There’s been recent debate about whether or not Patrick Mahomes will or should see the field this year. I’ve read and heard some great pieces recently on Arrowhead Pride about the subject. I’ve been thinking about what a game plan would like if Mahomes were put in the position to play.
I wrote previously on the process for the 45 seconds from play call to play execution (shameless plug) that Mahomes will have to prove he handle in order to play. Here is my best guess on the approach the team would take and the plays they would put in their game plan to play to his strengths and take as much pressure as they can off of him.
I've pulled clips from his games at Texas Tech as well as his pro day (whew) to show what it might look like and what he's capable of.
One of the best things that Andy Reid and company can do for Mahomes is get opposing coordinators to worry about as much square yardage of the field as they can. This is more difficult than it may seem, and is one of the biggest problems I have with Alex Smith and his game management style. Everything is done in a phone booth when Smith is at quarterback. He hasn’t proven the ability or willingness to consistently hurt people down field the way other quarterbacks have. Because of this he plays the short passing game in a more congested space.
Luckily for the Chiefs, Mahomes is one of the rarest arm talents you’ll ever find. His ability to stretch the field vertically will make it more difficult for teams to try and defend Mahomes if he can execute plays. But that doesn’t mean everything needs to be deep throws down the field. In fact, the threat itself makes everything much easier.
If teams have to worry about big plays downfield, it will dictate the coverages they are able to play against Mahomes. Mahomes may see more off coverage, or at bare minimum deeper safeties. This can open easy short passes outside the numbers, and more space to work short passes in the middle of the field.
Expect Reid to find easy ways to involve his two best play makers in Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce as many time as possible.
Window Dressing and Formations
Pre-snap, there are things that Reid can use to make it easier on Mahomes. He can use pre-snap shifts and motions to help identify the coverage that the other team is trying to play. Making it easier for a quarterback to solve the puzzle is never a bad thing, but it will require Mahomes to get in and out of the huddle quick. You want him to have enough time to snap the ball.
Reid is also great about running the same concepts from different formations. We call that window dressing. It may be the same play several times a game, but arriving at it differently each time. Reid uses a lot of the snag concept (more info here) but from different formations. The variances of where people line up and who runs what route makes it easy to run a concept multiple times a game without giving away the play. It will be on Reid and Mahomes to find out what works best for him and find ways for the play to arrive at the same place.
Another thing Reid can do that would help Mahomes is play out of empty formations. If all 5 receivers are spread out in the formation, it becomes more difficult for defenses to mask the coverage they are playing. It can also tip the hand of blitzes. You have to trust the protection can hold up, but it can help a young quarterback understand what an opposing defense is trying to accomplish on a particular play. Mahomes also has some familiarity with playing in empty. Good coordinators maximize the strengths of their quarterback and put them in comfortable situations. That very well could be Mahomes in empty sets.
Build Off the Run Game
Establishing a run game will be a helpful asset to Mahomes when he finally sees the field. Not to diminish the responsibilities he has on a run play (they’re more than you think) but handing the ball off and having success with it eases the load he has to carry. Developing the run game allows for Reid to call plays off of it. Mahomes is excellent on the move, so any boot action would be effective.
If Mahomes has to play this year, getting him on the move would be a great way to utilize his skill sets. pic.twitter.com/1BPUf5z3sH— Kent Swanson (@kent_swanson) July 17, 2017
One of the more underrated things about Andy Reid’s play calling is the false keys from the run game he generates with the variety of looks he utilizes. It’s not always as simple as a play action pass, although those will surely be implemented. He may use a pre-snap motion that has all the signs of a usual run play to move a linebacker enough to pop a quick hit pass play behind him. Reid is masterful at playing off his tendencies and exposing people with them.
Something I anticipate being used with Mahomes is RPO's (run-pass option). The Chiefs utilized this a few times last year, and it's becoming more popular in the NFL. A run-pass option is a play design where typically the quarterback keys off a player to determine whether they will hand the ball off or pop a pass behind that player. They can be similar to some of the false key plays mentioned above, only designed for the quarterback to read the play not just execute it. They're often used with the tight end running a seam and keying off the movement of a linebacker to determine run or pass.
RPO. All but one receiver blocking. pic.twitter.com/9stDZIYk6a— Kent Swanson (@kent_swanson) July 16, 2017
Call me crazy, but I think Mahomes will be better at executing the screen game than Smith.
Underrated part of Mahomes' game. Doesn't need a well established base to execute screen game. Ball is out quick. pic.twitter.com/fkZ9wOb9k5— Kent Swanson (@kent_swanson) July 17, 2017
Mahomes uses his athleticism, baseball background and arm strength to get the ball out as quick as anyone I’ve ever seen in the screen game. It’s an incredible skill that not enough people are talking about. Mahomes throws the ball with velocity and similar to the way you might see a middle infielder throw. The split second difference between Mahomes and Smith throwing a screen could lead to more effective plays. I expect the screen designs to maximize his talents. For example, if the Chiefs are anticipating man coverage they could send Hill in motion across the formation for a quick hit screen to the flat. The quicker the ball is there, the quicker Hill can turn up field.
"Now" screen from Mahomes' pro day. If teams are playing off coverage, it's an easy completion for a young QB. pic.twitter.com/ffJXms74nO— Kent Swanson (@kent_swanson) July 17, 2017
Utilizing screens is an easy way for Reid to get the ball in the hands of his play makers, without a ton of stress being put on a young quarterback. Easy completions are also a great confidence builder for quarterbacks. Getting to see a throw executed helps slow the game down and make a young signal caller more comfortable for the more difficult plays ahead.
Screens and runs can shorten the game and lessen the responsibility placed on a quarterback. Using both means less plays that require higher levels of difficulty.
Win Outside the Numbers
If teams play off, Mahomes can hurt you outside the numbers. Whole lot of field for teams to worry about defending. pic.twitter.com/lmGH0Xs0q2— Kent Swanson (@kent_swanson) July 17, 2017
Every offense will have slants and in breaking routes. They will certainly be part of the Chiefs game plan for Mahomes as they are with any other NFL offense. Plays 20 yards or less will be important to his success. You can find a ton of plays of Mahomes succeeding in the short to intermediate in the middle of the field. What can terrify teams and make it more difficult for them however is his ability to throw outside the numbers. An important part of getting teams to worry about square yardage is outside the numbers. This is an area most teams playing against Smith don't have to worry as much about. His feet, release, arm strength and hesitancy show up in this area most of the time. Being able to throw balls outside the numbers with success creates problems. This area can be more susceptible if teams have to worry about...
I don’t think Reid is going to turn into Bruce Arians and take a ton of shots down the field once Mahomes gets in. He won’t completely change his nature. But it is critical for Mahomes to prove that he can and will take shots and create big plays down the field. It will be difficult for Reid to construct the offense the way it currently is with Mahomes. Reid has to try harder to generate big plays by using those false keys I mentioned earlier as well as short passing to lull people to sleep on the big plays.
It won’t take more than a few big plays down the field to start putting worry in the heads of defensive coordinators. If that fear is established, it can make everything a lot easier on play caller and passer.
Big plays are back breakers. Explosive plays are critical. More times than not, the team that has more plays of 20+ are the winners. So defenses make concerted efforts to avoid explosive plays. They’d rather make quarterbacks, especially young ones, prove they can be consistent enough for 15 plays to score. If the threat of explosive plays are a threat, the easy passes come more into play.
Two vertical concepts I could see utilized are four verticals and some kind of deep play action pass with a few extra bodies staying in to protect.
Four verticals is a basic staple for most teams (and Madden players). Four receivers running vertical routes with outside receivers having mandatory outside release outside the numbers and two inside receivers running vertical routes with landmarks a few yards outside of the hash marks. It can be done run in both 2x2 and 3x1 formations. Regardless of what coverage the defense is in, there is a viable option to throw to. It’s up to Mahomes to determine which one.
Four verts. Simple concept with a good option for any coverage. pic.twitter.com/2OWQPy0TTb— Kent Swanson (@kent_swanson) July 17, 2017
This is stupid good arm talent. He throws an outside the numbers vertical like Alex Smith throws on the hashes. pic.twitter.com/2lD21WPAlV— Kent Swanson (@kent_swanson) July 17, 2017
Another concept is a deep play action pass with additional protection. This seems highly likely to be utilized early in Mahomes career, and a big part of that has to do with Hill. Hill is the fastest player in the NFL. He can outrun anyone, and the Chiefs can use that skill set to give Mahomes an easy shot downfield. It’s as safe a big play shot as they can make. The Chiefs can send only one or two receivers out on vertical routes, with Hill being one of them, and keep everyone else in to protect Mahomes.
The reason it is relatively safe, is because the Chiefs can keep Mahomes clean and give him time to unleash a football as far down the field as he can, and put the ball in a place where only Hill has a chance to catch it. The risk isn’t as high as other vertical plays. It’s less likely for a sack to occur, and will be hard for defenders to stay in front of Hill. If by some chance they do, the best place to throw a pick is way downfield. Reid can’t go to this well too often, but a well-timed deep play action pass can be effective. Hit one or two of these, and teams have to honor the threat.
Mahomes to Tyreek Hill downfield off play action is a safe way to take a shot. Mahomes won't underthrow the ball. Low chance of INT. pic.twitter.com/syzVG3Aij0— Kent Swanson (@kent_swanson) July 17, 2017
Complete one of these, and you have defensive coordinators up all night worrying about this and all the square yardage underneath it. pic.twitter.com/xkYcmax0AZ— Kent Swanson (@kent_swanson) July 17, 2017
It All Adds Up
All these elements can be translated into a game plan that will be easy to enough for Mahomes to execute. The complexity of the play calls can grow as Mahomes does. Getting as many of these things into a game creates enough things for an opposing defense to worry about. Forcing them to cover the largest amount of yardage possible while arriving at all these things in a way that is digestible for Mahomes is what makes Reid the offensive genius he is.
A lot of the plays shown don't necessarily have complex progressions. Some will, but screens, deep shots, RPO's are all pretty defined plays. Counting all those and the run game lead you to a lot less plays with full progressions. They can ease him in while still be being potentially explosive. It will be fun to see what Reid dials up for Mahomes the first time he builds a plan around him. Whenever the time is, Reid is the best person for Mahomes to have calling his plays.