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How the Chiefs’ use the vertical pass game and how the Bengals can defend it

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A big part of the Chiefs passing game is Patrick Mahomes throwing deep balls to Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Chicago Bears Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Patrick Mahomes is the hottest name in the NFL. He is having a stellar first year as the signal caller for the Chiefs offense and has them looking like serious Super Bowl contenders.

Mahomes has a huge arm and the vertical passing game is a big part of what the Chiefs do. The four-vertical passing concept is the foundation of the vertical passing game and sets up other deep concepts as well. Here is a look at the Chief’s four-vertical passing concept.

Back in Week 2, Steelers cornerback Cameron Sutton comes across the formation and safety Morgan Burnett bumps out as Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill motions. They end up in an inverted form of Cover 2, the Sutton playing the deep half and Burnett playing the flat. Mahomes’ first read should have been Chris Conley, the slot wide receiver on the other side of the formation, who runs the bender route (vertical route that bends to split the difference between Cover 2 safeties).

Burnett jumps the swing route by running back Kareem Hunt instead of dropping underneath Hill’s vertical route. This coupled with Sutton sitting on tight end Travis Kelce’s seam route means Hill (who is generally the second read against Cover 2) is wide open.

Mahomes passes on these open receivers and throws the ball just behind Kelce who catches it for a touchdown. This is good placement, as it keeps the ball away from the safety.

Here Kelce has kind of the opposite of the bender mentioned above. In this empty formation, Kelce lines up as the third receiver on the bottom of the screen. His job is to run the vertical seam route on the top of the screen, which would naturally cause his to bend his route across the formation.

If there was a deep middle safety the middle of the field would be closed (MFC) and he would run across the safety and make the safety choose between the two seam routes. Since the middle of the field is open (MFO) with two deep safeties, Kelce splits the two safeties and Mahomes makes the right read, throwing him the touchdown.

This is a really interesting play design, and really just another way for the Chiefs to get players in the same parts of the field as they were on the first clip. Hunt, who is lined up as the widest receiver on the left-hand side, motions into the backfield and swings to the right.

The next guy inside of Hunt is wide receiver Sammy Watkins who runs the seam, while the third receiver, Chris Coley wheels and becomes the outside deep threat. Similarly, Kelce is wheeling outside of Hill’s seam route on the bottom of the screen. Mahomes throws an incompletion in the direction of Watkins.

On this play from Week 1, the two receivers on the bottom of the screen run vertical, while full back Anthony Sherman wheels out from his H-back position on the top of the screen. This play is a little different in that Kelce hitches up.

The Chiefs have a diverse passing game that stems off of the four vertical concept and features many variations. Kelce’s presence forces the most athletic defender on that side of the formation, cornerback Trevor Williams, to run with him while linebacker Kyle Emanuel sherman runs with Sherman. Mahomes throws a great ball here, converting it for a touchdown.


The Bengals tend to run more MFC, with Jessie Bates III as the lone safety occupying the middle of the field. When the Chiefs run two receivers up the seams Mahomes will be reading Bates to determine where the ball will go. Bates must play in between the two routes and read Mahomes in order to determine where and when to break on the ball.

The Bengals will also likely see deep comebacks on the outside as cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick and William Jackson play off in Cover 3.