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Chiefs’ pass protection issues start — but don’t end — on the offensive line

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Matt Lane takes a look at the Raiders film to figure out why the Chiefs have been struggling to keep pass rushers away from Patrick Mahomes

NFL: DEC 01 Raiders at Chiefs Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In the last couple of games — whether it’s deserved or not — the Kansas City Chiefs offense drawn a lot of ire for their red zone scoring, lack of explosive plays, poor overall output... and simply looking ugly.

Despite offensive drives that resulted in 31 points, it’s fair to call the team’s offensive performance against the Oakland Raiders rather uninspiring. Some short fields (and a late garbage-time touchdown drive) helped boost the overall production, but in the grand scheme of things, the offense more resembled the one we saw in Mexico City against the Los Angeles Chargers than it did the 2018 Chiefs offense.

Many have wondered why this has been happening. Field conditions, weather, injuries, coaching and execution have all been suggested as explanations. There may not be a single answer — and the true cause might be even simpler: the team is still struggling to put it all together.

But one of the biggest complaints throughout the year has been the offensive line’s protection of quarterback Patrick Mahomes. And the game against the Raiders only strengthened that narrative.

Oakland Raiders v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Against a relatively average defensive line, the reigning NFL MVP quite often appeared to be running from pressure. For weeks on end, we had excused this by watching backup left tackle Cameron Erving struggle; we expected so see improvement when starter Eric Fisher returned.

While Fisher’s first game back didn’t set the world on fire, he was largely given a pass because of the elite defensive ends he was facing. But with the offensive line now fully healthy — and with Fisher having had the time to work his way into better game shape — the Oakland game should have been a turning point.

So let’s take a trip down into the AP Laboratory and see what’s going on with the Chiefs’ pass protection.

The quarterback

Not every pressure is a result of an offensive line failure. Sometimes it falls on the quarterback.

On this play in particular, the line blocks nearly perfectly; there’s no true threat to Mahomes in the pocket. A TEX stunt — a defensive tackle under with a defensive end over — does flash across the formation, and Mahomes is instantly out of the pocket. If he stays there half a second longer, he likely has the wheel route for a touchdown.

Kent Swanson has talked about this play — another example of a well-executed pocket being abandoned. But this time, there’s no stunt flashing across the front. In fact, Fisher does a good job — working deeper in the pocket to give Mahomes even more space than usual.

So in this one game, we see at least two plays where Mahomes had to rush a throw through no fault of the offensive line.

Even more worrisome are the deep drops Mahomes is taking. Early in 2019, we saw this a lot — but it got better over the season.

As we see on this play, Mahomes seems to be returning to his comfort zone: drifting backward because he can trust his arm to make up for the deep drop.

But constantly dropping 10 or more yards behind the line puts stress on the offensive tackles, forcing them to block a lot of ground. Even then, Mahomes still shows a tendency to drift laterally to escape these deep drops — rather than just sliding up into the pocket.

The coach

Sometimes what looks like pressure from an offensive line failure is actually the fault of the play itself.

Against the Raiders, the Chiefs ran six play-action bootlegs like this one — with no one (or only a tight end) blocking on the roll out side —and also ran two traditional play-action roll out plays (with an attempted block) and two sprint-out plays. Only two of these plays had positive results; more often than not, they made Mahomes operate under pressure.

Finally: the offensive line

These examples aren’t intended to argue the offensive line is without blame — or to say others are equally responsible for the quality of the pass protection. I’ve shown these only to demonstrate that not every play resulting in pressure is a direct result of poor offensive line play. But it has played a role, too.

Outside of Erving, the offensive line’s biggest problem has been their inability to counter defensive line stunts.

On this play, the Chiefs have a combination protection called with Big on Big (man protection) on the left and a slide (or gap) protection called on the right.

The Raiders do a good job attacking the front side of the play — the man protection — with a spear stunt. With Fisher and Andrew Wylie on different levels, there is no chance to pass off the rushers to each other; Fisher and the defensive end prevent Wylie from chasing his man — and because Fisher is driven backward and inside, the defensive tackle doesn’t have a big arc to run around.

On the back side of the play — the gap protection — center Austin Reiter does a good job getting depth — and is even with Laurent Duvernay-Tardif to protect an inside move. Unfortunately, the right guard’s second and third step get zero width in his pass set — and he leaves his outside shoulder soft.

Mitchell Schwartz also kind of gives up on the play; while he may be thinking the ball is already out, it’s only been a tiny bit over three seconds. He’s blocking for the outside gap, but when the defensive end loops around, he should be helping Duvernay-Tardif.

On this slant, Mahomes is able to get the ball to Travis Kelce — but you can see that if one of the first reads isn’t a short pass, it could have ended badly.

Fisher is riding the defensive end up the arc to about 10 yards. While he gives a soft corner and isn’t in great position, he’s done enough for a quick pass.

But if Mahomes does need an extra half-second, he has no room to step into the pocket because Duvernay-Tardif is beaten so badly up the middle. Again, he doesn’t get proper width. The defensive tackle is in a half-man position — and upon rocking Duvernay-Tardif back into the pocket, quickly swims over him.

So when Mahomes hits the drop, there is already a defender on him. He has to get the ball out quickly or escape the pressure — which in this case, would result in running into the defensive end coming around the edge.

On this play-action snap, it appears that Mahomes is supposed to throw it back to Kelce after he clears the trash — but once he looks in Kelce’s direction, there is a defensive tackle barreling down on him.

Wylie shows good footwork off the snap, framing up the rush nearly perfectly — but he gets out there without much knee bend and loses leverage. The defensive tackle stands him up even more — and when Wylie leans on him rather than popping his feet back to re-anchor, the defender just discards his hands. So Wylie stumbles — and the defensive tackle is free to give chase.

The bottom line

The Chiefs pass protection hasn’t been stellar — and while some metrics still rate the offensive line well, we’re still seeing Mahomes make a lot of plays under pressure.

Lately, it appears Andy Reid has taken it upon himself to make it easier on the offensive line by calling moving pockets, sprint-out plays and even bootlegs from play-action. Those — and Mahomes’ mobility — help mask some of the poor pass protection snaps. But when these things start becoming part of the problem, then what?

It’s really been a combination of everything.

Some poor offensive line play — especially on the inside — has not only blown up some plays but is also effecting Reid and Mahomes’ confidence in the unit. There isn’t always a clean pocket to navigate — but when there is, Mahomes vacates it too often because his own internal clock is based on previous failures. And Reid is likely trying to get Mahomes on the move earlier by design.

But just like teams have figured out how to run stunt after stunt to the man-protection side of the offensive line, they are also figuring out how to pressure Mahomes’ early pocket escapes and Reid’s called rollouts.

There is no easy (or instant) fix. But the Chiefs would be wise to bring back some of the quick passing to the short and intermediate parts of the field. Let Mahomes build his confidence back up — and avoid forcing the offensive line to block for so many deep passes until they can once again get on the same page.