September 18, 2018 / 2:40 PM / 8 months ago

Film study: How Mahomes is thriving

Patrick Mahomes is taking Andy Reid’s scheme to another level.

Sep 16, 2018; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) passes against pressure from Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle Cameron Heyward (97) during the fourth quarter at Heinz Field. Kansas City won 42-37. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Already out of control entering the season, the Mahomes bandwagon didn’t take long to upgrade to a double-decker party bus, complete with a bouncy house and a hot tub.

Through two weeks, the Kansas City Chiefs’ offense has been the ultimate marriage of scheme and skill set, as Mahomes has taken Reid’s brilliant designs — and the incomparable Tyreek Hill — to another echelon.

Reid and his staff used a year to refine the QB’s iffy mechanics, and he’s paying them back with pinpoint throws from an arm capable of almost anything. In an offense that schemes receivers open as well as any in the NFL, Mahomes’ willingness to turn throws loose early (unlike the cautious Alex Smith) maximizes yards after catch and big-play potential.

Reid is superb at blurring the responsibilities of zone defenders through route concepts, and Mahomes’ arm — a howitzer, yes, but also capable of layering throws with touch — makes him a terror against zone coverages. The Pittsburgh Steelers learned the hard way Sunday.

On K.C.’s second drive, Mahomes exploited second-year cornerback Cameron Sutton — filling in for Joe Haden — in two different ways for big plays against Cover-2 zone. First, he threw early and with perfect touch to Sammy Watkins for 40 yards, dropping it over Sutton’s underneath zone well before safety Sean Davis could arrive.

Two plays later, Reid sent the Chiefs’ most dangerous weapons, Hill and Travis Kelce, on vertical routes at Sutton, who was playing as one of two deep safeties. Mahomes used his eyes to force Sutton to honor Hill’s outside go route, then whipped the ball to Kelce on a post for an easy 19-yard score.

Mahomes also showed anticipation by firing early on a back-shoulder throw — a play normally designed for big-framed targets — to the diminutive Hill, gaining 36 yards to open the third quarter. Later in the frame, he dropped a pass perfectly over helpless linebacker Jon Bostic into Kelce’s hands for 31 yards up the middle of Tampa-2 zone coverage.

Mahomes capped that drive by flicking the ball from a funky arm angle and into a tight window while rolling right for a 3-yard score to Demarcus Robinson.

The big plays came in all kinds of ways, a great sign for a signal-caller making his third career start.

The Steelers’ defense was certainly complicit in the torching. It blew red-zone coverages on the first (15 yards to Chris Conley) and fourth (25 yards to Kelce) touchdowns, and missed all sorts of tackles, including on Kareem Hunt’s 5-yard TD, Hill’s 36-yard catch and a 25-yard gain by Watkins. And believe it or not, Mahomes actually failed to capitalize on three of Pittsburgh’s biggest errors, leaving potential TDs of 71, 39 and 99 yards on the field.

Early in the second, he pulled back on a bomb for Hill — who got behind Davis deep — because he stepped up right into 352-pound Dan McCullers for a sack in mostly clean pocket. Two plays after halftime, Mahomes overthrew a wide-open Watkins, who was covered only by 252-pound T.J. Watt on a slot fade.

Early in the fourth, he threw too far and outside for Hill from his own end zone, after Sutton allowed Hill a clean inside release and Davis inexplicably abandoned center field to double-team Conley’s crossing route. A play later, Hunt was tackled behind the goal line for a safety.

Setting aside the absurdity of Mahomes potentially topping his stat line with a 99-yard TD — which would have tied NFL records for longest completion and most TD passes (seven) in a single game — every QB leaves plays on the field. Those were outliers on Sunday, as the misses to Watkins and Hill accounted for 40 percent of Mahomes’ incompletions.

Yes, some regression is inevitable. Teams will study Mahomes more, windows will tighten and his offensive line (two sacks allowed in two games) won’t keep him quite so clean. He’ll see more press-man coverage and obvious passing situations (the Chiefs have yet to trail this year), forcing him to work deeper into progressions. The guy who had 29 interceptions in 32 college games will turn the ball over at some point. And don’t forget the swoon Kansas City’s offense had midseason last year (Weeks 1-5: 32.4 points per game; Weeks 6-13: 18.0).

But the combination of Reid’s scheme, Hill’s and Kelce’s explosiveness and Mahomes’ arm is potent enough to shatter the geometry of most defensive coordinators’ designs.

At the combine, Chiefs general manager Brett Veach called Mahomes “one of the best players I have ever seen.” While that still seems awfully premature, the 23-year-old is already looking like the best possible fit for Reid’s offense.

—Third down’s the charm in Jacksonville

The recipe for most wins over the New England Patriots includes a few of the same ingredients: stingy coverage and pressure on Tom Brady without blitzing. The Jacksonville Jaguars had those elements in last year’s AFC Championship Game but lacked the offensive aggressiveness to close out the win.

Sunday’s upset showed they learned from that mistake, as they kept throwing (Blake Bortles had 45 attempts to Brady’s 35) despite leading the whole game. The result was a win that was even more comprehensive than the 31-20 margin, as Jacksonville outgained New England by 2.0 yards per play (7.0 to 5.0) and 179 total yards (481-302).

Most staggering was the Jaguars’ comprehensive dominance on third down, as they won 18 of 26 such plays, finishing 8 of 12 on defense and 10 of 14 on offense. The defense’s success rate was no surprise (it ranked fourth on third downs last year), but it could have been even better.

Two of the Patriots’ third-down conversions came via Brady’s legs: one on a QB sneak, and another on his longest run in two years, a 10-yard scramble on third-and-6. On the other two conversions, Brady got the ball out despite immediate pressure from a four-man rush, including Dante Fowler Jr. arriving a beat late on Chris Hogan’s 7-yard, third-quarter TD.

Brady’s fortune turned less than five minutes later. He was a beat slower and Fowler a beat quicker on a third-and-9, as Fowler dipped around LaAdrian Waddle and stripped Brady as the veteran wound up to throw. The Jaguars recovered, preventing the Patriots from getting closer in the fourth quarter.

Reliable as the Jacksonville defense was, Bortles & Co. might have been even more impressive on third downs. Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett terrorized the Patriots with crossing routes and pick plays while featuring the shifty Keelan Cole and Corey Grant in space.

Grant set up the first touchdown by beating Patrick Chung with an angle route to convert third-and-7. Just before halftime, a rub from Dede Westbrook sprung Austin Seferian-Jenkins from Chung’s man coverage on a corner route for a 4-yard score on third-and-3. Early in the third, Cole turned cornerback Eric Rowe inside out for 22 yards on third-and-11, then used a Westbrook pick three plays later to gain 11 on a third-and-2 slant.

When things didn’t go according to plan, Bortles compensated with quick processing and timely scrambles.

On the Jags’ third play, he shimmied to elude unblocked linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley and found Seferian-Jenkins for 11 yards on third-and-6. When the Patriots dialed up a rare all-out blitz, Bortles threw immediately over a leaping Chung to Seferian-Jenkins — who was temporarily open as Devin McCourty rotated to cover him — for 8 yards on third-and-7 late in the second.

Bortles also moved the chains with scrambles for 9, 10 and 10 on third downs of 6, 7 and 9, respectively, while coming up just short on another with 4 yards on third-and-5.

Even one of Sunday’s few third-down failures came only after a hands-to-the-face penalty nullified a third-and-7 conversion. All told, the Jags moved the chains 7 of 11 times on third-and-5 or longer after going 0-for-8 on such plays in the opener.

The unit can obviously be more consistent after struggling in Week 1, but Hackett and Bortles have now given Bill Belichick’s team fits in two games dating back to the AFC Championship. If these teams meet again in January, Sunday’s result gives New England plenty to worry about.

—The Fitzmagic touch

The only QB as hot as Mahomes is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Ryan Fitzpatrick, whose fantastic start (819 passing yards, eight TDs, one pick) might be the NFL’s biggest surprise through two weeks.

Fitzpatrick was always an up-and-down starter because of his willingness to turn it loose without high-level arm strength. The scales have tipped heavily toward the “up” side of things of late, in large part because he’s executed a well-schemed attack so precisely.

Sunday’s first play from scrimmage — a 75-yard TD to DeSean Jackson — was a perfect example.

Offensive coordinator Todd Monken, who has taken play-calling duties from head coach Dirk Koetter this year, knows the Eagles’ defense prefers quarters coverage (also called Cover-4), especially on early downs. So Monken dialed up a play-action deep shot with Jackson on a post route against Jalen Mills, whose coverage responsibility dictates that he must maintain outside leverage. That gave the speedy Jackson a head start once he cut inside and across the field.

Fitzpatrick read it and made a perfect throw, allowing Jackson to maximize his speed and take it the final 40 yards to pay dirt.

I’ve been skeptical of keeping Fitzpatrick as the starter when Jameis Winston returns, but the Bucs’ deep-ball success through two games is the most convincing argument to do so. Fitzpatrick is 7 of 9 for 317 yards (35.2 per attempt), four touchdowns and no interceptions on throws traveling 20-plus yards on the air, after Winston went 16 of 53 for 537 yards (10.1 per attempt), six TDs and two picks on such throws last season.

That said, Fitzpatrick very likely will cool off. He had been downright poor on 20-plus-yard throws (28.9 completion percentage, 9.8 yards per attempt, 31 TDs and 40 INTs) before 2018, worse than Winston’s career figures (31.1 percent, 10.2, 18 and 10).

Perhaps Fitzpatrick has found the chemistry with Jackson that Winston never did, or maybe he’s due for sharp regression. Mahomes proved Sunday the Steelers’ defense is exploitable deep, so Fitzpatrick will get more chances to stake his claim on Monday night in Week 3.

—How Kupp ties McVay’s scheme together

You don’t need me to tell you Sean McVay and Todd Gurley make the Los Angeles Rams’ offense go, but don’t overlook one of the unit’s key pieces: Cooper Kupp. The second-year wideout routinely wins on third down — on Sunday, he cooked Cardinals cornerback Jamar Taylor for 29 yards on third-and-4, then found a soft spot in a zone for 10 yards on third-and-9 — but he also does the dirty work.

McVay regularly deploys Kupp inline like a tight end — often via motion toward the formation — and asks the wideout to block straight ahead, across the formation (a “slice” block) to the backside, or by cracking a defensive end to the inside. On Sunday, Kupp stoned safety Antoine Bethea from that inline alignment on Gurley’s 11-yard and 1-yard TD runs.

This also unlocks some of McVay’s creativity off play-action.

Kupp diligently sells run fakes by blocking for a second or two before releasing, a wrinkle few teams use, but one that makes linebackers and safeties take the bait, hook, line and sinker. That allows explosive plays for Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods downfield, but Kupp himself profits on occasion too — his 8-yard touchdown against the Raiders last week is a perfect example.

McVay also uses Kupp from that alignment on jet sweeps and fake “slice” blocks, where Kupp crosses the formation behind the line after the snap and is usually wide open for 5 to 10 free yards after a bootleg play-fake.

Oh by the way, Kupp was also the holder on Johnny Hekker’s 20-yard field goal Sunday (Hekker normally holds for Greg Zuerlein, who was out with a groin injury). Just another game for a man who always has a lot on his plate.

—David DeChant, Field Level Media

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