In their three wins in last year’s playoffs, all three of their opponents held the high-scoring Kansas City offense down – for a while. By the final whistle, though, the talented Chiefs’ offense had prevailed, scoring 51, 35 and 31 points – the last two games against two of the NFL’s best defenses.
During the 2019 regular season, though, the NFL’s fifth-most prolific scoring team was held below 30 points in 9 of their 16 games, proving that slowing down the Kansas City offense is possible.
Thus far in 2020, KC ranks eighth in scoring, and has been denied 30 points twice in the first four games. Two games in particular have showcased the NFL’s very best efforts to restrict the irresistible force that is the Kansas City offense. In Week Two, the Chiefs trailed 17-9 against the Chargers after three quarters before coming back to claim a 23-20 overtime win (summary). Then, last Monday they were scuffling to a 6-3 lead over New England with less than a minute left in the third quarter before eventually pulling away for a 26-10 win (gamebook) (summary).
The two approaches differed greatly, but they represent the two best proven remedies for a quarterback with no weaknesses in his game. You have to beat the rest of his team.
Pressure from LA
What the Charger defense does best is come after the passer. They have yet to harvest many sacks (only 6 in four games), but they are tied for fourth in the league in QB pressures with 45. With defensive linemen Joey Bosa and Jerry Tillery leading the way, KC quarterback Patrick Mahomes saw some form of direct harassment on 23 of his 47 passing attempts. This doesn’t count the times he was forced out of the pocket.
It remains one of the age old truisms of football. No quarterback can beat you when he’s flat on his back. The trickiest aspect of this approach is that the pressure has to come from no more than four rushers. The Chargers are blessed with dynamic linemen that can disrupt almost any passing attack. But you have to do it with four. Once you start blitzing Patrick, you are inviting disaster.
The Chargers might well have won that contest. But, while the defense was dampening down the Chief’s firepower, the offense didn’t take full advantage of their opportunities. After scoring 14 points in the first half, their first three drives of the second half all took them into Kansas City territory. They managed just 2 field goals and had a pass intercepted on the KC five yard line. The last field goal came after LA had a first-and-goal from the 4.
What happened, then, was that they let the Chiefs hang around long enough that one big play (the 54-yard touchdown strike to Tyreek Hill with Mahomes scrambling out of the pocket) turned the momentum of the game.
Patriots Played Coverage
New England’s defense doesn’t feature the pass rush ability of the Chargers. But, the Patriots have (arguably) football deepest and most highly skilled secondary – led by cornerback deluxe Stephon Gilmore. In their matchup with the Chiefs, New England frequently rushed only three and dropped eight into coverage, almost evenly mixing man coverages and zones.
This is also a very workable strategy when executed well. It doesn’t matter how great the quarterback is if he doesn’t have open receivers to throw to. Unusual in Kansas City during the Mahomes era, last Monday you saw Patrick standing in the pocket holding the ball. And holding. And holding while waiting for someone to uncover.
In 35 drop-backs. Patrick dealt with imminent pressure just 9 times – although he was forced to scramble on 5 occasions. Such pressure as New England managed usually was not early pressure, but came after Mahomes had surveyed the field awhile. While he completed 19 of 29 throws (65.5%), most of his completions were contested, and two of his incompletions were very nearly intercepted.
Save for Tyrann Mathieu’s fourth-quarter interception return for a touchdown, Kansas City would have finished the evening with an almost unheard of 19 points.
As with the Chargers, the Patriots were able to do this because they are the best in the NFL (or nearly the best) in what they do – coverage. They have an aspect of their defense that is strong enough and consistent enough to interfere with the regular workings of Andy Reid’s offense.
And they didn’t blitz.
In between these two victories, Kansas City had a relatively easy time beating Baltimore 34-20. The Ravens also boast an elite secondary, but their pass rush is a function of a variety of cunning blitzes. Patrick and his offense feasted on the Baltimore blitzing. They carried a 27-10 lead into the half, and never looked back. Mahomes finished the night 31 of 42 for 385 yards and 4 touchdowns.
Even if you are one of football’s best blitzing teams, this is not the offense to try that with.
Also, like the Chargers, the Patriots failed to take advantage of the long stretch of the game that the defense held the Chiefs close. New England, of course, was absent its starting quarterback. (Apparently Superman is vulnerable to the COVID virus. I must have missed that episode.) Their offensive struggles were somewhat understandable.
Even so, this is another plank in the formula for slowing down (and, eventually, beating) KC – which now reads:
First, either through pressure or coverage, beat the players around Mahomes.
Second, blitz rarely if at all.
Third, don’t miss on scoring opportunities. You will not beat this team 13-10.
And, oh yes, a final point. During all of this you have to stop their running game as well. Andy has taken quite a shine to his first-round draft pick – a running back out of LSU named Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Clyde has put up 304 ground yards through the first four games. If you over play the pass, Clyde and the Chiefs will punish you on the ground.
The good news in all of this is that, yes, the Chiefs can certainly be slowed. But it clearly isn’t easy.