How Do You Solve a Problem Like Mahomes

EDITOR’S NOTE: This post was originally written on the Saturday afternoon before the Super Bowl. Technical issues prevented its publication before the game was played.

We have 6:22 left in the second quarter, and the contest between the Buffalo Bills and the Kansas City Chiefs was at a bit of a cross-roads.  At stake, of course, was a trip to tomorrow’s big game in Tampa.

Buffalo had jumped out to an early 9-0 lead (par for the course for Kansas City) but by this point, the Chiefs had already retaken the lead, 14-9.  Now, Kansas City had the ball again, but faced a third-and-six on their own 38.  After Buffalo had forced KC to go three-and-out on its opening possession, the Chiefs had answered with consecutive touchdown drives of 80 and 82 yards.  At this moment, the Bills needed a stop pretty badly.  A third straight KC touchdown, and the season will start to slip away from Buffalo.

To this point, Buffalo had only blitzed the Chiefs and quarterback Patrick Mahomes 4 times through his first 20 pass attempts.  Sensing the magnitude of this opportunity, they now lined six potential rushers along the line of scrimmage.  While the threatened blitz would prove to be a fake, it would offer something of a twist.  The two linemen lined up in the “A” gaps (A.J. Epensa and Darryl Johnson) dropped back into pass coverage, while the linebackers lined up on the outside (Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds) joined the rush.

As Milano charged into the backfield, running back Darrel Williams – who might have been tasked with blocking him – slipped quietly past him and into his pattern – allowing Milano unimpeded access to the quarterback.  As Patrick lifted his arm to throw the ball, he – and everyone else watching the game – knew that it was already too late.  Milano was on top of him and had him for the sack that just might have turned the game around.

And then the magic happened.

In the heartbeat before Milano arrived, Mahmoes pulled the ball back down and with the subtlest of shoulder rolls moved himself enough out of harms’ way that he reduced Matt’s initial hit to a glancing blow off his upper right arm. As Patrick tried to slide past, Milano lunged and pulled the Chief quarterback’s legs out from under him.  Mahomes went down, but by then it was too late to do the Bills any good.  Patrick had already released the ball.

The defensive plan had worked, in the sense that bringing both linebackers off the edge allowed one (Milano) to gain a free run at Mahomes.  Its drawback was that it put defensive linemen in key pass defense positions.  Here, even as running back Williams floated out into the flat to look for Mahomes pass, he drew the attention of one of those defensive linemen – Johnson – who started to stray from his middle area to play the running back.  A more experienced pass defender would probably have seen that the back was already covered by safety Jordan Poyer – whose zone responsibility it was.  That experienced pass defender would certainly have judged that tight end Travis Kelce – who had just run past Johnson and was settling in the soft spot in the zone just behind him – would present a more immediate danger and would have drifted back toward his middle responsibility and tried to deny that target.

But Johnson was uncertain, and, in fact, covered neither as he hovered somewhere between the two.  Somehow aware of all of this – even as he was dealing with the present peril of Milano – Patrick Mahomes, in that half second before Matt took him to the ground, released a perfect pass to the most open receiver on the field.  The play gained 11 yards and the first down that kept the drive alive.

But if that play was a kidney punch to the Bills’ Super Bowl dreams, the next play would be a knife to the heart.

Now it would be Epensa – back to rushing the passer – that would beat KC tackle Eric Fisher off the snap.  He would come cleanly and be on top of Mahomes before he could set up in the pocket.  Again, Buffalo had the big defensive play in its grasp.  And again it didn’t happen.  Somehow Mahomes spun out of another sure sack and made another un-erring throw just seconds before Epensa returned and drove him to the turf.

One of the more difficult targets for a zone defense to account for is the receiver who comes from the other side of the formation and settles in behind them.  On this play, that was Mahomes’ other primary target – Tyreek Hill.  Milano, who had all but had the sack on the previous play, had zone responsibility there.  But with both Kelce and running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire hanging out near the line of scrimmage, Matt hadn’t gotten any depth on his drop at all.  Byron Pringle, the wide receiver on that side (the right side), ran a go pattern up that sideline, taking cornerback Tre’Davious White and safety Poyer with him.  So the void that Hill settled into – about ten yards behind Milano and about 25 yards in front of White – was about as open a patch of ground that any receiver would see that day.

By the time the defense converged on Hill, the play had covered 33 yards.  Kansas City was now on Buffalo’s 18-yard line, and two plays later they were in the end zone, pushing the score to 21-9 on their way to the 38-24 victory (gamebook) (summary) that would send the Chiefs to their second consecutive Super Bowl.

Kansas City has now won 25 of Patrick Mahomes last 26 starts.  He and his Chiefs, over just the last two years, have become football’s new gold standard.  Everyone else who now has designs on hoisting the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the year understands that at some point they will have to go through the Chiefs – and they will probably have to do it in Kansas City.

In 2020, the Buffalo Bills had a watershed year.  Their 13 regular season wins were their most since 1991.  They had back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1998-99, making consecutive trips to the playoffs for the first time since those years as well.  They won their division for the first time since 1995.  This was the first time since 95 that they had survived past the Wild Card Round.  They played in their first AFC Championship Game since 1993 – the last of their four consecutive Super Bowl losses.  Their 501 points scored was a franchise record.  They ranked second in the NFL in both points and yards – their highest ranking in those categories since the height of the Jim Kelly era.  They finished second in yards back in 1992 and second in points the year before.

By any measuring stick, this had been a glorious season for the Buffalo Bills.  But, two Sunday’s ago it was their turn to participate in the NFL’s least favorite game show: How Do You Solve a Problem Like Mahomes?

Of course, the real problem is that it’s not just Mahomes.  As sensational as the 25-year-old phenom is, there are no successful one-man teams in the NFL.  In KC, Patrick finds himself surrounded by elite receivers who all operate under the watchful eye of coach Andy Reid – long regarded as one of the most creative designers of offense in the business.  It is a perfect blend of talent and system.  And it’s giving the rest of the NFL heartburn.

So How Are They Stopped?

There are only two basic approaches to this offense – or any prolific offense – that have any real chance of success.  There are some variants off of these, but essentially you either have to cover the receivers or sack the quarterback.  This sounds overly simplistic – and either plan is certainly a challenge to execute – but you would be surprised how many teams that line up against the Chiefs fail to focus on these basic fundamentals.  Many teams try to confuse them with bizarre coverages – opting for obfuscation rather than actual coverage.  Many more make the mistake that Buffalo did on Championship Sunday.  They try to wait them out.  They play conservative zone defenses, try to eliminate the big plays, and force this team to put together long drives – hoping along the way that something – a dropped pass, a sack, a penalty, maybe a turnover – will stall the drive before the Chiefs reach pay-dirt.

Against a lot of teams, this isn’t a bad approach.  Even good offenses frequently have trouble repeatedly sustaining drives.  The team Kansas City will face tomorrow afternoon is such a team.  But the Chiefs are not.  Repeatedly over the course of the last two seasons, Kansas City has shown themselves perfectly comfortable playing patient offense.  Against Buffalo, they orchestrated three long, time-consuming drives.  Beginning at the end of the first quarter, they marched 80 yards on 14 plays of a drive that consumed 6:58.  That resulted in their first touchdown.  They opened the second half scoring a field goal after a ten-play drive, and put the fork in the Bills in the fourth quarter with an 11-play, 5 minute 35 second drive that covered 58 yards (after an interception) for their final touchdown.

And the only reason that they didn’t have more long drives for scores is that they didn’t need to.  As badly as Buffalo wanted to stop the big play, they were unable to.  During the offensive deluge that followed their opening series, Kansas City hurt Buffalo with plays of 33, 50 and 71 yards, while nicking them with 12 other plays of 10 yards or more.  After the initial three-and-out (which was the first time all season they had gone three-and-out on their opening drive), KC went touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, end of half, field goal, touchdown, touchdown, end of game.

Through KC’s first 27 pass attempts, Buffalo blitzed just 6 times and played zone defenses 22 times.  At this point in the proceedings, Patrick had answered with 21 completions in those 27 throws (77.78%) but for 208 yards (9.9 per completion) and a touchdown – good for a 111.11 passer rating.

This brings us to Kansas City’s first drive of the second half. Already trailing 21-12 Buffalo had the Chiefs facing another third down (third-and-five) in their own territory (the Chiefs were already on the Bills 43).  Convinced at this point that their safe zone concept wasn’t bearing fruit, Buffalo switched tactics.  Beginning with that snap, Buffalo would play man coverages on 9 of KC’s last 12 pass attempts.  They would blitz more times (7) on the Chiefs’ last 12 drop-backs than they had in the entire game previous to this (6). 

The results?  Worse.  They did get one “sack” (Jerry Hughes twirled Mahomes out of bounds for no loss of yardage).  Otherwise, Pat completed 8 of those final 11 passes for 117 yards and 2 more touchdowns – a 146.59 rating – as the juggernaut offense rolled on unabated.  Buffalo entered the game knowing they couldn’t permit big games by Kansas City’s two elite receivers – Kelce and Hill.  They pretty much had to take one of them away and limit the other.  Travis finished with 118 yards and two touchdowns on 13 catches and Tyreek caught 9 passes for an eye-popping 172 yards.  Mission less than accomplished.

For the game, Mahomes saw some form of zone coverage on 64.1% of his pass attempts. It slowed him very little – Pat was 20 of 25 for 185 yards and a touchdown (a 110.83 rating) against the Buffalo zones.  For the 14 snaps that they played man coverage against him, Patrick was even better – 9 of 13 for 140 yards and the other two touchdowns (a 144.23 rating).  They 11 times that Buffalo blitzed Mahomes didn’t work out well for them either – Patrick went 9 for 11 for 148 yards and all three of his touchdown passes when the Bills sent an extra rusher.

Buffalo’s zone had no answers for Kelce, who caught 10 of 12 passes thrown his way against the zone for 84 yards and one of his touchdowns.  When the Bills played man, it was the other guy (Hill) who damaged them.  Of the 13 passes Mahomes threw against man coverage. Four went to Tyreek.  Hill caught 3 of the 4 for 92 yards.

The deeper you dive into Mahomes numbers from this contest, the scarier they get.  He was 5 of 6 on third down (KC was 6 for 9 on third down until Patrick’s final kneel down), and he was 6 for 8 with 3 touchdowns in the red zone.  In the third quarter alone Mahomes was 9 for 10 for 123 yards and a touchdown.  Tyreek Hill accounted for 108 receiving yards in that quarter alone.

And the hotter the pressure the better he performed.  Of the 12 passes Mahomes threw under some form of duress – being at least enough pressure to hurry the throw – Patrick completed 9 for 169 yards and a touchdown – a 144.44 rating.  He never threw incompletions on consecutive passes.

But watching the tape of Patrick in this game is even more impressive than the numbers.  I reviewed each of his 39 drop backs.  He made one – just one – decision that I might quibble over.  With 7:06 left in the second quarter, Patrick kept rolling farther and farther to his right. Just before stepping out of bounds, he threw incomplete up the sidelines in the direction Nick Keizer.  On the play, he did have Mecole Hardman running past Taron Johnson on a middle post.  Even here, though, it looked like Hardman was running into the deep safety.  It wasn’t until later in the down that Mecole veered his route toward the right sideline and away from any defenders.

In a game in which he faced frequent quick pressure and more good coverage than bad, for him to make just one read that I could question is a little awe-inspiring.  It was probably as close to a perfect game (from a mental standpoint, anyway) as I have seen in quite a long time.

He looks a little pigeon-toed when he runs, and – officially – he stands just 6-3.  Standing among all the giants on the sideline, his physique resembles more that of the ball-boy than an NFL star.  That, and his mop of sometimes unruly hair give him the innocuous look of a high school senior asking if he can borrow the car on Friday night.  And he is the most dominant offensive force in football today.  Cocooned as he is in Reid’s offense and surrounded with a bevy of elite weapons, solving the problem of Patrick Mahomes doesn’t figure to be easy for anyone.  Some problems, after all, don’t have any good solutions.

What Will Tampa Bay Do?

Next up on the list will be the Buccaneers in tomorrow’s big game.  What will their approach be?  Not Buffalo’s.  By nature, they are more aggressive – and their zone defenses have been notoriously leaky and un-disciplined all year long.  They don’t have the option of playing zone 64% of the time (although Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles is curiously fond of playing zone).  In man coverage, they are many times better than in zone – but they won’t be able to cover all of the Chief receivers all day.  If they stay in zone, Patrick will pick them apart.  If they play man, Mahomes will burn them more than once with the big play.  Man is still the better answer.

I would double-team Hill, trying as much as possible to get some hands on him as he’s leaving the line of scrimmage.  And I would employ defensive linemen to jam Kelce at the line – I’m not talking about a little chip before going in to rush the passer, I’m talking about knocking him down as he tries to get out.  Within a yard of the line of scrimmage, you can actually get away with anything short of an outright hold.

Even at that, though, it will come down to pressure.  None of their other schemes will matter unless they can get Mahomes on the ground – and they will really have to do this without blitzing.  In this regard, there is a strong ray of hope for the Bucs.  Kansas City lost a starting tackle (Fisher) in the Championship Game.  They responded then by moving right tackle (Mike Remmers) to Fisher’s left tackle spot, and moving right guard Andrew Wylie in to the right tackle spot, bringing Stefen Wisniewski off the bench to play right guard.  If KC keeps that alignment for the Super Bowl, then that one injury will incur upheaval at three offensive line positions.

As it was, neither Remmers nor Wylie was overly impressive as pass protectors at the tackle spots.  This is significant, because the most impressive aspect of the Buc defense in their win over Green Bay were edge rushers Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett.  It’s putting a lot of pressure on those two players, but if they can dominate the Chief tackles – and if Andy doesn’t think up some scheme to neutralize them – then Tampa Bay has the opportunity to apply some real, consistent pressure on Mahomes and this offense.

Whether that will be enough, though, is the question.  Remember, Buffalo also put pressure on Mahomes, thinking on several occasions that they had him.  At the end of the day, there is still the Mahomes magic to overcome.

Growing Pains in Buffalo

Yes, the best season in Buffalo in a couple of decades ended in disappointment.  The question for them, now, will be what useful information can they glean from this?  In particular, this game was revealing about the state of development of their franchise quarterback, Josh Allen.

In their playoff win over Indianapolis, I was quick to praise Josh’s performance.  He responded, I thought, with great poise to a tightly contested playoff game against a well-coached team.  For much of this game, however, I was less than impressed.

After completing four of his first five passes, Allen slipped into the kind of play characteristic of a quarterback feeling the pressure of the importance of the game.

Over their next four possessions (which was saved from producing four punts by a muffed punt from KC that gave Buffalo the ball of the Chief three-yard line) Allen completed just 3 of 10 passes for only 11 yards.  He also suffered a sack that he turned into a 15 yard loss as he kept retreating.  (He would do this same thing on his last play of the season, losing 18 yards on a play that prevented Buffalo from taking one last shot at the end zone.)

During these series, Josh played very fast and will little confidence.  In short order, he a) nearly threw an interception trying to force an up-the-field throw to Cole Beasley; b) threw early and incomplete to Stefon Diggs before any of the routes could lift any of the zone coverages; c) checked down immediately to his running back Devin Singletary without giving an opportunity to any of the other receivers to get more than five yards downfield (that play gained just 2 yards).  On the very next play, he had Gabriel Davis one-on-one against mismatched safety Tyrann Mathieu.  But before Gabriel could take three steps, Josh was dumping the ball off to Diggs for 6 yards.  That was (d. 

Exhibit e) comes with 9:35 left in the first half.  The line provides him with a perfectly clean pocket, but Allen can’t seem to relax back there.  Instead of checking the ball down or throwing it away, Allen heaves the ball into the teeth of Kansa City’s cover-two.  He is fortunate that that one also wasn’t intercepted.

A final instance – exhibit f) occurred two plays later, Buffalo has a third-and-three.  Beasley ran right past L’Jarius Sneed on a vertical route.  Josh never looked at him.  He was locked in on Digg’s curl route to the right – which he over-threw when it did come open.

I should mention that on all of these plays, Allen had great protection and ample time to wait and make better decisions (and better throws, for that matter).  But he seemed unable to trust himself, his teammates, or the system.  His emotions were overcoming his training and the offense under him began to stall out.  Over the 15 plays that these important drives consumed, Buffalo advanced just 47 yards (3.1 per play) and held the ball for a combined 6:38.

To this point, it looked like a regression for Allen, and the beginning of some questioning about his ability to play on the biggest stage.  Fortunately for Buffalo, that wouldn’t be the final impression of Josh Allen.

Allen Rebounds

After that failed third down, Buffalo punted again and – of course – Kansas City drove for the touchdown that put them up 21-9.  Allen and the offense got the ball back with 4:12 left in the half.

On the first play of that drive, Kansas City tried to confuse Allen, bringing a cornerback (Sneed) off the slot on a blitz and sliding Daniel Sorensen from the middle of the line (where he was threatening a blitz) over to the side to cover Snead’s man (Beasley).  Allen saw immediately that Sorensen could never get there in time and had the ball in Beasley’s hands almost before Daniel could get out of his stance.  That play gained 14 yards.

Two plays later, Josh hit his tight end Dawson Knox the moment that he broke his route in toward the middle.  That throw was good for another 12 yards.  On the next play, Allen kept the play alive as long as possible and delivered an excellent throw on the run to running back T.J. Yeldon who had gotten up-field.  That was good for 20 more yards.

Beginning with that drive, Allen would complete 21 of his next 31 passes (67.74%) and would give a better showing of himself.  He even produced his own magic moment – a 15-yard pass to Diggs on third-and-13 that he made on the dead run as he was about to go out of bounds.  The second half of Allen’s performance was much more encouraging than the first.

Areas For Improvement

Even with Josh feeling more confidant as the game went on, his situational play will still have to improve.  He was just 5 for 9 on third down, with only 2 of those completions resulting in first downs – and only 2 for 5 for 8 yards and 1 first down when the third down was less than five yards.  In the red zone Josh was just 6 of 13 for 30 yards.  He did throw 2 touchdowns, but also threw a red zone interception, gave up the big sack at the end of the game that pushed them out past the thirty, and led two drives that shriveled inside the ten yard line.  Buffalo kicked field goals from the Kansas City 2 and 8 yard lines.

Even here, though, most of the problems were not so much Josh as the rest of the offense. On third down and in the red zone, the Chief defense turned more heavily to man coverages and blitzes.  In the red zone, Josh saw man on 12 of 14 drop-backs – including 5 blitzes.  On 10 third-down drop-backs, Allen faced man coverage 8 times with three of them including a blitz.

The issue here was that Josh’s receivers had considerable trouble freeing themselves from Kansas City’s man coverage.  This was glaringly true of Stefon Diggs who caught only 3 of 7 targeted passes against man coverages for just 18 yards.  Overall, Josh faced man coverages for 59.6% of his passes, and finished just 15 of 30 for 134 yards – a surprisingly low 4.47 yards per attempt and 8.93 per completion (against man, these averages are usually much higher).  Both of his touchdown passes came against man coverages, but so did his interception – a 70.69 passer rating.

Additionally, Buffalo would profit from better pass protection – especially at the tackle position where both Dion Dawkins and Daryl Williams frequently gave up the corner.  Williams, in particular, frequently forgot blitzers coming off of his corner.  Many Chief rushes were permitted free access to the Buffalo backfield because Daryl turned inside to double-team a tackle.  Whether they can reasonably expect Dawkins and Williams to improve, or whether they bring in different tackles, this is an area of weakness that Kansas City exposed.

My final recommendation to Buffalo would be to re-invest in your running attack and balance out your offense.  In this game, Buffalo’s final rushing totals looked healthy enough – 18 rushes for 129 yards.  Don’t be deceived by that, though.  Eighty-eight of those yards came from quarterback Allen – 67 of those on scrambles.  Wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie added a couple of gadget runs that produced 9 yards and 2 first downs.  As far as an actual running back taking an actual handoff and trying to pick up yards behind the offensive line, that happened just 9 times during the game for only 32 yards (3.6 per).  They ran for just 1 first down, and none of those attempts went for more than 7 yards.

Head Coach Sean McDermott was asked after the game whether he should have run the ball more.  His response – along the lines of “we had to score as much as possible and couldn’t afford to be hampered by second-and-long situations” – reveals a mindset, perhaps, that only sees value in the running game when you want to run out the clock at the end of the game.  I maintain that Buffalo will continue to scuffle in the red zone (they ranked thirteenth this year) until they develop a legitimate running attack.

The Chess Match Against the Buccaneer Offense

The most interesting of the chess matches for the big game tomorrow will be the Chief defense trying to keep a lid on the Tampa Bay offense.  As I discussed earlier, Tampa Bay very much lives and dies with the big play, so that will be a focus of the defense.  But, as with restricting big plays by the Kansas City attack, this is always easier said than done.  Antonio Brown – I understand – is officially questionable for the game.  But even without Brown, Tampa Bay has a nimiety of receivers, and whether in zone or man coverage, Kansas City will be hard pressed to contain all of them – although I will take this occasion to point of that the Kansas City secondary is much better than generally realized.

This is especially true of cornerbacks Bashaud Breeland, Charvarious Ward and Sneed – who is listed as probably for tomorrow.  All three authored very tight coverage – especially in man situations.  Additionally, safeties Sorensen, Tyrann Mathieu and Juan Thornhill are intelligent playmakers who have a penchant making big plays.

As with the Tampa Bay defense, the answer will be pressure.  If they can bring the heat against Brady, they will almost assuredly win the game.  But this will also be a part of the chess match.  Kansas City is fond of the blitz.  They blitzed Allen 19 times two Sunday’s ago (exactly one third of his drop-backs), but as Tampa Bay has evolved, they have become more comfortable with keeping people in to block.  At least once against Green Bay the Bucs protected against a six-man rush with an eight-man barrier.

When the Chiefs blitzed on Championship Sunday, it was usually a fairly intense blitz.  On 14 of the 19 blitzes they sent at least six pass rushers.  Whether they will continue that trend against the Bucs – and whether the Bucs will continue to keep multiple players in the backfield to block – will be questions that will go a long way to determining the outcome of this one.

The key player – perhaps for the entire Super Bowl – might well be defensive tackle Chris Jones.  During last year’s playoffs, Jones was dominant.  Then the Chiefs signed him to the big contract.  Chris has played well this year – but has rarely been the force that he was last year.  There were about three plays in this game, though, that were reminiscent of the 2019 edition of Chris Jones – a couple of times where he burst through the line throwing offensive linemen out of his way.

If that Chris Jones shows up tomorrow, it could re-write the narrative of the game.  All quarterbacks have difficulty with pressure up the middle.  For pocket passers like Tom Brady, middle pressure is a well-known kryptonite.  A guy like Jones – the Chris Jones of last year, anyway – could give the Chiefs that inside force without the need to bring extra rushers, and could play a huge role in inhibiting the Tampa Bay big play.

And a Prediction

After mulling this over, I’m going to predict a Kansas City win.  While there is a clear path here for a Tampa Bay win, too much has to go right for them.  This especially takes into account the vulnerability of their pass defense, but also calculates their dependence on the big play.

Kansas City’s relative weakness at offensive tackle gives Tampa Bay a critical opportunity, but overall the Chiefs are a better team, with a locker room full of guys who routinely make big plays in big games.

And they have Mahomes magic going for them too – quite a problem.

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