When nothing is going right for the Chiefs, they can usually count on quarterback Patrick Mahomes to shoulder the load and keep them in a position to win. But on Sunday, he wasn’t able to do that. He had significant scrambles, threw a touchdown pass and had two interceptions that weren’t his fault — but he truly had an off game.
For most of the night, Mahomes didn’t look comfortable playing from the pocket. He missed important throws, had poor footwork and struggled to process the Bills’ aggressive coverage that effectively mixed man and zone.
Statistically, it was one of the worst games of Mahomes’ pro career: he finished with the lowest yards per attempt and second-lowest passer rating of any game he has started.
Let’s look at the film to see what went wrong.
Pressing to score
At times, it was evident that Mahomes was pressing to make big plays. There’s no problem with giving deeper routes a chance to break open — but when they aren’t there, Mahomes needs to continue his progressions in a timely manner.
A sign that Mahomes was pressing:— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) October 13, 2021
7-man protection, only 3 players out on a route. Plenty of time in clean pocket
Mahomes waits and waits for a window to throw DRob's corner-post, but it's covered
Has to bite the bullet at some point and check down to Tyreek in left flat pic.twitter.com/AUsVpaNpdC
This is a three-man route. One of them is with wide receiver Tyreek Hill, who is in the flat as the check-down option. Mahomes climbs the pocket, intending to throw to the post being run by wide receiver Demarcus Robinson — but the Bills have it covered well. Instead of sitting tight in the pocket and progressing to the checkdown, he runs into traffic and scrambles for minimal yards.
Poor execution of play calls
At times, Mahomes appeared to misread the Buffalo defense; the Bills did a good job of disguising coverage by mixing man and zone looks — while also covering individual receivers well. It led to missed opportunities.
This is usually a routine play for #Chiefs O. 3x1 set, RB swing to side w/ Kelce isolated. Man-beater; Kelce disrupts LB manned up on CEH— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) October 13, 2021
Mahomes sees the successful pick, but throws elsewhere. Converts still, but feels like this should be thrown to RB 10/10 times pic.twitter.com/Z6piczXM9U
This red-zone play is a staple in the Chiefs’ offense that is specifically used to defeat man coverage: the running back runs a swing pass to the one-receiver side. The isolated receiver runs an inside route that gets in the way of the box defender covering the running back, giving the back a step on his defender with open space to the sideline.
Ideally, Mahomes takes his drop, recognizes the Bills are in man coverage, sees Travis Kelce successfully disrupt the linebacker’s path to the flat and gets it to the running back immediately. Instead, he throws a quick pass to wide receiver Byron Pringle past the sticks.
There’s nothing wrong with getting a first down — but based on the way Buffalo defended it, the pass should have gone to the running back; it could have gone further than the pass to Pringle.
Mahomes and Gordon not on same page here; he wants to go there right away.— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) October 13, 2021
My best guess is that Gordon has an option: run slant v. zone OR run deep v. man
Bills man him up, but play quarters in the rest of the secondary. Mahomes looked at S in quarters and expected slant pic.twitter.com/02T6GEhzGi
This appears to be a miscommunication between Mahomes and new Chiefs wide receiver Josh Gordon — but I don’t believe it is necessarily the fault of either player.
Buffalo decides to play man coverage on Gordon — but not any other receiver. The rest of the secondary is in a Cover 4 shell. As Mahomes takes the snap, his eyes go to the safeties — which tell him it’s deep zone coverage.
Here’s the reason this is important: I’m making an educated guess that Gordon has the option to run a vertical route if he faces man coverage or an in-breaking route (like a slant) if he sees zone. Gordon sees man coverage and goes deep — but Mahomes sees it as zone everywhere else, so he sets to throw to Gordon on a slant. When he recognizes that Gordon isn’t running that route, he bails on the play and scrambles for positive yards.
The most uncharacteristic aspect of Mahomes’ performance was a handful of inaccurate passes. They happened for a variety of reasons.
The thing about playing heavy 2-high shell teams is you have to take advantage on the few plays they aren't in it#Chiefs catch Bills in Cover 3. CB on play-side drives on Tyreek's curl, leaving the deep 1/3 open for Travis on the wheel— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) October 12, 2021
Clean pocket, feet set, can't miss this pic.twitter.com/ofxrQGpeEh
On this play, the Chiefs try for a big pass play on first down. They fake a run, revealing the Bills to be in a one-high safety look — which, on Sunday, was rare to see. With perfect timing, the Chiefs execute a great route combination to beat Cover 3: Hill runs a deep curl, while Kelce runs a wheel down the sideline behind it. The play-side cornerback has to choose whether to close on Hill or deepen with Kelce; he chooses Hill.
That leaves Kelce wide open — but even with Mahomes’ feet set in a clean pocket, the pass is too high for the tight end.
Steps up into a fine pocket, has great anticipation to see and lead Hill into the window past Edmunds, but ball is low and too far away. A narrow miss, but a miss nonetheless— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) October 13, 2021
Ball seemed to nosedive on him a few times Sunday night #Chiefs pic.twitter.com/4nTwUPQHZv
This throwing decision features excellent anticipation — and an ability to lead Hill into the throwing window — but it’s low and away; Hill has to slide to have a chance at it.
As hard as this throw is to make, we’ve often seen Mahomes make it look routine.
4th&5 late in 1st half— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) October 13, 2021
2 man under look turns into C1 w/ robber. Bills cover well, ball should probably be on Kelce out of his break.
Footwork breaks down at top of drop after 1st read is covered, preventing good position to quickly react and fire to Kelce. pic.twitter.com/TIEo9Qm2an
This may have been the most impactful incompletion of the game.
On fourth down late in the first half, Mahomes takes the snap and sees the Bills’ defense in man coverage with one safety over the top and the other in a roaming, robber role over the middle.
As he drops back, he looks for his first read — Hill on a deep out — but the defender has him well-covered. That’s when Mahomes starts to panic a little: he immediately loses his drop-back footwork, replacing it with jittery feet that are in a running position instead of a throwing position — even though there is no pass rush to speak of.
His happy feet prevent Mahomes from firing a pass to Kelce right out of his break over the middle to convert. As he sees Kelce come open, his body isn’t positioned to make a quick, accurate throw. Once that passes, he locks onto Kelce and tries a very dangerous throw over the middle.
Calmer pocket presence — even after he initially misses Kelce — could have led to Mahomes eventually escaping up through the pocket and gaining five yards with his legs.
The bottom line
As impressive as Mahomes has been during his young NFL career, he has one flaw that seems to come and go: proper pocket presence. We’ve seen it when injuries have impacted the offensive line, so it might be that Mahomes’ unfamiliarity with the new line is leading to a reoccurrence of the issue. Either way, it was a constant problem on Sunday. It led to poor footwork — which in turn led to missed throws.
It didn’t help that there were other offensive problems: receivers dropped passes, the offensive tackles struggled in pass protection and the play-calling was questionable. Yet, a more typical Mahomes performance could have overcome all of those factors.