Multiple factors were at work.
Mahomes suffered a sprained ankle in Week 1 that plagued him for most of the first half of the season. Then his scary knee dislocation in Week 7 kept him out of a couple of games. Nor were Mahomes’ injuries the only physical ailments that contributed. Starting left tackle Eric Fisher missed the majority of the season — and through the year, three different players started at left guard.
But in the postseason, it’s been a different story.
Not only does Mahomes look as healthy and comfortable as he has all season, but the five starting offensive linemen played all 129 offensive snaps in two playoff games, turning in two of their most dominating performances in pass protection this season.
The box scores from these two games show that three total sacks were allowed.
One came on a trick-play attempt where wide receiver Sammy Watkins intended to throw but was eventually run out of bounds. Another happened on a busted RPO play where the sacker was purposefully left unblocked. The last was a coverage sack, occurring after Mahomes had moved around the pocket for five or six seconds before being surrounded.
The point? The offensive line didn’t allow a sack that was truly their fault.
Mahomes’ nine postseason touchdowns were scored with huge help from his front five. Let’s look at how the offensive line has been making this happen.
Interior offensive line has stepped up their game in the postseason. Along with Williams, the IOL handles this blitz/stunt well and allows Pat room to step up if he needs to #Chiefs pic.twitter.com/WIP9fBqlPt— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 23, 2020
During head coach Andy Reid’s tenure, a common complaint about the offensive line has been their inability to pick up pass-rushing stunts.
In this play, we see two linebackers approach both B gaps and then cross each other at the line of scrimmage. This can cause problems for the pass protection if the blockers aren’t able to communicate effectively or adapt to the play on the fly.
But here, the interior offensive line recognizes the blitz, seamlessly passes off each defender and braces to pick up the new rusher. With the help of running back Damien Williams, Mahomes has more room to move up in the pocket — and is able to cleanly release his throw.
Great example of keeping your head on a swivel and keeping busy here by Reiter. Goes back and forth helping his guards. A lot of space for Mahomes to operate pic.twitter.com/KNmgv5AEIs— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 28, 2020
It’s important that pass blockers who have no immediate threat to defend pitch in to help their teammates.
In this play, center Austin Reiter does a great job, putting himself in position to help both guards against their defenders. The three interior linemen all position themselves well, creating a wall that forms a clean pocket for Mahomes. Fisher also does a great job stonewalling his edge rusher.
Another good example of the OL showing good feel for eachother and communication. Reiter's last second block on Casey prevents pressure in Mahomes' face on this TD throw. Plus, Schwartz helping LDT out with a pancake pic.twitter.com/PqeZjGbDPs— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 28, 2020
For an offensive line, it’s all about the trust and cohesiveness — and now that the Chiefs’ group has had some continuity together, it’s been paying off.
Here, Reiter initially helps right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif — but keeps left guard Stefen Wisniewski in his peripheral vision. Once he sees defensive tackle Jurrell Casey use a swim move, he quickly moves over and helps Wisniewski squeeze him to stop his penetration. His quick reaction helps Mahomes make a great throw.
And notice right tackle Mitchell Schwartz has no work? So he patiently waits for the right time to pop Duvernay-Tardif’s rusher — and then returns to his spot to make sure no one is coming off the edge.
No caption needed on this one. Just enjoy pic.twitter.com/rCcz1s69cn— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 28, 2020
This play may be the best showcase of how much effort and dominance the Chiefs offensive line has shown in this postseason.
Mahomes is able to move around behind his protection for about 10 seconds before having to release the ball. The pass falls incomplete — but that doesn’t take away from how much fight the linemen put up while blocking for their gunslinger.
Fisher stays in a good spot and gets three separate hits on Casey. Duvernay-Tardif fights with his defender for basically the entire play, eventually getting him to the ground.
The tape doesn’t lie. This unit is putting it all out on the field.
Love Andy's token play action that turns into a chip on the edge rusher. Mahomes isn't able to escape without it on this play. Also, LDT and Reiter working together on the interior was pic.twitter.com/6E975UdbEX— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 28, 2020
All season. the Chiefs offense has been utilizing play-action often — and effectively. In fact, Mahomes had the fifth-most play-action attempts among all quarterbacks.
But these plays have not been deployed in a traditional manner. Reid will commonly use a token fake — or a fake handoff that is not carried out all the way through. This puts the running back in a position to help the offensive tackle by chipping the edge rusher.
Here, Williams’ chip on Texans defensive end J.J. Watt is the main reason Watt isn’t able to disrupt Mahomes’ scramble. Williams is then in a great position to block for Mahomes as he runs downfield. Also note the teamwork that Reiter and Duvernay-Tardif display as they take on the defensive line’s stunt.
All along the line, everyone’s play has improved — including the player who didn’t seem like he could perform any better.
Mitchell Schwartz has shut down the right edge of the offense in the postseason. He’s only allowed one pressure in 90 total pass blocking snaps. In the postseason, Schwartz has earned PFF’s highest overall grade — and the highest for run blocking — among offensive linemen.
Stefen Wisniewski — a less-likely hero — has also been very impressive. Added to the roster in early October, Wisniewski has started the past four games and has seemed to improve in each one. He’s gone up against good defensive tackles like the Texans’ D.J. Reader and Tennessee’s Casey, coming away with only one pressure allowed.
And his veteran presence may be having more of an impact on the unit than we know. While we are most familiar with him as a member of the Oakland Raiders, the 30-year old was the starting left guard for the 2017 Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles.
During the postseason, the Chiefs offensive line has played as well as anyone could have asked. It’s no coincidence that this has been happening while team has five starters playing together week-to-week. You can see their chemistry on the field — although while facing the San Francisco 49ers’ talented defensive front on Sunday, it may need to be raised to another level.