It's a hard pill to swallow for fans and followers of the two-time defending AFC champion Kansas City Chiefs: they aren't playing like a contender currently, and the biggest reason is underwhelming performances by the individuals most important to the team's success.
The Chiefs were built to outscore opponents with an overpowering pass game. The defense was never expected to carry the load, and the rushing attack wasn't supposed to be a primary feature; this team was always going to live or die by the efficiency and explosiveness of throwing the ball.
That phase of the game was trending down in recent weeks — but it all came to a head in Week 7 against the Tennessee Titans. Specifically, they failed to get anything going on the first three drives of the game — which helped put them in an insurmountable hole.
Whether you evaluate it statistically or with your own eyes, quarterback Patrick Mahomes had the worst regular-season start of his career against the Titans. He set a single-game career-low for passer rating (62.3), had his fourth-lowest yards per attempt for a game (5.89) and didn't score a touchdown for only the third time in his career.
The ugly performance started early with poor pocket presence; the Chiefs' first drive stalled because Mahomes failed to play with confidence and integrity in the pocket on the last two plays of the possession.
Ex: poor pass pro + Mahomes not trusting it— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) October 26, 2021
Feels Brown get beat around edge. In theory, stepping up and left allows Brown to wash DE out behind QB
Instead 15 avoids by scrambling away. The issue: Brown gets beat so bad that the right play (stepping up) is likely still a sack pic.twitter.com/czfsfZ6VeK
On second-and-9, Mahomes drops back to pass. Quickly, left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. is beaten with speed around the edge; Mahomes feels it and instantly decides to scramble away from the pressure. Brown is the only lineman who fails his assignment; the rest of the unit forms a wall, which Mahomes should ideally find.
Rather than scrambling, Mahomes can climb toward the line of scrimmage and continue through his progressions. Not only does the blocking of the interior linemen allow him to do so, but it also gives Brown a better chance to recover and take the edge rusher out of the play behind the pocket. Brown isn't in a great position to recover, so his rusher still could have turned the corner and gotten home — but that's where Mahomes needs to speed up his progression and get the ball out quickly as he steps up.
If he did stay in the pocket and within the design of the play, he would've seen the middle of the field open up for wide receiver Tyreek Hill on his in-breaking route from the left slot.
On the next play, Mahomes' timing with 87 is off due to physical coverage. He gets to top of his drop and wants to throw, but hesitates— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) October 26, 2021
If he steps up into cleaner area of pocket, past Brown's rusher to wait for Kelce to create the separation, this could've been a big conversion pic.twitter.com/nz20bcaYKw
The next play is third-and-7, and the pass protection unfolds very similarly: Brown gets beat around the outside, but the front of the pocket is secure enough to step up into and minimize the impact of Brown's rusher.
On this snap, Mahomes is obviously focused on tight end Travis Kelce. Kelce is running an in-breaking route over the middle, but the timing is disrupted by physical man coverage. Mahomes realizes he can't throw on time — but instead of climbing the pocket up and to the left to buy more time as Kelce works to create separation, he stands still. That allows the edge pressure to complete the sack of Mahomes.
If Mahomes did buy the necessary time, he would've had an easy throw to Kelce past the first-down marker; Kelce's separation combined with the open field in front of him would have created a big play.
After a first-down pass where Mahomes hesitated to hit his first read and ended up throwing the ball at a receiver's feet, a negative run followed — setting up third-and-11.
3rd down of 2nd series— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) October 26, 2021
It's almost like Mahomes reacted very late to the crease to step up in pocket. Initially wants to scramble back and around, but tries to move up through lane when it's too late.
Had Hardman open over middle of field for conversion #Chiefs pic.twitter.com/Yv2Faa461M
The Titans run an effective pass-rush stunt to earn penetration into the backfield — but it wasn't unbeatable. Mahomes feels the penetration from the left A-gap, and his initial reaction is to get deeper and try to escape around the outside. That gives the defensive tackle looping to that side an angle to cut him off, plus that side's edge rusher a better chance at getting to him.
While it wasn't the easiest pocket to maneuver, Mahomes clearly recognizes the seam he has to step up through to keep the design of the play alive; he attempts to move forward into it — but after he had already taken multiple steps towards bailing outside. If he reacts to that lane in the pocket quicker, he would have had a clean platform to decide between taking off to run for a first down or continuing in his progression to find an open receiver within the play.
The open receiver would have been right in Mahomes' line of vision; wide receiver Mecole Hardman's curl route creates separation past the sticks over the middle of the field. Instead, Mahomes gets wrapped up and can't get a pass off.
Trailing 17-0 in the middle of the second quarter, the Chiefs' offense felt the pressure of the large deficit — and it showed on the first play of their third possession.
Here we see great pass pro. Mahomes decides against the easy 5-6 yard gain on 1st down to Kelce in the flat for a bigger play— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) October 26, 2021
No problem with the aggression, this throw just needs to be more inside and further away from the LB defending Gordon. It is a good play by 51 though pic.twitter.com/9RZlcOjGci
On this first-down pass, the pass protection is excellent; the front creates a clean pocket for Mahomes to comfortably work in and go through his progressions without pressure.
Mahomes first looks to Kelce on a short route towards the left; Kelce is open for a moderate gain to open the drive, but Mahomes passes that up. From there, Mahomes escapes the pocket to the left and locks in on wide receiver Josh Gordon downfield. An inaccurate pass leads to a tipped ball and an interception.
While a more accurate pass — specifically, ball placement further away from where the defender was covering Gordon — could have turned this into a vintage Mahomes play, there were ways to turn this into a positive snap within the design. Not only did Mahomes have Kelce open as his primary read, but he also had the opportunity to check it down to running back Darrel Williams if he didn't feel good about his reads; there were no defenders near Williams as he slipped out of the backfield.
The bottom line
The coaching staff deserves blame for the slow start on both sides of the ball against the Titans. Frankly, the Chiefs haven't played well from the beginning of the game in each of the last three weeks — and that points to a lack of adequate preparation.
However, the offense's woes to begin the game can rightfully be blamed on a lack of execution — and that starts with the signal-caller. The pass protection had a rough game, but an elite quarterback should sometimes neutralize those bad snaps. When it appeared he could have, Mahomes didn't.
Correcting his bad habits in the pocket is much easier said than done; it's about Mahomes playing more confidently within the play's structure. That can only be strengthened with live-game snaps. A one or two-game stretch with better pass protection and success on designed pass plays would undoubtedly help his self-confidence.