As Jacksonville head coach Doug Pederson reviews the tape from Sunday’s loss in Kansas City, the question that will repeatedly cross his mind is, “What in the world was he thinking?”
For example. That moment with 3:39 left in the first quarter. The game was still scoreless, but Kansas City was driving. Now they were first-and-goal on the Jaguar 6. The Chiefs lined up with two wide receivers (Kadarius Toney and Juju Smith-Schuster) split out left, but close to the rest of the formation. The Jaguars didn’t play a lot of man against KC, but they were in man coverage now. The plan for those two receivers had Tyson Campbell in coverage against Juju, and – I’m almost positive – Darious Williams to cover Toney. Such was the disaster on this play that discerning the true design of the defense is a bit of a task.
Just before the snap, Kadarius – the farthest left of the receivers – started to motion back towards the middle of the formation. As he did, Williams took about two steps as though he was going to cross the formation with him. But once the ball was snapped, Darious curiously forgot all about Toney. His attention turned to the running back – Isiah Pacheco – who was shooting out of the backfield. Now, suddenly, Williams was covering him – much to the confusion, I’m sure of linebacker Foyesade Oluokun, who was also defending against Pacheco. Watching this play out on film, you can’t help but wonder why Jacksonville would assign two defenders to the running back in this situation.
Meanwhile, the other receivers were running routes that drew their defenders away from the right sideline. No one else tracked Toney as he swept his way wide to the very edge of that sideline. Open? I don’t think it’s possible for a receiver to get more wide open on a screen pass.
I have vague memories – somewhere in the distant past – of a downfield receiver completely uncovered and maybe 40 yards behind the closest defender. That kind of thing will happen once in a while. But for a screen pass? As Kadarious set up shop at the right sideline, there was no defender closer to that sideline than the near hashmark. It was almost as though the Chiefs and Jaguars had sent Toney to a time-out. According to Next Gen Stats, at the point that Toney caught the pass the nearest defender to him was safety Rayshawn Jenkins, standing in the middle of the end zone 20.1 yards away.
Kadarius actually found himself so close to the line that he hopped the last three yards on his right foot to make sure he didn’t step out of bounds. “Hopalong Kadarious?” (We’ll keep working on it.)
It would be the first of four touchdown passes tossed by Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, who put on a clinic on this afternoon. Every single one of them hinged on a head-shaking error in the Jacksonville secondary.
With 10:01 left in the first half, KC faced a second-and-1 from the 18-yard line. Jacksonville lined up like they were going to play man again, with Campbell and Williams lined up directly over the two receivers split wide left – Smith-Schuster and Justin Watson. It looked like man, but this would really be cover-4 – four defensive backs (including Campbell and Williams) who would drop back, each being responsible for one quarter of the field. Except that Williams wasn’t playing zone. He played the down in man coverage on Watson, which involved him abandoning his zone responsibility and shadowing Justin on his deep curl over the middle.
These are mistakes that you can’t make against Mahomes. As Williams was running away from his zone, KC receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling raced into the void he left and caught the easy touchdown pass. The Jags frequently found themselves in trouble when they tried to disguise coverages.
With 51 seconds left in the first half, it was Campbell’s turn. Jacksonville is still in cover-4, defending against the Chiefs’ first-and-ten play from the Jacksonville 13-yard line. The play begins with tight end Travis Kelce running vertically sort of in-between the left-sideline zone and the left-center zone. Jenkins (playing left-center) was in position to cover the route, but Campbell – responsible for the sideline/corner – couldn’t resist the temptation to drift over and “help” on Travis. It left the corner open for Noah Gray, who caught another easy touchdown.
With 43 seconds left in this third, and the Chiefs facing a second-and-goal on the seven-yard line, Jacksonville only rushed three and dropped eight into zone coverage. Seven of them played solid, disciplined zone defense. But it only takes one.
This time it was one of the underneath defenders – linebacker Devin Lloyd, who for some reason imagined he was in man coverage against a wide receiver (Watson). The moment Devin left his spot, Kelce ran to the void and turned around to add a touchdown reception of his own.
It was, I would think, enough to make Coach Pederson consider retirement. But the young Jaguars are building something. They will make their mistakes – sometimes head scratching – but they will get better.
And frankly, a lot of what happened to them in their 27-17 loss on Sunday (gamebook) (summary) was just Patrick being Patrick. Truthfully, defenses make mistakes and don’t necessarily pay for every one of them. The Jaguars, in fact, came into the game holding opposing passers to an 85.8 rating – which was better than league average. But one of the abilities that separates Mahomes from all but the other elite quarterbacks is how quickly he arrives at what Steve Young calls “the truth” of the defense.
As impressive as this ability was on the touchdown throws, Mahomes – who finished his night 26 for 35 for 331 yards and all those touchdowns – was even more impressive on a series of shorter passes thrown under duress. Jacksonville only blitzed Patrick 3 times all day, and their ability to pressure him with just four (and frequently three) rushers was sporadic. But when they did have him dead to rights, Mahomes all too often found ways – magical ways – to gain significant positive yards.
No fewer than seven of his completions came on plays where he was hit while throwing, or chased out of the pocket, or staring down a free rusher bursting through the line. The best of these may have been a play with 11:36 left in the first. KC was first-and-ten on their own 41. Hard run-action on the play sent both the left guard and tackle pulling to the right, along with the running back that Patrick pretended to hand the ball to. As Mahomes pulled the ball back from the running back, he looked up to find Josh Allen – one of Jacksonville’s best defenders – standing across the line from him with no one to block him.
Allen collapsed on Mahomes immediately, but by the time he arrived, the ball was already gone. Lined up wide left, Toney ran a crossing pattern that forced Campbell – in zone coverage to that side – to back up a couple of steps. In the small time window provided by those two steps backward, Gray slipped in front of Campbell, grabbed the pass and stepped out of bounds. The play gained only 7 yards, but I ask myself “who else makes that play?” Maybe no one. Most quarterbacks either turn and take the sack or throw the ball at the feet of the nearest running back.
But not Mahomes. I’m not sure that I’ve seen anyone since Joe Montana this quick to understand what part of the coverage has broken down and where the opportunities are. There’s a reason why this guy sets records almost every time he takes the field. This just in. He’s pretty good.