Cowboys DBs aim to stop big plays from Chiefs’ Mahomes in battle of elite QBs

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The Kansas City Chiefs currently throw the ball more than anyone else. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes leads the league in passing attempts, and by a lot; he has 50 more attempts than any other quarterback who’s played 10 games. Kansas City also leads the NFL in completions and passing yards. And while their offense has undoubtedly had to adjust their game planning with the absence of main rusher Clyde-Edwards Helaire over the past five games, the Chiefs rely on the passing game over a ground attack at a 64-to-36% clip.

So for the Cowboys to leave Arrowhead Stadium with a win on Sunday, it will require their defense to shut down- or at least effectively contain- one of the sport’s most prolific passers.

To a man, they’re well aware of the challenge that faces them.

“He’s a great quarterback,” Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs, the league interception leader said. “Can make all the throws, mobile. Can do it all.”

“You’ve just got to try to eliminate the big plays, for sure,” explained fellow corner Anthony Brown. “That’s how they get their offense going. They like to go deep, more a passing team. So try to stay on top of everything, make them check it down.”

“I watched a lot of football, unfortunately, last year,” quarterback Dak Prescott said when asked to break down his Chiefs counterpart. “His competitiveness. He never believes he’s out of the game, thinks he can make every throw. That’s huge at that position, just to have that confidence. I think it goes a long way in bleeding to your other teammates, those guys feeding off that as well. It’s huge. And he’s a big-time playmaker. He’s a great player. MVP, obviously. Super Bowl MVP. Special talent.”

Sunday’s game is being billed largely as a showdown between the two elite quarterbacks. Prescott has played in 21 more games at the pro level than Mahomes, but Mahomes has the lead in most statistical categories. He certainly leads in hardware, as Prescott noted.

But the Dallas signal-caller is suddenly in the MVP conversation for 2021 and has a slight edge over Mahomes in several key areas this season (completion percentage, touchdown percentage, interception percentage, quarterback rating), proving that Prescott is capable of holding his own in a head-to-head showdown.

“He’s looking forward to it,” Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said of his passer this week. “This is a big challenge. We look at this as two excellent teams coming together. If I was a fan, this is a game I’d watch on Sunday, especially with both quarterbacks. He is down into the game plan part of it today. This is our heavy lifting day. I know come Sunday, he’ll be excited to get out there and compete.”

Prescott will personally play no role in minimizing the damage Mahomes does, and vice versa. But both top-tier passers putting their talents and high-octane offenses on display should make for quite a show.

McCarthy has been on the sidelines for several such QB battles over nearly three decades on NFL sidelines, including during his mid-’90s stint on Kansas City’s staff.

“Being Captain Obvious, they don’t compete against each other,” McCarthy shared. “But it also brings a ton of excitement to the game. I go back to my first experience, I can remember when the 49ers came to Arrowhead, and it was Joe Montana versus Steve Young- I want to say it was ’94- and just the atmosphere that it created. I think the media credentials for that game exceeded the Super Bowl credentials of the prior year. I heard that; don’t quote me. I just remember them taking all of the normal chairs out of the press box, because the press box was right by our office. But just the excitement that the game creates, I think, is awesome for the fans.”

What will be even more awesome for Cowboys fans is if the Dallas secondary is able to snuff out any fireworks from Mahomes before they do real damage on the scoreboard. Much of that will come down to how well they react when Mahomes starts to improvise.

Operating on the premise that most sacks in the NFL occur 2.3 seconds after the ball is snapped, Cowboys defenders have been focusing all week on how to maintain coverage when Mahomes extends that time by scrambling.

“That’s something that we’ve been on that since OTAs,” safety Jayron Kearse explained, “just worried about playing beyond the 2.3 and just making sure we’re staying solid and staying on top of our work. It’s really no different than it would be if we were playing against a Jalen Hurts, a guy that can move. It’s always those type of things where you have a quarterback that’s mobile, you have to be able to play further than that 2.3 to make sure you give yourself the best chance.”

It takes a steady and exhausting diet of scramble drills in practice to prepare for the real thing on game day. And not getting lured into watching what the quarterback is doing back behind the line of scrimmage.

“Just keep your eyes on your work,” Kearse elaborated. “When you got guys moving around like that, you turn around and peek at the quarterback that’s [when he’s] shooting up the field and he’s putting the ball where it needs to be.”

Mahomes will have his moments. And when he does, the second part of the defensive backs’ collective mission will be to not let the occasional schoolyard play turn into a game-breaking score.

“Catch, tackle,” Brown explained. “No run after catch. No big play. No explosives. So we’re trying to keep everything in front of us, tackle it real quick, and move on to the next play.”

But as he’s waiting on the sideline, trying to draw up his own explosive plays, don’t blame Prescott if he takes in just a bit of the Mahomes Magic Show.

“As I said, he’s a great player. I give him all the respect,” Prescott said. “A guy I’ve watched over the past few years. [I] try to take some from all the great quarterbacks’ games. He’s somebody that when you’re on the move and all the passes he does, I think everyone tries to incorporate that.”

Just don’t expect No. 4 to break out any of the no-look passes that Mahomes has made famous.

“Have I tried it? Maybe a time or two,” Prescott admitted. “A lot of times I catch my receivers off-guard with it, so I’m not that big of a fan of it.”

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