Patrick Mahomes vs the Bengals: What? How? Why?????
Looking at every snap of the strangest performance of Mahomes' career and breaking down what went wrong.
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This will not be fun, but it should be informative. That’s the best I can do for you today. Because many of you (including myself) spent the last several days asking some variation of, “What in the world happened?”
On the heels of the greatest performance of Patrick Mahomes’ career, in which he played the closest thing to a perfect game that I’ve ever seen, he continued his streak of singular performances. Only this time instead of it being notable for greatness, his AFC Championship game was the strangest I’ve ever seen from him.
Let’s not waste time, because you want answers. What I did, as always, was chart every dropback by Mahomes utilizing all-22, isolating things that actually measure quarterback performance (if you’re unfamiliar with my methodology, I wrote about it here in the Week 1 review). However, because this performance by Mahomes was so unique I divided it into two sections: The first half and the second half.
We won’t spend a great deal of time on the first half of the game, because most aren’t looking for an explanation there. The short story is that Mahomes was nearly flawless. Here are the numbers.
(NOTE- not all passes can be charted for accuracy, so the numbers will look wonky in comparison to passes attempted)
Mahomes picked up right where he left off from the Bills game, playing almost perfect football. He was making reads quickly and decisively, moved well in the pocket, and threw the ball with tremendous accuracy all over the field.
This throw early serves as a great example of how Mahomes was firing in the first half. He releases the ball before Hardman is even with the cornerback, throwing him open with an accuracy that drops the ball into his hands as though a ghost ran it up to the spot. He also puts just enough zip on even a lofted throw to render the safety ineffective in contesting.
Mahomes’ exceptional play wasn’t limited to throwing the ball accurately, though he did on nearly every pass early. He was sitting in the pocket comfortably and going through his reads quickly, finding the open receiver against both man and zone looks regardless of the down and distance.
While there’s been a great deal of discussion about Cincinnati’s tactic of dropping 8 defenders into coverage and only rushing 3 throughout the second half of the game, it’s worth noting they tried that several times in the first half as well. And it wasn’t some sort of magic bullet during the first half, as Mahomes either read the coverage and immediately found the open receiver (Pringle once, Hill once in those “read and throw instantly” situations) or he waited patiently in the pocket for the route concepts to get receivers to an open portion of the field.
Here, on the Chiefs’ final drive of the half, Mahomes sees that Cincinnati is only rushing 3. He trusts the line and sits right in the pocket, going through multiple reads quickly and seeing that Hill is going to end up in a hole in the coverage. He fires down the field and gets the Chiefs moving towards a position to score before the half ends.
There was a calmness to Mahomes’ performance in the first half in everything he did. Even when he had to scramble outside of the pocket and create yardage via scrambling or on his absurd touchdown throw to Hill, he did so with a deliberateness that made it seem easy.
Many people have looked at the final play of the half as a turning point for Mahomes, and to an extent that’s true in terms of decision making. However, even that play (the worst of the half for him) was one that’s explainable within the framework of how the Chiefs’ offense generally performs.
Let’s look at what Mahomes was seeing as he started to make the throw to Hill towards the left side of the field.
I’ve had a lot of people ask me about a handoff to McKinnon, as there’s obviously a huge hole at this point. However, it’s worth noting that this hole is mostly available because the two defenders who would have filled it saw that Mahomes pulled the ball up. It’s also worth noting that while Mahomes shows play action, he never seems to be reading the defenders in the middle of the field who are responsible for the gap. In short, I don’t think this was an actual RPO where McKinnon was an option, nor do I think he would have necessarily scored given where the defenders were when the play fake was made.
What Mahomes is doing is reading Eli Apple, who is in man coverage following Hill across the field. Hill is ahead of him towards the sideline and closer to the goal line. Mahomes has seen Hill win this race a million times. So the throw here, while not a decision I like, is at least somewhat understandable initially. However, as soon as Hill turned his head back to the left and drifted backwards, the ball should have been fired out of bounds to preserve a chance at points (one could argue a scramble right would’ve been better as well). It’s also worth noting that Apple makes a tremendous play in space that most defenders don’t make.
But as much as that final play mystified us, it was the second half where the wheels fell off. So let’s get talk about that. I think the correct way to do it is to look at the numbers and then talk about the juxtaposition between his first half play and his second half play, and how it bore out in the results.
Mahomes played worse in virtually every way I can chart quarterback play in the second half. He was less accurate (several easy short throws sailed on him, perhaps a result of the interception by a defensive lineman making him concerned about a repeat occurrence) and didn’t create many plays. He also threw a potential pick in addition to the one he actually threw. It’s worth noting on his interception to the defensive lineman his intended target on the screen was covered regardless, so even letting that ball go was a bad idea. It felt like a frantic decision.
And that word (“frantic”) is where we’ll start in discussing what happened in the second half of that game. Because that’s where the primary difference in Mahomes’ play from the first half to the second half is so glaring. The most prominent charted numbers to look at are the “happy feet” and “missed shots.” Generally speaking, Mahomes will have only a few happy feet snaps in a given game, and he VERY rarely has missed shots (he surveys the field as well as any quarterback in football). Against the Bengals, however, this changed.
The first drive of the second half didn’t end due to issues with Mahomes. Hill and Kelce had back to back drops on contested catches that would have put the ball at midfield (as I wrote about in more detail earlier this week). Both throws were in places Mahomes’ receivers could have snatched the ball out of the air, instead they lost their matchup to Bengals defenders (who, to their credit, made aggressive plays that paid off).
It was after that drive things went south for Mahomes. The next time on the field, he started to show signs of having a rushed process, despite the fact that looks were there for him.
This is on 1st and 10 from their own 7-yard-line. The Bengals send an extra rusher, but the pressure is picked up well thanks to chips on the left side. Every offensive lineman wins their rep. Because of that, Mahomes has time to sit and survey similar to what he did in the first half. And Hardman/Hill’s route combination forces the lone deep safety to make a choice (he chooses Hill) that leaves Hardman with the entire left side of the field to run to against a cornerback whose leverage is WAY outside (he’s expecting safety help).
You can see while Mahomes is still looking down the field that the safety has turned his hips towards Hill and is about to commit to route. Waiting for even a split second longer (in a good pocket) would have allowed him to verify even further that Hardman’s route was going to give him all the space he needs, but he had all the information necessary already.
All Mahomes has to do is lay the ball out in front of Hardman to the left side of the field. A good or even halfway decent throw results in a probable touchdown given his speed. And Mahomes is looking down the field, so there’s no reason he shouldn’t see this. Instead, Mahomes steps far into the pocket (he appears to be spooked by Brown’s looping edge rusher, even though Brown has the rush well-contained) and right into his own offensive lineman. While doing so, he drops his eyes from down the field and decides to check down.
The moment the safety committed towards Hill’s route, this ball should have been out to Hardman. And while CEH made a few yards out of nothing, it was a huge missed opportunity for a big play. These sorts of things happen, but almost never to Mahomes. Even when he’s backed up to his own end zone he rarely misses open shots like this, particularly on early downs.
But Mahomes wasn’t operating with his usual calm throughout the second half, appearing sped up or even jittery on multiple snaps. It came through on this missed shot to Hardman, but was even more glaring on some snaps where the Bengals rushed 3 and dropped 8. There are multiple examples, but one third down tells the story of how it looked throughout the second half.
On this crucial 3rd and short at the very beginning of the 4th quarter, the Chiefs went with an empty set. I’m showing the pocket view here so you can’t see the receivers, but Cincinnati had solid coverage initially on the play (which is what happens when you drop 8 guys into coverage).
That said, what’s relevant for our purposes is the pocket. With just three guys rushing, the Chiefs offensive line is easily able to hold up. Orlando Brown dominates his rep, Humphrey and Thuney have stonewalled the interior, and Smith helps Wylie, who is already winning is rep regardless. There’s nothing resembling actual pressure here, and if Mahomes chose to he could (similar to how he did in the first half) sit and survey the field. Had he done so, he would’ve found Kelce across the middle eventually or been in position to see how the spies moved to allow for a throw elsewhere or even a scramble. Hill drags 3 defenders deep so it was going to eventually be all man coverage across the board.
Instead, Mahomes speeds up his process unnecessarily and bolts to his right, looking for pressure that isn’t there and taking his eyes off the receivers. He eventually resets, but he’s now moved to a new area and actually provided a rushing lane for a defender who was previously stopped dead in his tracks. His linemen have no way of knowing where he’d stop, while the defenders are able to just watch and adjust their rush lanes.
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It’s the sort of snap where the defense sat back and allowed Mahomes to lose the play, and (contrary to what he’d done in the first half) he did exactly that. And this wasn’t an isolated incident throughout the second half. He ran himself into pressure from clean pockets multiple times.
These sorts of plays killed several different snaps for the Chiefs, and because the offense was struggling to move the ball every opportunity was crucial (when you are going 3 and out, you don’t get many chances at redemption).
To fairness’ sake, the second drive of the 4th quarter (after a clutch interception by L’Jarius Sneed gave the offense another chance to reclaim the lead), Mahomes took a sack that wasn’t on him, as Brown lost the rep on 3rd down. There was a pocket to step into, but the pressure was fast enough that it’s not fair to place it on Mahomes.
However, the previous snap was demonstrative of more “sped up process” from Mahomes in which he just missed looks and throws that he was making with ease in the first half.
Here, on 2nd down, Mahomes checks down quickly to the RB but makes an errant throw that sails incomplete. However, while the throw was problematic, the read itself wasn’t good either. Watch Pringle come out of the slot next to Kelce. The zone defender on that side of the field understandably moves back to help take away Kelce initially, which leaves Pringle open over the middle immediately. Mahomes made basically identical reads all season, and even in the first half of this game. Here, he misses it in his hurry to get rid of the ball despite no real pressure developing.
The Bengals should be credited with playing sticky coverage and matching Hill and Kelce with tough defense while providing help, but snaps like this are the sort we’ve watched Mahomes win for years. The throws were there, he just didn’t make them.
The pocket presence issues and reads were apparent on the final (regulation) goal line series for the Chiefs. When they got themselves (in part due to Mahomes making some nice reads/throws) to 1st and goal, I assumed (like many others) that a TD was a foregone conclusion. Mahomes had seemed to regain his groove, and they had plenty of time. However, multiple opportunities were missed.
Everyone has talked about the 3rd down sack, and for good reason.
At various points in this play where he had time to survey the field, Mahomes first doesn’t pull the trigger to Kelce over the middle and then (when Kelce’s movement pulls a zone defender away) doesn’t pull the trigger on Pringle in the back of the end zone. Then, despite the lack of any pressure, Mahomes drifts right and creates a rush lane for the spy, speeding up the play. THEN, he doesn’t make the throw to Pringle coming back towards the ball. Basically, 3 chances with the sort of throws he’s made a zillion times.
However, what’s been less talked about is that the previous snap showed an identical issue on 2nd and 3.
This is (and I hate to be a broken record here) a throw Mahomes has made numerous times as a Chief. Hardman fakes as a blocker for a split second and sprints towards the front corner of the end zone. The defender is to the inside trying to close, but he doesn’t have the angle if Mahomes puts it to the outside. Instead, Mahomes clutches the ball and the play ends in a sack.
If I were a betting man, I’d bet that on both those plays Mahomes hesitated to throw because of the score (down 3) and knowing they had the chance to tie and the worst-case scenario was a pick. It (I think) made him play more conservative than is in his nature, and it ended poorly, as it often does when players go against who they are.
In the overtime period, Mahomes had a throw sail on him out of the backfield again, and Hill lost a contested catch (on a terrific throw, honestly) that turned into a pick (because of course it did). Game over.
So what’s the takeaway? The short way of saying it is that Mahomes struggled in the second half in crucial moments with things that he spent the entire first half doing comfortably. That, combined with failures from the offense as a whole (Kelce and Hill dropping contested passes, a crucial 3rd down failure by Brown) created a scenario in which the Chiefs didn’t have many opportunities to make big plays. One of the problems with failing offense is that it gives the ball back quickly, and you don’t get a lot of chances to make it right.
So was it all on Mahomes? No, but had he played at even his “average,” the mistakes by others would not have been enough to torpedo the offense.
What does this mean for the offense moving forward? Really… I’m not sure it means much. Teams are going to try and imitate what the Bengals did in the 2nd half, but the reality is Mahomes beat some of those same looks in the 1st half. He just had a pretty bad half of play that combined with no one else stepping in and making a couple of big plays (again, Kelce/Hill going 0/3 on contested catch plays was huge) to compensate. Teams can hope that happens again, but it doesn’t tell us much new about Mahomes or the Chiefs.
What can the Chiefs do moving forward to ensure this doesn’t happen again? Well, we’ll look at that more this offseason (there’s a lot planned for the next few months), but a couple things could have changed the outcome Sunday as Mahomes struggled:
An altering of the game plan when it was clear he was off, with Kansas City relying more on its bruising offensive line to punish the Bengals for their conservative looks with the run game. This could have given Mahomes a mental break and helped him reset, as well as forced CIN to re-think their strategy.
Adding another weapon or 2 who can help win against aggressive man coverage when teams are rolling help to Kelce and Hill. Health Watkins was missed this game, and even one or two plays created by another weapon would’ve been the difference.
The first issue is on Reid, the second will be on Veach to figure out. But really, Mahomes himself will need to examine what made him speed up his process so much in the 2nd half, and figure out how he can keep himself from falling into that same trap in the future.
Based on all available evidence we have on Mahomes, he’ll do it and do it well. But for now, he (and Reid, and the rest of the Chiefs, and the fanbase) will have to sit in the knowledge that this was one that got away from them, and it happened in large part due to Mahomes’ struggles down the stretch.
A strange game in a season that brought a lot of strangeness for the Chiefs. Here’s to next season bringing less of it.