the Steelers score on those plays and that was the two-point conversion against the Colts where Kenny Pickett played out of structure and hit George Pickens in a scramble drill.

On only two of the eleven snaps did the Steelers have motion on the snap of the football but they scored on one of those plays. On the two plays with pre-snap motion but not on the snap, the Steelers didn’t score on either, though one play was flagged for defensive pass interference.

Here are all 11 plays. Largely speaking, it’s a static-looking approach with only a couple of wrinkles in there. A far cry from what you see from Kansas City.

Again, the Steelers and the Chiefs’ offenses aren’t the same. That much is obvious. But I’d argue teams and coaches with lesser talent (and the Steelers have talent, to be clear, they’re not lacking it) must be more scheme-creative to compensate for not having elite players. Good offenses have either great talent or great coaching. Bad offenses have neither and elite offenses have both.

I focus on the red zone specifically because it’s where games are won and lost. Teams who score touchdowns win, teams who settle for field goals lose. Pittsburgh’s coming off a season in which they were the 23rd-ranked red zone offense and for years, they’ve rarely been a good unit inside the 20. One great year under Randy Fichtner and that was it. One of Matt Canada’s 2023 missions must be to improve the team in the red zone. It’s where coaching is magnified. Downs are limited, space is limited, and you better call your best plays to overcome those obstacles. Like most everywhere else with this offense, the Steelers have plenty of work to do.

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