The 11-5 Kansas City Chiefs headed to Houston to face a 9-7 Texans team that had emerged as the winner of the AFC South. While no doubt looking to make an early statement on the road, the Chiefs likely did not anticipate a return touchdown. Chuck Zodda takes to the film to show how the Kansas City kickoff return happened.
Houston lines up in 6×4 kickoff alignment heavy to the left side:
The left alignment suggests a deep kick to that side. Teams will typically stack a side in order to provide additional coverage to that area of the field. This also forces Kansas City to count the Texans, because each member of the return team is assigned a specific block based on the position of the opposing team member. Kickoff units are typically counted starting from the sideline, with numbers increasing as players get closer to the center of the field. In this case, we label the left Texan closest to kicker Nick Novak (#8) as R1 due to his action later in this play. Houston has used 6×4 alignments frequently in the second half of the season, and the Chiefs had likely scouted and prepared for it.
In their earlier games, the 6×4 alignment tasked one of the interior players on the stacked side to cross over slightly and become the R5. But on this play, Eddie Pleasant (#35) loops all the way from his stacked position to become the R1 and kickoff safety. While it is an interesting wrinkle, it also requires him to run 20 additional yards to get in position.
Kickoff coverage is all about finding landmarks on the field to ensure proper positioning. While Pleasant is asked to fulfill safety role on the right side that he has performed before from a different initial alignment, his route here will take him out of position to make a play.
Knile Davis (#34, green circle) awaits the ball in his end zone while the blocking sets up in front of him. The front line blockers gain depth and then plant, forcing the Texans to the right of the screen. Meanwhile the deeper blockers traverse the field, getting into position to wall off the Houston coverage team from making it through the first line.
Two Texans sneak through their initial blocks, as the three deep blockers for Kansas City look for someone to block. To the right, two Chiefs double-team Corey Moore (#43), and a single blocker inside picks up Kurtis Drummond (#40). Behind the main wave of defenders, three kickoff safeties (blue circles) ‒ Pleasant now just outside the right numbers ‒ are in good position initially.
The double-team (red box) seals Moore outside, while Drummond is picked off by the remaining deep blocker for Kansas City. The three Houston safeties (blue circles) remain in good position as Davis goes into the wash.
Timing is often overlooked on kickoff returns, but is a critical aspect. Holes may only be open for a fraction of a second due to the speeds involved. The Chiefs time their blocks with outstanding precision here, syncing up with Davis beautifully. Both Moore and Drummond are sealed outside by the deep blockers, providing a narrow crease for Davis.
Meanwhile, Pleasant is in danger of being trapped outside. A key job of a kickoff safety is providing depth to the coverage unit, preventing a returner from breaking free on a return. Pleasant is too close to the rest of the coverage unit, and has put himself in a position to be sealed outside by a Kansas City blocker.
However, no kick return is complete without controversy. There is a critical call missed by the officials that directly led to this touchdown. Akeem Dent (#50) shed his initial block and was closing in on Davis. Dent is blocked in the back by not one, but two Chiefs directly at the point of attack.
This is a key mistake by the officials, as this block robs Dent of lateral movement and the ability to track Davis. While the rest of Kansas City’s blocking scheme was executed perfectly, this play does not go for a touchdown if Dent is not blocked out of the play illegally.
While the block in the back was the critical event on this play, the safety play and coverage design from Houston leaves questions as well. Houston needs to account for the fact that blocks-in-the-back happen frequently, and are missed by officials due to the speeds and angles involved. Pleasant’s circuitous route, and poor positioning upon arrival took him out the play, creating a crucial hole in the coverage. This play allowed Kansas City to take charge on the road right from the outset, and largely took away home field advantage for Houston immediately, en route to a 30-0 victory.
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Chuck Zodda knows the importance of staying in your lane, how to fake a punt return, the humanity of punters, proper placekicking technique and the Jets.
All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.