Tag Archives: Pat Mahomes

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.

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.

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.

The Quarterback Kvetching Society

The old saying goes that the quarterback always gets too much credit when his team wins, and too much blame when it doesn’t.  My experience confirms this.  Even so, complaining about your quarterback is one of our basic constitutional rights that we sometimes take for granted.

2020 (different in a lot of ways from other years) is also distinct for the amount of criticism attached to “made” quarterbacks.  Throughout history, there have been some of these great field generals that have elevated themselves to the point where they are (usually) considered immune from the harping that lesser quarterbacks are subjected to.  Can you imagine any in the football universe openly caviling Johnny Unitas or Joe Montana?  Didn’t think so.

And yet, this year some resumed signal callers have been called out, publicly by their coaches as well as by the fandom in general.  The discussion of “what’s wrong with Tom Brady” has turned into a season-long polemic that has abated only slightly with Tampa Bay finally winning a game.  Brady, of course, is history’s most decorated quarterback – the numbers of Super Bowls, awards and records need not be recounted here.  In earlier posts (here is one) we’ve tried to take an objective look at the swirl of chatter around (arguably) the finest quarterback of this generation.

Of the up-comers, Jared Goff of the Rams – who led them to a Super Bowl a few years ago – has also taken some gentle flack from his head coach – and we looked as his efforts in an earlier post as well.

But of all these decorated quarterbacks, none has been under the constant assault that New England’s Cam Newton has been subjected to.  A former MVP, Newton – as you must surely recall – led the Carolina Panthers to the Super Bowl on the heels of a nearly undefeated season (they were 15-1) just 5 years ago.  When he signed on as Brady’s replacement, it was widely assumed that cam would lead that franchise back to glory.  Yes he is 31 now, and has had some injuries.  But Cam was Lamar Jackson before Lamar Jackson – and he still carried some of that Superman mystique that defined his earlier success in Carolina.

It hasn’t exactly been plug-and-play for Cam in Foxboro.  He was benched for Jarrett Stidham in the fourth quarter of last Thursday’s 24-3 loss to the Los Angeles Rams (gamebook) (summary).  Cam’s numbers were as sluggish as the entire Patriot offense looked during that effort.  Newton was 9 for 16 for 119 yards.  He threw 1 interception while throwing no touchdowns (obviously).  His passer rating of 53.9 was only his fourth worst of the season.  On the season, he is having 3.3% of his passes intercepted (which would tie his career high if it stays there) while only tossing touchdowns on 1.7% of his passes (he has never been below 3.7% in any full season of his career).

I can’t speak for the entire internet, but pretty much everywhere I’ve looked the word in the web is that he’s done.  In the press conference after the game, the press circled coach Bill Belichick like so many vultures demanding to know why he was still sticking with Newton (“What has he shown you to warrant your confidence?” and other such questions).  Obviously, the press covering the Patriots is tired of Cam and are already clamoring for Stidham.

By the way, Belichick’s press conferences – which have always been pained affairs – have taken on a distinctly funerary overtone these days, with Bill looking positively embalmed on Thursday night.

It is somewhat ironic that I am defending Newton – and I mostly will.  If you search the Cam Newton tags on my site, you will find some posts where I delve into the things that have prevented him from becoming the enduring star that he could (here is one, there are others).  But as with Brady and Goff, I believe that his critics are short-sighted, and that he has become the lightening rod for a lot of issues that New England’s offense is struggling with.

This is not to say that Cam is blameless.  His lack of discipline and hit-and-miss mechanics are still underpinning his inconsistencies.  Football reference (in the summary I linked to above) charged him with 4 “bad throws” – so one out of every four passes didn’t go where Cam would have intended.  Those would include his last two throws before being benched.  Damiere Byrd and James White both had a little separation, but the throws were off the mark.  Of course, New England was already down 24-3 at that point, so . . .

But Newton also averaged 13.22 yards per pass completion, and three of his nine completions accounted for at least 25 yards – with two of them moving the ball 30 or more yards downfield.  His 9 completions traveled an average of 9.7 yards in the air – the highest such average of any quarterback last week.  And this against a pass defense that came into the game ranked first in both fewest yards allowed per pass (6.05) and fewest yards per completion (9.7).

In all honesty, when you look at Cam on film, he doesn’t look all that different than he did in his glory days with the Panthers – he is still the same blend of sometimes dazzling talent and sometimes maddening disappointment.  The big difference in the Newton of today and the Newton of yesteryear is the support system around him.  Cam is, in fact, struggling with the same issues that made Tom Brady look old last year – lack of pass protection, and lack of playmakers to throw the ball to.

You may not be aware, but Brady led all of football in 2019 in throwing away passes – he unloaded 40 of them last year – 9 more than Aaron Rodgers’ 31.  The bulk of these involved Tom just getting the ball out of his hand to avoid taking a sack.  Newton is less committed to avoiding sacks, and so is throwing away fewer passes (only 8 so far).  He is, consequently, getting sacked more (on 7.1% of his drop backs, so far this year).  But he is operating under the same duress that Brady encountered last year.

In 22 drop backs against the Rams, Newton was sacked 4 times and knocked down 3 others as Los Angeles hit him 10 times and forced 2 scrambles.  He was hurried on a couple of other occasions.

And then, of course, there are the receivers.  Between injured reserve and COVID-19, Julian Edelman has missed the least 7 games.  Of the pass catchers that were available, only Byrd showed any consistent ability to gain separation.  Damiere averaged 3.7 yards of separation on the 8 passes thrown in his direction.  Cam’s other receiving options (Jakobi Meyers, N’Keal Harry and Devin Asiasi) combined averaged just 1.52 yards of separation.

Regardless of your expectation for Newton, this is not a formula for success.  Few quarterbacks could thrive in this circumstance.  Belichick is the last head coach you can imagine that will give in to the whinging of the press and the internet, so it’s doubtful that he will give the offense to Jarrett.  Bill – while certainly not content with Cam’s performance – realizes that his situation is challenging.  So Newton will keep getting his opportunity to work through these things.

It is doubtful that his treatment by the press will be equally fair.

The Rams Roll On

As to the Rams, their formula against the Patriots was an extension of the plan they ran against Arizona the Sunday before.  Lots of running and lots of short passes.

They finished with 36 rushing plays that accounted for 186 yards (5.2 per).  While the New England Cam (Newton) endured a frustrating night, Los Angeles’ Cam (Cam Akers) was having a breakthrough performance.  The Rams’ rookie running back slashed through the Patriot defense for 171 of those yards (on 29 carries).  Of those 171 yards, 112 came before contact, as the LA offensive line owned the contest.

And the passing continues to be exceedingly short.  Goff’s average target was only 4.6 yards away from the line of scrimmage (Week 14’s third shortest range passing attack).  Of the 24 passes he actually threw to a receiver (he threw one of his 25 passes away), 20 of them were less than ten yards from scrimmage.

Jared finished with just 137 passing yards for the night, but only threw 7 passes in the second half, as the Rams ran on 23 of 31 second half snaps.

And that is a formula for success.

Kansas City Also Rolls On

One place they aren’t kvetching over their quarterback play is Kansas City, where they Chiefs won again.  Once again, they spotted their opponent (this time the Miami Dolphins) a 10-0 lead, but had pulled back in front 14-10 by halftime, on their way to a 33-27 conquest (gamebook) (summary).  The Chiefs have now won 12 of 13 this season, and 21 of their last 22 (including playoffs).

But this time the quarterback play wasn’t as clean and pristine as usual.  Patrick Mahomes was sacked 3 times (one of them for a 30-yard loss, which I understand is a record) and tossed 3 interceptions in a 4-turnover day for Kansas City.

Forty-four games into his young career, this was only the second time that Mahomes had thrown 3 picks in a game.  The only other time was that epic showdown with the Rams in Week 11 of 2018.  Los Angeles won that one 54-51, and Patrick threw 6 touchdown passes to go along with his interceptions.

That was, in fact, the last regular-season game in which Patrick threw more than one interception (he did, you’ll recall, throw 2 in last year’s Super Bowl).  So that snapped his streak of 31 consecutive regular season games without throwing multiple interceptions.

Mahomes finished the game 24-of-34 for 393 yards and 2 touchdowns (a 91.9 rating) after a torrid second half in which he completed 11 of his final 15 passes for 221 yards.  That equates to 14.73 yards per attempted pass, and 20.09 yards per completion.

How to Beat the Chiefs

So here was the pattern – very reminiscent of their playoff journey.  They look bad early.  Sacks, fumbles (Mahomes also fumbled during the game, but KC recovered it), drops – interceptions.  Suddenly, its 10-0 bad guys (or, Dolphins, in this case).

Then one good thing happens for the Chiefs – one big play.  This time Tyreek Hill on a running play scooted 32 yards for a touchdown.  One big play, and the Chiefs exploded.

Counting that drive, the Chiefs scored touchdowns on three of four drives in not quite a quarter’s worth of playing time.  This first drive began with 10:14 left in the second quarter, and the fourth drive ended with 13:50 left in the third.  All together, the four drives required just 19 plays while accounting for 204 yards (10.7 yards per play).  They consumed a total of 7 minutes 11 seconds, and included – in addition to the big run by Hill – a 21-yard pass to Travis Kelce, a 26-yard pass up the sideline to running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and a picture perfect, 44-yard deep strike to Hill running behind the secondary.

Toss in a 67-yard punt return for a touchdown by Mecole Hardman after Miami’s next posession, and the dynamic Kansas City offense and special teams tossed up 28 points in 10:30 of football time. (The Dolphins, by the way, entered the game allowing the second fewest points in the NFL – not that that matters to Kansas City).

So, this suggests a strategy.

Don’t give up that first big play!

Knowing that this is football’s most momentum-phillic offense, don’t allow the play that swings the momentum to their side.  This is roughly equivalent to telling a pitcher that the way to stop the Dodger hitting attack is to simply not make any mistakes with any of his pitches – and, as pieces of advice go,  just as practical.

So seriously, how do you go about slowing this team?  Well, that’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it?  In this space, I will sometimes speculate about things I might try against various offenses if I were the defensive coordinator charged with concocting a game plan.

To date, I don’t have a comprehensive answer for the Chiefs.  I wouldn’t take the deep-zone approach designed to prevent the big play.  Kansas City is one of the few offenses that can consistently drive the field taking all the short and intermediate throws that you give them.  And, frankly, the teams that take that approach against them usually give up the big play, anyway.  I would opt for man coverage.

Ideally, you would like to double everybody.  In practice, that’s impossible.  But I would double-cover Hill, and I would literally mug Kelce at the line – even walking a defensive lineman out over him in an attempt to disrupt him.

But the basic approach would be pressure.  A vigorous, relentless pass rush will stop any passing attack.  Here, though, is the rub.  You have to get that pass rush from just your four down linemen.  If you blitz him, Mahomes will destroy you.

It is, to say the least, a conundrum.

Miami Trending Down

After a 1-3 start, the Dolphins suddenly caught fire.  They won five in a row, including splash wins against the 49ers, Rams and Cardinals.  In addition to the surprisingly stingy defense, Miami featured the franchise quarterback that they had drafted in the first round of the most recent draft (that would be Tua Tagovailoa) and a certain knack for finding a way to win games that they looked like they should have lost.  They also received outstanding special teams play.

Over the last month or so, gravity seems to have caught up with them a bit.  They have split their last 4 games, with their other loss coming against the Denver Broncos.  Through his first three starts, Tua posted a passer rating of 104.9, throwing 5 touchdowns against no interceptions.  In losing two of this last three, Tua’s rating has slipped to 88.3 as his completion percentage has dropped to 60.8%.

Sunday against KC, Tagovailoa was just 28-for-48 for 316 yards and 2 touchdowns to weigh against his first career interception – an 83.3 rating.  He was also sacked 4 times (the Broncos got him 6 times).

He was just 5-for-12 for 80 yards in the 10-to-20 yard range.

However it plays out in the end, this has been a welcome resurgence season for the Dolphins.  But, over the last few games and heading into a tough finishing stretch (Miami closes with New England, Las Vegas and Buffalo), their youth has been starting to show.

Slowing the Chiefs

In their three wins in last year’s playoffs, all three of their opponents held the high-scoring Kansas City offense down – for a while.  By the final whistle, though, the talented Chiefs’ offense had prevailed, scoring 51, 35 and 31 points – the last two games against two of the NFL’s best defenses.

During the 2019 regular season, though, the NFL’s fifth-most prolific scoring team was held below 30 points in 9 of their 16 games, proving that slowing down the Kansas City offense is possible.

Thus far in 2020, KC ranks eighth in scoring, and has been denied 30 points twice in the first four games.  Two games in particular have showcased the NFL’s very best efforts to restrict the irresistible force that is the Kansas City offense.  In Week Two, the Chiefs trailed 17-9 against the Chargers after three quarters before coming back to claim a 23-20 overtime win (summary).  Then, last Monday they were scuffling to a 6-3 lead over New England with less than a minute left in the third quarter before eventually pulling away for a 26-10 win (gamebook) (summary).

The two approaches differed greatly, but they represent the two best proven remedies for a quarterback with no weaknesses in his game.  You have to beat the rest of his team.

Pressure from LA

What the Charger defense does best is come after the passer.  They have yet to harvest many sacks (only 6 in four games), but they are tied for fourth in the league in QB pressures with 45.  With defensive linemen Joey Bosa and Jerry Tillery leading the way, KC quarterback Patrick Mahomes saw some form of direct harassment on 23 of his 47 passing attempts.  This doesn’t count the times he was forced out of the pocket.

It remains one of the age old truisms of football.  No quarterback can beat you when he’s flat on his back.  The trickiest aspect of this approach is that the pressure has to come from no more than four rushers.  The Chargers are blessed with dynamic linemen that can disrupt almost any passing attack.  But you have to do it with four.  Once you start blitzing Patrick, you are inviting disaster.

The Chargers might well have won that contest.  But, while the defense was dampening down the Chief’s firepower, the offense didn’t take full advantage of their opportunities.  After scoring 14 points in the first half, their first three drives of the second half all took them into Kansas City territory.  They managed just 2 field goals and had a pass intercepted on the KC five yard line.  The last field goal came after LA had a first-and-goal from the 4.

What happened, then, was that they let the Chiefs hang around long enough that one big play (the 54-yard touchdown strike to Tyreek Hill with Mahomes scrambling out of the pocket) turned the momentum of the game.

Patriots Played Coverage

New England’s defense doesn’t feature the pass rush ability of the Chargers.  But, the Patriots have (arguably) football deepest and most highly skilled secondary – led by cornerback deluxe Stephon Gilmore.  In their matchup with the Chiefs, New England frequently rushed only three and dropped eight into coverage, almost evenly mixing man coverages and zones.

This is also a very workable strategy when executed well.  It doesn’t matter how great the quarterback is if he doesn’t have open receivers to throw to.  Unusual in Kansas City during the Mahomes era, last Monday you saw Patrick standing in the pocket holding the ball.  And holding.  And holding while waiting for someone to uncover.

In 35 drop-backs. Patrick dealt with imminent pressure just 9 times – although he was forced to scramble on 5 occasions.  Such pressure as New England managed usually was not early pressure, but came after Mahomes had surveyed the field awhile.  While he completed 19 of 29 throws (65.5%), most of his completions were contested, and two of his incompletions were very nearly intercepted.

Save for Tyrann Mathieu’s fourth-quarter interception return for a touchdown, Kansas City would have finished the evening with an almost unheard of 19 points.

As with the Chargers, the Patriots were able to do this because they are the best in the NFL (or nearly the best) in what they do – coverage.  They have an aspect of their defense that is strong enough and consistent enough to interfere with the regular workings of Andy Reid’s offense.

And they didn’t blitz.

In between these two victories, Kansas City had a relatively easy time beating Baltimore 34-20.  The Ravens also boast an elite secondary, but their pass rush is a function of a variety of cunning blitzes.  Patrick and his offense feasted on the Baltimore blitzing.  They carried a 27-10 lead into the half, and never looked back.  Mahomes finished the night 31 of 42 for 385 yards and 4 touchdowns.

Even if you are one of football’s best blitzing teams, this is not the offense to try that with.

Also, like the Chargers, the Patriots failed to take advantage of the long stretch of the game that the defense held the Chiefs close.  New England, of course, was absent its starting quarterback.  (Apparently Superman is vulnerable to the COVID virus.  I must have missed that episode.)  Their offensive struggles were somewhat understandable.

Even so, this is another plank in the formula for slowing down (and, eventually, beating) KC – which now reads:

First, either through pressure or coverage, beat the players around Mahomes.

Second, blitz rarely if at all.

Third, don’t miss on scoring opportunities.  You will not beat this team 13-10.

And, oh yes, a final point.  During all of this you have to stop their running game as well.  Andy has taken quite a shine to his first-round draft pick – a running back out of LSU named Clyde Edwards-Helaire.  Clyde has put up 304 ground yards through the first four games.  If you over play the pass, Clyde and the Chiefs will punish you on the ground.

The good news in all of this is that, yes, the Chiefs can certainly be slowed.  But it clearly isn’t easy.

Just One Thing – Analyzing Super Bowl LIV

Sunday, December 29 in Kansas City, Missouri was cloudy, quite chilly, and memorably beautiful.  It was Week 17 of the 2019 NFL season – the final regular weekend of football’s one hundredth season.

Earlier in the week, Chiefs’ coach Andy Reid had decided to play his regulars and try to win the game.  There were reasons to consider the other path – resting his regulars before the playoffs began.  The Chiefs had long since locked up their division and were comfortably positioned to host a playoff game on WildCard Weekend.  They did have a chance to claim the second seed and a first round bye – but for that to happen the almost unthinkable would have to occur.  The woeful Miami Dolphins would have to go into Foxboro at the end of December and beat the defending champion Patriots.

An improbable enough scenario that Reid could be forgiven if he chose the path of safety.  As the fourth quarters of both games played out on that memorable Sunday afternoon, and it began to be apparent that both parts of this improbable scenario were playing out, an almost surreal euphoria settled over the denizens of Arrowhead Stadium.  A promising postseason had suddenly become much more promising.

Getting a first round bye is a huge factor in gaining the Super Bowl.  It is inexpressibly sweeter when that bye is won at the expense of a bitter rival – the much-detested New England Patriots.  The final day of the recently concluded regular season was one of the sweetest days to be a Chiefs fan in about a half century.

Two Sunday’s later, all of the hope and euphoria lie crumbled on the Arrowhead Stadium floor.

Thanks to Tennessee’s upset of Baltimore the night before, the road to the Super Bowl now led through Kansas City – a fact that made the transpirings that Sunday afternoon all the more bitter.

Playing as though they had forgotten every fundamental of football, the Chiefs were quickly buried in an avalanche of mistakes.  Dropped passes, blown coverages, blocked punts, muffed punts, pre-snap penalties – the Chiefs committed all of the above.  The beneficiaries of all this ineptitude were the visiting Houston Texans, who gratefully lapped up every gift they were presented.

Five minutes into the second quarter, Houston kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn added the field goal that increased the Texans’ lead to 24-0.  The silence in the stands was palpable.  In the long history of playoff disappointments endured by the Kansas City fandom, this one just might have been the most heart breaking.  So good for so much of the season, and now with the road to the Super Bowl paved before them, and to blow it all in the very first quarter – it was a bitter result indeed.

And then, one thing went right for the Chiefs.  Just one thing.

On the ensuing kickoff, Mecole Hardman returned the kick 58 yards to the Texan 42.  And that was all it took.

Just like that, the Kansas City Chiefs remembered that they were not the mistake-prone, bumbling offense that they had shown themselves to be for the first 20 minutes of this contest.  They remembered that they were one of football’s most potent offenses.  Two plays later, they were in the end zone (Damien Williams taking the touchdown pass off his hip), and the reverse route was on.

Beginning with that touchdown, the Chiefs would go on to score on eight straight possessions – earning touchdowns on the first seven of those possessions.  Down at one point 24-0, Kansas City would advance to the Championship Game on the strength of a 51-31 thrashing of the Texans.

For twenty minutes, Houston had played as nearly perfect a game as they could have hoped for.  Had they held onto that lead, they would then have inherited home field for the Championship Round.  But they made one mistake on special teams and let the genie out of the bottle.

But the Kansas City story was just beginning to be written.

The next week they again overcame a deficit (this time just 10 points) on their way to the 35-24 conquest of Tennessee that advanced them to the Super Bowl for the first time in a half century.

Once there, though, they found their mercurial offense virtually silenced – in particular, by the defensive line of the San Francisco 49ers.  Over the 60 brutal minutes of Super Bowl LIV, Patrick Mahomes spent most of the evening running for his life. 

They played San Francisco to a 10-all tie through the first thirty minutes, but as the third quarter dissolved into the fourth quarter the relentless pressure began to get to Mahomes.  In the late third quarter and into the early fourth – even when he did have time to throw – Patrick’s accuracy began to suffer.

With 5:36 left in the third quarter, trailing 13-10 and facing a third-and-12, Mahomes couldn’t get enough loft on his throw over the deep middle, tossing the ball right into the waiting arms of San Fran’s Fred Warner.

San Francisco turned that interception into the touchdown that put them ahead 20-10.

With 1:10 left in the third, Sammy Watkins was breaking into an open window in the middle of the 49er zone, but Patrick skipped the throw in.

Early in the fourth quarter – still trailing by 10 – Mahomes drove KC to a third-and-six at the San Fran 23 yard line.  With still 12:05 left in the game, this drive represented their best chance (and maybe last best chance) to claw themselves back into the game.

Running out of the slot to the left, Tyreek Hill darted quickly into the open middle against nickel-corner K’Waun Williams.  With a good throw, it’s first-and-ten on the 15.  But, playing very fast at this point, Mahomes slung the ball well behind Hill.  Tyreek reached back to try to make a play on it, but only succeeded in deflecting the pass into the air, where Tarvarius Moore made the interception.

The next time the Chiefs got the ball, there were fewer than nine minutes left in the game.  With a first-and-ten on their own 29, Mahomes completed this pass to Hill, but the gain could have been much more than the 9 yards they got.  With room in front of Tyreek, Patrick threw the ball short – almost into the dirt in front of Hill’s feet, with Tyreek making an excellent diving catch.

A run from Williams picked up the first, and initiated the most telling sequence of Super Bowl LIV.

On first down, a false start from Laurent Duvernay-Tardif set KC back five yards to the KC 35.  Now with a first-and-fifteen, Hill settled into an opening in the zone in front of cornerback Emmanuel Moseley.  Charging hard, Moseley arrived at the same time as the football, successfully breaking up the pass.

Now it was second-and-fifteen.  Hill, lining up on the right side, threatened the 49er zone with a strong vertical stem, pushing Richard Sherman and Jaquiski Tartt deeper and deeper.  When Tyreek put his foot in the turf and turned looking for the ball, he was on the San Fran 43-yard line with no defender within six yards of him.  Calling the game on FOX, Troy Aikman offered that this should have been Patrick’s easiest completion of the evening.  Instead, Mahomes (throwing with Solomon Thomas’ hand in his face) delivered well short again.  Hill came back for the pass and made a strong enough play on it that he was originally credited with a 16-yard reception that was easily overturned on review.

So, here was the Kansas City season.  Fourth quarter.  Just 7:13 left.  Trailing by ten points.  Facing a third-and-fifteen from deep in their own territory against the NFL’s third-most feared pass rush (rated on percentage of sacks).

To this point in the biggest game of his young career, the electric Pat Mahomes was clearly struggling.  He had completed just 4 of his last 11, and for the game to that point he was 19 of 32 (just 59.38%) for 181 yards (averaging just 5.66 yards per pass attempt, and just 9.53 per completion).  Only 8 of his 19 completions had earned first downs, and he had thrown no touchdown passes to offset his two interceptions.  His passer rating to that point of the game was a humbling 49.09 to go along with 3 sacks San Francisco had already rung up against him.

Things could scarcely have looked much worse at this point.

And then, one thing went right for the Chiefs.  Just one thing.

On third-and-fifteen, Mahomes lifted his eyes to find Hill all alone deep up the left sideline.  In spite of pressure from lineman DeForest Buckner (who was hitting Patrick as he was releasing the ball), Mahomes arched a strike into Hill’s waiting arms for a game-changing 44-yard gain.

And just like that, the Chiefs remembered again that they were one of football’s most prolific offenses.  Beginning with that completion, Patrick would complete 7 of his next 9 for 105 yards and 2 touchdowns.  Much like in the Houston game, KC went on to score touchdowns on their next three drives, flipping a 10-point deficit into an 11-point win, 31-20 (gamebook) (summary).

As with Houston, the San Francisco defense had played an exceptional game for 53 minutes.  But against Kansas City (who with the victory became the first team ever to come from 10 or more points behind to win three straight playoff games) any mistake could prove fatal.

In the almost three weeks since the official end of the season, this has been the lingering memory of this season’s playoffs.  In three post-season contests the Chiefs faced three quality defenses that each presented solid game plans that – for a time – were very well executed.  In all three games, at some point, the Kansas City juggernaut was on its heels and very vulnerable.

But if you were going to beat Kansas City this post-season, you needed to play mistake-free from opening kickoff to final gun.  It was a no-room-for-error tightrope that all these teams had to walk. At any point in the proceedings just one crucial play can flip the momentum.

And once the scoring starts, the Chiefs don’t need a lot of time to do big damage.  Against Houston, four of the seven touchdown drives took 2:03 of clock time or less.  Their three fourth-quarter touchdowns against San Francisco took 2:40, 2:26 and 0:13.

Super Bowl LIV Notebook:

Interceptions have always been something of a rarity in the Super Bowl – to a, perhaps, surprising degree.  When Jimmy Garoppolo’s desperation fourth quarter pass was intercepted, it marked the first time in Super Bowl history that both quarterbacks threw at least two interceptions.

For Patrick Mahomes, his 4.8% interception rate (2 interceptions in 42 tosses) was the highest for a winning quarterback in a Super Bowl since Pittsburgh won Super Bowl XL (40) 21-10 over Seattle in spite of 2 interceptions from Ben Roethlisberger in just 21 passes (a 9.5% rate).

Garoppolo’s 2 interceptions came in 31 passes – a 6.5% rate. That is the highest rate for any Super Bowl quarterback since Rex Grossman had 7.1% of his passes intercepted in Super Bowl XLI – Chicago’s 29-17 loss to Indianapolis.  Rex threw 28 passes that day – 2 of them to Colts.

Garoppolo’s 219 passing yards were also the fewest by a Super Bowl losing quarterback since Grossman’s 165 yards against Indy.

The Chiefs finished with a surprising 129 rushing yards – a good chunk of those yards coming on Damien Williams’ clinching 38-yard touchdown burst.  As San Francisco ran for 141 yards, that made this the first Super Bowl since the before-referenced Pittsburgh-Seattle Super Bowl (number 40) in which both teams ran for at least 120 yards.  The Steelers ran for 181 that day, while the Seahawks pounded away for 137.

That run, by the way, pushed Williams to 104 for the game.  He becomes the first running back from a winning Super Bowl team to exceed 100 rushing yards since Dominic Rhodes piled up 113 rushing yards for the Colts against Chicago in Super Bowl XLI (41).

49er wide receiver Kendrick Bourne caught 2 passes on the evening for just 42 yards.  Those yards, though, made him San Francisco’s leading receiver in yardage for the game. You would have to go all the way back to Super Bowl XXXV (35) – Baltimore’s 34-7 demolition of the New York Giants – to find the last time that the losing Super Bowl team didn’t manage one receiver with at least 60 yards.  Ike Hilliard led the battered Giant receiving corps that day with 30 yards on 3 catches.

The Undercard

So much of the focus of Super Bowl LIV went to the matchup of the irresistible force (the KC offense) vs the immovable object (the SF defense), that the matchup between the 49er offense (second highest in scoring and fourth in yards) against the much-improved Chief defense became mostly overlooked.

Looking ahead, though, the significance of the 49er appearance in Super Bowl LIV cannot be overstated.  For the last couple of seasons, we have noted the rise of the Neanderthal offense in the NFL – a Neanderthal offense is one that seeks to run the ball more than it passes.  Unimaginable a few seasons ago, there are now several teams who identify as primarily running teams.  And now one of them – San Francisco – has advanced as far as the Super Bowl.

In their games leading up to the Super Bowl. The 49ers were at their Neanderthal best.  During the regular season, their 498 rushing attempts and their 144.1 yards per game were both the second best totals in the NFL.  They ran the ball 47 times in the Divisional Round against Minnesota, rolling up 186 yards.  Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo threw only 19 passes in that game.

Against the Packers in the Championship Game, they rolled up 285 rushing yards on 42 carries, while asking Garoppolo to throw just 8 times.

While logic would suggest that a similar approach – if effective – would go a long way towards keeping the KC offense on the sideline, apparently a run-heavy approach was never in the game plan.

On first down, of course, San Francisco employed a very Neanderthal approach.  The 49ers ran the ball 16 times on first down – 14 of those on first-and-ten.  This they did to excellent effect, rolling up 119 yards on those carries (8.5 yards per).

Off of that first-down running game, Garoppolo ran a devastatingly effective passing attack.  Throwing 12 times on first-and-ten, Jimmy completed 10 of those passes (83.33%) for 96 yards and a touchdown – a 127.78 rating.  As you might expect, the play-action pass was a featured part of the passing attack.  For the game, Jimmy was 12 for 15 (80.00%) on play-action for 123 yards (8.20 per attempt).  His lone touchdown pass came off of play-action, giving him a 123.06 rating for the game.

When he ran play-action on first-and-ten, he was 7-for-7 for 73 yards.  But all that changed on second down.

Against the Packers, San Fran ran the ball 12 times on second down for 101 yards (8.4 per), scoring 3 of their 4 rushing touchdowns on that down.  Against KC, they barely made the attempt.

On 16 second down plays, the 49ers ran just 4 times (for 12 yards).  They asked Jimmy to throw the ball 12 times on that down, with minimal results (6 completions for 66 yards).  Both of Garoppolo’s interceptions fell on second down – leaving him a rating of 27.08 on that down.

For all of that, though, Kansas City didn’t force many third-and-long situations.  San Francisco faced third down only 8 times all evening (converting 3)

Timely Defense

The game was, in fact, rather characteristic of how the Kansas City defense played down the stretch and into the playoffs.  They forced only one three-and-out, and throughout the contest they always seemed on the verge of yielding points.  San Francisco managed at least one first down in each of their first 7 possessions.  Two of those possessions consumed more than five minutes of clock time, and four of the seven ended in Chief territory – yielding two touchdowns, two field goals, one punt, one interception and a possession that ended with the end of the first half.

In many ways, the San Francisco offense clicked along according to plan – with one glaring exception.  San Fran had three consecutive possessions in the second half during which they held a lead.  They got the ball with 5:23 left in the third holding a 13-10 lead; their next possession came with 11:57 left in the fourth with a 20-10 lead; and shortly thereafter, still leading 20-17 with 6:13 left in the game they had another possession.

These possessions should have constituted the Neanderthal moment.  This is the game situation you strive for if you are that running team.  This was the time that San Fran needed to impose its will and take firm control of the game.  In those three drives, the 49ers ran 14 plays – 6 of them running plays that earned just 18 yards.  As they had done against Tennessee, the gritty Kansas City defense just did not allow the running game to take over.  They were disciplined in forcing Garoppolo to win the game with his arm.

And that would prove to be challenge enough.

All About the Pressure

As surprising as San Francisco’s decision to de-emphasize its running game was, Kansas City’s defensive response was equally puzzling.  Throughout the regular season, the Chiefs were a moderate blitzing team, adding extra rushers about 30% of the time.  Against a similar offense in Tennessee in the Championship Game, KC blitzed on just 9 of 34 passing attempts.

But against San Francisco they decided the answer would be the blitz.  And so they came.  They blitzed on San Fran’s first two passing plays (giving completions on both plays), and 10 times on the 49ers first 13 passes – including the last six in a row.

For the game, the Chiefs ended up blitzing 20 of Jimmy’s 33 drop backs (a surprising 60.6%).  And for 3 quarters the results couldn’t have been worse.

The 49ers’ offense is especially challenging to blitz.  The strength of their play-action attack was very effective in removing the pressure of the added rushers.  Typically, the line would react as though running a stretch play, with Garoppolo faking the hand-off and then rolling in the opposite direction of his line and – almost always – away from any trouble.  The first 14 times that the Chiefs blitzed, Garoppolo completed 12 of 14 for 131 yards and his touchdown pass to Kyle Juszczyk.

And then, as Kansas City began mounting its comeback, San Francisco stopped doing those things.  They still responded to the KC blitz with play-action, but it was a less-convincing “hint” of play-action with the line in pass blocking mode.  As the fourth quarter arrived, Jimmy stopped rolling out of the pocket and waited there for the pressure to arrive.  All of a sudden, instead of dictating to the Kansas City blitz, the 49ers stood still and let the KC defense dictate to them with a collection of delayed blitzes and overload blitzes that had Garoppolo throwing under heavy pressure for most of the last quarter.

After completing his first pass of the fourth quarter, Garoppolo’s numbers for the game read 18 for 21 (85.71%) for 195 yards (an average of 9.29 per attempted pass) with 1 touchdown and 1 interception – a rating of 101.39.  From that point on, Jimmy was only 2 for 10 for 24 yards and another interception – a 0.00 rating only because the rating system doesn’t allow for negative ratings.

When given a relatively clean pocket, Jimmy was 17 for 22 for 186 yards.  Under significant pressure – which didn’t happen on any consistent basis until that fourth quarter – Garoppolo was just 3 for 9 for 33 yards, an interception and a sack.  The last 6 times that KC blitzed, Garoppolo was 0-for-5 with the sack by Frank Clark on fourth-and-ten that pretty much closed things out.

Here again the KC defense continued their meme of rising to the occasion as they continued to play their best at the game’s most crucial moments.  But the deeper story is more complex than that.  Throughout the game, San Francisco ran plays and did things that worked.  And then they stopped doing them.

Receiver Deebo Samuel carried the ball on three rushing plays, gaining 32, 7, and 14 yards on those carries.  The last of those came on the third play of their first drive of the second half.  San Francisco never went back to it again.

Both coaching staffs have done an admirable job all season.  Under the pressure of the Super Bowl, though, I think out-thinking yourself becomes a very real danger.  San Francisco’s Kyle Shanahan may have done that.

Andy Reid, I think, was guilty of that as well.

Unexpected is Not Always Best

After the 49ers toppled the Packers to earn the right to play in Super Bowl LIV, I made this observation about their defense:

As teams began to understand the San Francisco defense, they realized that what made them special was the defensive line – especially Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner.  Beginning with their Week Nine, 28-25 win over Arizona, the league began constructing game plans that would minimize the impact of the defensive line, and force the linebackers and defensive back to beat them. 

Opponents began to run the ball with more commitment, and when they threw the ball they kept more blockers in the backfield to block.  Or, noting that the 49ers run a predominantly zone defense, they resorted to shorter, quicker passes and a more ball-control concept.  (Here is the full post.)

Noting that the 49er defensive line was the only part of the San Francisco defense that could cause real havoc with the Chief offense, I expected Reid and the offense to do some of those things against San Fran.  At the very least, I expected they would provide some help for their tackles (an occasional tight end, perhaps a chip from a running back).

But largely none of that happened.  The Chiefs did throw a couple of quick passes, but never really exploited the short openings in the zone.  Extra protection for Mahomes almost never happened.  Kansas City did run the ball with more than expected frequency and with good commitment, but not often enough to impact the pass rush.  And most surprisingly, they left their offensive tackles on an island against the San Francisco ends virtually the entire game – even though it was obvious before their first quarter was concluded that these were mismatches.

If asked to name the most dominant player of Super Bowl LIV, I would nominate San Francisco defensive end Nick Bosa.  But he should have been.  The opposing coach practically invited him to be.

Against the Packers two weeks before, Bosa and fellow disruptive end Arik Armstead were frequently left alone against Packer tackles David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga.  But Bakhtiari and Bulaga are two of the top tackles in football, and they gave as good as they got against the 49er ends.

Kansas City’s tackle tandem of Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz don’t rank with the pair in Green Bay.  They are a rather middling pair of tackles.  But Andy Reid’s game plan treated them as though they were as elite as the ends he would be asking them to block.  Even after it became apparent that they were in over their heads, Reid made no move to alleviate the situation.

Schwartz fared a bit better against Armstead – who sometimes moved inside to rush where the Chiefs could get a double-team on him.  But left tackle Fisher spent the game at Bosa’s mercy.  And Nicky almost took Kansas City’s crown away from them.

Coming mostly from Bosa, 25 of Mahomes’ 50 dropbacks came under heavy pressure.  I define this as pressure that either forces the quarterback to run for his life, or that has him being hit as he throws the ball (or within a step of being hit), or pressure that forces the quarterback to make another decision with the football (like throwing it away).  Patrick was just 7 of 17 with an interception and a 61.40 passer rating under this kind of pressure – to go with 4 sacks and 4 scrambles.  It was this consistent heat that held the explosive Kansas City offense to just 10 points up until the halfway point of the season’s last quarter.

Even after the Chiefs began their comeback, the pressure continued.  Five of Patrick’s last 10 passes – including the 44-yarder to Hill and the go ahead toss to Williams – came under this level of intense pressure.  At the end of the day, it came down to Mahomes making important throws under great duress.  That he was able to deliver a Super Bowl victory in a game where his line never, ever gained control of the line of scrimmage is just another indicator of how special Patrick is.

And how consistently exploitable the 49ers were in the secondary.  As I had previously noted, the 49er defense is elite at the defensive line level, but notably less spectacular after that.  If there was one player whose mistakes might be most responsible for San Francisco’s defeat, that player might be cornerback Emmanuel Moseley.

Moseley’s Miscues

San Francisco’s only poor moment in the Divisional win over Minnesota was the 41-yard touchdown pass thrown from Kirk Cousins to Stefon Diggs – a deep pass poorly played by then-starting cornerback K’Waun Williams.  That play led to Williams being shifted to nickel corner and prompted San Francisco to elevate Moseley’s to the right corner spot opposite Richard Sherman.

On Super Bowl Sunday, that decision came back to haunt them.

Throughout, Emmanuel was very solid in man coverage.  The problem, though, is that San Francisco is a predominate zone defense – they were in zone 54.8% of the time in Super Bowl LIV – and in zone, Moseley fights an almost irresistible urge to wander – a tendency that expressed itself in a few of the game’s most critical moments.

With 14:08 left in the first half, the Chiefs – already leading 7-3 – had a first-and-ten on their own 44 after an interception.  Tyreek Hill lined up opposite Moseley and started up-field on what seemed to be a vertical route.  But after about 15 yards, Tyreek began to bend his route toward the middle, and Emmanuel drifted with him.  That allowed Sammy Watkins to settle into the vacated area, where he pulled down a 28-yard pass.  That play set KC up inside the 49er 30-yard line, and led to the field goal that accounted for their last scoring of the first half.

It was also Kansas City’s only play of 20 or more yards in the entire first half – an erratic effort that saw them head into the locker room only 1-for-6 on third down, and having gained only 155 total yards.

San Fran dodged one on the first play of the fourth quarter.  It was Watkins this time who started wide but curled toward the middle of the field – taking Moseley with him.  This left Hill all alone up the sideline against safety Jimmie Ward (who thought he only had the short zone to that side).  It was the pass rush – this time from Dee Ford – that saved the day, not allowing Mahomes enough time to wait for Hill to clear and ultimately forcing an errant throw.

They weren’t so lucky about eight minutes later.  On third-and-fifteen, and the season trickling through Kansas City’s fingers, Moseley once again abandoned his deep responsibilities to follow Watkins over the middle – making possible the momentum-changing 44-yard toss to Hill, who had the entire sideline opened to him.

For the game, when throwing to his left (Moseley’s side) Mahomes was 9 for 12 (75%) for 133 yards (11.08 yards per attempt and 14.78 per completion) – a 110.76 passer rating.  It will be something for the 49ers to chew on over the offseason.

A Tale of Two Tight Ends

One of the intriguing pregame storylines were the two tight ends, each of whom led his respective team in both receptions and receiving yards. 

In his third season out of Iowa, San Francisco’s George Kittle earned his second consecutive Pro Bowl berth on the strength of an 85-catch, 1053-yard season – his second consecutive year with over 80 catches and more than one thousand yards.

With the emphasis on the run in the 49ers’ first two playoff games, George had fewer opportunities than usual, catching 3 passes against the Vikings for 16 yards.  He had just one catch against Green Bay for 19 yards.

On the other side of the field was Kansas City’s Travis Kelce.  In his seventh season out of Cincinnati, Kelce was named to his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl.  He followed up his 103 catches in 2018 with 97 more during the regular season, and completed his fourth consecutive thousand yard season – with his 1229 yards in 2019 ranking him fourth among all receivers in football.

Travis was one of the heroes of the comeback against Houston.  He caught 10 passes for 134 yards and 3 touchdowns in that game.  He was held to 3 catches for 30 yards against Tennessee.

Interestingly, in that game, Travis saw almost exclusive coverage from defensive backs, as the Titans decided to defend more against his speed than his size.

This coverage concept followed both tight ends into their Super Bowl showdown.  Kittle saw a lot of safety Daniel Sorensen – and drew more frequent double coverage than Hill.  As for Kelce, almost every time he lined up as the lone receiver to either side he drew the attention of the cornerback on that side.  When he lined up to the offensive right side (Richard Sherman’s side), he would be subjected to a very physical press coverage.  Even if San Francisco would resort to zone coverage afterward, Sherman would still jam him at the line to disrupt his route.

This additional attention was very effective for both defenses, as neither end was particularly prominent in the passing game.  Kelce finished with 6 catches for 43 yards, and Kittle caught 4 for 36 yards.  During the regular season, Kittle had caught 27 passes on third down – 18 for first downs.  In the Super Bowl, George had no third down catches, and was targeted just once on that down.  Kelce didn’t even have a third down pass thrown his way.

The difference, though, was the offenses around them.  The extra coverage on Kittle didn’t seem to compromise Kansas City’s overall pass defense.  On the other hand, while the 49ers were extra-concerned with Kelce, Tyreek Hill was targeted 16 times, catching 9 of them for 105 yards.

On the Toughness of the Chiefs

After they pushed their way past Tennessee, I made note of the unexpected toughness of the flashy Kansas City offense.  That toughness was again on display in Super Bowl LIV.  We saw it from Mahomes, who took several big hits and bounced back up every time.

On the last Sunday of the NFL’s one-hundredth season, that toughness found its best expression in the Kansas City running game and emerging running back Damien Williams.

In his second season in Kansas City after four uninspiring seasons in Miami, Williams began the season as the “other” back behind LeSean McCoy.  After rushing for just 256 yards in all of 2018, Damien began 2019 in quiet fashion.  Six games into the season, Williams had just 48 carries for 100 yards even – 2.1 yards per rush.  Then, in a Week 7 win against Minnesota, Damien scorched the Viking defense for 125 yards on just 12 carries.

From that point forward – with the exception of three late season games missed with an injury – Williams began to surpass McCoy on the depth chart.  LeSean wasn’t even listed as active for the Super Bowl.

Williams averaged 6.3 yards a carry over his last 5 regular season games, and ended the season just ahead of McCoy, 498 yards to 465.

During Super Bowl LIV, Kansas City ran the ball 10 times with less than four yards to gain for a first down – once on first-and-one; five times on second-and-one, once on third-and-two, once on third-and-one, and twice on fourth-and-one.  They converted 9 of the 10, with Williams going 7-for-7 in those chances.

One of the memorable plays from the game was the colorful spin-o-rama play.  This was one of the fourth-and-one plays called for with 1:57 left in the first quarter.

The Chiefs lined up with two wide receivers (Watkins and Demarcus Robinson) joining Williams in the backfield.  Just before the snap, all four members of the offensive backfield executed a 360-degree turn.  It was a flashy move that served a sneaky purpose as it now aligned Williams directly behind the center, where he took a direct snap.

Damien would pick up the first down, but it wouldn’t be easy.  While he was still a yard in the backfield, Sheldon Day overpowered Fisher, grabbing Damien around his knees. As Day’s hands slid down to Williams’ ankles, it seemed certain that Damien would go down – possibly before gaining the first down.

But somehow he pulled his feet out of the snare, and, executing a second spin move on the same play, he twirled out of the grasp of Emmanuel Moseley. Then – with the goal line in sight – Damien lowered his shoulder and plowed through Jaquiski Tartt’s attempted tackle.  He was ultimately pulled down inches short of the goal line, having made the first down with plenty to spare.

Perhaps no single play encapsulates the 2019 Kansas City Chiefs better.  Underneath the eye-candy – unpinning the flash-and-dash – was an unexpected core toughness.  The physical toughness to convert short-yardage runs against an elite defensive line, combined with the mental and emotional toughness to overcome large deficits in three straight playoff games to bring home a championship.

And as for Williams, the man who scored the first touchdown in their comeback win against Houston ended up scoring the last two touchdowns of the season.  He heads into the offseason as, possibly, the least celebrated 100-yard rusher (he finished with 104) in Super Bowl history.

For Kansas City it may work out better that way.  Better, perhaps, that you remember the glitter and pay less attention to the grit.

Patriots Advance on a Head and a Hand

Heads is the call.

After 60 minutes, 128 combined plays, 739 combined yards, 8 combined touchdowns and 62 combined points, it came to this.  A historic night of football – one that had begun in controversy in New Orleans and continued in the bracing 19-degree chill of Kansas City (that, at least, was the temperature at the beginning of the game) – came finally to New England’s Matt Slater standing next to referee Clete Blakeman calling the overtime coin toss.

Heads.

It was a head, and that set in motion the series of events that would decide the NFL’s second overtime Championship Game of the day. 

The NFL’s requirement for getting both teams at least one overtime possession is pretty soft.  All the Chiefs needed to do to put the ball back in the hands of Patrick Mahomes was keep New England out of the end zone.  Keeping offenses out of the end zone, however, had become a lost art in this game.  The Patriots had taken each of their last two possessions 60 yards for touchdowns.  The Chiefs had scored on all of their last three drives – two touchdowns and a field goal.  Even that is deceptive, though.  Kansas City was only held to a field goal on its last possession because they began that drive on their own 31-yard line with just 39 seconds left and needing the field goal to tie.

As the coin went up in the air, there was a strong suspicion that a trip to Super Bowl LIII hung suspended with it.  The coin landed in New England’s favor, and the Patriots did not waste the opportunity.  Thirteen plays and 4:52 later, on the Chiefs’ 2-yard line, tight end Rob Gronkowski – lined tight to the left of the formation – pushed KC linebacker Breeland Speaks further out to the left and back towards the end zone.  At the same time, tackle Trent Brown (lined up next to Gronkowski) drove defensive tackle Justin Hamilton the other way – back into the line of scrimmage.  Through the opening produced by those two blocks came Patriot fullback James Develin.  He collided with – and pushed back – linebacker Reggie Ragland.

All this set the stage for Rex Burkhead, who plowed into the void, bowling through the attempted arm tackles of Ragland and Speaks to end the 37-31 Patriot victory (gamebook) (summary), and send New England back to the big stage for the third consecutive season.

The Running Patriots

The yards were the final two of an impressive 176 rushing yards the New England hung on the KC defense on the last of 48 soul-crushing runs – most of them into the middle of that over-extended defense.  The Patriots finished with touchdowns on 3 of their last 6 rushing attempts, and have now rushed for four touchdowns in each of their playoff games so far – this after rushing for 18 touchdowns through 16 regular season games.

It is somewhat characteristic of Bill Belichick that it would be Burkhead at the end.  On an evening when running back Sony Michel set the tone early and often – on his way 113 rushing yards of his own and two touchdowns – Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels switched to Burkhead with about six minutes left in regulation.  Rex isn’t quite the battering ram that LeGarrette Blount had been in seasons past – but he is stylistically similar. Rex is a no-nonsense, here-I-come kind of runner.  Perhaps, the Patriot brain trust wanted to employ a slightly more physical runner against the tiring KC defense.

Whatever the cogitations, it was Burkhead carrying the ball on 8 of New England’s last 9 rushing plays, including the dive that sent New England on and sent Kansas City home.

Mahomes Rises to the Moment

While the final taste is bitter for the Chiefs, it is nonetheless impressive that they pushed the game that far.  Mahomes and Kansas City ended the first quarter with minus 11 offensive yards, as Pat was 0-for-2 passing with a sack.  The Chiefs would be held to no points and just 32 offensive yards throughout the first half – a half in which Mahomes would throw just 8 passes while being sacked 3 times.

Had you watched only the first half, you would have left with the impression that this young Chiefs team was badly outclassed by the superior Patriots.  Even through three quarters, with New England holding a comfortable 17-7 lead, you might have considered the contest decided.

But back came the Chiefs, scoring 24 fourth-quarter points to force a tie game, with Patrick Mahomes throwing for 110 yards and 2 touchdowns in the fourth quarter alone.  After his unexceptional first half, the Chiefs’ first year starter at quarterback completed 12 of his 23 second half passes for 230 yards and 3 touchdowns.  Nine of those 12 completions went for first downs, and his passer rating for the half was a satisfying 126.81.

With his primary targets (Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce) getting heightened attention from the New England defense, Mahomes found success throwing the ball to a couple of less attended receivers.  “Other” receiver Sammy Watkins caught 3 passes in the second half for 102 yards, and running back Damien Williams caught 5 for 66 more yards and 2 touchdowns.

Along the way, though, this offensive performance by Kansas City was stylistically very different than most of their regular season games.

The Chiefs Try to Adjust

First of all, Kansas City abandoned their running game very early.  The ground attack whose 180 yards was very instrumental in dismissing Indianapolis the week before was a non-factor.  KC ran the ball only 12 times (and one of those was a scramble from Mahomes) for just 41 yards.  It is not at all clear that they ever intended to run the ball, and certainly after New England showed some early offensive success, the Chiefs were more than willing to put the running game away.

In the aftermath of that very entertaining 54-51 shootout that Kansas City had earlier this year against the Rams, I questioned both teams’ will to run the ball.  I think that came into play here.  The Chiefs were at home, playing against the twenty-second ranked pass defense (by yards) with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.  They didn’t want to get there running the ball.  They intended all along to pass.

In the end, KC threw the ball on 25 of their 29 first-down plays.

That suited New England just fine.  They would rather not have to concern themselves with the run.  Defending Kansas City’s passing attack was challenge enough.  Throughout the season, Mahomes had led a high-percentage passing attack.  With most teams backing off Hill – and sending a lot of defenders deep to watch him – and with Kelce usually dominant over the middle against both zone and man coverages – Patrick finished his regular season completing 66% of his passing attempts.  He was very near that in his first-ever playoff game against Indy (65.9% on 27-of-41 passing).

But now, New England will change the dynamic.  They tightened up the coverage and emphasized pressure.  They diligently double-covered Hill, and pressed Kelce off the line.  Tight press coverage has its advantages.  It gives the defending team an opportunity to challenge every pass – making it more difficult for the offense to sustain drives.  It is also a precarious decision, as press man coverage also opens the door to potential big plays down the field.

That is precisely what the second half of this game evolved into.  In a sense Belichick and McDaniels engaged in a high-stakes game of Russian roulette with Mahomes and the KC passing attack.

Patrick’s 12 completions in 23 throws is only 52.2%.  But half of those completions gained more than 20 yards (those 6 completions, in fact, totaled 196 yards) – including all of his last 4 completions of the season (which totaled 109 yards).  Of Mahomes’ 31 pass attempts, 9 were up the field at least 20 yards from the line of scrimmage.  He completed 4 of the 9 for 144 yards.

As the Chiefs advanced the ball out of their own territory, the downfield game became even more dangerous.  Between the 50-yard line and the red zone, Mahomes was only 4-for-8.  But all four completions covered at least 23 yards – totaling 121 yards.  In total, when starting on the New England side of the field, Mahomes was 6-for-11 for 134 yards, with all 6 completions going for first downs – including 3 touchdowns.  His passer rating in Patriot territory was an outstanding 137.88.

Defending Patrick

Man? Or Zone?

That’s always the question as a defense prepares a plan for an opposing passing game.  While there are no absolutes, a zone defense will provide more of a mental challenge to a quarterback, while man defenses will tend to challenge his physical abilities.  For that reason, I expected to see New England challenge Kansas City’s first year starter with mostly zone coverages.  They didn’t – although perhaps they should.

Mahomes saw no zone coverages at all in the first half of the game, and only 8 zone coverages in the entire game (22.9% of his drop-backs).  It’s a small sample size, but Pat didn’t respond very well to them, completing just 2 of 7 passes for 6 yards (and being sacked once).  Beyond just the numbers, he seemed hesitant.  Two of the throws he just heaved out of bounds.  Three of the others were just dump offs.  Only two of the attempted passes went beyond ten yards (one toward Kelce and one towards Williams) and both fell incomplete.

Hard to say how it would have played out if New England had kept mixing in zone coverages.

But the game plan against Mahomes and KC was more basic.  Deny Tyreek Hill.  To that end, Hill (and Kelce and Mahomes) saw a steady diet of man coverage.  In Hill’s case, it was an almost constant double-team, with Jonathan Jones pressing Tyreek at the line, and safety Devin McCourty staying over the top on any deep route.  With no safety help, Kelce was mostly given over to the care of a young defensive back named J.C. Jackson.

That part of the plan went pretty well.  Hill only beat the double-coverage once – his 42-yard reception being his only catch of the night, and Kelce finished the game with just 3 catches for 23 yards, although Jackson did commit a fairly critical pass interference penalty against him.

For the game, Mahomes saw some form of man coverage on 26 of his 35 drop-backs (and this doesn’t even count one play of prevent-man that New England ran against him late in the fourth quarter).  Mahomes met the challenge admirably – even without much participation from his two leading receivers.  Against the man schemes of the Patriots, Pat completed 13 of 23 passes (again, just 56.52%), but for 268 yards and all 3 of his touchdowns.  Ten of those 13 completions gained first downs, and his passer rating against these man coverages was a superior 137.32.

If the Patriots were intent on taking away Hill and Kelce, Mahomes made them pay with Watkins and Williams.  Sammy Watkins was 0-for-1 working against zone defenses, but he damaged the Patriots’ compromised man coverages to the tune of 4 receptions for 114 yards.  Williams results were similar – he was 1-2 for 4 yards against zone, but 4-for-6 for 62 yards against man concepts – but here a different weakness was exploited.

Super Check-Down.

The challenge against Watson was defending the vertical without safety help.  With Williams the problem was all the room allowed underneath.  All 4 of the passes completed to him were less than five-yards from the line of scrimmage, but he broke two of them for long gains (33 yards and a 23-yard touchdown on a screen pass).  His day might have been even more electric, as he was open up field on all three of the other throws sent his way.  In what was an otherwise sterling effort, those three passes (all overthrows) might be the only ones Patrick might wish to have back.

Pressing Pat

In as much as blitzing Mahomes goes, the Patriots were cautious.  Blitzing is one of those elements that will sometimes play to the strength of athletic quarterbacks.  They blitzed him only 10 times – but were very effective when they did.  Three of the 10 blitzes resulted in sacks, and Mahomes managed completions on only 2 of the 7 passes that he managed to get off against the Patriot blitzes (granted, both completions were chunk plays, totaling 69 yards).

Even without directly blitzing, the Patriots were still able to apply substantial pressure.  They were not always close enough to hit him as he threw – although they did manage that level of pressure on 13 of his drop-backs – but they were almost always able to provide enough pressure to keep him uncomfortable.  On 60% of Mahomes’ pass attempts (21 of his 35) there was at the very least an onrushing defender or a hand grasping for him, or some presence near enough to force the pass to come out sooner – or at a different angle – than intended.  For the most part, this pressure also achieved its secondary objective of keeping Patrick in the pocket.

The Patriots are not a team with a dominant pass rusher.  They, in fact, finished the regular season ranked thirtieth in sacks (with just 30) and thirty-first in percentage of times sacking the quarterback (Patriot opponents only went down on 4.7% of their pass attempts against New England).

The Patriots have picked up this area of their game now that the playoffs are upon us.  Against the Chargers, they sacked Philip Rivers only twice, but showed consistent pressure.  They sacked Mahomes 4 times in this game, with the pressure coming from several different defenders through a variety of line stunts – that Kansas City had repeated difficulty picking up – and disguised rushes from the secondary.  In this mix, defenders like Don’t’a Hightower, Adrian Clayborn and Trey Flowers were consistently in Mahomes’ face.

Most visible of all, though, was linebacker Kyle Van Noy.  Van Noy accounted for 2 of the 4 sacks and several other pressures.  In addition, he made 4 other tackles against the passing game, and 2 of the 11 tackles made against the KC running game.

Beyond the numbers, though, Van Noy seemed to be a constant presence on the field.  There were times during the game that you might have thought there were three guys out there wearing Kyle’s jersey.

More Mahomes

Through all of this, young Patrick kept bouncing back.  

At various times, New England threatened to turn the contest into a rout.  They lead by 14 at the half, and spent a good chunk of the game ahead by at least ten points.

At these moments, Mahomes played some of his best football as he kept bringing the Chiefs back.  Taking the field to begin three different drives with deficits of at least 10 points, Mahomes led his team to touchdowns on two of them.  The only time he failed was at the very end of the first half – down 14-0 – KC began with the ball on its own 42 with 27 seconds left.  That one-play drive resulted in a sack and a 15-yard loss, after which the Chiefs quietly retired to their locker room.

Through those other two critical drives, Patrick was 7 for 9 for 119 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Also, while one of the Patriot focuses was keeping Mahomes in the pocket, that kind of thing is easier said than done.  While they were mostly successful – and they did hold him in the pocket on 26 of his 35 attempts despite nearly constant pressure – they couldn’t always contain him.  And when Mahomes got outside of the pocket, he continued to demonstrate why he is one of the most dangerous quarterbacks on the perimeter.

I do, first, want to draw a distinction between Mahomes outside the pocket and under control, and Mahomes running for his life and just flinging the ball away.  The later dynamic did happen a couple of times.

But on the 7 plays where Patrick rolled out under his own control, he completed 6 of the 7 passes for 149 yards and 2 touchdowns.  It was on these plays that Watkins was at his most dangerous as well.  Three of the 4 completions and 104 of the 114 yards that Watkins totaled during the game came with Mahomes wandering from the pocket.

It was a dangerous, dangerous quarterback that watched from the sidelines as New England ended the game.  Sometimes, in this crazy game, it’s possible to be too dangerous.  It could, perhaps, be argued that on this evening Kansas City may have been too explosive.

Too Explosive?

If it’s true that New England’s use of man coverage provided opportunities for big plays, it is also true that those big plays minimized the time that Kansas City’s offense had on the field.  Kansas City hurt New England with 4 touchdown drives on their way to their 31 points.  But – because they were big-play dependent – those 4 touchdown drives consumed a total of 7 minutes and 54 seconds.  The Patriots opened the game with a touchdown drive that – by itself – was longer (8:05) than all of KC’s touchdown drives added together.

By the time Burkhead’s plunge ended the affair, the KC defense had been on the field – absorbing the relentless pounding of the Patriot running game – for an almost incomprehensible 94 plays and 43 minutes and 59 seconds.

This, too, was part of the Patriot game plan.  The most secure way to keep Mahomes from beating you is by keeping him on the sidelines.

This part of the game plan fed off the victory the week before, and begins to form a trend that the Rams should at least be concerned about.

Fast Starting Patriots

Against the Chargers, New England began the game with a withering 14-play, 83-yard touchdown drive that consumed the first 7:11 of that contest.  They bettered that drive with their opener against the Chiefs with a 15-play, 80-yard, 8:05 drive.  So, combined, their opening drives in their two playoff games have consumed 15 minutes and 16 seconds of playing time, while covering 163 yards on 28 plays.

In addition, the Patriots closed out the first half against LA with a 35-7 lead, 20:11 of ball control and a 347-128 yardage advantage.  The halftime numbers against KC were very similar.  Even though the lead was only 14-0, the time of possession sat at 21:07 and the yardage differential favored New England 245-32.  Combining the first halves of the Patriots two playoff games, New England has out-scored their two opponents 49-7.  They have outgained them 592 yards to 160, and have held the ball for 41 minutes and 18 seconds.

New England has opened both of these games on fire, and have put their opponents on their heels from the very beginning.  In this game, the Kansas City offense trailed on every single snap they took.

Tony Romo – calling both of these games for CBS – referenced New England’s supposed under-dog status as a driving force.  I suspect some of that is true.  After last year’s Super Bowl, I made note of the fact that the Patriots had made a habit of digging themselves early holes in their playoff games.  I think the realization that they have been less than emotional in these contests in recent years – amplified by the sting of last year’s bitter Super Bowl loss has fueled this Patriot resurgence.

If you asked them, I would bet that every single one of them remembers clearly the feeling walking off the field after last year’s big game.

Patriot Imperatives

Nobody understands or plays the game of complimentary football better than New England.  Much of their emphasis on the running game had as its underlying purpose the controlling of the clock and keeping Mahomes a spectator.  On their 43 first down plays, the Patriots ran 28 times.  Eleven of those 43 first down plays earned the necessary 10 yards to gain another first down – 5 of those coming from the running game and 6 from passes.

On their way to 36 first downs, New England failed to manage at least one first down only twice in their 12 drives.  One of those was a damaging fourth quarter drive when a pass bounced off the fingers of Julian Edelman for an interception.  The other was the kneeldown by Brady that ended regulation.

Inside Brady’s Day

All of this provides context for what appears, on one level, to be one of Tom Brady’s least productive playoff outings.  He did throw for 348 yards, but that was after 30 completions on 46 attempts.  With his one touchdown pass off-set by two interceptions thrown, his passer rating was a modest 77.08 (just 67.30 in the second half).  Challenged repeatedly with man coverage – and Brady saw man coverage on 76.1% of his attempts (35 of 46), he was consistently unable to convert those opportunities into big plays – his 22 completions in those opportunities accounting for just 235 yards (10.68 per).

Noticeably absent in these moments was tight end Rob Gronkowski.  Covered almost always by safeties Daniel Sorensen or Eric Berry, Rob was only targeted 7 times in man coverage, catching just 2 of the throws (note, this is against man coverage when KC was not blitzing.  Brady completed two huge passes to Rob when they caught the Chiefs in blitzes).

Most of this had little to do with any diminishment on the part of Brady – or even with him having a bad game.  In this particular matchup, one of the Patriot imperatives was no sacks – a point I’ll enlarge upon later.  While Kansas City’s defense has statistically underperformed in most categories this season, their one great strength was their pass rush.  Their 52 quarterback sacks led the league, and their 7.6% ratio of dropping opposing passers was football’s eighth-best figure.

Playing on the Chiefs home field, in front of their raucous crowd, the Patriots came to the determination that the one sure way that they could lose control of the game was to put themselves in long-yardage situations and let the Chiefs’ destructive pass rush pin back its ears and come after them.

There were at least a half dozen moments in the game where Brady would have had an up-the-field opportunity had he held onto the ball for just another second or two.  But that second or two – in this particular game against this particular opponent in this particular venue – proved to be an unacceptable risk.

Repeatedly in this game, Brady dumped off to the first open receiver to consistently keep himself and his team out of deeper trouble.  But don’t for one moment misunderstand.  When the play was there to be made, Brady made it.  And most of the time on the receiving end was one of football’s most underappreciated receivers. 

Indomitable Julian

There is 1:57 left in the season.  The Patriots, on their own 35-yard line, now trail 28-24.  About 15 yards downfield, Julian Edelman breaks over the middle – Kyle Fuller, closing fast, narrowing the window.  The throw leads Julian away from Fuller, and is just a tad high – high enough to make sure that only Edelman can catch it.  With Jordan Lucas descending from his safety position to make the play, Edelman stretches for the ball.  He pulls it in safely, and turns up field for about five more yards before absorbing the hit.

Another play in the life of Julian Edelman.

Edelman doesn’t make many lists of the top ten receivers.  He is not among the biggest or the fastest.  But I submit that Julian Edelman is among the toughest receivers in the NFL, with his mental toughness the equal of his physical toughness.  In fact, a great deal of the success that New England has had over the years, I believe, traces back to the mental toughness of role players like Edelman.  It is at the root, if you will, of the Belichick mantra “Do your job.”

Here with the season on the line Edelman runs a very precise route, and makes a very tough catch in a high-pressure situation.  That is his job.

And his arena is what I call the intermediate middle.  This is that area of the field between the numbers at least ten yards from scrimmage but less than twenty yards up field.  It’s a high-traffic area, where receivers are subject to the ministrations of a wide variety of safeties and other defensive backs.

It’s an area of the field where only the tough survive, and where Edelman dominates.  In this contest, in this intermediate middle section of the field, Brady and Edelman were 5-for-5 for 88 yards.  A zone can sometimes interfere with these routes, but the very quick Edelman is usually tough to deal with on a man-to-man basis.  In this game, Julian answered man coverage by catching 5 of 6 for 63 yards.

Patriot Imperatives, Revisited

In the avalanche of numbers, plays and observations that float in the wake of a game like this, there is one play and one meaning that keeps resurfacing.  The play is as innocuous as can be imagined, but what underpins that play is as revealing as any other moment in this game.

There are six seconds left in regulation.  Kansas City has just tied the game at 31.  Brady has the ball at his own 19-yard line.  He takes the snap and kneels.  And the game goes to overtime.

This is, of course, no big deal.  Most games end with a kneel down by one side or another.  Until you realize this.  New England ran 94 offensive plays in that long and historic evening.  This was the only one that lost yardage.

The Patriots ran the ball 47 other times.  Each and every time the runner made it at least back to the line of scrimmage.  (This might be one reason they switched to Burkhead in the fourth.)  Brady dropped to pass 46 times.  He wasn’t sacked in any of them – sometimes getting rid of the ball early before any hint of pressure could arrive.

With about 5:30 left in the third, wide receiver Phillip Dorsett is called for an offensive pass interference penalty.  It changes what would have been a third-and-four to a second-and-19.  Brady drops a screen pass off to Chris Hogan for 2 yards and then hands the ball of to James White for a couple more before they kick the field goal.

On this long and rewarding night, these were the only two plays the Patriots faced on any down the entire game that they needed more than ten yards for the first down.

One of the ramifications of this played out on third down.  New England converted 13 of 19 third downs.  Brady was 9 of 11 on third down (81.82%), for 119 yards, with all 9 completions going for first downs.  These were not all necessarily short-yardage third downs, either.  In fact, Tom was 6-6 for 84 yards (and 6 first downs) when faced with third-and-seven or longer.  But this was made possible by the fact that – with the exception of one drive – the Patriots never put themselves in a position where the KC pass rush could have at them.

(A footnote here.  On the game-winning, overtime drive, Brady faced and converted three third-and-ten’s.  Two of them went to Edelman in that intermediate middle.  The other was to Gronkowski, also in the middle but more underneath.)

Often I think we get caught up in game plans and designs.  While these are no doubt important, with the great teams I believe it frequently comes down to executing simple imperatives – with an imperative being an over-arching objective that may be of more importance than the actual game plan.

I actually think this is a constant of the Patriot approach.  They identify a few critical, necessary objectives, and then doggedly and consistently execute them.

Here, one of the Patriot imperatives was no negative plays.  At all costs, they wanted to keep themselves out of trouble by the Kansas City pass rush.  No negative plays is an easy thing to say. It’s the execution that’s the key.

A Final Moment to Ponder

And yet, for as well conceived and executed as the Patriot game-plan (and imperatives) were, they barely escaped to play another day.

For fans of the Chiefs, the long off-season might be filled with nightmares of a coin showing its head.  As damaging as that toss of the coin was, Chief fans might also have nightmares of a hand.

Dee Ford’s hand.

With 1:01 left in regulation, and with the Chiefs still ahead 28-24, Brady faced a third-and-ten from the KC 34 yard line.  But this time, his third down pass was intercepted by Charvarius Ward, and suddenly Kansas City had the ball and the lead, just 54 seconds away from Super Bowl LIII.

The euphoria was extremely short-lived.  There was a penalty.  Offsides – Dee Ford.  And there on the replay, plain as day, Dee’s hand completely across the line of scrimmage.

With the interception wiped out, it was only a matter of when.  Two plays later Burkhead scored the first of his two touchdowns, and the back-and-forth would continue.  Many Chief fans, I believe, knew then that this one was over

Kansas City committed only four penalties in the game for just 28 yards – and none in the first half.  That one will burn in the memory for a long time.

Up Next, Super Bowl LIII

With that, the stage is set for Super Bowl LIII (53, for those not into Roman numerals).  I’m afraid that I haven’t followed all the story lines, or any of the media madness which is attendant on this event, but mention must certainly have been made of Super Bowl XXXVI (36).  That was the first Super Bowl matchup between the Rams (then living in St Louis) and the Patriots – not yet a legendary franchise. 

Back then, St Louis was the established team – having won Super Bowl XXXIV (34).  They featured, arguably, the most renowned quarterback of that time – Kurt Warner, who led what was called the greatest show on turf.  The Patriots were the upstarts.  They had been 5-11 the year before, but were suddenly rising under a young first-year starter at quarterback named Brady.

The Patriots even advanced in the playoffs that year, like the Rams did this year, with help from a controversial game – you must remember the tuck rule game.  That was a Divisional Round game, and not a Championship Game – but the parallels are certainly there.  It would give a sense of coming full circle is the Rams and Jared Goff can do to New England what the Patriots did to them 17 years ago (has it really been 17 years)?

That will not be an impossible achievement.  The now-Los Angeles Rams present a significant challenge.  Again, their offense finished second in the league both in yards and in scoring.  If they are not quite as explosive as the Kansas City team New England just vanquished (KC finished first in both those categories), they are close (and certainly more balanced than the Chiefs).

I am also starting to believe in the LA defense.  I suspect that New England will have difficulty establishing that running game that has been so much a part of their first two playoff wins (they ran for 155 yards in their Divisional win against the Chargers).  In all honesty, I wasn’t overly impressed with the offensive line in this win – the 176 rushing yards notwithstanding.  It was more of a grinding effort than a dominant one, as NE averaged just 3.7 yards on their 48 rushes.

Of those 48 running plays, only 6 gained at least 10 yards.  Four of those came in the fourth quarter or overtime as exhaustion began to set in – and two of those took advantage of defensive lines that were over shifted, inviting New England to run to the under shifted side. 

On New England’s longest run of the day (a 14-yarder by Burkhead with 6:05 left in the fourth) the Chiefs only had two defensive linemen on the field. Xavier Williams lined up over the left shoulder of center David Andrews, and Allen Bailey played the three-technique tackle position in between right guard Shaq Mason and right tackle Marcus Cannon.  On the offensive left side, there was almost no one.  From Williams to the sideline, Kansas City defended with only rush-linebacker Ford – split quite wide to the outside – and safety Sorensen standing five yards off the line.

As Brady audibled to the weak-side run, Andrews held up Williams and left tackle Trent Brown pushed Ford further wide.  Left guard Joe Thuney had responsibility for Sorensen – who he did take care of, but had to run almost five yards downfield to get to him.  The Chiefs did this several times – creating a natural bubble that New England took advantage of.

The way Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh are playing, I believe New England will be hard pressed to establish a running game.

The passing situation is different.

For one thing, over their last two games, the Ram defense hasn’t had to deal with a tight end who is a threat.  Dallas was without their top receiving tight end (Geoff Swaim) and ended up throwing to Blake Jarwin and Dalton SchultzBen Watson – New Orleans’ best tight end – missed the Championship Game, and number two receiving threat from that position – Josh Hill – left after just nine plays with a concussion.  So the Rams will go from defending Blake Jarwin and Garrett Griffin to contending with Gronkowski.  Should be a stiffer test.

Secondly, while Aqib Talib played an outstanding game against Michael Thomas, I was still not all that impressed with the other corner, Marcus Peters.  He is still a weak link I expect Belichick to expose.

Even beyond the matchups, though, I think the Rams’ toughest challenge will be the endurance test.  Two Super Bowls ago, the Patriots wore down the Atlanta Falcons.  Two Sundays ago they wore down the Kansas City Chiefs (albeit it took them almost 65 minutes of football to do so).

While Donald and Suh are forces on that defensive line, it is also true that they rarely come off the field.  Will they in particular, and the Rams in general, have the stamina to stay with the Patriots for the full four (or perhaps five) quarters?

This New England outfit will be tough to deal with.  They have fought a long, hard year to get back here and the bitterness of the loss to Philadelphia is palpable around the organization.

My council to the Rams is, if you win the toss, take the ball.  Give yourselves the chance to hit the ground running.

Final Notes

First, to all those Cowboy fans who kept swearing to me that Tony Romo would make it to the Super Bowl, Sunday afternoon will prove you finally correct.  He will be there – in the broadcast booth sitting next to Jim Nance and predicting – with uncanny accuracy – what the offenses will do next.

Finally, Super Bowls past have sometimes been anti-climactic, with the game frequently falling short of the hype.  This matchup could produce one of the more exciting games.  But, for this game to top the Championship Games that have led up to this moment, well, it’s going to have to be some game.

Some game, indeed.

A New Quarterback in Kansas City

There was a surreal moment at the end of first quarter in Heinz Field last Sunday.  With 54 seconds left, the Steelers – trying desperately to get their bearings – faced third-and-ten on their own 19.  As quarterback Ben Roethlisberger dropped back, Kansas City linebacker Justin Houston got his right hand under right tackle Marcus Gilbert and drove him back into Roethlisberger.

Ben, wedged into the pocket, tried to lift the ball to get rid of it, but the play resulted in disaster.  As Houston pushed Gilbert into Roethlisberger, the ball popped loose.  Chief defensive end Chris Jones scooped up the ball at about the five-yard line and stepped it into the end zone.

And suddenly the Pittsburgh Steelers, with 40 seconds still left in the first quarter, playing at home, trailed the Chiefs 27-0.

In the moments that followed that disaster, the game pivoted 180 degrees.  A holding penalty on Orlando Scandrick nullified the sack and the score, setting the Steelers back up with a first-down on their own 24.

Four plays later, Ben pitched a 26-yard touchdown pass to Jesse James.  The Kansas City lead was reduced to 21-7, and the teams would go into the locker room at the half tied at 21.

It was an impressive comeback from a proud Pittsburgh team.  In the end, though, it would prove fruitless.  While the Steeler defense was able to muffle the Kansas City offense long enough to get them back in the game, by the end of the day it was clear they were overmatched.

On a day when the Steeler running game (minus holdout Le’Veon Bell) could manage just 33 yards, Ben Roethlisberger went to the air 60 times, completing 39 of those passes for 452 yards and 3 touchdowns – leading Pittsburgh to a usually sufficient 37 points.

But the day belonged to the first-year quarterback standing on the other sideline.

How much the football universe knew about Patrick Mahomes before this year is uncertain.  After his first two games under center in KC, they can no longer afford to ignore him.

He opened up with a four touchdown pass performance against the Chargers in Week One.  It was impressive, but the offensive plan against Los Angeles was more cute that dominating.  There were a lot of dinky flip passes to wide receivers running in front of Mahomes while still behind the line of scrimmage.

The beast that slayed the Steelers was a very different animal.  Whatever misgivings one might have had after the Charger game, Mahomes’ dissection of the Steelers was all any observer could desire.  He read every defense that Pittsburgh threw at him.  He stood tall in the pocket when he could and escaped easily from trouble when he needed to.  He threw terrific touch passes and fired laser shots down field – all with impressive accuracy.  Watching him run the offense was even more impressive than reading his numbers – and that is saying quite a bit as the numbers themselves are more than a little eye-popping.

Pat finished his game against Pittsburgh throwing 28 passes – of which he completed 23 for 326 yards.  And 6 touchdowns (giving him 10 for the first two games of the season).  As he threw no interceptions, his passer rating for the day was an acceptable 154.8.

I have long admired Kanas City coach Andy Reid.  I have always been under the impression, though, that he would probably never win a title.  There are some coaches that can just never find that quarterback that can get them there.

It is a long, long way from Week Two to the playoffs, and young Mr Mahomes still has a lot to prove.  I do think it’s a little early to start casting his bust for Canton.

But, to this point, it looks like Andy just might have found his quarterback.

And in Jacksonville, Too

The backbreaking play – when it came – came with more of a whimper than a bang.  It wasn’t a rifle shot down the field or a snazzy trick play like the one Philadelphia used in the Super Bowl.  The dagger came on a simple shallow cross, assisted greatly by a grinding kind of effort from a player who is usually a little more visible.

The reigning AFC Champs spent last Sunday afternoon in sunny (it was 97 degrees) Jacksonville Florida.  Last January, these New England Patriots staged one of their patented comebacks to keep the Jaguars out of the Super Bowl.

On this Sunday in September, however, the Patriots ran into the same kind of buzz saw that the Steelers did. The Jaguars scored touchdowns on three of their first four possessions, and then added a field goal on their fifth.  That field goal capped a 15-play, 71-yard drive that consumed the first 7:10 of the second half.  As the kick sailed through the uprights, the Patriots found themselves behind (again) by a 24-3 score with just a quarter and a half remaining.

Of course, it would not end like that.

A touchdown pass from Tom Brady to Chris Hogan in the waning moments of the third quarter made the score 24-10.  Early in the fourth quarter, a field goal inched the Patriots closer.  When Kyle Van Noy intercepted a pass in Jacksonville territory with still 13:30 left in the game, the crushing blow from the defending conference champs seemed imminent.

But the Jags came up with a turnover of their own, and managed to stop New England on their next series – using a challenge to overturn what would have been a Patriot first down.

Now there was 7:48 left in the game.  Jacksonville had first-down on their own 39 yard line.  Quarterback Blake Bortles found Dede Westbrook open on a shallow crossing pattern.  Westbrook, running from the offensive right to the left found the sideline and turned up field. 

Already a substantial gain, the play turned into the game-breaker as receiver Keelan Cole cleared the sidelines with a critical block.

In the first quarter, Cole made a remarkable one-handed catch up that same sideline (relatively speaking) on a pass that was considerably behind him.  That reception set up his own 24-yard touchdown grab.  These were the highlight catches of Keelan’s impactful first half – which saw him collect 4 passes for 77 yards.

Now, however, he was Keelan Cole – the blocker.  He was Keelan Cole – the football player.

Had he not thrown the key block, it’s anyone’s guess how the game might have turned out.  Given a reprieve, the Patriots might very well have held the Jags to a field goal – or perhaps forced another turnover.  Keelan’s block may have been the most critical play of the game.

It did open the way for the touchdown that New England never recovered from.

Who is BlakeBorltes?

The quarterback in the spotlight that afternoon was Bortles.  The Patriots challenged him to beat them through the air and up the sidelines, and Blake kept doing that all afternoon.  He finished his day’s work shredding New England for 377 yards on 29 of 45 passing.  Along with his 1 interception, Blake tossed 4 touchdowns.  His passer rating ending up as an excellent 111.1.

In its own way Blake’s day was as impressive as Mahomes.  In that he humbled the sometimes invincible Patriots.  That he always kept his cool whether secure in the pocket or on the run.  That he unerringly diagnosed everything New England’s defense tried to do to him.  That he threw the ball with great accuracy and never made that critical mistake that quarterbacks so often make against New England – in all these areas, Blake’s day was as laudable as any quarterback in Week Two – even if his game was more contained and less aggressively athletic than Mahomes’.

In an earlier title, I hinted at a new quarterback in Jacksonville.  It is, of course, still Blake Bortles.  But maybe a new Blake Bortles.  Certainly different than the Blake Bortles that threw only one pass in the second half of his Week Five game last year in Pittsburgh.

Just watching him play and looking at his history it is easy to overlook Blake Bortles.  Maybe it’s time we stop doing that.

And in Tampa Bay

With Jameis Winston missing the first three games of the season due to suspension, the Buccaneers had a need for a stop-gap quarterback.  Veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick seemed a perfect fit.  Now, all of a sudden, there is a potential quarterback controversy in Tampa Bay.

Fitzpatrick – the stopgap – has led Tampa Bay to two compelling victories against teams (New Orleans and Philadelphia) that were in the playoffs a year ago.  And he has done so in about as perfect a fashion as one could hope.

His combined line against the Saints and Eagles reads 46 of 61 (78.7%) for 819 yards, 8 touchdowns and 1 interception.  This adds up to a not-too-shabby 151.5 passer rating.  Fitz will get the Monday night game this week against Pittsburgh, and then Winston will be eligible to return.  Whether he returns to hold the clipboard or not remains to be seen.

Ready for Week Three

As Week Three is beginning to kick off around the football universe, the season is already beginning to suggest the surprise stories that might play out for the rest of the season.

There is, of course, a long way to go.