Anatomy of a Divisional Round win: How Cleveland can use a Belichick plan to manage Mahomes

Mark Schofield
·7 min read

Last week in outlining what the Cleveland Browns needed to do to upset the Pittsburgh Steelers I tapped into the film industry. They needed to take some pages from “Varsity Blues,” I argued. They needed to channel Bud Kilmer and “stick to the basics.” They needed to steal from Johnny Moxon and go empty. Of course, getting out to a 14-point lead before most had settled in helps too, but now they face a bigger challenge, and they need to look to the baseball diamond.

They need to channel Don Larsen.

Perfection might be a tough ask, but when you are facing a 14-2 team and the defending Super Bowl Champions pitching a perfect game might be what you have to do. It is a tall order, and as we will see over the next few paragraphs teams have come close and failed to finish the job. But the Browns can take lessons from the teams that have come close over the past year, and put together a plan for victory.

The first prong of the perfection plan? Unleashing Myles Garrett.

(Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports)

If you look back at the Chiefs’ recent and not-so-recent history, teams that came the closest to defeating them had the ability to pressure Patrick Mahomes without relying too heavily on blitzing him. San Francisco in the Super Bowl. The Los Angeles Chargers earlier this season. The ability to generate pressure on the opposing passer while rushing four can be a cheat code, allowing you to keep seven defenders in coverage and giving you a chance to lock down the talented Chiefs receivers.

The 49ers had Nick Bosa and the rest of the imposing San Francisco defensive front. The Chargers had Joey Bosa. While the Browns do not have a Bosa brother of their own, they have Garrett, who was on a potential Defensive Player of the Year path before injuries and a bout with COVID-19 derailed his season. But with Garrett the Browns have the ability to pressure with four and even get to the QB. As they did on this sack of Sam Darnold in Week 16:

Here the Browns get home while rushing four, as Garrett beats the chip from the tight end and rookie left tackle Mekhi Becton. That allows Cleveland to play seven over five in the secondary.

Then there is this example against the Tennessee Titans. Garrett explodes off the edge and gets home due to a combination of burst and athleticism, as he bends the arc around the left tackle. Once again, the Browns have seven over five in the secondary:

Garrett’s pass-rushing ability can be a critical component of Cleveland’s game plan. If he can get home – or at least pressure Mahomes when the Browns rush four – that allows Cleveland to use the numbers to their advantage in the secondary.

Adding to this, Mahomes has been good, not great, when pressured this year. According to charting data from Pro Football Focus (PFF) he has an Adjusted Completion Percentage (ACP) of 64.9% this year, ranking him 16th among qualified passers. That is behind players such as Nick Mullens, Sam Darnold, Gardner Minshew, Baker Mayfield and yes, Cam Newton this season. He also has an NFL Passer Rating of 78.5 when pressured.

When kept clean, Mahomes has an ACP of 81.1%, and an NFL Passer Rating of 121.1.

Pressure will help.

But sometimes you cannot get home. So what then?

(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Now unless Myles Garrett and the rest of the Browns break an NFL playoff record for sacks, Patrick Mahomes is gonna get some throws off this weekend.

What should the Cleveland secondary try to do behind Garrett and company?

This is a question I have grappled with before, usually when trying to get into the mind of Bill Belichick. Earlier the season I dared such a feat, in this piece prior to the Chiefs’ game against the New England Patriots. This was my starting point:

But there are some lessons from that attempt at a plan. First is what Belichick has tried for years, perhaps first against Jim Kelly and the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV and now with the Patriots: Play light boxes and dare them to run. Over the course of multiple meetings with Andy Reid and Mahomes, Belichick has relied on sub packages such as a 3-2-6 – even on short yardage situations – to dare the Chiefs to run and in essence take the ball out of Mahomes’ hands themselves.

Take this play:

This is a second-and-goal play from a few seasons ago. The Patriots employ a 3-3-5 package on this snap, even in the red zone, and they use a 4i-0-4i defensive front. You can see how the players up front attack their gaps and force Kareem Hunt to cut in the backfield, where he runs into Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts. Van Noy keeps his outside leverage, which forces Hunt back into the hole, and Roberts fills the hole for the stop.

Dare them to run.

But when they do throw, one thing Belichick has done is to take his best coverage player and put them on an island against a second- or third-option, such as Stephon Gilmore against Sammy Watkins. Trusting that your best coverage defender can erase one player, you can keep the numbers to your advantage with the rest of the players in the secondary. Here is one such example. This is a 3rd-and-9 from the first quarter of their meeting last year. The Chiefs come out with Mahomes in the shotgun, and the Patriots respond with a 1-3-7 package and Gilmore on an island with Watkins.

Kansas City runs a crossing route concept, with Tyreek Hill and Demarcus Robinson racing by each other from opposite sides of the field, but it is J.C. Jackson who comes down with the interception:

How did this come about? The Patriots use that 1-3-7 package and leave Gilmore on an island at the top of the screen against Watkins. Then they implement a Belichick/Nick Saban coverage known as 1-Cross, which is a Cover-1 coverage that uses a safety — in this case Devin McCourty — as a robber right at the first-down marker:

What is the impact of this coverage on the play? When Mahomes drops he sees Hill racing across the field from right to left toward Devin McCourty, with Jonathan Jones in coverage. He then assumes that Hill is going to run into a manufactured double coverage, so his eyes come to Robinson in his crossing route working from the left, with Jackson in single coverage:

There is one more twist coming. Because Jones, instead of running with Hill as Mahomes expects, simply passes him off to McCourty and peels back to become the robber. This creates the double team, but not the one Mahomes expected:

Now, Jones stays over the top of Robinson, which allows Jackson to cut underneath the receiver and make the interception.

This works because Belichick trusts McCourty, as well as the rest of the secondary. Gilmore is stride for stride with Watkins on that vertical route, and Jones and Jackson execute their ends of the bargain to perfection.

Now can the Browns replicate that with their safeties? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But there models to follow. Earlier this season when the Patriots and Chiefs did meet, while Kansas City won the Patriots did find ways to execute these coverages. Take this play, where Hill and Robinson try and cross downfield. Gilmore begins over Hill and Jackson over Mecole Hardman, but when the receivers cross Jackson passes Hardman off to safety Devin McCourty, and the two cornerbacks continue to double Hill deep downfield:

With the downfield targets covered, Mahomes is forced to check the football down and the pass falls incomplete.

So, if the Browns are able to keep a numbers advantage in the secondary due to pressuring with four up front and/or playing sub packages, they can use that to their advantage by following this Belichickian path.

To perfection.

OddsMoney LinePoint SpreadTotal Points
Cleveland
+380+10O 57.5
Kansas City
-500-10U 57.5