If you’ve heard or read that NFL quarterbacks tend to struggle against any kind of coverage in which there are two deep safeties at the snap of the ball… well, there’s a lot to that. The statistics for quarterbacks against single-high and two-high are quite instructive. All numbers per Sports Info Solutions:
NFL quarterbacks against two-high coverage in 2022 (Cover-2, 2-Man, Cover-4, Cover-6):
4,443 completions on 6,838 attempts (65.0%) for 49,446 yards (7.23 YPA), 179 TD (2.62%), 198 INT (2.90%), and a passer rating of 83.02. pic.twitter.com/Vi8njIfKTZ
— Doug Farrar ✍ (@NFL_DougFarrar) May 31, 2023
Quarterbacks are throwing more interceptions than touchdowns overall against two-deep stuff, which is why that’s where the league is going right now, until offenses figure out how to deal with it. So far, there is one team and one quarterback that has absolutely learned to deal with it, and that would be the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs, and that Patrick Mahomes guy.
Last season, Mahomes faced some kind of two-deep coverage on 261 of his dropbacks, which ranked eighth in the league — Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow had the most two-high dropbacks with 374 — and he beat it better and more often than anybody else. Mahomes completed 165 of 230 passes for 2,155 yards, 1,275 air yards, nine touchdowns, five interceptions, a league-best passer rating of 104.5, and a league-best EPA of 62.82. Mahomes’ EPA against two-deep coverage wasn’t just the NFL’s best; it was the NFL’s best by a huge margin. Buffalo’s Josh Allen ranked second in EPA against two-high coverage at 36.19. so that tells you how far ahead Mahomes is in this particular discussion.
Why have Mahomes and the Chiefs lapped the field against coverages that have foiled just about every other team and quarterback in the league? Because the “two-beaters” developed by head coach Andy Reid and his staff, and executed by Mahomes and his targets, are firmly established, and the Chiefs are able to just spam defenses with those concepts, because they work so well.
How Andy Reid got ahead of the curve.
In the 2021 season, Mahomes saw more two-deep coverage (389 dropbacks) than any other quarterback, and he wasn’t nearly as successful against any of it. Then, he completed 215 of 332 passes for 2,532 yards, 1,401 air yards, nine touchdowns, nine interceptions, a passer rating of 85.6 (which ranked 13th in the NFL), and an EPA of 25.25 (which ranked sixth). Things weren’t much better in the first half of the 2022 season — from Weeks 1-10, Mahomes completed 90 of 130 passes against two-deep coverage for 1,162 yards, 696 air yards, six touchdowns, four interceptions, a passer rating of 99.6, and an EPA of 27.00. But from Week 11 through the Super Bowl, Mahomes completed 75 of 100 passes against two-deep for 993 yards, 593 air yards, a passer rating of 111.8, and an EPA of 35.82.
The difference was that the Chiefs stopped reacting to these coverages, and started attacking them. And this came out of a series of route concepts that any team can use to beat shell coverage, should they have the personnel and the inclination to do so.
It took a while for everything to come together.
Reid and Mahomes were certainly aware of the 2021 issues in 2021.
“Teams are mixing more than what we think,” Reid said of those coverages in late December, as the Chiefs prepared for a Week 17 game against the Cincinnati Bengals in which Mahomes completed 11 of 17 passes against two-deep coverage for 80 yards, 36 air yards, no touchdowns, and no intercpetions. “So we’re seeing some shell, we’re seeing some single safety, we’re seeing some man. They throw a lot of stuff at you, and this crew [in Cincinnati] is no different. They’ve got a whole package that they really execute well. A lot of these teams that run a lot of things, they’ll mix them up and have problems with it, but this crew here does a great job there. Their defensive coordinator [Lou Anarumo] must be a phenomenal teacher. I’ve never worked with him, but it looks like he does a great job teaching.
“But just practicing through it and knowing how to check down, where to check down, all those things become so important. Route runners knowing how to play within zones becomes important, and being on the same page. Then, the offensive line has also got a part of that. So, it’s not one person, I’ve said that from the get-go. It’s not one person that makes you roll there.”
Mahomes agreed regarding the need to suss it all out.
“You kind of figure out answers and stuff you can do to combat and have more success,” he said back then. “I think just finding that happy medium where you’re taking shots still and attacking, but at the same time, hitting guys underneath and guys are creating a lot of yards with the football in their hands. Like the running backs, tight ends and receivers. So just getting the ball out of my hands, getting to those guys for them to make plays.”
The answer then was to get Mahomes in rhythm with underneath stuff. Eventually, the concepts would become more varied and potentially explosive… but it did take a bit longer to kick in.
Stretching two-deep coverage to its logical limits.
Mahomes was responsible for 75 explosive plays last season, and 16 came as a passer against any kind of two-deep coverage. This included a 22-yard pass to Travis Keice in Super Bowl LVII in which the Chiefs countered the Philadelphia Eagles’ Cover 4 with a backside vertical route from receiver Marques Valdes-Scantling that took safeties C.J. Gardner-Johnson and Marcus Epps off the top, and allowed Kelce to roam unfettered through the middle of that Philly defense. Combine that with crossing pre-snap motion from receiver Kadarius Toney that put the Eagles’ linebackers in conflict, and you have one spicy meatball against any type of coverage.
Here is where Reid uses that vertical threat to clear everything out — a concept he’s used as long as he’s been a head coach.
So, against two-deep coverage, you want to stretch the defense vertically and horizontally. The 49ers had the NFL’s best overall defense in 2022, but they also ran as much quarters coverage as any team in the NFL, and when the Chiefs played that defense in Week 7, Mahomes was eager to exploit it. This 22-yard completion to Kelce came off a similar pair of mirrored vertical out routes…
The Chiefs don't have the blueprint, but they have presented an architecture.
You can make gains against two-deep coverages with timing, rhythm, and underneath stuff, and the Chiefs did that as they started to turn their fortunes around against it. But the modern NFL is about creating and explosive plays more than anything else, and the prevention of those plays is exactly why there’s more of those types of coverages. So, the creation of explosive plays requires you to attack at some point, of you will lag behind.
The Chiefs have shown the rest of the league some fascinating ways to beat the dominant coverages in the NFL today, and it will be interesting to see how the copycats work it all out.