In facing Travis Kelce, Lions can learn from containing Zach Ertz

Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Detroit Lions coach Matt Patricia bristled for a moment when asked if he was “looking forward” to planning to defend the Kansas City Chiefs offense. It was a reasonable reaction.

“Looking forward,” Patricia said. “Is probably an interesting statement there.”

Preparing for the Chiefs is a chore unlike many other in the NFL, starting with planning to stop their MVP quarterback, Patrick Mahomes. But the player who could end up being the biggest matchup enigma is his massive tight end, Travis Kelce.

Kelce is a player Patricia deemed “a major problem,” even though his defenses in New England had success against the tight end. In three games against Patricia defenses, Kelce has 19 catches on 24 targets for 156 yards with one touchdown -- but the bulk of those numbers came in 2014, when he had eight catches for 93 yards and the score.

The last two games? Eleven catches, 63 yards and an average of 3.45 yards after the catch per reception.

“... Whether it’s a linebacker, a safety, a corner -- I don’t think they really care who’s over there covering him," Patricia said. "They’re going to give him the ball. Another big guy, huge catch radius. Just someone that’s so consistent.”

The Chiefs like to move Kelce around, forcing teams to account for him on every play. In 2019, he’s lined up on the line 46% of the time, in the slot 28% and out wide 26%, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. It’s come close to equally on the left and right as well.

The numbers can provide some keys, though. Forty-eight percent of his targets have come when he’s been lined up out wide -- and he’s had eight catches for 165 yards when lined up there -- even though that is where he’s been least often through three games this season.

He goes over the middle and outside, to the left and right. He runs deep, intermediate and short.

“It’s going to take a total defense to understand how we got to stop a guy like that,” safety Tavon Wilson said. “It’s got to be a collective group effort. We’ve got our hands full. He’s not the only good player over there. We can’t put five guys on him. We got to have some guys to cover their other good players as well.

“I trust in our coaches to make a good game plan so we can defend him.”

So far, the Lions have handled tight ends well. Arizona is a misnomer because the Cardinals don’t use their tight ends as much – with two targets, both caught, for 20 yards. The Chargers targeted tight ends twice, with one catch for nine yards by Virgil Green.

Then there’s last week, which might help Detroit dealing with Kelce. Zach Ertz is one of the top tight ends in the league and the offense Doug Pederson runs has similarities to the offense of his old boss, Chiefs coach Andy Reid.

“From that standpoint of how they want to get those guys the ball will help carry over,” Wilson said. “Both of them are pass-catching tight ends, so that will carry over. Ertz has some things he’s good at and Kelce has some things that he’s very special at as well.

“You’ve got to look at each player as individuals and try to cover them the best way you can.”

Last week, Philadelphia targeted Ertz seven times -- and he caught four passes for 64 yards. While that might not sound great, consider three of those catches and 58 of those yards came in the first half. After halftime, the Lions held Ertz to one catch for six yards, including two incomplete targets in the fourth quarter.

Like Ertz, Kelce is a long tight end who plays more like a wide receiver. He’s a matchup test for any defense -- and the Lions could end up using a combination of corners, safeties and linebackers to defend him. But no matter what the Lions do, there is one reality: Kelce is going to make plays. It’s just a matter of how many he’ll make.