Is there now a “blueprint” for stopping Patrick Mahomes?

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Doug Farrar
·11 min read
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This, we know.

What Todd Bowles and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did to Patrick Mahomes in Super Bowl LV was one of the most remarkable performances in Super Bowl history, and a masterful addendum to Bowles’ legitimate claim as the best defensive coordinator in the game today. There were times this season that Bowles wasn’t on his game — the Week 12 loss to the Chiefs in which he let poor cornerback Carlton Davis alone on an island with Tyreek Hill and paid dearly for it was the primary example — but for the most part, Bowles used his chess pieces perfectly when it counted most.

In Super Bowl LV, Bowles flipped the script so many times on his tendencies, no wonder the Chiefs couldn’t figure it out.

Bowles called an abundance of two-high coverage, which he doesn’t generally do. He played coverage, spanning the field with defenders, when he’s usually one of the most aggressive blitz callers in the NFL. The Buccaneers played eight snaps of dime coverage in this game. They had played eight snaps of dime all season leading up to the Super Bowl. Mahomes was dealing with a seriously undermanned offensive line, which allowed the Buccaneers to bring pressure with four, and that certainly helped Bowles’ efforts. Mahomes couldn’t move as well as he normally could due to a foot injury, and Bowles had him seeing ghosts all over the place.

Still, the idea that the Bucs created some sort of “blueprint” for stopping Mahomes seems a bit much. Mahomes made quite a few near-miss throws that would have been OH MY GOD completions, as is his wont. And he’s still him. Not every defense has what Tampa Bay has, as has been pointed out multiple times by multiple people.

But that’s not to say that other teams can’t do what the Bucs did. Both Mahomes and Bowles were very specific after the game as to how Bowles was able to do what he did.

“You take away the first read, you know he has to drift and hold it, and we know that’s a dangerous thing because he can run and make plays with his feet,” Bowles concluded. “We didn’t want him sitting in the pocket, just zinging dimes on us all day, either. The D-line got some pressure on him, was making him run, making him a little bit uncomfortable, and I thought that was key for us.”

“They kind of took away all our deep stuff, took away the sideline, and they did a good job of rounding to the football and making tackles,” Mahomes said. “We weren’t executing early, I had a few miscues, and we weren’t on the same page, but credit to them. They played a heck of a game.”

How can other teams at least limit Mahomes consistently, even when they don’t have Todd Bowles’ players and Todd Bowles himself? The 2020 season provided a few clues.

Play more dime than you think you should.

(Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports)

There have been all kinds of theories regarding how to stop both Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce at the same time, and most don't work out. Both Hill and Kelce are No. 1 weapons in any offense, and that makes it tough. But it's really surprising that more teams didn't play dime against this offense in 2020. Per Sports Info Solutions, Kansas City faced six defensive backs on 148 dropbacks -- 10th-highest in the NFL -- completing 88 passes on 131 attempts for 1,233 yards, 530 air yards, seven touchdowns, three interceptions, and seven sacks. Think about that. 37.5% of Mahomes' interceptions this season (three of eight, including the postseason, and 27% of his sacks (seven of 26) came out of dime defenses, which he faced on 17.8% of his dropbacks (148 of 831). If that isn't efficiency, I don't know what is. One of those three picks came in Super Bowl LV. With 6:30 left in the third quarter, Mahomes was facing a five-man pressure with six defensive backs. He has time in the pocket to make the deep over throw to Tyreek Hill, but Hill is also bracketed by Davis (No. 24) up front, safety Mike Edwards (No. 32) behind, and it's Edwards who tips the ball to Winfield (No. 31). Winfield had started the play by taking Kelce over the intermediate middle, and then peeled off to be where the ball was.

And if you remember Xavien Howard's amazing interception of Mahomes in Week 14 -- one of three picks the Dolphins had on the day -- this is a similar concept. Five-man front with dime coverage behind. Yes, Howard's pick was an incredible athletic feat without the same kind of help over the top. But conceptually, this combination has been a problem for Mahomes this season, and from more than one Florida-based team.

Match Mahomes' receivers over the middle.

(Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

Of course, the problem with putting that many guys in coverage is that you're not pressuring Mahomes. True, but Mahomes' numbers against the blitz indicate that it's the last thing you want to do against him, anyway. This is from January, 2020, but it's not as if things have changed. https://twitter.com/NextGenStats/status/1217920896263786501 One of the best ways to create pressure for Mahomes -- and Bowles was very specific about this in his postgame remarks -- is to make the first thing he wants to do uncomfortable. One way to accomplish this and still keep the integrity of your fronts is to match his receivers over the middle. Mahomes' quick reads are often to the middle of the field on quick slants and crossers. and match makes this a lot tougher if you do it right. The first time I saw this was in Week 4 of the 2018 season -- Mahomes' first as a starter -- against the Broncos in a 27-23 win for the Chiefs. In the first half of that game, Mahomes completed just seven of 15 passes for 65 yards, and the Broncos had a 13-10 lead. In the second half... well, Mahomes went off, Denver ran out of gas (literally — cornerback Chris Harris got so tired chasing Mahomes around he had to get an IV in the second half), and the Chiefs prevailed. But they had a blueprint that worked against the Chiefs when most defenses didn’t seem to have a clue. And you can still delay Mahomes' instinctual feel with this in the passing game. Match coverage requires defenders to play zone coverage until a receiver defines his route, at which point the defender switches to aggressive man coverage. There are several different versions of this concept, but this two-play series in the first quarter of that game shows just how effective zone-to-man concepts, and choreographed aggressive coverages, can be against any offense. With 4:33 left in the first quarter, the Chiefs go five-wide on first-and-10 from the Denver 41-yard line. The Broncos look like they’re playing passive off-coverage, but they’re actually matching across the field. Mahomes tries to get the ball to tight end Travis Kelce (No. 87), but linebacker Brandon Marshall (No. 54) trails the stem of Kelce’s quick out route and is able to shut it down.

On the next play, the Broncos react to Kansas City’s five-wide with a Cover-0 blitz. Cover-0 puts every defender in or near the box — there is no deep coverage, and this is the height of confidence in your defensive scheme against an offense like this. Safety Justin Simmons (No. 31) looks like he could roll deep, but he’s coming down to take Kelce over the middle. With his targets constricted by Denver’s aggressive coverage, and linebacker Todd Davis (No. 51) in his face sooner than Mahomes would like, the quarterback has no choice but to throw the ball away deep.

“This team is in two-tight ends, they’re in two-backs, they’re in three-wides, they’re in no-backs, they’re in four-wides with one back — that’s challenging to obviously match every group they have,” then-Broncos head coach Vance Joseph said of Kansas City on Oct. 22, six days before the rematch, which Denver lost 30-23. “As far as the players, everything’s vertical and it’s deep-over. For the corners, it’s a marathon of a game. They have to be mentally ready to be challenged vertically every play. If you’re not, they can score 50 points on you.” Well, Denver had a plan to avoid that, though they could not beat Mahomes and that offense. Still, Joseph said a few days later that he had a pure belief in his team’s defensive strategy. “You don’t manage corners; they’ve got to run just like receivers. We have to match their speed, we have to match the vertical threats and we have to play.” There’s a lot of wisdom there.

Make Mahomes work against Quarters coverage.

(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

No quarterback had more dropbacks against Cover-4 (Quarters) coverage, than Mahomes did in the 2020 regular season and postseason. Mahomes went against Quarters on 187 dropbacks, completing 127 passes on 173 attempts for 1,276 yards, 829 air yards, seven touchdowns, two interceptions, eight sacks, and a passer rating of 96.9. A lot of yards and explosive plays, but some implosions, as well. Mahomes' other Super Bowl interception came against Quarters, which makes it worth reviewing. It was the last time Mahomes had the ball in his hands this season. With 1:40 left in the game and the ball at the Tampa Bay 10-yard line, you can see that the Bucs are playing four-across in the end zone. Linebacker Devin White (No. 45) drifts across to help Carlton Davis with Travis Kelce, and linebacker Lavonte David (No. 54) is spying Mahomes to the sideline to make sure he doesn't break for a touchdown. The result is a Devin White pick, and the end of a game that had been long-decided. With four defenders across and three under, Quarters gives you some creative options against a passing game that can spread your defense in some uncomfortable ways.

As Greg Cosell has detailed on ESPN's must-watch "NFL Matchup" show, one iteration is Cover-4 Lock, which has defenders playing man coverage on both No. 1 receivers. Several teams have tried Cover-4 lock against the Chiefs when they establish Travis Kelce as the Y-iso to the boundary side of the field, and Tyreek Hill as the inside slot receiver to the field side. It's as tough to defend as any formation in football. Sometimes Cover-4 Lock works, and sometimes it doesn't, as Cosell details here. https://twitter.com/NFLMatchup/status/1357765223873183744 Here's one example of the detailed responsibilities from the Rams' 1998 playbook. An effective gambit at times against a team that has two legitimate No. 1 targets in Hill and Kelce.

There isn't a blueprint, but there are vulnerabilities.

(Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

The sure thing about Super Bowl LV is that Todd Bowles was the most valuable individual on the field. But he didn't reveal the Mahomes Kryptonite -- he simply did the best possible version of his job by reversing his tendencies against an opponent who came into the game with one hand tied behind his back. That's not to reduce Bowles' genius at all, but it is to say that you don't "blueprint" the NFL's greatest players. Mahomes is certainly one of them. With a functional offensive line and a more amenable game script, the Chiefs could have at least made it competitive. As to what Bowles revealed about Mahomes, we'll have to wait until next season to see if any of it sticks. For now, there are things in the open air that Mahomes will have to prove his ability to transcend.

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