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Building the offense for Patrick Mahomes: Play action from under center

Tennessee Titans v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

This is part four in our Building the Offense for Patrick Mahomes series. Here is where you can find part one, part two, part three and part four.

Patrick Mahomes has come a long way in the year plus development he’s went through in Kansas City as the future of the quarterback position for the Chiefs’ franchise. It should not go unappreciated the lengths he’s gone to be mentally and physically prepared for what is required to be a signal caller in the league.

You think about all of the small details he didn’t have exposure to before being selected in the NFL draft and you realize how far he’s come along. Mahomes’ footwork within the pocket required attention, as did familiarizing himself with new concepts and play structure. There are little intricacies he was understandably green with entering his professional career. The hottest phrases around Mahomes had to do with his unfamiliarity with being under center. There is some truth to the requirement to be functional in the space. It’s not just as simple as taking a snap. The ball handling required to time up jet sweeps off the edge and the footwork and subsequent play fakes stemming from those plays. Things like eye placement off of naked bootlegs and play action are important subtleties to learn and improve your ability to process.

If I had my way, Mahomes would need to continue working on these things for the offense I want to see him in. Even in Alex Smith’s final season in Kansas City, the Chiefs weren’t spending much time under center. I still think the offense in 2018 should incorporate some under center looks, specifically play action.

Play action will only work if the run game is honored. It’ll require some success on run plays, but also balance. There can’t be a strong tendency when Mahomes is under center. I normally wait to reveal the frequency of which I’d use what we’re profiling this week, but today it’s important we talk about it now: I would like to see the Chiefs run three play action passes and three (of the ten plays we have earmarked to disperse) run plays from under center on average each week. An even balance between run and pass.

Early on in the preseason, the Chiefs were using under center play action with Mahomes to take some shots.

This is the less talked about play-action bomb that Mahomes connected with Demarcus Robinson on in Week 4 of the preseason. It’s more or less a one-sided read for the quarterback with all the routes coming off the action from the right hash to the left. The tight end lined off the right tackle is staying in to protect. The two receivers to the right side of the field are running a deep out and a dig, with running back Devine Redding leaking to the flat after the play action. The Titans are playing cover three. The middle field safety drives on the out route and the outside corner drives on the dig. This leaves Robinson one-on-one with a corner playing outside leverage on him and an advantage to the middle of the field. Mahomes delivers a perfect ball, allowing Robinson to maintain the leverage he has on the corner and they connect for a big gain.

This was early in the year. Mahomes’ eyes should continue to improve off of the action. He’ll be better at flipping his hips, being efficient with his drop and getting his eyes more efficiently to the read of the play. Not that he wasn’t on time here, but more so that he’ll continue to improve as a processor, and these kinds of plays are no exception to that. After watching and reading about that play, the most popular play action shot from Mahomes’ preseason might look familiar.

The formation and players aren’t the same but players end up in about the same place they did on the first throw. The Chiefs are this time in a balanced, double tight, single back formation (I call this Ace) this time around. A tight end stays in to protect, Robinson still runs a post, a deep out by the left tight and a dig (he throttled down in a hole over the ball so might’ve been a read here) by the receiver at the bottom of the screen and a running back in the flat after the play action. Another one side read for the young quarterback. Just because the play didn’t work within structure doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing.

This play, and the vertical nature of it, allowed for a scramble opportunity that netted a big reward. Believe it or not, team’s have what they call “scramble rules” which is what they use to get open when the original structure of the play can’t be completed. Typically you’ll see deep receivers working back towards the ball and shallow receivers working upfield. In a situation where the receivers are away from the scramble, the receivers are going to be working more laterally. The quickest distance between two points is a straight line, and that’s no different for a receiver working on a scramble across the field. They have to still be able to be in position for the quarterback to deliver the throw, so trying to get across the field fast enough that they can be presentable to the quarterback is still most important to these kind of plays.

If it were three months later, Mahomes may just take the profit and the throw to the running back in the flat. Instead he works away from his receivers and scramble outside the pocket. Robinson’s original line is more back towards the quarterback. When Mahomes releases the ball, he adjusts back to about the same line he ended his route on. You hope you can minimize the kind of hit that Mahomes takes, but the finish on this play was special. Even though the play action shot didn’t work originally, the space the offense had to work with as a result of the receiver depth down field made for a lucrative opportunity that you would like to see in or out of structure.

We’ve looked at two different plays that Andy Reid dialed up for young Patrick Mahomes with the play structure the same, but different formations and two different results from them. One of the things that makes Reid such a good coach is his ability to get into the looks he wants to with different “window dressing”. The Chiefs ran a one-side route concept with a post and two deep routes working to the sideline, underneath the post and a leak in the flat after play action/protection responsibilities. They did it with different formations and players running the routes.

When Mahomes made his regular season debut, Reid went back to the well to get into the same play.

The running back, Anthony Sherman would have been leaking to the flats had the safety not blitzed off the edge. This is the exact same concept the Chiefs ran twice in the preseason for big gains. They found similar success in the regular season, with the same structure and a different solution. This is the same play call we saw earlier on the post throw. This time, no one from depth drives on the first crossing route, Albert Wilson.

The underneath coverage loses sight of Wilson. Mahomes handles the pressure, steps up, manipulates the movement of the underneath defender with his eyes and shoulders and calmly delivers a (dare I say no-look?) pass to a wide open Wilson. This play shows Mahomes’ growth to process the information, get through the progression and have the poise to bring his own subtle improvements to the play. When you see more subtleties and personality shining through the play, that’s an indication that the player isn’t thinking. I think we saw less thinking and more reacting in moments like this.

One other addition based on what Mahomes did in his pre-season/week 17 sample size was naked boots.

He’s only going to get better at this. Eye discipline off the boot action will continue to improve as he grows. Mahomes’ talents to move well and throw off platform should allow him to succeed with naked looks like this.

As for some carry overs from what Reid dialed up for Alex Smith, there are some concepts they used I would like to see thrown in.

There are a lot of things I like this play. Using three athletic tight ends can put defenses in difficult personnel decisions, which can help you predict the coverage and checks the defense can realistically execute. Moving Travis Kelce around allows the Chiefs to get him into the most favorable match up. Kelce and Smith might be reading this play. Against zone, Kelce runs a 7-stop route, selling a corner route and then stopping and sitting in the soft spot of the zone. The running back releasing to the flat is an important part of this play. Notice how the underneath coverage gets held and caught in between, creating a bigger void for Kelce and Smith to work within. Another key piece of what I like about this play is that the concept is being run to the field. Mahomes has the arm talent to throw a ball to the field like others can in the boundary. Use that extra space to your advantage.

The Chiefs found ways to better protect the quarterback but still get into the Post/Dig look they used with Mahomes.

This is a similar play the ones we saw Mahomes running earlier in the article. This time, the Chiefs use a 7 man protection and only three receivers out on routes. However, when one of those players is Tyreek Hill, you have the benefit of his speed to help your design. Hill runs a seam stem on the dig to get him farther across the field so he gets into the read and eyesight of the quarterback quicker. I like the idea of protecting Mahomes and making up for the lack of receivers out on routes by using some of the special talents in your building to get places not every one easily can. Same can be said for this play.

I profiled this play in my weekly 45 seconds series, where we break down one play every week from the previous game (you can see a list of every play I profiled during the season here). The Chiefs used play action and the stems of the routes to sell a play crossing the field, only to flip Kelce back into the boundary for a wide open touchdown. He is one of the few tight ends who has the hip fluidity to do these kinds of things. I want to continue to see creative plays like this for the young quarterback.

Mahomes has shown growth in this aspect of the game. The Chiefs have unique personnel that could create some opportunities downfield for their best players. Play action from under center seems like a match made in heaven. It’s still a small piece of what the Chiefs will be doing, but I’d like to see it continue to be incorporated. I would love to get three play action shots from under center and balance them with three run plays of the ten we have for discretionary distribution.


  • 33/65 plays - RPOs (23) and called run plays (10)
  • 6/65 plays - Tendency breakers out of the 3x1 looks the Chiefs run RPOs
  • 6/65 plays - Empty formation, five-man protection passes
  • 5/65 plays - two running back pass concepts (also 5/10 discretionary run plays mentioned in part one)
  • 3/65 plays - under center, play action passes (also 5/10 discretionary run plays mentioned in part one)

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