Tag Archives: Kansas City Chiefs

Gotta Find That Guy

Eight weeks is a long time for frustration to fester.

The Los Angeles Rams were a 7-2 ballclub as they took the field in San Francisco on Monday, November 15.  More than all of that, they were the talk of the football world, having just added Odell Beckham Jr. and Von Miller to their roster.  They now had the look of this super-team that was ready to take on all comers.  Two hours and fifty minutes later, they limped into the locker room on the embarrassing end of a 31-10 blowout by a 49er team that had entered the game just 3-5.

The loss was humbling enough, but the manner of it made it that much harder to swallow.  San Francisco bludgeoned them on the ground, running the football 44 times for 156 yards.  It was San Francisco’s fifth consecutive victory against their division rival, and their formula was embarrassingly simple.  They were – once again – the more physical team.  Starting their first drive on their own 7-yard line, the 49ers bullied the Rams off the ball going 93 yards on 18 grueling plays – 13 of them runs.

For eight weeks, the Rams have worn that loss while putting themselves in position to win the division.  These two separate threads of the season ran together in the season finale last Sunday.  Now 12-4, the Rams could win the division and claim the conference’s second seed with one more win.  And, as serendipity would have it, their opponent for their first-ever Week 18 game were those same 49ers.  To make the pot even sweeter, San Francisco came into LA riding a 6-2 streak that had started with their Monday night win, and were one win away from sneaking into the playoffs.

In one fell swoop (as it were), the Rams could sew up their division, claim the second seed and knock the 49ers into the offseason – all while proving that they weren’t as soft as the league was starting to think they were.

For 29-and-a-half minutes, the Rams were all of that.  They landed on the 49ers like the Marines landing on a beach.

Taking the opening kickoff, LA drained the first 8:53 off the clock, converting three third-downs on their way to a first-and-ten on the San Francisco 19.  The 49ers held them out of the end zone on that drive, forcing the Rams to settle for a field goal.  The reprieve was only temporary.

San Francisco managed one first down on their first possession before punting back to the Rams, who went immediately back on the attack.  This time, LA’s 12-play, 61-yard, 6:25 drive found the end zone, and San Francisco’s early deficit grew to 10 points.

Four minutes later, it looked like the game had slid away from the 49ers.  After all three of their plays in the subsequent possession lost yards, San Francisco found itself punting from its own 7-yard line.  When Mitch Wishnowsky’s 43-yard punt was returned 31 yards by Brandon Powell, the Rams were set-up on the 49er 19.  It took them just 3 plays to make the score 17-0.

The San Fran defense withstood one final first-half drive from the Rams without allowing further damage, but the halftime statistics gave clear evidence of Los Angeles’ complete domination.

LA controlled the ball for 19:53 of that first half, including going 7-10 on third down.  San Francisco finished the first half with just 19 offensive plays (remember they had had 18 on their first possession on that Monday night game) for only 83 yards.  The 49ers had just 10 rushing yards on only 5 carries.

And don’t for a moment believe that the Rams weren’t emotionally invested in this rivalry.  After that last touchdown, Ram coach Sean McVay raced into the end zone to join in the celebration.

To this point, the game couldn’t be more satisfying to Coach McVay and the Ram organization.

But fortunately for San Francisco, they didn’t go into the locker room down the full 17-0.  Getting the ball with 38 seconds left in the half, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo got the ball to wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk for two “chunk” plays – gains of 19 and 26 yards respectively – that positioned the 49ers for an end-of-half field goal.

That may not sound terribly significant, but the points would turn out to be vital, and just that late offensive success would be enough to ease San Francisco back into rhythm.

Tale of Two Halves

As a kind of microcosm of this most unpredictable season, the 49ers dominated the game’s second half every bit as thoroughly as the Rams had dominated the opening half.  San Francisco held the ball for 19:22 of the second half, outgaining LA 287-103.

Again, the game came down to Garoppolo.  Taking over on his own 12-yard line, down 24-17 with 1:27 left on the clock and no timeouts, Jimmy threw for 21 yards to Aiyuk and 43 yards to Deebo Samuel to position things for a game-tying, 14-yard toss to Jauan Jennings with 26 ticks left.

San Francisco would subsequently win in overtime, 27-24 (gamebook) (summary).  The win sent the 49ers into the dance as the sixth seed.  In spite of their loss, the Rams won their division anyway when Arizona lost.

While the two-minute drive was compelling, the game’s signature moment came on San Francisco’s second drive of the second half.  Having already trimmed the LA lead to 17-10, and after turning the Ram offense away on their first second-half possession, the 49ers took over on their own 26 with 8:48 left in the quarter.

They proceeded to call ten straight running plays – nine of them right up the middle.

Same Old Rams?

Back in the day, when the Rams were in St Louis and the 49ers were perennial Super Bowl contenders, the 49ers beat the Rams 17 consecutive times from 1990 to 1998 (only the last 8 of those wins occurred during the Rams’ tenure in StL).  After these bi-annual beatings, the 49ers would always shrug and say, “same old Rams.”

No one said “same old Rams” after this game.  Even so, that kind of sequence – ten consecutive runs up the middle – sends a message.  After just 10 ground yards in the first half, San Fran racked up 96 yards (on 20 attempts) in the second thirty minutes, and added 29 more (on 6 attempts) in their overtime field goal drive.

After halftime, the 49ers racked up 125 rushing yards on 26 carries (4.8 per).  They converted 7 of 10 third downs over that span.  Even if no one said it, it was indeed the same old Rams.

After a shaky first half against Baltimore, Matthew Stafford and the LA passing game scorched the Ravens in the second half of Week 17.  He was 14 for 14 for 162 yards and a touchdown in the second half of that game.  He began the contest against the 49ers in that same vein – completing 15 of his first 16 for 153 yards and 2 more touchdowns.  From halftime of Week 17 to halftime of Week 18, Stafford completed 29 of 30 passes (96.7%) for 315 yards (10.5 per attempt) and 3 touchdowns, with no interceptions – a 143.8 passer rating.

In the second half of the 49er game – and struggling against an unrestrainable San Francisco pass rush – Matthew finished the contest completing just 6 of his last 16 passes for 85 yards.  He did throw a touchdown pass, but also tossed two more interceptions – bringing his total to 7 over the last 3 games of the season.  The final interception was an underthrow in overtime.  Given their opportunity to answer the San Francisco field goal, Stafford had Beckham up the right sideline with a step on 49er corner Ambry Thomas.  But Odell could only watch helplessly as Matthew’s short throw ended up in the arms of the San Francisco defensive back, ending the game.

As much as the 49er offensive line physically dominated the Rams defense, the San Fran defensive line had its way against the Ram offense.  LA ran for only 14 yards on 15 first half carries, on its way to 64 rushing yards for the game – at 2.4 yards per attempt.  More than half of that yardage came after contact, as the defensive front couldn’t be parted.  Sony Michel – LA’s leading rusher – carried the ball 21 times, getting only 13 yards before being contacted by the defense (0.6 per carry).  Five of their 27 running plays were tackled behind the line of scrimmage.

Stafford, meanwhile, was sacked 5 times, hit 6 other times and hurried 3 more – meaning disruptive pressure on 37.8% of his 37 drop-backs.  No matter who is under center for your team, he will rarely thrive under that kind of pressure.

So the Rams are off to the playoffs, hosting round three against Arizona, with all of the question marks still hovering over them.  They are an undeniably talented team, and they are unquestionably capable of dominating on any given Sunday.  But consistency remains a lingering question.  And now, so does their toughness.

Wither Jimmy G

Headed to Dallas to play the Sunday afternoon game, the 49ers and Jimmy Garoppolo are back in the playoffs – their middling 10-7 record accented by a season-closing 7-2 run.

In the closing drives – the field goal just before the half and the tying touchdown at the end of the game – Jimmy completed 8 of 9 passes (not counting the spike right before the field goal) for 144 yards and the touchdown.  He was 4 for 5 for 50 yards as he drove them to the winning points in overtime.

The last I’ve heard from the 49ers is that Jimmy’s job will be rookie Trey Lance’s as soon as he’s “ready.”  That means – I suppose – that however deep into the playoffs this team runs, there is strong likelihood that this will be the end of five very interesting years for Garoppolo in the city by the bay. 

Beginning with 2017, when he started his 49er career with a 5-0 record before missing the rest of the season with an injury, Jimmy’s tenure as the San Francisco signal caller has seen plenty of both wins and injuries.  In 5 years, Garoppolo has made 45 starts – 9 a year, or marginally more than half of the available starts.  But the team is 31-14 in those games, with Jimmy posting an outstanding 98.3 passer rating.

If this is, in fact, his final season here, then San Francisco can only hope that Lance will develop into a quarterback as good as Jimmy.  The real question surrounding Garoppolo is just exactly what will his next team be getting.

Is Garoppolo an Elite Quarterback?

After watching him carefully for the last several seasons, I have to say that if elite is the Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes level, then no.  Jimmy doesn’t belong with that group.  He lacks that superstar gear that these other guys have.  You will rarely see Garoppolo thoroughly take over a contest and dominate the other team the way that those other guys can.

This doesn’t relegate Jimmy to the ”game manager” category.

Whoever gets him next will be getting a top quarterback.  Jimmy performs all of the quarterback duties at a very high level.  Furthermore, he makes big plays at important times of the game, and his leadership abilities are among the best in the league.  He commands the huddle and easily earns the trust and confidence of his teammates.  You almost never see Garoppolo without a smile on his face, an that inherent enjoyment and the easy confidence that it expresses rubs off on the teams that he plays for.

Could Garoppolo win a Super Bowl somewhere?  If he can stay healthy, he certainly could.  Could that place be San Francisco?  It could.  He, in fact, seems an excellent fit for Kyle Shanahan’s clever smoke-and-mirrors offense.

Of course, he will have to figure out how to stay on the field.

Speaking of Quarterbacks

The team that topped Garoppolo and the 49ers in that Super Bowl two years ago – the Kansas City Chiefs – also struggled out of the gate this year.  They started 3-4 before clipping off 8 straight wins.  Going into their Saturday season finale, Kansas City still had a shot at the top seed in its conference.

But, against a 7-9 Denver team that had nothing to play for except pride, the Chiefs almost stumbled down into the third seed, as it took a fourth-quarter defensive score to ease them past the Broncos, 28-24 (gamebook) (summary).

Although they threatened numerous blitzes, Vic Fangio’s group actually sent an extra rusher only twice in Mahomes’ fifty drop-backs.  It was part of an afternoon-long chess match, as Denver mixed looks and coverages, trying – and, for the most part succeeding – in staying one step ahead of the high-powered KC offense.  It helped that Kansas City’s star receiver Tyreek Hill was nursing a heel injury and played sparingly.  Even so, down three starting defensive backs, the Bronco defense held up heroically, almost completely denying the deep pass.

For the game, Patrick completed only 3 of his 14 passes aimed at targets more than ten yards up field.  Mahomes completed 27 passes that afternoon, but to targets that averaged just 2.41 yards from the line of scrimmage (the average NFL pass is caught 5.74 yards from scrimmage).

Unfortunately, denying the deep completion is only part of the battle against the Chiefs.  In this contest, they atoned for the depth of their receptions with yards after the catch.  Of Patrick’s 270 passing yards, 205 came after the catch – an average of 7.59 yards per.

Particularly dangerous in these situations were receiver Mecole Hardman (99 of his 103 receiving yards coming after the catch) and running backs Jerick McKinnon (40 of his 26) and Darrel Williams (33 of his 30).  The screen pass, was, in fact, the most dangerous part of the Chief offense on this day.  Mahomes completed 10 of his 11 screen passes for 126 yards and a touchdown (to McKinnon).

Fangio Moves On

It was pretty much a foregone conclusion that this contest would be the last that Fangio would coach for the Broncos.  The supremely classy coach – whose performance was much better than his front office recognized – had nothing but accolades for the team and front office.

In the post-game interview after his last game, a reporter asked him why Denver has been unable to narrow the gap between themselves and the rest of their division – all of whom were in playoff contention right up to the last game of the season. After the briefest of pauses, Vic said – in an almost offhanded manner – “well, those other three all have top shelf quarterbacks.”

And there it is.  The difference between the Broncos and the rest of the division is pretty much completely covered in the gap that separates Patrick Mahomes, Derek Carr and Justin Herbert from Teddy Bridgewater and Drew Lock.  Coach Fangio’s unforgiveable sin was the same as Mike Zimmer’s (who we talked about last week) in Minnesota.  They made the mistake of hitching their fortunes to the wrong quarterback.

Whoever next takes the reigns in Denver will suffer the same fate in about three years unless he can find that guy.  In an NFL that’s increasingly quarterback-centric, it becomes all the more critical to find that quarterback who can take you to the promised land.  Whatever else you do well as a coach, your top skill had better be finding a top-shelf quarterback.

Kinda makes you think that San Francisco should re-visit its Garoppolo/Lance decision before it’s too late, doesn’t it.

Why Would You Blitz?

We’ve all had those days, right?  That “what was I thinking moment?”

Sometimes that bad decision is fueled by frustration.  Sometimes by desperation.  And sometimes, it’s a little of both.

Now in his third season as the defensive coordinator for Andy Reid’s Kansas City Chiefs, Steve Spagnuolo had one of those days last Sunday.  And it’s easy to see how frustration and desperation might have played a part.

After a rugged beginning to the season, the KC defense entered last Sunday’s contest as hot as any defense in the league.  Rebounding from a 3-4 start, the defense had fueled an eight-game winning streak that elevated the Chief’s to the conference’s top spot.  During the streak, opposing teams had scored more than 17 points just once against Spagnuolo’s platoon, and were averaging just 12.9 points per game.

Passing against this defense had become close to impossible.  Over those previous eight weeks, passers against KC were limping along with a 77.6 rating (the NFL average is 90.6), averaging 219.4 passing yards a game and throwing 18 interceptions against just 10 touchdowns.

The defensive resurgence began when Charvarius Ward returned from quad and foot injuries, allowing the Chiefs to slide L’Jarius Sneed to slot corner.  With Rashad Fenton showing that he could hold up on the other corner, Kansas City could return to its predominant man-coverage schemes.

The problem, of course, is that some offenses are more challenging to play man coverage against than others.  And last Sunday, the Chiefs had to contend with one of those teams – the scorching hot Cincinnati Bengals and quarterback Joe Burrow – fresh off a 525-yard, 4-touchdown passing day against the Ravens.

Even though the Chiefs led by 14 points on three separate occasions in the first half, it was clear that the Cincinnati offense wasn’t going away quietly.  Burrow, credited by the SportRadar group that provides “advanced stats” to the football reference site (linked to below) as football’s most accurate passer, was every bit of that against the Chiefs.  Of the 38 passes thrown to a receiver (Joe had one throw away), 32 were judged to be on target – an impressive 84.2%.

While the game hinged on two deep shots late in the game, throughout the contest Burrow took significant advantage of the Chief man coverages with a heavy dose of wide receiver screens.  Of his 38 passes, 11 went to receivers behind the line of scrimmage.  Nine of those passes ended up as completions for 72 yards – an average of 8 yards per completion from his screen game.

At times during the contest – especially early – Spagnuolo tried to dampen the Cincy attack with some zone defenses.  The trouble is that Kansas City doesn’t really play zone very well, and the Bengals made them pay for all of their breakdowns.  Bengal receiver Ja’Marr Chase – who went off on Kansas City for 266 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns – scored Cincinnati’s two longest touchdowns of the game exploiting breakdowns in the KC zone.

With 2:13 left in the first quarter and Cincinnati already down 14-0, the Bengals faced a second-and-seven on their own 28-yard line.  On the play, Tee Higgins (who lined up to the offensive right side) ran a shallow cross over the middle.  That cross held the attention of linebacker Willie Gay Jr. and kept him from dropping deep enough into coverage to deny the curl that Chase was running just behind him, but well in front of safety Tyrann Mathieu.  Respecting Chase’s speed, and cognizant of his own deep responsibilities, Mathieu didn’t crowd Ja’Marr and was still 4.5 yards away from him when Chase caught the pass.  Alone, now, in a bubble of KC defenders, Ja’Marr employed his elite quickness to elude Mathieu and the rest of the Chief defense, turning an 11-yard curl into a 72-yard touchdown that flipped momentum and put the Bengals back in the game.

Now it’s the third quarter, Kansas City still up 28-17.  Cincy faces a third-and-four on its own 31-yard line.  Chase lines up wide to the offensive left, and the Chiefs answer with cover four.

At least most of the Chiefs are playing cover four.  Fenton – lined up over Chase on the outside – was under the impression that he had no deep responsibility.  After carrying Chase’s vertical about ten yards up the field, Rashad noticed Tyler Boyd running a crossing pattern behind the linebackers, and abruptly stopped running with Chase.  Boyd’s cross also held safety Daniel Sorensen – who had actual responsibility for that cross.  On tape, you can see Sorensen’s surprised reaction when Chase soars past Fenton.  Daniel tried to pursue, but by then it was long over.  Burrow’s perfect pass hit Ja’Marr in in stride for an easy 69-yard score.

In between the zone breakdowns, Burrow and his receivers were repeatedly beating very tight man coverages.  The numbers suggest that Kansas City’s defense had a terrible afternoon.  The truth is that when they played man coverage, they competed valiantly against the very talented Bengal receivers.  But time after time, standing in against frequent heavy pressure, Joe Burrow continued to make accurate throws into tight windows, and his receivers consistently outfought the Chief defenders for possession.

Frustrating, to say the least.

So now it’s late in the fourth quarter and the game is on the line.  After yet another brilliant catch against tight coverage by Chase, the Bengals are set up.  It’s first-and-ten on the KC 24.  The score is tied at 31-all, and a field goal could win it.

But the KC defense rises up.  A holding penalty pushes Cincy back ten.  Chris Jones then bursts through for a sack.  After Joe’s second down throw falls incomplete, the Bengals face a third-and-27.  Back now at the Chief 41, they are almost assuredly out of field goal range.  Even if their third-down play gains the 7-10 yards necessary to get them back in field goal range, there is still 3:19 left and the Chiefs – with all of their time outs – would have more than ample time to answer with a score of their own.

So here is my question (and it’s probably the same question that Steve has been asking himself ever since).  Given that situation – third-and-27 – why would you blitz?

Kansas City blitzes more than most, but they aren’t a live-or-die-by-the-blitz defense.  Jones, Jarran Reed and Frank Clark had been doing a more than adequate job of pressuring Burrow.  Unleash the pass rush, play a bit off the receivers, allow the short completion, rush up and make the tackle.  No real need to do more than that.

But Kansas City blitzes – and not just adding one extra rusher to the mix.  Spagnuolo sent seven, leaving his secondary, once again, isolated in man coverage.  The blitz was accounted for, with only Sorensen (pressing up the middle) getting close enough to force Burrow to throw over him just a bit.  Up the right sideline, Ward was running step-for-step with Chase again.  In spite of the pressure, the throw was a perfect back shoulder toss.  Ja’Marr went up, rotating in mid-air away from the defender, secured the catch, and added a final three yards before running out of bounds.

On third-and-27, Burrow and Chase pulled a 30-yard rabbit out of their hats.  Now, it was first-and-ten on the 11-yard line, giving Cincinnati ample opportunity to run down the clock, exhaust all of Kansas City’s time outs, and kick the game-winning field goal as time expired (gamebook) (summary).

With the win, Cincinnati secured their division title.  The loss knocked the Chiefs out of the conference’s top seed, dropping them behind Tennessee.  The Bengals are currently third and will probably stay there – although both teams do have an outside shot at the top seed.

With Tennessee’s staying power in question – depending on how the future shakes out regarding Derrick Henry – a KC/Cincinnati rematch in the AFC title game isn’t at all unlikely. If there is a rematch, it will be in Arrowhead.  The expectation is that such a rematch would be every bit as entertaining.

In this one, the microcosm of the KC loss occurred four plays before the final pass to Chase.

It’s second-and-eight for the Bengals on their own 41.  The Chiefs are blitzing again, sending six rushers – and this time with better results.  Jones bowled right through guard Jackson Carman (who was replacing the injured Quinton Spain), Reed was steadily pushing center Trey Hopkins back into Burrow’s lap, and linebacker Anthony Hitchens had just sped right around tackle Isaiah Prince.  All three defenders were collapsing on Burrow.

Up the right sideline, it would be Chase vs Ward again, although this time Mathieu was aligned to the right to add support.  Even as the rush was about to bowl him over, Joe was still able to hold Mathieu with his eyes before launching the pass to Chase.

Again, both the receiver and the defender leapt into the air.  This time, though, Ward elevated high enough to bat the ball.  But, instead of dropping harmlessly to the ground, the pass had enough force behind it to skip off of Charvarius’ hand and sail right into Ja’Marr’s grasp for a 35-yard gain.

When it’s your day, it’s your day.  And last Sunday clearly belonged to Burrow, Chase and the Cincinnati Bengals.

Another Hot Quarterback in Green Bay

After opening up a 20-3 halftime lead in frigid (11 degrees) Green Bay, the Packers and Aaron Rodgers took their foot off the gas a little.  Through the first thirty minutes, Rodgers and his offense picked a depleted Viking defense clean.  The running game rang up 88 yards (at 7.3 yards a rush), and Aaron went into the locker room having completed 20 of 25 passes (80%) for 211 yards and 2 touchdowns.  Most of that air traffic went through Davante Adams, who caught 8 of those passes for 118 yards.

Thereafter, as Green Bay coasted to its 37-10 win (gamebook) (summary), Aaron threw just 13 second half passes, only 4 in Davante’s direction.  They ran the ball 20 times after intermission and finished with 174 rushing yards.

On Friday, I said that there were no “invincible” teams in the tournament.  The Packers might be the closest to that standard.  At 38 years of age, Rodgers has never been better, and his connection with Adams will be a challenge for any defense to disrupt.  After many years, Green Bay has finally embraced the balance its running attack brings, and both of their primary running backs (Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon) are forces to be contended with in their own right.

As of this writing, Green Bay was still down both of their starting tackles (Billy Turner and the all-but-irreplaceable David Bakhtiari), so I still feel they’re a little vulnerable to a team with a good outside pass rush (that and an egregious official’s call is how Tampa Bay knocked them off last year), but beyond that, this is a team with precious few weaknesses.

The defense has been an asset all season, and was extra dominant against the Vikings.

In a game where they managed only 206 yards of offense and went 2-for-12 on third down, the Vikings never held the ball for more than 3:22 nor ran more than 8 offensive plays on any of their 11 drives.  Their lone touchdown drive – which came when they were already down 30-3 – was the only time in the game that they advanced the ball more than 43 yards.  The Viking defense paid the price for their offense’s inability to stay on the field.  Green Bay controlled the ball for 38:33 of the game’s sixty minutes.

The Packers’ defensive dominance comes with a couple of caveats. 

First, of course, is the fact that Minnesota was starting its backup quarterback.  With Kirk Cousins landing on the COVID list, the mantle fell to Sean Mannion who struggled in his only start of the year – and just the fourth of his career.

Strangely enough – considering that the Vikings had a backup quarterback on the field – the second caveat is that the Vikings neglected to run the ball.

Sharing the backfield with Mannion was All-Pro running back Dalvin Cook who entered the night as the fourth-most prolific ground gainer in the NFL with 1067 yards.

In the post-game, Head Coach Mike Zimmer was asked why he thought his team was unable to establish a running game.  His answer was frank.  “Honestly,” he said, “I don’t think we stuck with it enough.”

The assessment was spot on.  When you have one of the best backs in the league, when you’re starting your backup quarterback, and when you need to control the clock and keep Rodgers and the Green Bay offense off the field, then yes, 9 carries – only 2 of them in the second half – is not enough.

But beyond the substance of his statement was the tone.  Zimmer spoke of his absent running game with a head-shaking sense of wonder – as though he, himself, was having a hard time understanding why the man (Klint Kubiak) that he had brought in to run his offense hadn’t even attempted to establish any kind of run presence.

Their 27 rush yards (which included a total of -1 yard in the second half) represented Minnesota’s lowest ground output of the season, and even given the size of their final deficit it’s difficult to justify.

The Cousins Discussion

As we are finished with the Viking for the season, it’s time for us to have that Kirk Cousins discussion.

There is probably no one in the NFL that I pull for more than Cousins.  I do not know him personally, but everyone who has had contact with him on and off the field holds him in the absolute highest regard.  He is – by all accounts – a terrific teammate and a relentlessly hard worker.  He embodies everything that is good and right about football.

He is also a terrific quarterback.

Over his ten-year career, Kirk has thrown for 32,343 yards, leading to 220 touchdowns against just 91 interceptions.  He heads into his season finale carrying a 101.3 passer rating.  This will be the third consecutive season that he’s finished over the 100 plateau.  His career passer rating of 98.4 ranks sixth all-time.  Better than Tom Brady (97.5).  Better than Peyton Manning (96.5).  Better than Joe Montana (92.3).

Furthermore, his statistics are not a mirage.  Kirk excels doing all the things that quarterbacks are supposed to do.  He reads defenses, looks off defenders, and makes all of the throws with plus accuracy.  In nearly every way that you can measure quarterbacks, Kirk measures up with the very best in the game.

Except, of course, in wins.

For all of his statistical excellence, Cousins is 58-59-2 for his career.  He is 27-26-2 in games decided by 7 points or less.  He is 2-9 on Monday night, 10-17 in prime-time games, 16-19 in December, and 1-2 in the playoffs.

In missing the playoffs the last two years, Cousins has lost 12 one-score games, including all 8 of his losses this year.  In almost none of those losses can you point the finger at Kirk and claim that he was the reason the Vikings lost.  And yet, in almost all of them there was one more play out there that could have been made that he didn’t make.

Over his career, a troubling pattern has emerged and refused to go away.  Over ten years and 119 starts, Kirk has compiled a lot of completions, yards and touchdowns.  He is also compiling a long list of plays almost made and games almost won.  It could be just plain bad luck, but ten years is an awful long time to be just consistently unlucky.

Called to account for two consecutive seasons out of the playoffs, Coach Zimmer may well be coaching his final game for the Vikings tomorrow.  If I were a betting man, my money would be on someone else roaming the sidelines in Minnesota next year.

But whoever guides the affairs of the 2022 Vikings – whether Zimmer’s track record buys him another year, or whether someone else will get this chance – they should be warned and forewarned.

Kirk Cousins is the kind of quarterback that gets coaches fired.

It’s Still About the Defense

It wasn’t that long ago, you know.  These guys used to be NFL royalty.  Just last February, they rolled into the Super Bowl in Tampa riding the high of a 16-2 record (counting two playoff victories) and boasting an offense that seemed like it could score at will against anybody.

How the mighty have fallen.

Beginning with that Super Bowl loss, and running through last Sunday afternoon in Nashville, Tennessee, the Kansas City Chiefs are 3-5 and have been outscored 234-197.  Most recently, they were rolled over by the Titans in a 27-3 rout (gamebook) (summary).

Theories, of course, abound.  For the benefit of my readers, I will sort through the theories that I have heard to assess how much fact – if any – is contained in them.

Theory – Super Bowl Hangover

Last year as the San Francisco 49ers were floundering early, I looked into the whole Super Bowl hangover thing.  There certainly were some Super Bowl participants who suddenly fell back to the pack, but I didn’t find any kind of consistent pattern.  Truthfully, the vagaries that govern football (injuries, draft fortunes, the presence of new coaches in your division, etc.) seem to jostle all participants at about the same rate.  The real surprise is when a team manages to skirt all of that chaos and remain on top for any sustained period.  I don’t think there’s much of a “hangover” factor here.

Theory – Mahomes and Other Principals Partying Too Much During the Off-Season

If that was going to happen, it would have happened after the previous Super Bowl (which they won).  Frankly, Super Bowl losers aren’t generally in as much demand as the winners.  Quarterback Patrick Mahomes has done a couple of State Farm commercials, but so has Aaron Rodgers, and his production hasn’t fallen.  I doubt that there’s anything here.

Theory – The Chiefs are Solved and the Buccaneers Gave the World the Blueprint

A lot of what Tampa Bay did to Kansas City has popped up in several of their games this year.  I don’t tend to give too much credit to the scheme, though.  It was mostly a simple “Tampa 2” concept (not named, of course, for the current Buccaneer team but for the split-safety zone concept established more than twenty years ago by then-coach Tony Dungy when he coached the Bucs).  This coverage isn’t new, and the Chiefs (and everyone else) knows the routes that will beat it.

What Tampa Bay did to Kansas City in the Super Bowl was more a function of pass rush.  The Chiefs had lost a tackle in the Championship Game, and resolved the problem by shifting starters around the line.  The newly-constructed line played with disastrous results last February.  From first snap to last, Mahomes was literally running for his life.  The Bucs could have employed any coverage scheme and it would have worked out just fine.  In fact, they played a high percentage of man coverage against the Chiefs in that game – also to great effect.

In the aftermath of that loss, Kansas City has completely re-invented its offensive line – to the point that no remaining starter from last year is in this year’s starting lineup.  This has had some effect.  As offensive lines need some time to develop, Patrick’s protection hasn’t been as stable as he’s used to, and a fair amount of their recent offensive struggles can be tied to uncomfortable amounts of pressure.

Theory – It’s Mostly Patrick’s Fault

In the wake of the Tennessee loss, quarterback Mahomes is being targeted for the largest slice of the blame.  This, of course, is part of playing quarterback.  You always get too much credit when you win and too much blame when you lose.  There are numbers that the critics can grasp on to.  His 62.3 passer rating (Patrick was 20-35 for 206 yards, no touchdowns and 1 interception) was the lowest of his career.  He also lost a fumble in that game.  For the season so far, Patrick’s numbers have slid noticeably.  His 97.9 passer rating (while still above the NFL average) would be the worst of his career and currently sits about ten points below his career rating (107.2).  The 9 interceptions he’s thrown are already more than his totals from the previous two entire seasons, and only three shy of the career high of 12 he threw in his rookie season.  In both of his previous seasons, his interception percentage was 1.0.  This year, 3.2% of his throws are ending up in the arms of the other team.

There is also film that supports some of this.  Against the Titans, his interception came on an ill-advised throw.  His fumble came after a scramble in which – rather than sliding and avoiding further contact – Patrick continued the run in an attempt to gain a few more yards (and was subsequently stripped of the ball).  To cite just one example, Steve Young on Monday Night Countdown laid 80% of the responsibility on Mahomes.  Eighty percent?  Really?

Clearly, Mahomes has played better in the past than he is playing this season.  But to target him as the primary problem is to fall into the trap of crediting or blaming the quarterback for nearly everything that happens on the team.  Patrick has been pressing, but there are reasons for that not of his making (I will be getting to that in a minute).  Patrick Mahomes is still Patrick Mahomes.  He isn’t even close to being Kansas City’s biggest problem.  (Sorry, Steve.  I have great respect for you, but on this I’m going to have to respectfully disagree.)

Theory – Body Snatchers

OK, I haven’t actually heard anyone claim that aliens have captured the real Kansas City Chiefs and replaced them with pods, but I’m sure someone out there has floated that theory.  Without the medical examinations that could confirm or deny this, I can’t, of course, say with any certainty that this hasn’t happened.  I will, though, err on the side of common sense and call this very unlikely.

So What Is It?

Two weeks ago, after their loss to Buffalo, I looked at the issues in Kansas City and proclaimed, with much certainty, that the biggest problem with the Kansas City offense is the Kansas City defense.  Nothing that’s happened in the last two weeks – even this game in Tennessee when they scored only 3 points, managed just 334 yards of offense, and turned the ball over 3 times – has at all changed that assessment.  Ninety percent – that’s my number, and I’m sticking with it.  Ninety percent of the KC problem is the defense.  If that ever gets fixed, the rest of the world will be amazed at how quickly the offense will regain its footing.

Taking Another Look

To support this, let’s take another look at the Tennessee game.  For now, forget the statistics and just look at what happened.

The Chiefs won the toss and deferred.  The Titans started with the ball, and drove the field – 75 yards in 8 plays, draining 4:10 off the clock.  The Chief offense takes the field already down 7 with still 10:50 left in the quarter.

They pick up a couple of first downs, gaining the fifty-yard line.  On third down, though, a sack brings the drive to an end and KC punts.  This isn’t evidence of a dysfunctional offense.  No offense scores every time it possesses the ball.  For his part Mahomes was 3-for-3 passing for 21 yards (remember, the deep safeties were taking away the deep pass).  When the KC special team unit downed the ensuing punt on the Tennessee 3-yard line, things were looking pretty good.

Five minutes and 34 seconds of football time later, Tennessee had driven the entire 97 yards, taking 9 plays to do so.  Now there are 42 second left in the first quarter, the Chiefs have run 7 offensive plays and they trail 14-0.

The Chiefs pick up another first down on their ensuing drive, but end up punting again.  Now the members of the Chief offensive unit are standing on the sidelines watching again as the Titans start rolling through the defense again.  Twelve plays, 60 yards, and six minutes and 39 seconds of football time later, the Kansas City defense finally holds on third down.  Tennessee, however, has moved into field goal range again, and tacks on another 3 points.

There is a reason why defenses love it when their offense goes on long, clock draining drives.  That is because no offense, however talented and experienced, prospers from standing on the sidelines for 20-30 minutes at a time.  It’s impossible for any offense to maintain any semblance of rhythm or energy when they are wandering aimlessly along the sideline hoping that someone on the defensive side can please make a play.

There is now 8:07 left in the half, and the Chiefs are down 17-0.  The offense’s great crime is that they failed to score on their first two possessions.  At this point, they’ve run exactly 11 plays and held the ball for 5:30.  In contrast, the Titans have already run 28 plays for 232 yards (8.3 yards per play).  Their time of possession so far is 16:23.

The problem now compounds, because this is not a one-off kind of situation.  The Chiefs have seen this before.  All season, the offense has had the challenge of keeping up with the points the defense is yielding.  Beginning from game one, Cleveland scored 29, Baltimore put up 36, the Chargers rung them up for 30 – and so did Philadelphia.  Buffalo scored 38.  Except for their Week Six win in Washington when they held the Football Team to just 13 points, every single opponent had put up 29 points or more.  Kansas City came into the afternoon ranked twenty-eighth in total defense and twenty-eighth in points allowed.  The struggles include a pass rush that had accounted for just 7 sacks (last in the league) which influenced a secondary that was allowing 12.7 yards per completion (thirtieth in the league).

The run defense hadn’t been spectacular, either.  They were allowing 5.2 yards per rush (thirtieth).

So, perhaps, you can forgive Mahomes and the offense if at this point they start to press a bit. With the defense showing no signs that they can slow the Tennessee offense, Patrick did compound the problem here by trying to force a pass into Josh GordonRashaan Evans came away with the interception, and it started all over again.  Tennessee drained another 5:08 off the clock as they ground their way to another touchdown – and a 24-0 lead.

By the time the second quarter came to a merciful end, Kansas City had held the ball for just 1:28 of the entire quarter.  Tennessee had gone 6-for-7 on third down during a first half in which they held the ball for a remarkable 23:16.  They had scored every time they touched the ball, and went into the locker room with a 27-0 lead.

Kansas City had the ball long enough for Mahomes to throw just 9 passes in the half.  But he’s 80% of the problem?

The second half was more even – possession wise.  But, of course, once you’re down 27-0 it doesn’t really matter all that much, does it?  At that point, you’re game plan is pretty much in the dumpster, you don’t have the luxury of running the ball anymore (at least, you don’t think you do), and all you can do is throw short passes underneath coverages that will allow anything but the deep strike that could get you back in the game.  Oh yes, and the pass rush – with no running game to be concerned with – is at liberty to tee off and come after the quarterback.  It’s not a conducive work environment for any offense to operate in.

For what it’s worth, Kansas City ran off a mind-numbing 51 plays in the second half.  Mahomes and his backup Chad Henne combined to throw 42 passes after intermission.  But it wasn’t nearly enough to turn the tide.

Star receiver Tyreek Hill (who didn’t help matters by dropping a couple of passes) finished with 6 catches even though he wasn’t targeted at all in that first half.  His 6 catches amounted to just 49 yards.

Two Points

There are two points that I want to be clear about at this point.

First, I don’t want to dismiss the effort of Tennessee’s defense.  Holding the Chiefs to 3 points under any circumstances is laudatory.  Even while the offense allowed this defensive unit to play downhill, the Tennessee defense still made the plays necessary to get KC off the field, and when they had the chances to make game-altering takeaways, they came through.  They deserve ample credit for the result that I have no intention of denying them.

Second, I don’t intend to give the KC offense a complete pass.  They certainly had things they could have done better.  After their defense managed their lone turnover against the Titans, Kansas City moved to a first-and-ten at the Tennessee 28-yard line.  Back-to-back penalties (holding and then a false start) pushed the ball back to a first-and-25 at the 43.  That drive ended three plays later on a missed field goal.

There are certainly things that Mahomes and the offense can clean up.  But come on, man.  Let me give you a baseball analogy.  You’re team goes three-up-and three-down in the top of the first.  Your pitching and defense then gives up 11 runs in the bottom of the first.  The next morning in the paper, you expect the writers to digest the early pitching difficulties that put the rest of the game out of reach.  You don’t expect them to point the finger at the offense for not having the foresight to score 15 runs in the first.

The clear truth of the Kansas City situation is that its defense is hemorrhaging games.  If they can fix that before too much of what’s left of the season slips away, this team might have a chance to fight for a playoff spot.

Titans On a Roll

While KC remains stuck in neutral, the Tennessee Titans are rising.  In back-to-back weeks, they’ve produced convincing wins over the two team that played for the conference championship last year.  I’m still not completely convinced about their defense, but this offense is rising quickly.

Of course, the presence of Derrick Henry in any backfield will alter any team’s defensive approach.  In past years, though, the Titan offense faltered in those contests where the defense was able to minimize the impact of the running game.

This, in fact, was such a game.  In spite of their season-long struggles against the run, Kansas City fought valiantly to keep Derrick in check.  Henry – leading the NFL in rushing yards – finished the game with just 86 yards on 29 carries (3.0 per).  In the second half – the part of the game that Derrick usually takes over – he managed just 34 yards on 12 carries (2.8 yards per).  For his 29 carries he gained just 28 yards before contact.

Handling Henry

The prevailing approach to Derrick Henry is penetration.  Commonly, for example, a team intending to run their back up the middle will have the middle of the offensive line initially engage the defensive linemen with a couple of double-team blocks.  After the initial block, one of the offensive linemen will then disengage and move to the second level of the defense to block a linebacker – who would traditionally be hovering in the area to deny the back this particular opening.

This isn’t happening anymore when teams try to defend Henry.  The linebackers don’t hang back and wait.  As soon as the running threat develops, they are headed into the backfield, so any attempt at a double-team block will only open a lane for the penetrating linebacker.

The necessary thing is to get to Derrick before he can get his feet going.  Henry is a terrifying combination of a lineman’s size with a scat-back’s speed.  His momentum is the game-changer.  Once he gets up a head of steam, he’s a nightmare.  But if you can get him to stop his feet, or get to him before he gets started, you’re odds of making that tackle go up dramatically.

Kansas City did this all night, firing linebackers and hustling safeties from the secondary to the line.  Their success included dropping Henry in the backfield for losses four times.  On each of those plays, the impact tackle came from Nick Bolton – the rookie linebacker from Missouri.

In the midst of a sagging defense, Bolton has been one of the few standouts.  Nick is already playing with a veteran’s awareness.  Against Tennessee, he was decisive and explosive as he poured into the backfield.  Statistically, this was his best game of the season.  His 4 tackles for a loss were part of his 9 primary tackles to go along with 6 assists – giving him 15 combined tackles.  If the Chief defense does manage to turn things around, expect Bolton to be in the middle of it.

Bolton was helped considerably by large defensive lineman Khalen Saunders.  Khalen is currently at the bottom of the defensive line pecking order.  His 23 snaps were the fewest of any of the KC defensive linemen.  But even in his limited opportunities, Saunders notably impacted the run defense.  Khalen is one of those old-school linemen.  He’s the kind that absorbs multiple blockers to allow the linebackers (like Bolton) behind him to roam unfettered up and down the line.  Khalen may not be much of a pass-rush factor, but for his presence against the run, the Chiefs should really consider giving him more playing time.

Henry, by the way, had similar difficulties against the Bills – who also played penetration against him.  The struggle is less obvious, because Derrick did manage to break off the one long run – a 76-yard touchdown sprint.  In his other 21 carries, Derrick accounted for just 70 more yards (3.3 per carry), with no other run going for more than 19 yards.

This is an approach that I expect more teams to employ, and Tennessee will have to make some adjustments if they are to remain one of the league’s top running teams.  You might see them running more trap plays, to take advantage of linebackers who are shooting across the line.  They might also try more quick pitches to get Henry on the edges without giving opposing linemen the opportunity to get him in the backfield.

The Flourishing Passing Game

Or they could continue to allow defenses to do that, and just take advantage of them with the passing game.  This has been their historic weakness.  In the past, if they couldn’t run, they couldn’t score.  Increasingly, that is no longer the case.

Against KC, quarterback Ryan Tannehill completed 21 of 27 passes for 270 yards.  According to the SportsRadar group that provides advanced stats to the football reference page I linked to above, Ryan was on target with 24 of the 26 passes he actually threw to a receiver – an impressive 92.3% accuracy rate.  Throwing against a defense that was overly focused on the running game, Ryan connected with his top receiver A.J. Brown 8 times for 133 yards and a touchdown.

The thing about this passing attack, though, is its potential to get better.  Offseason acquisition Julio Jones – coming from a storied career in Atlanta – has yet to be truly involved in the attack.  Bothered all season by a hamstring issue, Julio has only 17 catches so far this year.  On Sunday, Josh Reynolds had more snaps (30) than Jones did (29).

If this offense develops the way they hope it will, once Julio is fully healthy and completely integrated into the passing attack, defenses will be presented with a truly awful dilemma.

The more you watch this Tennessee team, the easier it is to believe that they will be right there at the end.

The Kansas City Blueprint

In terms of passer rating (70.9), it was the second worst regular-season performance of his career.

With his last pass of the evening Patrick Mahomes connected with wide receiver Tyreek Hill on an 11 yard pass that put Kansas City on Buffalo’s 15-yard line.  First-and-10 with four minutes left in the game.  The problem was, though, that the Chiefs were down 18 points, with little real hope of closing all of that gap in the final four minutes.

Two plays later, the snap of the wet football squirted through Patrick’s hands.  Buffalo recovered the free ball and that was that.  Three minutes and 27 seconds of football time later, Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen took the final knee, and the Bills trotted off the field 38-20 victors (gamebook) (summary).

For Mahomes, the end, perhaps, couldn’t have come soon enough.  When they stepped onto the field, Kansas City represented the league’s second best offense – both in terms of yards and points.  Mahomes himself had been – through four weeks – the league leader in touchdown passes thrown (14) and percentage of passes resulting in touchdowns (9.9%).  His 119.6 passer rating was the second best such figure in football.

But not on Sunday night.

His 33 of 54 night accounted for but 272 yards (only 8.24 per completed pass).  His 2 touchdown passes were more than offset by his two interceptions – his final play fumble being the third turnover on his ledger that night.  Of his 33 completions, only one accounted for more than twenty yards, and the Chiefs finished with 4 turnovers – one which was converted directly into a touchdown for Buffalo, and two of the others came in the red zone as the Chiefs seemed poised to make a game of it after-all.

All of their last three drives ended in Buffalo’s red zone, with only one resulting in a touchdown.  They also turned the ball over on downs at the Buffalo 32-yard line.

By any measure, not this offense’s best day.

There is, however, a growing feeling that this was more than just “one of those days.”  Those who watched the game couldn’t help but notice that Buffalo spent the evening with their safeties very deep with the mandate to let no one in behind them.

The message of the defense was clear.  Run, if you want to.  Drop in all the short passes underneath the safeties that you want.  We will gladly give you all of that.  But no big plays.  If you boys are going to beat us, then you will have to do it slowly and patiently.  You will have to put together a drive.

Since their beating in last year’s Super Bowl, the Chiefs have seen quite a lot of that concept.  It raises a legitimate question.  Can a team that has earned the reputation as football’s most explosive offense cope when that explosive element is taken away?  Color commentator Cris Collinsworth all but offered this as the blueprint for beating the Chiefs.  Deep safeties.  No long pass plays.  Make ‘em crawl.

As completely as that particular defense worked last Sunday night, the facts – as they usually are – are a bit more complicated than that.

In the first place, this coverage scheme is neither new nor unprecedented.  Buffalo played a fairly conventional Tampa-2 – a defensive concept that has been around ever since Tony Dungy was coaching in Tampa Bay a few decades ago.  I guarantee that teams have played split deep-safeties against them before.

Moreover, there are routes that are designed specifically to beat that coverage.  Even beyond the simple underneath completions, there are routes that flood the outside zones – putting those safeties in binds – as well as routes that draw those safeties far to the side lines and open up the middle.  I promise you that Kansas City knows all about those routes.

But, to its credit, when this coverage is employed with exceptional discipline (and Buffalo did that on Sunday night) it can be a very effective inhibitor of the deep passing attack.

Finally, it’s fake news to think that Kansas City lacks the patience to put together long scoring drives.  That has been, in fact, how they’ve usually combated this style of defense.  To pluck just one example, I give you their Division Round conquest of Cleveland last year.  They built a 19-3 halftime lead on the Browns on the strength of two long scoring drives of the type that some people doubt they are capable of.  They marched 75 yards with the opening kickoff in a 10-play drive that drained the first 5:49 off the clock.  Later in the second quarter, they put together a 13-play, 53-yard drive that ate 6:29 of clock (although that drive ended with a field goal).  They put together another such drive in the third quarter – an 11-play, 60-yard, 5:05 drive that also ended in a field goal.  For the game – a 22-17 Chief victory – Kansas City ran the ball 24 times for 123 yards, with Mahomes throwing the ball only 30 times.  Just one of those throws was at a target more than 20 yards up field.

It should also be noted that the Chiefs did the same thing to Buffalo with their first two drives on Sunday night.  Their opening drive consumed 17 plays and 6:29 of the clock – ending in a field goal after an advance of 56 yards.  The next time the offense took the field, they put together an 80-yard, 12 play, 7:55 touchdown drive.

There is no reason to cling to any notion that this offense lacks the patience to drive the ball.  They have amply proven this to be untrue.

OK, fine.  So what happened on Sunday night?  If Kansas City is fully capable of defeating this proposed formula, why did Buffalo have such success with it?

Well, part of the answer was pressure.  When a quarterback has a rugged evening, there is almost always a pressure aspect involved.  After the debacle of their last Super Bowl appearance, Kansas City has gone out and completely revamped its offensive line – and by that, I mean there are no returning starters there.

It’s a good and talented group, but it takes offensive lines a little while to come together.  By season’s end, I expect this group to provide consistent protection to Mahomes and to be a force in the running game.  To this point, however, they are a bit up and down.  Buffalo was able to exploit that inconsistency from time to time.  Pressure was part – but only part – of the answer.

KC’s Biggest Problem

In all honesty, the biggest problem with the Chiefs’ offense is the Chiefs’ defense.  The reason that Kansas City was able to put together those long first-quarter scoring drives was that the defense wasn’t getting blown out yet.  But once Buffalo scored on three consecutive second quarter possessions and opened up a 24-10 lead, it changed the whole dynamic of the game.

It’s simple math.  If you’re down by 18 points in the second quarter, you don’t have time to go on 8-minute scoring drives.  At that point of the contest, you have to look for chunk plays – an objective that the Tampa-2 defense (when well played) will make almost impossible.

If I were a Chiefs fan, I don’t think I’d be all that worried about the offense.  I would save my worry for the defense.

Kansas City has allowed at least 29 points in every game this season – giving up 30 or more in each of the last 4 (with three of those ending up as losses).  Over the last three games, the pass defense is allowing 316 yards a game.  They have given 9 touchdown passes in those games while collecting no interceptions and managing to get to the opposing quarterback just 4 times.  Over those games, the passer rating against this defense is 119.8 – two-tenths of a point better than the rating that Mahomes brought into the Sunday night contest.

Regarding the run defense, only the Chargers so far this year have failed to put up at least 103 rushing yards and run for an average better than 4.3 against them.

Five weeks into the season, the Chiefs rank last in all of football in points allowed, next to last in yards given up, and third from last in rushing yards allowed, rushing touchdowns given up, and average yards per rush.  Right now, Kansas City is a very bad defensive team, and their sinking defense is pulling the rest of the team down with it.

Time to Panic?

At this point, I am quick to note that this isn’t the first time that Kansas City has had early season defensive struggles.  In the pre-Mahomes era it wasn’t at all unusual to see them flounder a bit out of the gate.  Historically, they have always been able to pull things together as the season went on.  With 17 games on the schedule this year, three early losses shouldn’t impact things that much.

They would definitely be better off solving this sooner rather than later.

The Bills Are Not Believers

From my seat, the most telling development wasn’t Kansas City’s offensive struggles, nor was it what the Buffalo offense did to the Kansas City defense.  It was what the Buffalo offense didn’t do that caught my attention.

Everyone remembers that the 2020 Bills were among the more run-averse teams in the league.  Top running backs Devin Singletary and Zack Moss combined for fewer than 19 carries a game – and such running as they did, they did at the end of games when they had the lead.  In the second half of their Championship Game loss to the Chiefs, they ran the ball only 7 times – and 4 of those were scrambles from Allen.

In simple terms, they were that team that didn’t believe in its running game, and willingly made itself one-dimensional, allowing the offense to be all about Josh Allen.

For the first four weeks of 2021, it was a very different offensive concept.  After running “just” 25 times in a season-opening loss to Pittsburgh, Buffalo has had running afternoons of 143 yards on 30 carries against the Dolphins; 122 yards on 33 carries against Washington; and 199 yards on 40 tries against Houston. 

Suddenly, the Buffalo Bills were the NFL’s fifth-best running team, averaging 145.3 rush yards per game.  They were also fourth in running attempts with 128.  Considering that Kansas City was saddled with the thirtieth ranked run defense, it seemed a surety that part of the offensive plan against the Chiefs would include a significant role for the newly proficient running game – which could play a crucial part in controlling the clock and keeping KC’s high-octane offense on the sideline.

But whatever vulnerability the Chiefs might have had against the Bills’ running attack can now only be a matter of speculation.  They never challenged them.  Buffalo packed up its running game and strapped its offense securely to the arm and legs of Josh Allen.  Singletary opened the season with 259 rushing yards through four games, picking up 5.3 yards per carry.  In a game that Buffalo won by 18 points, Devin carried the ball all of 6 times.

Josh ran the ball.  Allen was the team’s leading ball carrier.  He had 11 rushes for 59 yards.  It’s all OK as long as the ball is in Josh’s hands.  But the message here is pretty clear.  Singletary – who really is a talented running back – is good enough to run against Miami, Washington and Houston.  But in the big games, the only one we trust is Josh.

It’s an approach that will almost assuredly catch up with them at some point – especially against the tougher defenses.  Teams that willingly make themselves one-dimensional make things so much harder on themselves.

Not to belabor this point, but a cold-weather team that could potentially see nasty weather in December and January would be very well served to maintain as vital a running game as possible.

A Changing of the Guard?

After the game, the reporters tried to coax the Bills into proclaiming themselves the new kings of the hill.  Showing great maturity, the Bills refused to go down that path.  Josh kindly reminded reporters that it was only October, and four wins doesn’t get you into the playoffs.  In his turn before the microphone, coach Sean McDermott preached the virtue of humility.  “In this league,” he said, “a little humility can go a long way.”

Amen, coach.  Amen.

A little cautionary tale.  Not quite a year ago, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers endured a blood-bath against New Orleans.  They were thoroughly trashed by the Saints, 38-3 – their second loss of the season to New Orleans.  After their overwhelming victory, the Saints were – well, less than humble.

Several month later, one of those two teams was raising the Lombardi Trophy.  And it wasn’t the Saints.

Buffalo is clearly one of the best-coached teams in the NFL.  Not just in terms of X’s and O’s, but also in the mental side of the game.  They have been taught the skill of staying level in what is a decidedly week-to-week league.

That mental balance will serve them very well during the rigors of a very long NFL season.  And if they can achieve a little more balance in their offense, well, that will help, too.

Five Plays: SUper Bowl LV Review – Part Three

It was Kansas City’s second offensive play from scrimmage.  They faced second-and-seven from their own 36.  The play-action fake from quarterback Patrick Mahomes to running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire left the back in perfect position to block on linebacker Shaquil Barrett – who came unblocked off the edge.

If you had watched the AFC Championship Game, you would have watched this same back throw a bone-rattling pass block on Buffalo defensive lineman Mario Addison.  But none of that was happening today.  Clyde jumped around Barrett like he was radio-active.  As soon as he was clear, Edwards-Helaire turned looking for the pass – which I thought was nicely ironic.  Already in Barrett’s grasp and on his way to the ground (and not for the last time that day), Mahomes did manage to get the pass off – a throw-away close enough to Edwards-Helaire’s feet to avoid a grounding call.

That small moment was the first hint that Kansas City had left some of its edge in the locker room.  There would follow many others.  Tennis has a statistic called “unforced errors.”  Those are mess-ups that have nothing to do with the efforts of the opponent and everything to do with the failure of the player to execute the fundamental activities of the sport.

Football doesn’t have that statistic, but if it did the Kansas City Chiefs would have filled the Super Bowl scorecard with poorly run routes, passes dropped at the worst possible moment, senseless penalties and running backs who would rather not pass protect.  It all added up to a 31-9 loss to Tampa Bay in Super Bowl LV (gamebook) (summary) that was about equal parts Buccaneer domination of both lines of scrimmage and self-inflicted wounds from the Chiefs.  Their first offensive series ended on another telling play.

The Chiefs on third-and-eight bunched three wide receivers to the right.  Byron Pringle was on the line, with Mecole Hardman just off his right shoulder and Tyreek Hill just off his left.  All three headed up field.

The problem developed immediately in the secondary.  Safety Jordan Whitehead understood that he had the deep middle, but all of the Tampa Bay defenders on the right side thought they had underneath coverage.  So, when Hill broke to the sideline at about eight yards, everyone except Whitehead stopped dropping – leaving Jordan with two deep routes to cover.  Forced to choose, Whitehead stayed with Pringle – who was headed straight up the middle, leaving Hardman completely uncovered up the sideline.

Under pressure again, Mahomes nonetheless got off an accurate throw that should have put the game’s first touchdown on the board.  But Mecole slowed down after he broke into the clear – not a whole lot, mind you.  Just enough so that the throw landed just beyond his reach.

The Chiefs’ second possession ended when Patrick’s throw into the end zone bounced off of Tyreek’s helmet.

And that’s how the day would go for the former champions.  During their 16-2 season, these executions had been routine.  But on Super Bowl Sunday the Chiefs more closely resembled a team on the first day of training camp than they did defending champions playing the most important game of the year.

Blame the Extra Week?

Sometimes strange things happen to a team during the two weeks between the Conference Championship Games and the Super Bowl.  More than one team has somehow lost its way somewhere in the build-up to the big game.

In Kansas City’s case, this team has come very far very fast.  In Patrick Mahomes’ rookie season, the Chiefs advanced to the Conference Championship.  They won it all in just his second season.  On the heels of winning 20 of Patrick’s last 21 regular season starts, Super Bowl LV would be Kansas City’s eighth playoff game over the three-year span that Patrick had been their starter.

They had won 6 of the previous 7.  And now they were in Tampa Bay looking to win back-to-back titles.  It’s enough to turn the heads of even veteran teams.  And then, for the last two weeks hearing how great and unstoppable they were – all this on the heels of what was probably their best game of the year?

It would be understandable if all of this went to their heads a little.  Possibly, on some level, they may have expected this to be an easier game than their contest against Buffalo was.  If they saw the same thing on film that I saw – the consistent struggles Tampa Bay has with their zone defenses – it’s likely that they comfortably expected to put more than their share of points on the board.

I bring all of this up not to diminish the Buccaneer victory, but to acknowledge what everyone saw during the game.  This was not the Kansas City team we had seen all year.  Not only were they missing their focus, but the composure that you usually see from the Chiefs was also extremely short-lived.

On the second play from scrimmage, defensive end Frank Clark engaged in some after-play shoving with center Ryan Jensen.  Jensen is a better agitator than he is a blocker, but he got under the Chief’s skin early and often.  Early in the second quarter, Ryan would coax defensive lineman Chris Jones into an unnecessary roughness penalty.  After a short completion on a second down play, Jensen got in that final, after-the-whistle shove on Jones that Chris responded to with a solid shove of his own – and as everyone knows, it’s always the retaliator who gets caught.  Before the half was over, Jones would get away with an outright punch to Jensen’s head – a play that could have resulted in his ejection from the game.

Oh, the Penalties

The play that was called, though, initiated a flood of Kansas City penalties, which, added to their other mental mistakes, would pretty much doom Kansas City’s bid to repeat.  In the second quarter alone, Kansa City was hammered for 90 penalty yards.  Tampa Bay advanced the football a total of 178 yards in the second quarter as they scored two touchdowns and had a third drive end on the Kansas City one-yard line.  Sixty-seven of those 178 yards (37%) came from Kansas City penalties.  The two Buccaneer drives that ended in the touchdowns that essentially decided the game totaled 109 yards from scrimmage.  Kansas City awarded Tampa Bay 52 of those yards on penalties.  And that total doesn’t even account for 34 hidden penalty yards that were as damaging as any big play from the Tampa Bay offense.

A couple of those penalties probably shouldn’t have been called, but most of them were nothing more than lack of attention.

In their recent playoff history, KC has made a habit of staggering out of the gate. They had trailed by at least 9 points (and by as many as 24) in four of their previous five playoff games – all of them Kansas City wins.  In most of those games, the momentum turned on one play.  Somebody would turn in one positive play, and everything would flow from there.

With 10:55 left in the first half, it looked for all the world like Kansas City had made that play.  Trailing 7-3, the Chief defense stuffed a Ronald Jones run on fourth-and-goal from the one-yard line.  On KC’s subsequent first play from scrimmage, Mahomes found Hill over the middle just beyond the line – connecting with him on a catch-and-run of 14 yards.

At that moment, there was a strong feeling that the Kansas City explosion was imminent.  But it never came to fruition.  Kansas City managed to reach their own 17, facing a third-and-eight with still 9:24 left in the half.  From that point, over the next ten snaps of the football, the combination of KC’s unfocused play and some questionable officiating would converge in five huge plays that would determine Super Bowl LV.

Five Plays

The sequence began with a huge drop by Kelce of the third-down pass.  That play – usually routine for Travis – took the offense off the field, and brought on the punting team.  Rookie punter Tommy Townsend dropped the snap, but coolly picked up the football and delivered a soaring 56-yard punt that Jaydon Mickens could only return to the Tampa Bay 30 yard line.  But there was a penalty on the play.

In a head-shaking lapse of concentration, Ben Niemann – on the line blocking for the punt – reached out and grabbed Kevin Minter by both shoulder pads and pulled him to the ground.

At the time, this didn’t seem like a game-changing moment.  Kansas City just moved back 8 yards and punted again.  This time, though, the rookie punter shanked the kick, sailing it out of bounds on the Kansas City 38-yard line.  The penalty was only eight yards, but the difference in starting field position was all of 42 yards.

Backed against a wall – of sorts – the Kansas City defense began its response.  Two passes from Brady accounted for 6 yards and brought up third-and-four.  When Jones deflected Tom Brady’s third-down pass into the arms of safety Tyrann Mathieu for an apparent interception, it seemed that the Chiefs had reclaimed the momentum that they had briefly lost.  But a penalty gave the ball back to Tampa Bay. 

Charvarius Ward, defending on Mike Evans up the right sideline did have hands on Evans – but did nothing to impeded the running of the route.  As with a first-quarter holding call against Bashaud Breeland that aided Tampa Bay’s first touchdown drive, the contact was entirely incidental.  Here, though, the marginal call would dearly cost the Chiefs.

The defense stopped Tampa Bay again, and the Bucs brought Ryan Succop onto the field to at least add a field goal – which he did.  For a moment, it appeared that – for all of the mishaps – the Chiefs had held them to three points and a 10-3 lead.  But, rushing from the edge on the field goal block team, Mecole Hardman had set his hands down just beyond the line of scrimmage – the five yard penalty putting the Tampa Bay offense back on the field with a first down.

In football time, it had been 3 minutes and 13 seconds since Kansas City faced third-down on their 17-yard line.  Now, Tampa Bay sat at that same 17-yard line.  On the next play, Brady threw his second touchdown pass to Rob Gronkowski, and Tampa Bay was on its way.

We Have to Talk About the Officiating

Since the officiating affected this game on a couple of plays that everyone saw – and maybe affected the game even more on a few that you wouldn’t have seen unless you watched the film – it’s a subject we’ll need to look at.

Two things about the way the game was called are clear.  The vast majority of the 11 penalties called against Kansas City (for 120 penalty yards) were justified.  It’s also clear that the game was not evenly called.  If the Tampa Bay secondary was allowed to grab and push the Kansas City receivers, then clearly the Chief secondary should have been awarded that same privilege.

If, however, Kansas City was penalized in critical moments of the game for inconsequential infractions, then those penalties should, obviously, have been called against Tampa Bay as well.

Using the holding penalties against Breeland and Ward as the standard, I counted 11 penalties – just as bad – that could easily have been called against the Tampa Bay secondary: 5 holding calls, 3 illegal contacts, and 3 pass interference calls.  My tally only counted those penalties likely to be accepted – there were about three others that Kansas City would have declined.  Many of these calls would have clearly been marginal calls, but so too were the very damaging marginal calls made against Kansas City.

The question that rises out of all of this (considering how badly the Chiefs were beaten along the line of scrimmage) is would a more even officiating of the game had made any real difference?  As I look over the transpirings, I feel that they very well could have.

In their last three possessions (in a three-score game) the Chiefs reached Tampa Bay’s 11, 27 and 10 yard lines, the first two drives ending in failed fourth-downs, and the last one on a goal-line interception.  On all of these drives, there were missed penalties that could have given Kansas City a fresh shot at a touchdown or two that might have changed the whole feel of the game.

In these drives, though, a lot of these overlooked penalties weren’t marginal.  As the fourth quarter drew on, and as Kansas City drew closer to the end zone, the officials pretty much put their whistles away and let the Buccaneer defense do whatever it wanted.

Everybody remembers the wild second-and-nine play from the Tampa Bay 11-yard line early in the fourth quarter.  The play that – after an extended scramble by Mahomes – ended with the ball sliding through Demarcus Robinson’s hands in the end zone.  Just before the throw to Robinson, Kelce was running to an open patch of the end zone.  He might have drawn the throw had not Carlton Davis come up behind him and pushed him to the ground (about ten yards beyond the five-yard zone in which Davis could legally contact him).

Two plays later – on fourth down – Davis was at it again, trying to shove Hill out of the back of the end zone.  The drive that ended with the incompletion to Williams on that play should certainly have been extended a couple of times by penalty.

The more I think about that play, the more curious it becomes.  Unlike Carlton’s previous illegal contact penalty – which looks like it might have been accidental – Davis, with several steps of a running start, ran straight at Hill (standing along the back of the end zone) and did everything he could to push him out through the back of the end zone.  This means that Carlton was counting on the nearby official to notice that Tyreek was out of bounds and ineligible to touch the ball until he had re-established himself, while at the same time counting on the fact that that same official wouldn’t penalize him (Davis) for his flagrant violation of the contact rule.

It’s certainly an unusual occurrence to see a receiver (in this case Byron Pringle) running along the back of the end zone slapping at the hand of a defender (in this case, Jamel Dean) to get him to let go of his jersey.  But that’s what this game devolved into at the end.

My question, I suppose, is how many times could Tampa Bay give the Chiefs a fresh set of downs (assuming some of these penalties had been called) deep in their territory before Kansas City would finally take advantage of the opportunities – even though they were being badly outplayed on the line?  The alternate question, though, is just as valid.  Given the fact that Kansas City never could take advantage of the many opportunities that they had already been presented with, why would you think a few more would make a difference?

The irritating thing about an un-evenly officiated game is that it muddies the result.  It opens the doors for a myriad of what ifs.

Bottom Lines

For the Chiefs, it is enough to say that – for whatever reason – they played poorly.  Calls made or unmade aside, they didn’t show up – and got themselves embarrassed for it.

It’s hard to call this a team at a cross-roads.  Still very young with an explosive core in place, it’s not unreasonable to see this team reaching the big game several more times before Mahomes is finished.  But this loss is a significant blemish on their legacy.

It will probably always be the “one that got away.”  How this will (or possibly won’t) inform their future playoff runs will be worth noting.

The Tampa Bay Bucs are a different story.  From the time they lost their first meeting with Kansas City in Week 12, everything has gone as perfectly for Tampa Bay as the most ardent fan could have hoped. 

Just 7-5 at that point, the Buccaneers finished their regular season with four games against losing teams.  Wins in those games qualified the Bucs for the playoffs, where they met another losing team (playing a back-up quarterback, no less).  A football game in DC in January could come with some nasty weather – but this one didn’t – 40 pleasant degrees and light winds.

After barely surviving Washington, Tampa Bay moved on to a match-up against New Orleans and a quarterback so injured he probably shouldn’t have been on the field.

Tampa Bay’s final two playoff games played out somewhat similarly.  As with Kansas City, Green Bay found themselves surprisingly unable to execute the simplest routine tasks.  As with Kansas City, Green Bay could only attempt to resist Barrett with a back-up tackle – who, I understand, has already been released.  And, as with Kansas City, when Tampa Bay needed the officials to look the other way and “let them play,” the officials looked the other way – but in both games, at a critical juncture of the game, the officials found their flags in time to call damaging, out-of-context penalties against their opponent.  As with the Washington game, the weather couldn’t have been more co-operative.  While the forecast all week called for snow, the NFC Championship Game opened with bright sunlight pouring onto the Buccaneer sideline – certainly an omen.

Down to the fact that both their safeties healed in time to play in the Super Bowl and extending even to having the game in their home stadium, everything imaginable broke in favor of the Buccaneers.

Why this happens can be inexplicable.  While it seems like there is a higher power pulling strings, this could just all be part of the general randomness of life.  If you believe in karma, then, perhaps, there was still some positive left-over karma from Tampa Bay’s 0-26 start nearly a half-century ago.

If it is a karma thing, though, you can be pretty much assured that it’s over and won’t be a positive factor for Tampa Bay next year.  During and after the game, the Buccaneers did more than enough to provoke the football gods – if they exist.

World Champions and Bad Sports

Here in the much-advertised United States of America we always hope that our sports heroes and champions are steeped in the virtues of good sportsmanship.  You don’t have to watch very many games in any sport to see that this virtue is eroding.  Although this isn’t yet the case with all of them, the American professional athlete is trending ever deeper into the depths of arrogance, self-worship and bad taste.

Sadly, during and after Super Bowl LV, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers set new lows in tepidly bad sportsmanship.  Bad enough was the fact that Tampa Bay – ahead by 22 points with about three-and-a-half minutes left in the game was still throwing for the end zone, but now their championship is also sullied by the Antoine Winfield moment.

I’m sure you remember it.  With 4:06 left in the game, Patrick Mahomes’ desperation fourth-down heave falls incomplete.  Instead of leaving the field, Winfield waits until the fallen Tyreek Hill looks up.  When he is certain that he has Hill’s full attention, Winfield taunts him.

I haven’t seen every one of the Super Bowls (life doesn’t always allow you that luxury).  But I’ve seen most of them and I rather think that this is likely the most egregious show of bad sportsmanship that the Super Bowl has ever seen.  On the broadcast, Tony Romo likened it to kicking a man when he is down.  It was certainly all of that.  After the game, Mr. Winfield was, of course, un-repentant.  A full participant in all of the noxious attitudes that are beginning to permeate this generation of athletes, he was actually proud of what was – in reality – a very cowardly act.

This general sense of loss of control has become the meme of the after-game in Tampa.  Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski are already becoming legendary for their drunken, boorish conduct.  The disrespectful way – for instance – that they’ve tossed around the trophy is frat boy behavior.  The kind you might expect from someone who has never won anything and has no idea how to behave.

Or, perhaps, someone who has won too much and no longer respects the game and its process.

At any rate, you anger the football gods at your own risk.  Laugh if you will, but I have seen them avenge themselves more than once on teams and individuals that cross the lines.  If you will remember, after New Orleans trashed Tampa Bay in their Week Nine contest, the Saints – including their coach – gave themselves over to an uproarious celebration.  Even though this was done in the privacy of their locker room and not intended to directly taunt the Buccaneers, it was an unseemly display.

And, if you’ll remember, New Orleans’ season began to go south from that very moment – including the loss of quarterback Drew Brees to nearly a dozen broken ribs in their very next game.

I suppose we’ll see next year what repercussions these actions will bring.

A Warning and a Suggestion

Beyond the heartlessness of it, the most annoying thing about the Winfield moment was there was no consequence.  All of the officials threw their flags, and Winfield was rightfully penalized for taunting.  But it was a toothless penalty.  The Tampa Bay offense, coming onto the field in a game they already had won was set back a few yards – as consequences go, it was not worth mentioning.

This, then, was actually the second time in this year’s playoffs that a horrific display of bad sportsmanship went virtually unpunished.  After the classless Baltimore Ravens clinched their win over Tennessee with a late game interception, the entire Ravens’ team rushed onto the field to taunt Tennessee.  Again, flags flew but the few yards marked off for the ensuing Baltimore possession were less than meaningless.

The problem here is that the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty – as it is currently – doesn’t have the power to over-turn the play and allow the offended team to maintain possession.  Both of the fouls previously mentioned occurred after the play was over and possession of the football had formally passed from one team to another.  I invite the NFL to re-visit this.  Perhaps they should establish an “egregious unsportsmanlike conduct” penalty – specifically for situations like this – that can suspend the transfer of possession to truly penalize this petulant behavior.

My warning is that we will see more of this.  The football world watched both of those moments unfold.  Until and unless the league establishes a penalty that can adequately prevent these displays, they will become increasingly common until the post-game taunting of the losers by the winners will be part of every post-game ritual.

Shortly after Winfield’s taunt, while the flags were flying around him, Antoine had a brief moment of genuine remorse.  For just a second on his knees, he cradled his head in his hands in a classic what-have-I-just-done pose.  Mr. Winfield’s regret was not for behaving like a jerk.  Apparently, he has no issue with being a jerk.  But for that brief moment, he thought that his self-serving actions had overturned the play and given the ball back to the Chiefs.  That kind of consequence would be the only thing that could cause him to regret his actions – and the only real deterrent to this ugly behavior.

NFL, the next move is yours.

Chasing Patrick: Super Bowl LV Review – Part Two

There is 6:30 left in the third quarter, Tampa Bay leading 28-9.  Kansas City has the ball, facing a third-and-13 from its own 22-yard line.

The Chiefs line up with Demarcus Robinson lined tight to the right side of the formation and three receivers out to the left.  Tight end Travis Kelce was split the closest to the line, with Tyreek Hill just inside the numbers on that side. Sammy Watkins is flanked out furthest to the sideline.

Tampa Bay, comfortable with their lead, is sitting in cover-three, with cornerbacks Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean each responsible for his respective sideline, and Mike Edwards playing deep centerfield.

Hill and Kelce both begin with runs up the center of the field, holding Edwards in the middle.  At about 12 yards, Kelce breaks off his vertical and starts settling in under the zone.  At the point where he settles, he’s about one yard shy of the first down.  In the short-middle zone, safety Antoine Winfield reacts to Kelce and closes on him.  Also reacting is Davis, who stops dropping deep and stays level with Kelce.  In fact, Jordan Whitehead – who had been tracking Robinson’s slower vertical up the right sideline, also turned his attention to Kelce – so Travis had succeeded in drawing away – to one degree or another – three-fifths of the Tampa Bay secondary.

Robinson was now running free up the right sideline, and Hill was sliding over into the undefended area behind all of the defenders who were congregating around Kelce.  In zone defense, when a defender stops dropping or abandons his zone entirely, it causes a domino effect.  In this case, Edwards realized that Hill would be undefended once he reached the deep spot in the zone that Davis should be occupying.  Mike had very little choice.  He had to abandon his middle zone to attend to Hill.  That was all well and good, but the other deep receiver – Watkins – was bending his route into the void that Edwards left behind him.

So Patrick Mahomes, one of football’s deadliest weapons, has – at a critical juncture of Super Bowl LV – two open receivers, either one of which could have scored the touchdown that puts Kansas City right back in the game.

And it couldn’t have mattered less.

Let me be clear about this.  Tampa Bay absolutely didn’t need to blitz or run any defensive line stunts to get pressure on the quarterback.  The essential element of their game plan was to line up somebody (usually linebacker Shaquil Barrett) over Kansas City’s substitute right tackle – Andrew Wylie – and have him run right by Wylie to chase the quarterback.  Part B of the essential game plan placed another pass rusher (usually Jason Pierre-Paul) over Kansas City’s other transplanted tackle (Mike Remmers – who was normally the right tackle now switched over to the left side) and sending him past Remmers to meet Barrett at the quarterback.  Shaq and Jason essentially spent the bulk of Super Bowl LV racing each other to the quarterback.

Nonetheless, from time-to-time, Tampa Bay did blitz and/or run a stunt up front – just to keep things interesting, I suppose.  This was one such instance.  As you can imagine, running stunts against an offensive line where three of the five members were playing out of position proved to be more than just mildly effective.

On this play, it was Pierre-Paul lining up over Wylie, with linebacker Devin White on the line next to him – aligned over Stefan Wisniewski (the other backup on the line) – and Ndamukong Suh playing nose tackle over center Austin Reiter.  From the other side of the line, Barrett would get Remmers with Lavonte David, also on the line, aligned over Nick Allegretti.  The stunt sent Pierre-Paul and David inside, with Suh and White looping around into the vacancies.  The design worked perfectly for Suh, sending Ndamukong hurtling past the beleaguered Wylie.  But Allegretti made the adjustment on the left side and picked up White.  No matter, though, as Reiter wasn’t aware of the stunt and allowed David to slip right in behind him.

As with the majority of plays on this long afternoon for the Chiefs, Patrick Mahomes had immediate company in his backfield.  One step before both Suh and David would pull him down – and while Robinson and Watkins were in the process of breaking open – Patrick flung the football in the general direction of Tyreek Hill.  Coming up behind Hill, Edwards deflected the ball away from Tyreek – the rebound dropping right into the lap of Winfield for an interception.

I’m not sure any single play tells the story of Tampa Bay’s 31-9 Super Bowl victory (gamebook) (summary) more completely than this one.  On a play where Tampa Bay could easily have surrendered a critical touchdown, they instead come up with an equally critical interception on plays by two defenders (Edwards and Winfield) who were not where they were supposed to be.

That’s how the day went for the former champs.

Tampa Bay advanced the ball just 11 yards after the turnover, but that was all they needed to set up Ryan Succop’s 52-yard field goal that provided the final points of the game.

Pressure Kills

As with most Super Bowls, the days leading up to SB LV were rife with speculations about matchups and coverage schemes.  But Barrett and his boys rendered all that cerebration irrelevant.  In a primal display that belies the complexity of the modern game, Tampa Bay’s defensive front came after Kansas City’s talented quarterback in waves, all but completely throttling what is generally regarded as football’s most unstoppable offense.

Counting scrambles, Patrick Mahomes dropped back to pass an astonishing 56 times in this contest.  On just 22 of those drop-backs did Patrick have a reasonable opportunity to set up and look for a receiver.  When given reasonable time in the pocket – and in spite of the fact that he trailed virtually the entire game – Mahomes still acquitted himself well.  He completed 17 of those passes (77.57%) for 180 yards and 7 first downs – a passer rating of 100.57.

But the other 34 pass attempts were mostly nightmares for Patrick and the Chiefs.  Running for his life, Mahomes was just 9 for 27 (33.33%) for 90 yards (3.33 per pass attempt) with 2 interceptions, 3 sacks (for 27 yards of losses) and 4 scrambles – a 12.89 rating on the passes when the pressure was at least enough to hurry him.

That Tampa Bay was able to bring that kind of pressure on 57.7% of his passes was remarkable.  Even more impressive was their ability to bring that pressure 51% of the time without blitzing.  In keeping with the aggressive approach that defines coach Bruce Arians’ philosophy, Tampa Bay blitzed the quarterback 39% of the time during the regular season – the fifth-highest rate in football.  On Super Bowl Sunday, they brought that extra rusher just 5 times in 56 drop-backs.

They backed off the blitz because they didn’t need to blitz.  The four man rush – with the occasional twist thrown in – was doing just fine.  This was, in fact, the greatest irony of Super Bowl LV.  The oft-criticized Tampa Bay pass defense was able to hand Patrick Mahomes the worst day of his young career by playing predominantly to their weakness.

What Tampa Bay has done best all year is playing man defense and blitzing to get pressure.  Against Kansas City, they played just 14 snaps of man coverage, and didn’t blitz once when they did.  All five of their blitzes came in support of zone defenses.  But with a substantial lead, and with the front four dominating, Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles decided to play it safe in the secondary and just let Barrett, Pierre-Paul and the others do their thing.

And so, Tampa Bay ended up playing 37 snaps (66.1%) of straight zone with no blitz.  A season-long weakness, their undisciplined zones presented Mahomes and KC with numerous opportunities while the rush consistently prevented them from taking advantage.

Shaq

The MVP award was presented – at the end of the day – to quarterback Tom Brady.  This was not an unworthy choice.  Brady (as we discussed in Part One of our Super Bowl analysis) led his resurgent offense to the 31 points that provided the defense with its substantial lead.

Had I been given a vote, though, I think I would have cast mine for linebacker Shaquil Barrett.  Defensive statistics are notoriously insufficient in quantifying a defender’s impact on the game.  Shaq earned one of the three sacks Tampa Bay registered against the mercurial Mr. Mahomes, and was credited with 4 of the 8 official “hits” that Tampa Bay managed against Patrick.

Exactly what’s behind that “hit” number, I’m not sure.  But charting the game I had Patrick rushed 16 times (that’s a situation where the pressure forces him to throw before he’s ready and also includes the times he was chased around the backfield, but not necessarily hit). I had 7 other times where he was being contacted as he was throwing or immediately after he released the ball.  These were not necessarily knock downs, but he at least found himself pushed or shoved at the conclusion of those plays.  In addition to the three sacks that they eventually got, I had four other plays where he was all but down, and somehow managed to get the throw away.

Counting the one scramble in which Patrick was actually flushed out of the pocket by the pass rush, I had Barrett as the primary source of pressure on 9 of those 31 plays.  This is an uncommon level of disruption from a single defender.  On five of those plays he blew past Wylie.  He victimized Remmers on two other occasions.  He came free on a stunt once, and the other time a running back decided he would rather not block him.

Hearkening back to the NFC Championship Game in Green Bay, Barrett had himself about as fine a set of playoff games as I can recall in quite some time.  Again the official numbers don’t tell the full story, but Shaq was awarded three sacks and four other hits against the Packers for Championship and Super Bowl totals of 4 sacks and 8 hits in the two climactic games of the season.

But, of course, Shaq was also working against second string blockers in those two games.  An injury to David Bakhtiari – one of football’s most proficient tackles – left Aaron Rodgers’ right side protected by Ricky Wagner.  This year, Kansas City lost three-fifth of its starting offensive line from the 2019 Super Bowl team.  Both tackles (Mitchell Schwartz and Eric Fisher) were lost to injury (and the tackles weren’t the strongest aspect of this team to begin with), and right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardiff opted out of the season.  A medical doctor, the heroic Duvernay-Tardiff chose to spend the pandemic year on the “offensive line,” if you will, of the COVID defense team.  So often, we seem to shrug off situations that develop on the offensive line.  Good teams always seem to have capable backups.  But the line matters – it matters quite a bit.

Everyone who replaced the lost members of the 2019 offensive line (Nick Allegretti, Mike Remmers and Andrew Wylie) struggled mightily in pass protection in Super Bowl LV.  This is especially true of Wylie.  I said earlier that I would have given Shaq Barrett my MVP vote?  You could make a case that Tampa Bay’s true MVP was whoever got to line up opposite Wylie.  Of the 31 disruptive pass rushes I identified above, 12 came principally from the player that Andrew was supposed to block – including two of the three sacks (the third was a coverage sack).

Lost in the obscurity of last year’s 7-9 team, Barrett – in his first year in Tampa Bay and his first year as a starter – exploded onto the scene as a pass rusher.  In four years in Denver, Shaq totaled 14 sacks in 1856 defensive snaps – a sack for every 132.57 defensive plays he was on the field for.  In 2019 he surprised the football universe, leading the NFL in sacks with 19.5 during his 889 plays – one for each 45.59 snaps.  During the 2020 regular season, Barrett regressed to a number more in line with his career norms.  In 822 snaps he collected 8 quarterback sacks – one for each 102.75 plays.

This made his stellar 2019 season seem like an outlier – at least until he lit up the Packers and Chiefs in the last two games of the season – his final 4 sacks coming over his final 126 plays – one every 31.5 snaps.

What this suggests as far as Barrett’s future in the NFL is speculative at this point.  The fact, though, that the most dominant stretch of Shaq’s season came against teams that could only oppose him with second string tackles is consistent with the good fortune that has smiled down on Tampa Bay in abundance since their record dropped to 7-5 after their Week 12 loss the first time they played Kansas City.

With the increase in pressure, Tampa Bay didn’t have to worry about keeping Mahomes in the pocket.  A major concern for some teams, Patrick was just 2 for 11 (18.81%) outside the pocket for but 3 yards.  He was also sacked once out of the pocket, and threw as many interceptions (2) as he had completions. His passer rating out of the pocket was a perfect (for Tampa Bay) 0.00.

Downfield passing was also not an issue for the Bucs.  Throwing to targets at least ten yards downfield, Mahomes was just 5 for 17 (27.41%) for an even 100 yards, but also both his interceptions – a rating of 12.01.  This number includes 0-for-6 with an interception on throws to targets 20 yards or more downfield.

It was a more thorough and complete dismantling of this offense than anyone – including, probably, Tampa Bay – could have possibly imagined.

Still Leaky in Zone Coverage

About the only area where the formerly explosive Kansas City offense did have substantial success was over the middle of the field.  This was the area where – when he had the time to do so – Patrick could get linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David to wander out of their zone responsibilities.  For all of his struggles on the perimeters, when throwing to the middle of the field, Mahomes was 14 of 17 (82.35%) for 199 yards (11.71 per attempted pass).  It worked out to a Mahomes-like 115.44 passer rating.  Throwing against White’s primary zone coverage, Patrick was 6-for-8 for 63 yards.  He was 5-for-7 for 46 yards against David’s zone responsibility (these two didn’t always have just middle of the field responsibilities, of course, but on any given play one or the other usually did).

As against Buffalo, tight end Travis Kelce was a palpable weapon both against the Tampa Bay zones (he caught 9 of 11 passes thrown to him against zone coverages for 121 yards), and over the middle of the field (he caught 8 of 11 targets over the middle for 116 yards).  Tyreek Hill also did most of his damage over the middle, where he caught all 5 passes thrown to him for 70 yards.

Breath-Taking in Man

While the evolution of the game dictated predominant zone coverages (and Tampa Bay was in zone 75% of the time), the 14 snaps of man coverage that they played demonstrated again how proficient this team is in man coverage.

Let’s begin with Kelce – who mostly ate up Tampa’s zones.  Against man coverage, Travis managed separation from his defender just 3 times the entire game.  This includes getting open just once in 7 matchups with David (although, in fairness to Travis, Lavonte’s first move against Kelce was usually the grabbing of his shoulder pads), and just once in 4 routes run against Mike Edwards.  Kelce was targeted just 4 times against man coverages, catching just 1 pass for 12 yards.

David and Edwards were both terrific in the few man opportunities presented to them.  Devonte White also covered very well – although he was only on running back Darrell Williams.  But the one whose stock has really risen during the postseason is cornerback Carlton Davis.

Carlton’s – previous to this postseason – isn’t a name that was much tossed around as a shut-down corner.  He was always respected, but not usually categorized with the NFL’s elite corners.  This playoff run challenged that perception.  In the two games previous to Super Bowl LV, Davis was primarily responsible for shutting down (first) New Orleans’ Michael Thomas (0 completions in 4 targets with only 0.82 average yards of separation), and then Green Bay’s Davante Adams.  Adams did finish with 9 catches for just 67 yards, but wasn’t covered by Davis all the time.  Against Carlton, Adams caught only 3 passes on 5 targets for just 26 yards.  One of those receptions came after Davante pushed Davis to the ground (an act that will usually draw a pass interference penalty).

Carlton topped off his impressive playoff run with stellar performances (in man coverage) against Hill (who never beat him in the 4 routes he ran against him) and Kelce (who was 0-for-2 against Davis).  Overall, in Tampa Bay’s 14 snaps of man, only two Kansas City receivers managed any separation from Davis.  Once, Carlton gave a surprisingly large cushion to Demarcus Robinson, who ran a short comeback (the throw went to Kelce on that play). A bit earlier, Sammy Watkins found a little room on a curl in front of Davis (again the throw went elsewhere).  And that was it.  No other receivers ever managed to get open against him, and no passes were even throw in the direction of the man that Davis had in man coverage during the game.

The combination of pressure and tight coverage relegated Mahomes to just 3 for 11 for 47 yards against man coverage (he was also sacked once and forced to scramble twice).  For the game, Kansas City’s talented wide receivers were held to just 8.7 yards per reception.

Hill finished the game with 7 catches for 73 yards that included 2 catches for 35 yards against man.  As Tampa Bay’s corners rarely switch sides to match a particular defender on a particular receiver, Kansas City was easily able to get Tyreek away from Davis by aligning him to the left of the formation (where Jamel Dean would cover him) or by putting him in the slot (where he would be Sean Murphy-Bunting’s problem).  Both of those alignments provided better opportunities.  Tyreek beat Dean on 2 of 3 routes, and Murphy-Bunting on 3 of 5 – a couple of those against Sean were deep routes where Hill beat him right off the snap.  It was certainly something that KC might have gone to more often – but, of course, there were the persistent problems with pass protection that prevented Hill from having a more productive day than he did.

This Slow Start Snowballed

In winning all of their five previous playoff games, Kansas City trailed by at least nine points early in four of them – so the Chiefs are no strangers to slow starts, and not usually ones to panic if things start off a little negatively.  This time, however, the slow start snowballed on them.  The offense (hampered as it was) never did find a rhythm – especially early.  Mahomes started the game 3 for 12 and finished the first half just 9 of 19 (47.4%) for only 67 yards.

The big difference this time around, though, was that the defense wasn’t able to keep the game close.  When Tampa Bay scored a touchdown on its first drive of the second half, it was their fourth touchdown in their previous five drives and left the KC offense looking up a very steep incline.  Tampa Bay led at that point 28-9 with just 22:45 left in the contest.  Already struggling for answers, the Chiefs would now spend the rest of the game in a pass-only mode that would play right into the hands of the Tampa Bay pass rush.  Patrick would throw the ball 30 times in the second half – 21 of those in the fourth quarter alone.  He would throw for 203 second half yards, but after suffering neither a sack nor an interception in the first half, the second half would bring him multiples of both.

In fact, Kansas City spent nearly half of its offensive life in what was, essentially, garbage time.  Of the 69 plays they ran, 30 of them came with the Chiefs facing a 22 point deficit.  Of Mahomes’ 270 passing yards, 195 came in garbage time.  Of Kelce’s game-high 133 receiving yards, 78 came in the fourth quarter in a 31-9 game.

In such opportunities as Mahomes and the passing game had – both early and late – to get themselves back into the game, they found themselves turned away by the uncompromising Tampa Bay defense.

The Chiefs finished the game 3 of 13 on third down (they had been the third-best third-down team in football, converting 49% of them).  Patrick was only 4 of 12 on that down for 46 yards.  Only 2 of his completions were sufficient for first downs, and one of his 8 incompletions ended up in the hands of the defense.  His passer rating on third down ended as a dismal 11.11.

Even worse, he was 0 for his first 8 third down passes, not completing his first until there was 5:43 left in the game and Kansas City trailing by the 22 point final score.

The Chiefs were also 0-for-3 in the red zone.  Patrick completed just 3 of his 8 passes there for 8 yards.  Not only did he fail to throw a red zone touchdown pass, but none of his completions even produced a first down.  Additionally, his last pass of the season – from the Tampa Bay 10-yard line – was intercepted.

What the Chiefs Should Have Done

Tampa Bay’s defense certainly limited Kansas City’s opportunities, but other teams have faced similar difficulties and made adjustments to improve their situation.  In fact, during much of the season Tampa Bay’s offense was, itself, frequently side-tracked with similar difficulties – a situation that they successfully addressed in their late season re-bound and inspired post-season run.

But Kansas City never made any of these adjustments – even though there were clearly options available to them.

Designate More Pass Blockers

As I pointed out in Part One of this discussion, through most of the early part of the season, the Bucs had some significant issues keeping their quarterback upright.  Coming down the stretch, the Bucs adopted one of the simplest and most effective answers to the problem.  They kept more men in the backfield to pick up pass rushers.  Up until the Super Bowl, tight end Rob Gronkowski had done much more pass blocking than route running.

If a situation ever called for pass-blocking help, this one certainly did.  But, with a handful of exceptions, the Chiefs never offered their beleaguered linemen any support.  And such support as was granted was nothing more than an occasional chip by a back or tight end in a hurry to get out in the pattern.  Without notable exception, Kansas City left their flailing tackles all alone on Barrett, Pierre-Paul, Suh and others.

I am a great admirer of Andy Reid and his offensive design.  As with most people who follow the NFL, I place Reid and his staff among the elite offensive minds in the game.  That being said, I think any other coaching staff in football – watching the opposing pass rush destroying their season – would have made some adjustment.  If nothing else, they would have gone to more two tight-end sets, lining either Nick Keizer or Deon Yelder next to Wylie to help relieve the pressure there, while keeping the back in legitimately to help the other tackle Remmers – not to take a quick glance at Remmers and then hustle into the pattern.  For whatever reason, though, the Chiefs never made that move.

During the 56 Kansas City called pass plays, the Chiefs had a second tight end on the field just 5 times – and on 3 of those, both tight ends released into the pattern.  And so, the Chief coaching staff stood by silently and watched their tackles being abused and their quarterback chased around the backfield for play-after-play.

Now, of course, more dedicated blockers may have been an invitation for Tampa Bay to blitz more, but even at that I would take my chances.

Or, Kansas City could have employed another proven tactic for slowing a pass rush.  They could have . . .

Run The Ball

By about the mid-season mark, few teams in football were more run-averse that Tampa Bay.  On more than one occasion, I’ve pointed out that they had all of 5 running plays in their Week Nine loss to New Orleans.  But that adjustment’s been made, and the revived running game has been a critical part of their late season surge.  In the playoffs, the Bucs averaged more than 30 runs per game.  As precise and effective as Tom Brady and the passing attack were, I give more credit to the running game that thumped the KC defense to the tune of 33 runs for 145 yards.  One of my principle points in Part One was the boost that the running game gives the passing game.

As far as Kansas City goes, a call for more running might seem a bit counter-intuitive – considering the struggles that the offensive line was having.  But the fact is that the Kansas City line was only struggling with the pass blocking aspect.  The few times that Kansas City did run the ball, that same line acquitted themselves quite well.

In spite of the fact that Tampa Bay finished the regular season first against the run (they allowed 80.6 yards per game and 3.6 per attempt), Kansas City pushed them around a little as they averaged 6.3 yards on their 17 rushes.

To get an accurate feel for the success of the Chief running game, though, you have to subtract out Mahomes’ 5 runs for 33 yards and Tyreek Hill’s sweep for 5 more yards.  That still leaves 69 yards gained by the running backs on 11 attempts – the same 6.3 yard average.  And this wasn’t a case of one or two big runs skewing the averages.  KC earned at least 5 yards on 6 of the 11 runs.  The 6.3 yards per run were significantly more than the 4.7 they gained per pass.

It’s a small sample size, but the KC offensive line looked so much more confident and at ease when they ran the ball that it’s still a wonder why they didn’t do more of it.  They were especially effective the few times they attacked the middle of the Buccaneer line.

Kansas City only ran between the guards 5 times in the game, but 4 of those runs gained at least five yards, and the 5 rushes together totaled 47 yards.  Tampa Bay linebacker Lavonte David – who is one of the strengths of this run defense – only made two tackles against the run in this one – one ten yards from scrimmage, and the other after an 11-yard gain.

What a difference it might have made, say after Tampa Bay’s second touchdown had put them ahead 14-3 with still 6:05 left in the first half, if the Chiefs had made the attempt to re-gain control of the line of scrimmage with their running game.  What a boon it would have been to that battered offensive line to get the opportunity to take the game to the Buccaneer front seven for a while.

Along with calming the pass rush, such an approach might have even brought the play-action pass back into the mix – only 6 of Mahomes’ 49 passes employed even a slight hint of play-action.

Instead, though, by that time KC was pretty much done running the ball.  After 8 runs in their first 19 plays (including 3 Patrick Mahomes’ scrambles), the Chiefs would only hand the ball off 7 more times over their final 40 plays – and on just 3 of their final 34.

Would it have made a significant difference?  I believe that it would have.  To be honest with you, Tampa Bay spent the entire game daring Kansas City to run as they sat in their two-deep safety looks the entire game.  For the entire second half of the game, I don’t believe Tampa Bay ever put more than six defenders in the box.

I am fairly convinced that – as soon as they realized the mismatch playing out before them – the KC coaches could have altered the course of the game with a few reasonable adjustments.  More two tight-end sets, more running the ball, and a few more pass blockers when Mahomes was going to throw.  Simple steps, but enough, I think to put them back on equal footing with Tampa Bay.  Which begs the question that, in my mind, hung over the entire Super Bowl.

Why Didn’t They Do It?

The exact reason why the former champs didn’t make some simple adjustments is, of course, something I can’t say with any degree of certainty.  I’m not afraid to speculate though.

Patrick Mahomes has been the starting quarterback in Kansas City for 46 regular season and 8 playoff games.  During that span – up until Super Bowl Sunday two weeks ago – the Kansas City Chiefs had never run into a situation that their passing game couldn’t handle.  Blitzes, exotic coverages, injuries, deficits, poor officiating – over the course of Mahomes’ three seasons at the helm in KC, he, his un-paralleled awareness, his collection of talented (and scary) receivers, and the creativeness of the offensive scheme have overcome all previous obstacles put in their way.  Many times, the confluence of all of this has seemed almost magical.

Why didn’t the Chiefs make some necessary adjustments?  I think it’s because they’ve never ever had to with Mahomes back there.  On some level, I think they all believed that somehow or other – one way or another – Mahomes or somebody would make a play and everything in their universe would be OK again.  That’s kind of the way it’s been in the playoffs the last couple of years.  The team off to a not so good start.  Somebody makes just one play.  The team exhales and becomes the invincible Chiefs that we’ve gotten accustomed to these last couple of years.

On Super Bowl Sunday, nobody made that play (at least not a play that counted – more on that in Part Three).  On Super Bowl Sunday, the hole just kept getting deeper.  In a significant way, Super Bowl LV served to teach the team that may still be football’s next dynasty a little about their own mortality.

What impact that may have on the franchise in the coming seasons is something that we’ll pry into a little deeper in Part Three

Part Three – which I hope to have up in another day or so – will conclude the fifth season of randomcardinalstats.com.  Unless something compelling forces me to open the blog before then, you will next hear from me in mid-April as we open the 2021 baseball season.

But before we get there, I’ve got a little more Super Bowl ground to cover.

All of the Biscuits; None of the Risk-its: Super Bowl LV Review Part I

Sunday, November 8 was Week Nine of the NFL season and is the touchstone date of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ season. Long before they were crowned champions of Super Bowl LV, this team was eviscerated on the same field that they would be celebrating on in February.  Their 38-3 pounding at the hands of the New Orleans Saints was a telling look at who the Bucs were about halfway through their first Brady-Arians season.

You might recall that this was in the midst of swirling reports about the “buyers’ remorse” that Bruce might have been having over importing a 43-year-old quarterback who – at one time – was (arguably) the greatest quarterback in history.  Whatever the reality of that relationship, one thing was clear.  Bruce had no hesitation in throwing his quarterback under the bus. To hear him in the postgame, you would have thought that if that quarterback (a gentleman named Tom Brady who you may have heard of) had simply done the things they brought him to Tampa to do, they would have won that game – and all the others as well.  Whatever happens or was said in practice, the image that Arians projected to the world was that his system was – of course – brilliant, and that the only hold-up was the frequent foul-ups of the man behind center.

Writing in the aftermath of that game, I took some exception with Bruce’s analysis.  My observation of that game – and the Tampa Bay season to that point – was that Brady was doing as well as could be expected under the circumstances.  There had been a very mild learning curve at the beginning, but the problems now were the problems endemic to Arians’ approach and the personnel he had trying to run it.  In short, in my read, the problem was basically everything except the quarterback.

The full text of that discussion you can find here, but these (in summary) were the major issues that – I believed – were really standing in the way of this team reaching its potential.

First, Tampa Bay had basically abandoned its running game.  In this game against the Saints they set an NFL record for fewest rushing attempts – they ran the ball just 5 times.  For the season, they finished twenty-ninth in running attempts with just 369 (23.1 per game).  They were the fewest running attempts of any winning team.  Consequently, they finished twenty-eighth in rushing yards (94.9).  Among winning teams, only Pittsburgh (which had also abandoned its running game) did worse (84.4 rushing yards per game).

Second, pass protection.  During the Saints’ game, Brady absorbed quite a beating.  He was getting hit – and really belted – on almost every pass attempt.  If you are going to throw the ball deep, you need to protect your quarterback – no matter who he is.  But especially if he’s a 43-year-old legend who could have stayed in New England if he wanted to pick himself up off the turf 30 times a game.

Next, too many deep shots.  Yes, it’s what Arians is known for – and what this offense, with all of their wide receivers – was built for.  But, at its core, the offense that has the shot play as its foundation is just as gimmicky an offense as the run-and-shoot or whatever name you want to give to what they’re doing in Baltimore.  Against New Orleans, 16 of Tom’s 38 throws were at targets more than 10 down field, and six of them (all incompletions, by the way) went to receivers 20 or more yards away.  For the season, Brady’s average target was 9.3 yards downfield (this according to NextGen Stats).  Among quarterbacks who threw the ball at least 150 times, that ranks as the highest.

Finally, the early season offense – I refer to it as the “Arians on steroids” offense – was too wide receiver-centric.  Through the Week Nine game, wide receivers were getting 53.9% of the targeted passes.  Running backs were being targeted just 23.1% of the time.

Sustainable offense is about balance and variety.  It’s a blend of the run and the pass, and a mixture of passing flavors.  The more certain a batter is that he knows what pitch will be thrown to him, the better his odds of hitting it.  Similarly, the narrower the band of your offense is, the better the defense you are facing can prepare for it.

In the aftermath of their thorough 31-9 conquest of Kansas City in Super Bowl LV (gamebook) (summary), Bruce Arians and the Bucs would have you believe that they were doing the same things that they had been doing all year – running the same plan – but just doing it better.  The truth is much different.

The two important elements to understand about Tampa Bay and their world championship are: first, that the Tampa Bay offense became consistently productive as it progressively became less Arians and more Brady [this will constitute part one of our discussion]; and, more importantly, that no offense – even one as dangerous and seemingly unstoppable as Kansas City’s – can succeed without its offensive line [this will be part two].  Part Three will look at the game beyond the numbers.  We’ll look at all of these elements in greater detail, but this is an adequate segue into our notebook section.  Super Bowl LV stirred memories of other Super Bowl blowouts – which have been less frequent in recent years; of other Super Bowls won with minimal production from the passing game; and, of course, memorable pass defenses.

Super Bowl LV NoteBook

The 22-point differential was the largest since SB XLVIII (48), when Seattle overwhelmed Denver 43-8.  Since then, no Super Bowl had been decided by more than the 14 points that Denver beat Carolina by in SB 50.

Tom Brady’s 201 passing yards were the fewest by a Super Bowl quarterback since that Denver-Carolina game.  Peyton Manning threw for only 141 yards, but still led the Broncos to a 24-10 win.

Brady threw but 29 passes in the game – the fewest by a winning quarterback in the Super Bowl since Manning threw just 23 passes in that SB 50 win over Carolina.

Brady also averaged just 9.6 yards per completed pass – the lowest average for a Super Bowl quarterback since SB XLIX (49), when Tom himself averaged only 8.9 yards per completion (328 yards on 37 completions) in a 28-24 conquest of Seattle.

On the other hand, Tom completed 72.4% of his passes against Kansas City (21 of 29).  That is the highest completion percentage by a winning Super Bowl quarterback since that New England – Seattle game.  Brady completed an even 74% of his passes that day (37 of 50).

Also, 3 of Brady’s 29 passes went for touchdowns (10.3%).  He is the first Super Bowl quarterback to throw for touchdowns on more than 10% of his passes since Steve Young threw for 6 touchdowns on only 36 pass attempts (16.7%) in San Francisco’s 49-26 rout of San Diego in SB XXIX (29).

In that game, Young chalked up a 134.8 passer rating (24 of 36 for 325 yards and the 6 touchdowns).  No winning Super Bowl quarterback has surpassed that rating since – although Brady’s 125.8 rating in SB LV has come the closest.

Tom was also not intercepted in the game – his 29 passes being the most passes thrown without an interception in the Super Bowl since SB XLVII (47).  Baltimore beat San Francisco that day, 34-31, with quarterback Joe Flacco un-intercepted in 33 passing attempts.

With his interception-free game, Brady broke a string of six-straight Super Bowls in which the winning quarterback was intercepted at least once.  Brady himself began that streak throwing 2 interceptions against Seattle in the previously referenced 28-24 win.  The year before – in Seattle’s blowout of Denver – Russell Wilson became the last previous winning Super Bowl quarterback not to throw an interception in the game.  Oddly, at the time, that was an expected result.  Wilson, in SB XLVIII was the fifth straight Super Bowl winning quarterback not to throw an interception.

In Brady’s very first Super Bowl (playing for New England, of course) he beat the then-St Louis Rams 20-17 in SB XXXVI (36).  His 27 passing attempts in that game accounted for just 145 yards – an average of just 5.37 yards per attempt.  In Super Bowl LV, Patrick Mahomes’ 49 passes accounted for just 270 yards – a 5.51 average that is the lowest by any Super Bowl quarterback since Brady’s first appearance in the big game.

Mahomes’ average is the lowest for a losing quarterback in the Super Bowl since SB XXXV (35).  Baltimore trashed the New York Giants 34-7 that day.  Giants’ quarterback Kerry Collins ended a miserable day with just 112 passing yards on 39 attempts (2.87 yards per).

Mahomes’ 49 pass attempts – by the way – were the most thrown by a losing quarterback in the Super Bowl since the 49 that Manning tossed in his loss to Seattle.

Although he averaged more yards per completion than Brady did, Mahomes’ 10.4 yards per completed pass was the lowest such average for a losing quarterback in the Super Bowl since Denver’s oft-cited, lopsided loss to Seattle (SB XLVIII).  Peyton’s 34 completions accounting for just 280 yards (8.2 per).

Although he came agonizingly close with a couple of throws, none of Mahomes’ 49 passes resulted in a touchdown.  This was the most passes thrown in a Super Bowl without a touchdown pass since SB XXVIII (28).  Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly fired 50 passes that day without any of them putting 6 on the board, as his Bills lost to Dallas, 30-13.

Patrick finished the game with a lowly passer rating of 52.25 – the lowest by a Super Bowl quarterback since Ben Roethlisberger was held to a 22.6 rating (9 of 21 for 123 yards and 2 interceptions) in SB XL (40).  His team (Pittsburgh) managed, nonetheless, to beat Seattle that day 21-10.

It was the lowest rating for a losing quarterback in twenty years – hearkening back to the Collins game in SB XXXV (35).  In the Giants’ beat-down at the hands of the Ravens, Kerry finished his day just 15 of 39 for 112 yards, 0 touchdowns and 4 interceptions – an astonishing 7.1 rating.

On the strength solely of Tom Brady’s career, Michigan extends its lead over Notre Dame in alumni Super Bowl victories (7-5) and in all-time alumni Super Bowl starts (10-7) over both Notre Dame and Stanford.  Ex-Notre dame quarterbacks are 5-2 all-time (Joe Montana, 4-0; Joe Theismann, 1-1; and Daryl Lamonica, 0-1).  Ex-Stanford starters are: John Elway (2-3 in 5 Super Bowls) and Jim Plunkett (2-0 in 2 Super Bowls).  Brady is the only Michigan quarterback to start in a Super Bowl.

The 438 combined passing yards is the fewest in a Super Bowl since SB 50 (the Denver-Carolina matchup produced only 301 passing yards).

Tampa Bay’s 340 yards of total offense are the fewest by a winning Super Bowl team, again, since SB 50 – Denver won with only 194 yards of total offense.  With Kansas City amassing 350 yards of total offense, this was the first Super Bowl since SB 50 in which neither team managed at least 375 yards of offense.  The losing Panthers racked up all of 315 yards in their loss to Denver that day.

Rob Gronkowski led all Tampa Bay receivers with 67 receiving yards.  It’s the first time that no receiver on the winning team in a Super Bowl accumulated more than 80 receiving yards since SB XLVIII (48).  Doug Baldwin led Seattle that day with 66 receiving yards.  Each of the last four Super Bowl champs had at least one 100-yard receiver.

Running the Rock

The highlight packages of Super Bowl LV will feature the touchdown passes to Gronkowski and Shaquil Barrett (and others) chasing Mahomes all around the offensive backfield – and these were, of course, critical elements in the game.  But we will begin our discussion with that age-old foundational offensive element – the running game.  This, you will recall, was my first critique of the early season offense.

After that Week Nine game, Arians and his offense began, by degrees, to warm to the running game – especially as it began to focus around Leonard Fournette.  In their Week 15 win in Atlanta, Tampa Bay ran only 18 times for 51 yards.  It would be the last time this year that they would run the ball fewer than 22 times and gain fewer than 76 yards.  They ran 48 times combined in their final two regular season games.  In their four playoff games, the Bucs averaged 30.25 rushing attempts per game and 122.5 rushing yards per contest – all of this culminating in an almost Neanderthal performance in the final game, when they ran the ball 33 times for 145 yards.

They finished the season scoring at least one rushing touchdown in their last 8 games – which, coincidentally, was the winning streak that they closed the season on.

Exploiting a Known Weakness

The “I told you so” part of this is that run defense has been a known Kansas City weakness all year.  They finished the regular season serving up 122.1 rushing yards per game and 4.5 yards per rushing attempt.  Every team this season that committed to running the ball against the Chiefs, had success.  But, in their first two playoff games, the teams they faced – fearing the explosive nature of the KC offense – curtailed their running attacks and tried to out-Kansas City the Chiefs.  This wasn’t surprising from Buffalo – which has very little run commitment itself.  It was surprising from KC’s first playoff opponent.

The Cleveland Browns returned to relevance this year on the back of football’s third-most prolific running game (148.4 yards per game).  Along the way, they got 1067 yards out of Nick Chubb – in spite of the fact that he missed four games with an injury – and another 841 out of former Chief Kareem Hunt.

But when the playoffs arrived, Cleveland sidelined its running game for the first thirty minutes and rested their hopes on the arm of Baker Mayfield.  At the half, Cleveland had all of 18 yards rushing on just 6 attempts.  Not surprisingly, they trailed at that point 19-3.

In the second half – the large deficit notwithstanding – Cleveland returned to their foundation.  They ran the ball 16 times in the second half alone, rolling up 94 rushing yards (5.9 per) and nearly authored a stunning upset before falling just short, 22-17.

Noting this, the Buccaneers came right after the KC defense old-school style.  They ran the ball on first down.  Eighteen times in 30 first-down plays Bruce Arians’ no-risk-it-no-biscuit offense dialed up a running play – and they did so with great success.  Of the 145 rushing yards they racked up, 100 of them – including their touchdown run – came on first down.  Fournette, who breathed life into the running game throughout the post-season, was the hammer, here.  His 11 first down runs accounted for 68 yards (6.2 per) – including the touchdown (a beauty in which he went 27 yards untouched to, basically, ice the contest).

It’s not fair to think of this as just a fourth-quarter running attack either.  Through the first three quarters Tampa Bay sliced through the Kansas City defense for 105 rushing yards on 21 runs.

The success of this attack came almost exclusively when they ran to the right.  Running behind right guard Aaron Stinnie and rookie right tackle Tristan Wirfs, Tampa Bay exploited the weakness on that side of the Kansas City line.  Sixteen rushes to the right side produced 107 yards (6.7 per), six first downs, and the Fournette touchdown.  When they went either up the middle or to the left side, TB added just 38 yards on 17 rushes (2.2 per) with just two first downs and no run longer than 8 yards.

Although primarily a pass rusher, Frank Clark – who mans the offensive left end of the KC line – is more than adequate against the run.  The same can’t really be said for Kansas City’s other end – Alex Okafor.

Alex splits time at left defensive end with another pass rusher – Tanoh Kpassagnon.  Tanoh isn’t a stellar run stopper, but Okafor is a liability on that corner.  Alex played just 31 snaps, but had 6 runs sent right at him – beginning with the first play of Tampa Bay’s second series when Wirfs blew him right off the line, opening a 13-yard run for Ronald Jones.  All together the 6 runs aimed at Okafor accounted for 45 yards.

But Tampa Bay’s end-of-season run commitment is about more than just knowing where to run.  The Bucs frequently reinforced their running game with an extra offensive linemen.  Subtracting the kneel-downs at the end of the game, extra tackle Joe Haeg was on the field for 15 of Tampa Bay’s 30 running plays (lining up almost exclusively to that productive right side).  For three plays around the goal line, they also put nose tackle Veta Vea in at fullback.

With that sixth offensive lineman on the field, Tampa Bay gained 80 yards on their 15 rushes (5.3 per).  Tampa Bay also had two tight ends on the field for 13 of those running plays – including 9 where they had the extra lineman as well as the extra tight end.

This is a noteworthy turnaround for a team that – for most of the year – had little interest in running the ball.  Few people talk about this, but the difference that a little balance has made in this offense is significant – and the impact that the reinforced running game has had on the passing attack has been most welcome.

In the first place, a revived running game leads to a revived play-action passing game.  The impact of this is hard to over-state.  Of Brady’s 29 passes thrown, 16 of them came without benefit of play-action.  He completed 11 of those passes for just 66 yards with just 3 of those completions gaining first downs.  His passer rating with no play action was a disappointing 76.56.

With play-action, it was a different Tom Brady.  He was 10 of 13 (76.92%) throwing off play-action for 135 yards (10.38 per attempt).  Nine of those ten completions gained first-down yardage – including all 3 of his touchdown passes.  His passer rating on those throws was a satisfying 149.04.

Improving the Pass Protection

Running the football also does wonders for pass protection.  The effect here is two-fold.  First, a defense that has to concern itself with the run can’t rush the passer with reckless abandon.  They have to take that moment to “read” before they come.  Even more important, though, is that the running game gives the offensive line the chance to be the aggressor.  They get to be the hammer and the defensive front gets to be the nail – a situation that wears on a defense and takes a lot of the spring out of their steps.

Including the return to the running attack, the team-wide refocus on pass protection has also been laudable.  Thinking back on their four playoff games – and in spite of the fact that Tom took 6 sacks over the course of those games – I don’t think I remember Brady ever being really hit hard during any of the four games – an unexpected development for anyone who remembers the beating he took in that Week Nine game.

The improvement hasn’t been accidental.  Some injury-provoked changes in the offensive line have helped.  Left guard Ali Marpet missed that Week Nine game with a concussion.  His return to the lineup stabilized that guard position and allowed Haeg (who had started in his place) to assume the role of sixth offensive lineman.  On the other hand, a broken ankle removed starting right guard Alex Cappa for, essentially, the entire playoff run.  Into his place, Aaron Stinnie has been all that Tampa Bay could have hoped.  He has been a solid run blocker and a steady pass protector.

Additionally, two other members of that offensive line – center Ryan Jensen and left tackle Donovan Smith – have improved significantly in pass protection.  The same can be said for running back Fournette, who wanted little to do with blitz pickup on that long-ago afternoon against New Orleans, but has since shown a veteran’s understanding of blitz situations and a renewed willingness to keep his quarterback upright.

But the commitment to pass protection hasn’t stopped there.  To further ensure his quarterback’s safety, Bruce’s offense now will not hesitate to keep more players in to block – including and especially tight end Rob Gronkowski.  Rob was one of the notable offensive forces in the victory (he had 6 catches for 67 yards and 2 touchdowns).  In the previous three playoff games, Rob had been targeted a total of just 7 times and had only 2 catches because he was doing more pass blocking that route running.

In a game that was predominantly defined by which team could pressure the quarterback and which team couldn’t, keeping Brady’s jersey clean was of paramount importance.  Presented with an almost completely clean pocket on 23 of his 30 drop-backs, Brady could comfortably pick the KC pass defense apart.  The seven times that the Chiefs did manage enough pressure to at least hurry Tom worked out well for them.  Brady was just 1 for 6 for 9 yards and a sack when faced with pressure.  Otherwise, he was 20 for 23 (86.96%) with a 141.03 passer rating.

The Chiefs did get more pressure when they blitzed.  Four of the seven times that they applied a little pressure came from the ten times that they sent an extra rusher at Brady – so perhaps they should have done a little more of that.  They certainly should have done more blitzing when they were played zone.

Chewing Up the Zone

Playing mostly man, KC nonetheless played 12 snaps of zone defense against Brady and the Bucs, getting close to Tom only once.  On Tampa Bay’s first play of the second quarter, defensive tackle Chris Jones (in one of his few visible moments of the contest) soared around the attempted double-team block of Jensen and Stinnie to force a quick incompletion.

That was the only pressure Brady saw from the Kansas City zone.  It was also the only incompletion that he threw against it, as he finished 11 for 12 against the zone on Super Bowl Sunday.

Getting Away from the Deep Throws

Capping a season in which his average targets were the deepest in football, Tom Brady won the Super Bowl with the short horizontal passing game he was famous for when he played in Super Bowls for that other team.  As opposed to his season average of 9.3 Intended Air Yards per pass, against Kansas City his average target was just 6.3 yards from scrimmage (the NFL average this year was 7.84 yards).

As opposed to the Week Nine game, 22 of Brady’s 29 passes were to targets less than ten yards from scrimmage – 18 of those were five yards downfield or less.  Tom, in fact, worked Kansas City over dropping passes into the flats and underneath the zones over the middle of the field.  With excellent protection, Tampa Bay was able repeatedly to send four vertical routes against the KC zones – lifting all the coverages far up-field – and then dropping short passes to wide open underneath targets with a lot of room to run.  Tom was 9 for 10 working in the flats or underneath the zones, including two of his three touchdown passes.

When he did throw farther up the field, Brady was just 3 for 7 – and only 1 for 4 on deep passes of 20 yards or more.

Getting Away from the Wide Receivers

Finally, the re-imagined Brady-ized Buccaneer offense gave up its fascination with the wide receivers.  This is actually an aspect that got worse after the last New Orleans game.  With Antonio Brown newly arrived, over the last 7 regular season games, wide receivers got 63% of targeted passes thrown in their direction.  But in the Super Bowl, 17 of Brady’s 29 throws went to tight ends, running backs and (once) to an offensive lineman.  As it turned out, Joe Haeg was targeted more often in this game than Scott Miller was.

But more than just an issue of pass distribution, the offensive face lift that reached its fruition in Super Bowl LV was a philosophical re-do.  A philosophy that took Tampa Bay far from the risk-it that Bruce Arians has emphasized in his tenure in Tampa Bay.  That Leonard Fournette’s 46 receiving yards were more than any of the Bucs’ highly glamorized wide receivers wasn’t because Tom has a disdain for throwing to receivers.  It was simply a matter of opportunity.  The Chiefs took away Tampa Bay’s wide receivers, so Tom answered by hurting them with tight ends and running backs.

Brady’s longest completion of the game was a 31-yard catch-and-run to Mike Evans.  Even with that completion included, Brady’s wide receivers averaged just 7.8 yards per reception.  The infrequent zone coverages were a part of this, but the man coverages were the key.

Mike Evans caught 70 passes during the regular season. His 31-yard reception was his only target in the Super Bowl.  Cornerback Bashaud Breeland – who had played very well against Stefon Diggs in the AFC Championship Game – proved a difficult matchup for Evans as well.  Since Kansas City doesn’t flip their cornerbacks (usually), Tampa Bay pretty much decided to match Evans on Breeland for the bulk of the game.  In 8 routes run against Bashaud, when he had primary man coverage, Evans was able to gain separation just twice.

Chris Godwin caught 65 passes during the season.  He finished the Super Bowl with 4 targets, 2 catches and 9 yards, with both catches coming against zone defenses.  Lined up frequently in the slot, Chris found himself matched against slot corner L’Jarius Sneed. The 5 times he lined up against him, Chris managed separation just once.

Godwin did better in man coverage against the other corners, so his day could have been much better.  He got open 3 of 4 times against Charvarius Ward, and on the only time he was covered by Breeland.  But Brady was mostly looking elsewhere, and the two throws that were sent his way were both poor throws.

Antonio Brown – the other much feared receiver – caught 45 passes in about a half season in Tampa Bay.  He caught 5 passes in the Super Bowl, but for only 22 yards.  Brown only played 23 snaps, as his position was frequently the one surrendered for an extra tight end or offensive lineman – and his presence on the field usually encouraged Kansas City to go a zone concept.

Antonio caught 2 passes against zone coverage.  They resulted in a one-yard touchdown catch and a three-yard loss.  He only ran routes against man coverage 6 times, gaining separation twice (both against Ward).  Antonio caught 3 passes against man coverage, but 2 of those were screen passes.

Gronk Is an Issue

So the man coverages worked quite well as far as containing the wide receivers.  Tight end Rob Gronkowski, however, was a different matter.  As it turned out, Kansas City had no one who could cover Gronk.

When not blocking, and with KC playing man on 18 snaps, Gronkowski ran patterns ten times – winning on seven of them.  Half of those were against Daniel Sorensen (Gronk won 3 of 5 of those matchups), but he also beat Tyrann Mathieu both times that Tyrann was responsible for him.

Rob was targeted 6 times against man coverages.  He caught 5 of the 6 for 64 of his yards and both touchdowns.

Much of that, of course, is because Rob Gronkowski is a difficult matchup.  Kansas City also made this a more difficult matchup than it needed to be.  Even when their safeties had Gronkowski in coverage, KC still wanted to line them up 12 yards off the line to give a split safety look, making it all but impossible for either Sorensen or Mathieu to respond to Rob on his quick out routes.  That helped him get open a couple of times.

Another couple of other times, it was the rub routes.

All teams run rub routes.  This occurs when a receiver runs his route in between his teammate and the defender who is charged with covering him and “rubs” him off the coverage.  Tampa Bay made a feature of this concept in the Super Bowl.  On the 18 snaps that Kansas City played man coverage, Tampa Bay challenged them with 7 rub routes – and all of them successfully freed the receiver: Gronkowski and Godwin twice, Brown and Tyler Johnson once each.  For as successful as the maneuver was, Tampa Bay really should have taken better advantage.  Brady was just 3 of 6 throwing to those receivers for 29 yards (his lone sack came on a play where Evans shook free on a rub route).  One of those completions, though, was the 17-yard touchdown pass to Gronk.

Safety First

One of the numbers tracked on the NextGen site is a number called aggressiveness (AGG%). This is reported as the percent of passes thrown into tight windows (defined as less than a yard of separation).  Even during the regular season, Tom only ranked twentieth in terms of aggressiveness (just 14.8 % of his passes being at risk).  In the Super Bowl, it was less than half that (6.9%) – proving (if it fact it needs proving) that you can indeed have all of the biscuits without any of the risk-its.

If you watch the game in black and white, imagining uniforms with a blueish tint, you could easily see Brady running this very same game plan for a team that plays a little further up north – with Leonard Fournette playing the James White role, and Gronkowski playing, well, Rob Gronkowski.

[Up Next – Chasing Patrick]

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.

Running Teams BeGone

The longer the Raven defense held Buffalo close, the more imminent their victory seemed. 

Throughout the first half, Baltimore’s top-ranked running attack seemed one fingernail away from cracking the big run that would break the game open.  They finished the half with 77 rushing yards, averaging 4.3 per running attempt.  But no touchdowns, as the first half ended in a 3-3 tie.

Now, in the second half, Baltimore seemed poised to break through.  Beginning at their own 25-yard line, Baltimore would drive to the Buffalo 9-yard line in 14 grinding plays – 7 runs (for 31 yards) and 7 passes (5 of 6 completed for 39 yards and a 4-yard sack).

Now there were only 58 seconds left in the quarter.  Baltimore, facing third-and-goal, was one play away from tying this game up.  Quarterback Lamar Jackson followed tight end Mark Andrews with his eyes as Mark settled into a void in Buffalo’s zone defense about three-yards deep into the end zone.  Jackson’s subsequent throw would result in his only touchdown pass of the game.

Unfortunately for him, it wouldn’t be to Andrews – or any other Raven player.

Running Teams Begone

The Divisional Round in the AFC found two of football’s top three running games still in the hunt for the title.  The Ravens – playing in Buffalo on Saturday night – had averaged an astonishing 191.9 rushing yards a game through the regular season.  Their 555 rushing attempts, and their 5.5 yards per rush were also easily the best marks in football.  Their 24 rushing touchdowns ranked third.

Sunday would see the defending champs in Kansas City host the surprising Cleveland Browns.  Now 12-5 after holding off Pittsburgh in the WildCard Round, Cleveland carried the third most potent running attack – averaging 148.4 yards per game.  They ranked fourth in attempts (495) and fifth in both yards per rush (4.8) and rushing touchdowns (21).  Both played their final games of the season over the weekend, with both teams scoring fewer than 20 points.  Baltimore fell to Buffalo, 17-3 (gamebook) (summary), while the Chiefs took down the Browns 22-17 (gamebook) (summary).  Each journey to that result, though, was quite different.

Ravens Done In By an Old Weakness

As I speculated about this game last week, I pointed out that Baltimore wasn’t a long drive team.  They were a big-play running team, every bit as dependent on the big play as Tampa Bay.  Against Buffalo, Baltimore racked up 150 rushing yards – but none of their individual runs struck for more than 19 yards.

As this team still struggles to throw the ball with much effectiveness against the better teams, the more Buffalo forced them to put drives together, the more opportunity it presented for them to take advantage of the inefficiencies in the Baltimore passing attack – an incompletion, a holding penalty, a sack – an interception.

In the pivotal moment of this game, it was that interception that told the tale.

Aware that Jackson had locked onto Andrews, cornerback Taron Johnson dropped his zone a little deeper and edged toward the middle.  His interception and subsequent 101-yard return broke the Ravens’ back, sending them home for the offseason, and sending the Bills into Kansas City with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.

Lamar’s final passing line of 14 for 24 for 162 yards and the interception pans out to a 61.5 passer rating.  The rating system isn’t perfect, but that number fairly accurately describes Lamar’s afternoon.  Jackson also found himself sacked three times, as Buffalo decided to pressure him.  As opposed to Tennessee in the WildCard round – who sent extra rushers after Jackson just 4 times in the game – Buffalo blitzed him 13 times (a full 43.3% of his drop-backs).

This is still an effective approach as it forces Jackson to recognize protections and hot routes and forces him to speed up his process.  Last Saturday, it was one final lapse in the passing that ended Baltimore’s season.

Valiant in Defeat

The loss is all the more bitter in light of another marvelous performance by Wink Martindale’s defense.  One week after muffling Derrick Henry and Tennessee’s running attack (the Titans were second in the NFL, by the way, at 168.1 rushing yards per game), the Raven defense – with a bit of an assist from the gusting winds – mostly dismantled Josh Allen and his third-ranked passing game.

Josh threw only one touchdown pass of his own, was limited to 206 yards and an 86.1 rating.  During the season, Allen ranked fourth in passer rating at 107.2.  He averaged just 8.96 yards per completion Saturday night, as Baltimore mostly inhaled his deep passing game.  Josh completed just 1 of his 6 passes of more than 20 yards.

Football’s finest receiver (as far as yards and catches go) was still unstoppable.  Stefon Diggs finished with 106 yards on 8 catches.  But Baltimore shut out two of Buffalo’s more important secondary receivers.  Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis had no catches on a combined 6 targets – Davis drawing especially close coverage.  On the average throw in his direction, Gabriel had a defender 0.8 yards away.

The second-ranked offense by yards, Buffalo managed just 220 yards against Baltimore, scoring just ten points on offense (remember, the other 7 came courtesy of the Bills’ defense).  It was a superior performance, more than worthy of sending the Ravens into the Conference Championship Game.

That will have to be comfort enough for Raven fans between now and next September.

Not the Same Old Browns, But Still . . .

The story in Arrowhead was quite different.  Armed with a potent running attack against a team that has shown some weakness in stopping the run, Cleveland decided not to deploy it.  Straggling into the locker room at the half, the Browns had run the ball just 6 times for 18 yards.  Not coincidentally, Kansas City (which had run the ball 12 times for 60 yards) held a 17:43-12:17 time of possession advantage and a 19-3 lead.  Former Chief Kareem Hunt, who had rushed for 841 yards and caught 38 passes for Cleveland this year, had no touches in the half.

The Browns forged their way back into the contest in the second half, on the strength mostly, of that running game.

Neglected for thirty minutes, Cleveland punched through the KC defense to the tune of 94 second-half rushing yards at a clip of 5.9 yards per carry.  Had they started the game that way, the story might have been different.  As it was, Cleveland began the second half in catch-up mode, and the passing game wasn’t up to the challenge.

Against the 94 rushing yards, Baker Mayfield threw for only 70 yards in the second half – averaging just 3.5 yards per attempted pass and 5.83 yards per completed pass – some of that influenced by a KC game-plan that blitzed Baker on 52.6% of his drop-backs.

As Cleveland’s season ends, and as KC prepares to meet Buffalo, it’s fair to remember how far the Browns have come this year.  Just 6-10 last year, Cleveland is only three years removed from the team that was 0-16 in 2017.  Whether or not they have actually turned a corner is a question that will have to wait for next year.  They still lost both games to Baltimore this year, and the first game to Pittsburgh.  That they beat the Steelers in the season’s final game is more attributable to Pittsburgh resting its starters.  Their conquest of the Steelers in the WildCard round still feels more like a Pittsburgh meltdown than anything that Cleveland did – remember, that game began with the snap sailing over Ben Roethlisberger’s head and things went south from there.

Still, this Cleveland team nearly came all the way back against Kansas City after trailing by 16 points.  But for a heart-breaking fumble through the end zone that eliminated a golden first half scoring opportunity, Cleveland might well be preparing for Buffalo.  This Cleveland franchise will be one to keep an eye on next year.

Of Huntley and Henne

Adding to the intrigue of the Divisional Round games – and possibly to the Championship Game – both Baltimore and Kansas City finished the game (and not by choice) with their backup quarterbacks on the field as both of the league’s last two MVP quarterbacks went out of the game with concussions.

In Buffalo, on the drive that followed the pick six, Jackson had a second-down snap sail over his head.  Lamar chased it down and managed to heave it out of bounds before he was tumbled by Tremaine Edmunds and Trent Murphy.  He landed on his back in the end zone – bouncing his head off the turf.  It was his last play of the season.

Into the breach came Tyler Huntley – a rookie out of Utah who had thrown 5 passes during the regular season.  Tyler was Baltimore’s third back-up quarterback of the year after various difficulties befell Robert Griffin III and Trace McSorley

Tyler wasn’t terrible.  He completed 6 of 13 for 60 yards and ran for another 32.  On Baltimore’s last possession of the season, Tyler drove the team to the Buffalo ten-yard line, where his fourth-down-pass was deflected away by Edmunds.

Honestly, at that point, the absence of Jackson wasn’t much of an issue.  Lamar has never brought a team back from a 14-point deficit, and it’s most unlikely that this would have been the night.  In this game, Jackson’s absence was mostly a footnote.  That wasn’t the case in Kansas City.

Henne-thing’s Possible

About half-way through the third quarter, KC quarterback Patrick Mahomes tried to skirt right end to convert a third-and-one.  He couldn’t get around Mack Wilson, and then struggled to get up after the hit.

And suddenly, the season rested on the shoulders of back-up Chad Henne.

From the hoopla that surrounded the event, one would think that no back-up quarterback in NFL history had ever made a play in a game.  In truth, Chad’s situation wasn’t nearly as dire as the 35-3 deficit that Frank Reich inherited against Houston all those years ago.  Still, there were plays that needed to be made, and Chad made them.

He entered a 19-10 game (KC in front), facing a fourth-and-one.  He would finish this drive and have two more of his own in the fourth quarter.  In this drive, he was on his 48-yard line, still needing quite a few yards to get into field goal range.  This is a drive I will get back to.

On his subsequent possession, Chad threw an interception into the end zone to open the door a crack.  The Chief defense quieted the uprising, forcing a punt that gave the ball back to Henne with 4:09 left in someone’s season – Kansas City clinging to a 22-17 lead.

Here, Chad’s job was to run out the clock.  More than anything else, KC didn’t want to give the ball back to the Browns.  It was during this drive that the legend of Chad Henne was born.

On third-and-four with 3:21 left, Chad completed a five-yard pass to Darrel Williams (whose contributions to this game would equal those of Henne).  Then, on the final play before the two-minute warning, Chad suffered a sack at the hands of Myles Garrett.

Now, it was third-and-fourteen with KC still pretty deep in their own territory (their own 35).  Without a huge play here, Cleveland would be getting the ball back with around a minute left to do something with.  With his receivers covered and the pocket collapsing, Chad Henne pulled the ball down and darted up the left sideline.  As he approached the first-down marker – and with M.J. Stewart closing in – Chad hurled himself, head-first, toward that precious first-down line.

As he slid across that line, the KC sideline (and the fans in the stadium) erupted.  The moment was so galvanizing that it didn’t even matter that the officials marked the ball just short – bringing up fourth-and-inches.  At that point, it only served to add one more memory for Chad – a five-yard, fourth-down completion to Tyreek Hill in the right flat that put a bow on things.

That Final Field Goal

The Chad Henne moment was – without a doubt – the most romantic moment of this round.  He could be even more important in the Championship Game, depending on how things develop with Mahomes – who is in concussion protocol.

But, I keep coming back to that moment when Chad first came into the game – with a fairly critical first down to get.

Talking to the press after the game, coach Andy Reid made a point of the fact that the loss of Mahomes didn’t weaken the knees of his football team at all.  That was evidenced on the fourth-and-one play, when Williams burst around left end for 12 yards to earn the first down with authority.  He shot around the right end for 16 more on the next play (dragging Browns as he went), to pull the ball down to the Cleveland 24.

Four plays later, Harrison Butker kicked the 33-yard field goal that gave them an important buffer.

Williams – who finished with 78 rushing yards and 16 more on pass receptions – spent much of the season – like Henne – deep on the depth chart.  His opportunity in this game came because of the injury to number-one back Clyde Edwards-Helaire.  During the season, he had only 39 carries.

Sung and Unsung

Kansas City has now won 23 of Patrick Mahomes’ last 24 starts.  So much of the attention during this run has gone to the marquee names – Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Chris Jones, etc.  And justifiably so.  These are franchise talents that have combined to vault this team into the elite circles of the NFL.

But just as critical are the contributions of many other players you don’t hear much about.  Demarcus Robinson, Daniel Sorensen, Tanoh Kpassagnon – and now Darrel Williams and Chad Henne.  These guys aren’t the most awe-inspiring talents to dot an NFL roster.  But what they are is play-makers.  I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Kansas City’s roster is deeper in guts than it is in raw talent, but the fact is that the deeper you grind into the playoffs the more important the guts of a team becomes.

There are now four teams left in the tournament.  With most of them, I’m not at all sure how they will respond to the critical moments that will decide these last three games.  But I know how Kansas City will respond.  Someone on this roster will make a play.  It might be a small play to keep a drive going, or pulling a receiver down a yard short of the first-down marker.  It might be a play that the media won’t remember after the game.

But when the money is on the table, you can be sure that someone on this roster – starter or reserve – will make a play.  Buffalo’s challenge is actually greater than It appears on paper.

But, if Patrick can’t go . . .

The NFL Profiles as a Touchdown Pass League

Four teams are left standing – in many ways, very disparate in their approaches to winning.  It’s an interesting blend of strengths and weaknesses that will make, no doubt, for a lively finish.

These four teams do, though, have one commonality that binds them together.  Their quarterbacks get the ball into the end zone.

Looking at the last four quarterbacks standing, we have Aaron Rodgers In Green Bay.  His 48 touchdown passes led the league.  He will be matched this weekend against Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady, who’s 40 touchdown passes ranked him second (tied with Seattle’s Russell Wilson).  The AFC Championship Game will pit Number 4 (KC’s Pat Mahomes – assuming he’s available) against Number 5 (Josh Allen of Buffalo).  Mahomes threw 38 in the regular season, and Allen tossed 37.

Whatever else you do in the NFL – whether you run and stop the run, throw high-percentage, low interception passes, or spend your games dialing up shot plays – the indispensable accessory your team must have if it’s going to make a deep playoff run is that quarterback who gets you into the end zone.

It’s the NFL’s gold standard in the early years of the new decade.

A Time to Refrain from Sliding

There were 57 seconds left in the first half – a 6-6 tie between the Los Angeles Rams and the Seattle Seahawks.  The Rams, out of time outs, faced a third-and-eight on their own 27-yard line.

Abandoning the pocket, Ram quarterback Jared Goff was scrambling towards the first-down that would keep the drive going.  But as he approached the sticks, and linebacker Bobby Wagner closed in, Jared slid to a stop one yard before the marker, setting up a Ram punt.

In the broadcast booth, ex-Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman reviewed the play, and watching Jared slide short, he pointed out that “there’s a time to slide and a time to go for it.”

For some time, now, I have been trying to put my finger on exactly what it was about Jared that was preventing me from truly believing in him.  That play – and the comment by Aikman – helped clarify the thing for me.

The particular play, of course, mattered little.  Even if he had ducked his head and plowed through for the first down, the Rams were still in their own territory with 40-some seconds and no time outs – an unlikely scenario for more scoring.  But of great significance is the revelation that emerged from the moment.

Put into the language of the Proverbs, there is a time to slide, and a time to refrain from sliding.  Jared didn’t slide due to any lack of toughness.  Later in the game, Goff would break his thumb against a helmet, would pop the thumb “back in,” and continue playing.  He slid because he didn’t realize that it was a time to refrain from sliding.

Coach Sean McVay’s system is called “quarterback friendly.”  What that means is that the system defines things very clearly for the quarterback in most situations.  The system features a lot of boots and roll-outs that give Jared a lot of one-key options (if the safety comes in, throw it over his head; if he stays back, throw underneath him).  Usually the game plan features a lot of play action (on average, the Rams run play action about 50% more often than the average offense).  This pulls linebackers in toward the line, widening the gap between the levels of the defense.

(On Sunday afternoon, for some reason, LA got away from its play-action identity, calling it only 9 times.)

When Goff can roll out of his break and see what he is looking for in the secondary, he can be very decisive and very effective.

It also helps that the Rams’ concept is heavy on short passes to receivers with room to add yardage after the catch.  At the beginning of the week, Jared was running football’s fourth shortest passing game – his average completion was to a receiver just 4.8 yards from scrimmage.  But that receiver would then add an average of 6 more yards after the catch (the second highest after-the-catch average in the league).

Jared’s problems come when things don’t go quite according to plan – as happened on this particular scramble.  Jared was caught in-between at the decisive moment.  Go for it? Slide?

When the moment comes too quickly for him, Jared goes with a reaction – a reflex really.  There’s the defender – time to slide.

It was the exact process behind Goff’s worst moment in Los Angeles’ 20-9 loss to Seattle (gamebook) (summary).

The possession before, leading 6-3, the Rams began on their own 14 with 8:37 left before the half.  Ten plays later, LA had moved the ball 47 yards to the Seattle 29, while nursing 5:06 off the clock.

On first-and-ten, the Rams ran play-action.  But Goff was flushed from the pocket and came scrambling out to his right.  As he approached the line of scrimmage and the sideline at about the same time, it was decision time.  Run the ball?  Throw it away?  Try to find a receiver?

There was no time for him to ponder, so Jared reacted.  Downfield he caught a flash of receiver Robert Wood somewhere up the sideline.  He came to a nearly full stop just as he was about to reach the line, thought it over for the briefest of moments before trying to flip the ball up-field to Woods.

The ball fluttered away from the line, where Quandre Diggs closed on it and made the interception.

Defending the Rams

Throughout the game, Seattle was able – in a lot of ways – to speed things up for Jared, putting him in that in-between zone for much of the afternoon.

As their defense has been coming together coming down the stretch, Seattle has been able to generate a significant pass rush with just their down linemen.  Even though the Seahawks sent an extra rusher only 11 times, the pressure on Jared was steady throughout the game.  Goff ended up being sacked 3 times (all in the second half) and hit a total of 9 times – part of 18 pressures that kept pushing him into that in-between zone.

Additionally, they sat on Jared’s short routes, forcing him to look farther up the field.  His average completion in this game was to a receiver 6.75 yards from scrimmage (who then added only 3.00 additional yards after the catch).  It was not an offensive style that the Rams are comfortable in.

Seattle also took away the right sideline – the side that Jared rolls to when he’s in trouble.  Jared was just 5 of 13 (38.5%) when throwing to the right side of the field for 70 yards and that one interception.

It was a nuanced game-plan from an opponent that understands Jared’s strengths and weaknesses very well.

Is this fixable?  I’m not sure.  None of his issues have anything to do with what Jared knows or what he has or hasn’t been coached to do.  It’s that moment when his instincts take over that he gets into trouble.  And I’m not sure what to do about a quarterback’s instincts.

Missed Opportunities

The interception caused at least a three-point swing – if not a ten-point swing – as Seattle turned the mistake into a field goal (remember that the Rams were within field goal range at the time).  It was one of three Ram drives that lasted at least 5 minutes.  They scored a total of 3 points off of those drives.

On their first possession of the second half, LA drove 69 yards on 12 plays in a drive that lasted 7:17.  It brought them to first-and-goal from the 2.

From there they ran on four straight plays, being turned away each time.  Would one of those downs have been a good opportunity for a play-action pass?  Possibly.  But I find I can’t argue with a coach who wants to run the ball right at them in that situation.  It is axiomatic in football that if you can’t get one yard when you really need it (especially when you take four shots at it), that you don’t really deserve to win.

In the Rams’ case last Sunday afternoon, they couldn’t, and they didn’t.

Not How You Start

One of the game’s most instinctual quarterbacks played for the other team.  That would be Russell Wilson.  Long regarded as one of the better deep throwers in the game, Wilson missed that deep shot several times in the first half.  Harassed himself by the Ram front four, Wilson went into the locker at the half with that 6-6 tie, and little production to show for the first 30 minutes.  Wilson was 10-of-19 (52.6%) for only 84 yards.

On the first third-down of the second half, Russell rolled out and lofted a 45-yard beauty up the right sideline to David Moore.  It led to the game’s first touchdown, and sparked a second half in which Wilson completed 10 of 13 (76.9%) for 141 yards (10.85 yards per attempted pass).

The Seahawks look a lot better as they head into the playoffs than they did last year (and this win clinched the division title for them).  This year, their defense looks to be a strength (you couldn’t say that last year) and they have healthy running backs (remember last year that all of their running backs were injured).

And, of course, they have Russell Wilson.  Seattle looks like they will be a tough out.

A Time to Throw Long

In Week 11, the Pittsburgh Steelers went to 10-0 with a relatively easy 27-3 conquest of Jacksonville.  At that point, it looked like the AFC would be coming down to Pittsburgh and Kansas City.

Ten games into the season, the Steelers were scoring 29.8 points a game, never scoring fewer than 24 in any one game.  Defensively, they were allowing just 17.4 points per game.  Offensively, they were football’s fourth highest-scoring team, while the defense led all of football in fewest points allowed.  They also ranked fourth in total yardage given up (third against the pass).  The 71.8 passer rating against them was the lowest in football.  They also led all defenses in sacks (38) and sack rate (9.9%).

Utilizing a new quick-pass offensive style, 38-year-old quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sustaining a 101.4 passer rating, while being sacked just 10 times (only 2.6% of his drop-backs).  Things couldn’t have gone much better for the Steelers to that point.

All of that changed with their Week 12 game against the Baltimore Ravens – this was the game that was postponed about three times and finally played with about half of the Ravens on the COVID list.  Pittsburgh squeaked to a 19-14 win, but things wouldn’t be the same thereafter.  The Steelers lost the next three games, scoring 17 points against Washington, 15 against Buffalo, and – shockingly – just 17 against Cincinnati.  (The defense served up a total of 76 points during that stretch, as well – over the four games just preceding, Pittsburgh had surrendered a total of 46 points).

During this offensive brown-out, Pittsburgh converted just 11 of 41 third downs, and their running game – never among the league’s best – completely disappeared.  Through ten games, they were averaging 102.2 rushing yards a game and 3.9 yards per carry (both figures below the league averages).  During the losing streak, they managed just 51.3 rushing yards a game and just 2.9 per carry.

As for Ben and the short passing game, teams had begun to sink their coverages securely around all the quick-opening underneath routes.  His completion percentage dropped from 67.1% to 57.8%, his per-pass average fell from 6.67 yards to 5.17 yards, his yards per completion went from 9.9 to 8.9, and his touchdown percentage fell from 6.3 to 3.9.  Meanwhile his interception percentage rose from 1.3 to 3.1.  During the losing streak, Roethlisberger’s touchdown-to-interception ratio was a struggling 5-4, and his passer rating sat at 71.8 – exactly what Pittsburgh’s defense had held opposing passers to over those first ten games.  Add in a case of the drops that his receivers suffered through (and during one three-game stretch Ben had 14 of his passes dropped) and you have a picture of an offense in a bit of a crisis.

Clearly, it was time to change things up.  Defenses would now have to be loosened up, or they would smother the life out of the Steelers.

With the division title there for the taking, Pittsburgh welcomed the 10-4 Indianapolis Colts into Heinz Field for a critical Week 16 matchup rife with playoff implications.  Certainly, the message of the past few weeks had registered.  It was time to throw the ball long.

But for thirty horrific minutes against the Colts, things just snowballed.  Roethlisberger completed only 11 of 20 through that first half for but 98 yards.  The rushing attack accounted for just 4 yards on seven rushes – none of them gaining more than 2 yards.

Indianapolis trotted off the field at the half having outgained the Steelers 217-93, and their 21-7 halftime lead was only marred by a short-field touchdown allowed.  Pittsburgh’s defense had briefly risen to the moment, striping the ball away from Indianapolis quarterback Philip Rivers in the early moments of the second quarter.  The recovery was advanced to the Indy 3-yard line – about as far as the Steeler offense could sustain a drive.

In the aftermath of Pittsburgh’s surprising 28-24 comeback victory (gamebook) (summary), the questions posed to Ben and to head coach Mike Tomlin wondered why they waited till the second half to throw the ball up the field.  The answer, of course, was that they didn’t.  The deep strike had been a part of the game plan from the beginning, but throughout the first two quarters they just couldn’t connect with the big play.

One, in particular, worth remembering came with 14 seconds left in the half.  Diontae Johnson flew up the right sideline, and Ben let it go for him.  But Johnson veered his route back toward the middle, while Roethlisberger’s throw continued up the sideline.  In the locker room at the half, the two got together and compared notes on the play.

Say this for the Steelers and Tomlin their coach.  Through all of this, there was no panic.  They knew that they just needed to hit on one of those plays to dispel the dark clouds and get a little momentum going.

And so it was, with 3:23 left in the third quarter and the Steelers now down 24-7, that Johnson flew up that same right sideline and Roethlisberger lofted that same pass.  This time, however, Johnson’s route hugged that sideline.  He finally caught up with the pass at about the point he was crossing the goal line.  In the signature moment of the comeback, Diontae laid out for the throw.  Responsible for 13 drops this season, this time Johnson reeled in the big one, and the rally was on.

During the rousing second half, Ben completed 23 of his last 29 passes (79.3%) for 244 yards and 3 touchdowns.  He completed 3 passes of more than 20 yards up-field.  In addition to the 39-yard strike to Johnson, Ben completed a 34-yarder to Chase Claypool and the rally capping 25-yard touchdown toss to JuJu Smith-Schuster.  That throw – with 7:38 left in the contest – gave Pittsburgh it’s only lead of the afternoon – the only one they would need.  The one that produced the 28-24 final.

Ben entered the contest running the NFL’s third-shortest passing game.  His average completion was only 4.5 yards from the line of scrimmage.  On Sunday, his average completion was 6.09 yards from scrimmage – which is about the league average.  The quick pass was still very much a part of the offense – in fact, 84% of Ben’s throws (including all three touchdown passes) were out of his hand in less than 2.5 seconds.  Coming into the game, only 75% of his throws were out of his hand that quickly.

The difference on Sunday was how well the passing game did when Ben did hold the ball for more than 2.5 seconds.  Through the first 14 games of the season, Ben’s passer rating when he held the ball was a disappointing 63.5.  Last Sunday, he was 6-for-7 for 88 yards when taking more than 2.5 seconds.

Going Forward

It was certainly a relief for the Steeler organization to break through a little bit like this.  It’s probably premature, though, to assume that their struggles are over.  The pass offense in general will profit from this slight change in emphasis.  There is nothing like hitting a few deep throws to get the defense to back off and open up some underneath routes.  The running game, though, is still a mess.  Pittsburgh came out of the Colt contest with all of 20 rushing yards and a 1.4 yard average per carry.  Colt running back Jonathan Taylor had almost that many on one carry (he broke off an 18-yard run in their first possession of the second half).

Until they fix their running game, I don’t believe in the Steelers’ ability to run the table in the playoffs.  As opposed to last year, very few of the teams likely to make the playoffs are run-dependent teams.  But almost all of them – especially the ones that are most likely to bring home the hardware – have a legitimate running game that they can turn to whenever they need to.  Pittsburgh does not.  At some point during the playoffs that is almost certainly going to bring them down.

The Disappearance of the Colt Running Game

After running the ball 20 times in the first half, Indianapolis ran just 8 times in the second.  After controlling the clock for 18:17 of the first half, they held the ball for just 14:11 thereafter, adding fuel to the Pittsburgh comeback.

In the post-game, questions were asked about the disappearance of the running attack.  Coach Frank Reich informed the press that they had more runs called, but they checked out of them when the Steelers showed certain pressures.  Elaborating on the situation, Rivers offered that the Colts had called running plays from formations with three wide-receivers on the field.  The intent was that Pittsburgh would remove a linebacker in favor of a defensive back and open up some running space.  But according to Philip, Pittsburgh stayed with their base personnel, and Indy chose not to run against that front seven without significant numbers of big people on the field to block them.

They weren’t asked why they didn’t run more large-package formations (two or three tight ends, for example) and try to keep the running game going.

A Time to Refrain from Throwing Long

Matt Ryan’s season has been opposite – in many ways – from Ben Roethlisberger’s season.  Record, of course, is an obvious point of comparison.  Pittsburgh took the field against Indy carrying an 11-3 record.  As Ryan’s Atlanta Falcons took the field in Kansas City to play the reigning world champions, they sported a 4-10 record.

But more than record separates these two veteran quarterbacks – the very styles of their passing attacks are strikingly different.  Where Roethlisberger has spent almost the entire season throwing short, quick passes, Ryan’s attack has been one of football’s most up-field attacks.  Going into last Sunday’s contest against the Chiefs, Matt was second in the league in air yards per pass thrown.  His average target was 8.8 yards from scrimmage.  He led the entire NFL in air yards per completed pass, with his average completion occurring 7.5 yards from scrimmage.

Some of this is certainly game-situation related.  The Falcons have been behind a lot this year.  But mostly this is an organization that believes that if you have a quarterback with a strong arm and top-shelf receivers like Julio Jones (who missed this game), Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage, then your offense should be doing more than dumping screen passes to running backs.

And so Ryan has taken his shots up the field.  Targeted 68 times, Jones has been an average of 11.2 yards from scrimmage for every pass thrown in his direction.  Ridley’s average is 15.1 yards away for each of his 131 targets.  Another receiver (who also didn’t play last Sunday) Olamide Zaccheaus has been targeted 32 times this year at an average distance of 13.8 yards upfield.

Against Kansas City, you could make the argument that this mind-set should continue, the assumption being that with the Chief scoring machine on the other sideline, your own offense should be all about the points – as many as possible as quickly as possible.

The problem was that the game’s biggest statistical mismatch was Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City passing attack (ranked first in the NFL) against the Falcon passing defense (ranked second to last).  The Chiefs ranked above average to well above average in every significant passing statistic – including passer rating, where Mahomes ranked third at 110.6.  The Falcon defense ranked below average to well below average in every significant passing statistic – including passer rating, where their 103.2 ranked fifth-worst.  These numbers suggest that for the Falcons – or anyone, really – to try to bomb it out with the Chiefs – trying to match them touchdown pass for touchdown pass – is mostly like bringing a butter knife to a gun fight.

So, Atlanta tried a different approach.  While coaches Raheem Morris and Jeff Ulbrich fashioned a daring defensive game plan that worked better than it had any right to, offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter played complimentary football.  The offensive objective was to control the clock, keep Mahomes and his receivers on the sideline – hopefully at the end of the day denying them a possession on two.  So Atlanta ran the ball as much as they legitimately could (which turned out to be 23 rushes).

And they went to the short passing game.

In contrast to the offense run most of the season, Matt and the Falcons went all Ben Roethlisberger on the Chiefs.  Of Matt’s 35 passes, only 3 were at targets more than 20 yards from scrimmage.  With two of his top wide-receivers on the shelf, Matt dropped the ball off liberally to his tight ends and running backs.  Eighteen of his passes went to that grouping.  Ridley still provided the occasional long threat (he was an average of 15.0 yards downfield on his 9 targets), but Gage became another check-down option.  Targeted 5 times, Russell finished with 4 catches for 23 yards – his average depth of target being just 1.4 yards.

For the game, Matt’s average target was 6.51 yards from scrimmage – still higher than average, but more than two yards shorter than normal.  To this point of the season, the Falcons were averaging only 4.0 yards after the catch.  Against KC they averaged 5.56.  In fact, in the final analysis, Ryan’s 300-yard passing game broke exactly evenly between yards in the air (150) and yards after the catch (also 150).

The results were as much as Atlanta could have hoped for.  Matt completed 10 of 12 (83.3%) in the first half for 129 yards (10.75 per attempted pass).  For the game, he completed 77.1% of his passes (27 of 35), tossed a couple of touchdowns, and finished with a 121.1 passer rating against a very good pass defense.

This in spite of the fact that he was blitzed almost half of the time (19 of his 39 drop-backs), was sacked 4 times and hit 12 times on the day.  The Falcons finished with only 14 points, but did so while controlling the clock (33:12) and limiting KC’s possessions (they had 10 instead of the normal 12 or 13).

It was a very gritty offensive performance that gave this team a legitimate shot at the upset.

A Time to Blitz

Two, of course, can play at the blitzing game, and Atlanta returned the favor by coming after Mahomes.  They came after him with an extra rusher 39.1% of the time (18 blitzes in 46 drop-backs) and played aggressive man-coverage behind.  Much of the success of the plan – and it did succeed – came, I think, from the surprise factor.  It was probably the last thing that KC expected.

Few teams challenge the athleticism of the KC receivers.  And few teams come after Mahomes.  Over the course of the season coming into that game, Patrick was seeing blitzes only 20.2% of the time – mostly because he is one of football’s best at picking apart teams that blitz him.

In the postgame, Patrick owned that he missed checking into some protections and didn’t find the hot routes that he usually does.  As much as anything else, I believe that had to do with the surprise of the Atlanta game plan.  Patrick was rarely hit or hurried as the line did its usual excellent job of picking up the blitz.  Mahomes wasn’t sacked.  But his timing was visibly effected.

Patrick ended his afternoon with a pedestrian 79.5 passer rating – his lowest of the season.  His final line showed him below the NFL average in all of the passing categories, except yards per completion.  As you might expect against a defense that featured a heavy dose of blitz, there were some big plays hit, and Patrick did pick up 278 yards on his 24 completions (11.58 per).

All things considered, though, on both sides of the ball the Falcons delivered a surprising effort against arguably football’s best team.  It was almost enough to secure them the victory.

In Their Grasp

The game deciding sequence began with just 2:07 left in the contest.  Trailing 14-10, the Chiefs faced first-and-ten on the Atlanta 25.  Mahomes went for it all, lofting a pass for Tyreek Hill in the middle of the end zone down the right sideline.

Just in front of him, a leaping AJ Terrell, in a breath-taking show of athleticism, soared above Hill’s head and latched onto the ball at its highest point, pulling down the interception that would almost certainly end Kansas City’s long winning streak.  Except that as he landed in the end zone, the impact jarred the ball out of his grasp.

You knew what would happen then.

On the very next play, Damarcus Robinson shook free of Kendall Sheffield (who had no safety help) to gather in the 25-yard pass that put the Chiefs back in front 17-14.

Atlanta still had 1:55 of clock left and two time outs.  And true to their plucky nature, back came the Falcons.  Ryan completed three quick passes to bring Atlanta to the KC 28 yard line with a minute left.  Later, an offsides penalty put the Falcons on the Chief 21-yard line, first-and-five, 27 seconds left – Atlanta still with two timeouts.

Three incomplete passes later, now with 14 seconds left, Atlanta brought out Pro-Bowl kicker Younghoe Koo – riding a streak of 27 consecutive field goals – to give them a tie and send the game into overtime.

And, of course, he missed – the kick fluttering wide to the right.  And with that, Kansas City’s amazing streak continues (gamebook) (summary).  The Chiefs have now won 10 in a row, 14 of 15 for the season, and 23 of their last 24.

For all of that, though, there is a strong sense that this is a Kansas City team that’s winning on guile, guts and a fair amount of luck.  Of their ten straight wins, the last seven have all been one-score games (and four of those have been decided by a field goal).  This list includes excellent teams like New Orleans and Tampa Bay, but also includes several that you would think should be more easily subdued – Carolina, Denver and, of course, Atlanta.  They are now winning games that they probably should lose.

That’s all well and good, but I have this unshakeable feeling that a tough-luck loss is coming for them.  I absolutely concur that this is football’s best team, but even the best team loses from time to time.  At this point, that loss could well interrupt their playoff run.  If that loss comes.

Once More Into the Breach

Meanwhile, the nightmare season for the Falcons now has only one more game to go.  After yet another galling loss to a team on its way to the playoffs, Atlanta now gets a second helping of Tom Brady and the Buccaneers.  I am not even going to attempt to recap all the woulda-shoulda-couldas of the Falcons’ season – the number of late leads lost, the number of near victories – at this point its water under the bridge.

I will say this, though.  This last game against Tampa Bay, I believe, has become very important for this franchise – perhaps even more than it is to the Bucs.  After everything they’ve been through, getting one more shot at Brady, one more chance to prove themselves against a playoff team – one last chance before the season ends to close out a team – all of these things will be enormous for this franchise.

The Proverb says that to everything there is a season.  For the Falcons, though, that season will have to be next season.