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In the Chiefs’ 32-29 Week 15 win over the Saints, Patrick Mahomes completed 26 passes on 47 attempts for 254 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions. He also took four sacks — tied for second most in his career — and was pressured on 24 of his 54 dropbacks. When your quarterback is pressured on 44.4% of his dropbacks, it’s a problem, even if your quarterback is Patrick Mahomes.
In the Chiefs’ 17-14 Week 16 against the Falcons, Mahomes completed 24 of 44 passes for 278 yards, two touchdowns, one interception. He also took no sacks, and was pressured on 18 of his 46 dropbacks. Dropping the pressure rate to 39.1% was obviously a good thing for Kansas City, but here’s the really remarkable thing about the change in the Chiefs’ modus operandi as regards the deep passing game.
After this 25-yard touchdown pass to Demarcus Robinson against Atlanta, that was pretty much the end of the Mahomes deep ball.
Mahomes completed two passes of 20 or more air yards in that game for 51 yards and that touchdown. He didn’t play in Week 17, as the Chiefs had already wrapped everything up in the AFC, and his output was obviously affected by the concussion and foot injury he suffered against the Browns in the divisional round, but in his two postseason games against the Browns and Bills, Mahomes has attempted two passes of 20 or more air yards — one in each game, with no completions. That’s it. He’s thrown four touchdown passes in the postseason for a grand total of 30 yards.
If this sounds entirely reductive… well, it would be for most teams, but it isn’t for the Chiefs. In the AFC Championship win over Buffalo, Mahomes completed short passes to Tyreek Hill that gained 31, 33, and 71 yards. The 71-yarder, which came with 5:05 left in the third quarter, helps to explain just how explosive and well-developed Kansas City’s short passing game is.
One simple little slant, Tyreek Hill breaks your cornerback’s ankles, runs through your entire defense, and ballgame. Beats getting knocked around a lot.
And then, there’s the impossible combination of motion, speed receivers, short crossers, and Travis Kelce in the red zone. The Bills can tell you all about that. Another major aspect of Kansas City’s passing game is that no other offense bends defenses in the wrong direction before Mahomes releases the ball, and they do it with lightning speed everywhere.
As Mahomes told me Tuesday, this has been a progression of sorts through the season. The Chiefs have been a great short-passing team throughout his tenure there, largely because Andy Reid is a great screen pass developer, and he and his coaching staff have worked very hard to build various option and RPO packages in. The key buy-in is Mahomes understanding what keeps him alive for another down.
“As far as the RPOs and those things go, the offense was already doing that when I got here with Alex [Smith],” he said. “I really got to learn — not just about why we can throw the ball and run the ball, but why we’re doing that. What kinds of coverages affect what kinds of RPOs we run. And then, we added to that. We saw different ways to execute against every single defense we faced.
“And then, throughout the beginning of this year, we faced so many deep coverages, and teams were taking away all our deep throws, I had to learn to just take what’s underneath. That’s something where I’ve kind of grown and matured. We’ll still call deep plays all the time, but if defenses are going to play that deep… even though I want to [throw deep] in my heart of hearts, going downfield and making those big plays, we’ll take the underneath stuff and find ways to move the ball downfield that way.”
How might this affect the Chiefs in Super Bowl LV? Well, in Week 12 against the Buccaneers, Mahomes attempted eight passes of 20 or more air yards, completing four, for 163 yards and two touchdowns. This was also the game in which, for whatever reason, the Bucs left cornerback Carlton Davis on an island with Hill. This, as we have discussed before, did not go well. Davis allowed 12 catches on 15 targets for 236 yards, 50 yards after the catch, three touchdowns, no interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 158.3 — which is a perfect passer rating.
Kansas City’s protection was also better at that point, as Mahomes was sacked twice and pressured on just 18 of his 53 dropbacks. We’re going to assume a different plan for Davis this time around. And given all the injuries to Kansas City’s offensive line… well, there’s that, too.
If the plan for Mahomes is to keep throwing the short stuff, it should bode well. Per Sports Info Solutions, on throws in which the quarterback has taken 0-3 steps back at the snap, only the Steelers have allowed more touchdowns than Tampa Bay’s 29. Now, the Bucs have been more on point with this in the playoffs, giving up two touchdowns and one interception on such throws.
“It’s just going to take discipline,” Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David said Tuesday. “Latching on to a man if we’re in man-to-man or if we’re in zone coverage. Matching onto a guy. Take away his zones and his reads. And you’ve just got to get to him. Quick as you can, fast as you can, any way you can. He makes magic outside the pocket, and that’s definitely something we’ve got to watch out for.”
Inside or outside the pocket, if you don’t see the deep ball from Patrick Mahomes in Super Bowl LV, don’t worry. The Chiefs can still rip your defense apart with big plays in the passing game. And in their ability to create big plays in the allegedly short passing game, the Chiefs have no rival. That’s what might keep Mahomes upright long enough to pull off a repeat.