For most of the Kansas City Chiefs’ current eight-game win streak, the defense has put the team in a position to win. However, the last three games have been won by the offense’s ability to go on runs — whether it’s right out of the gate or the last quarter, plus overtime.
In the 36-10 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, quarterback Patrick Mahomes came out firing and didn’t stop until he was replaced after securing a 30-point lead early in the fourth quarter.
Mahomes made the position look easy throughout the day — smoothly navigating the pocket and accurately throwing to receivers consistently. He finished with his second-highest passer rating (135.1) of the season and his fourth-highest completion percentage (77%) — and he did all of that without All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce.
It was a “great game,” as head coach Andy Reid said in his post-game press conference. I took a closer look at what made it an exceptional performance from the former MVP:
Working to secondary read rightfully and seamlessly
On the opening drive, Mahomes had two dropbacks in which he made the correct play by working to a secondary target.
This is a wrinkle we've seen more for CEH in the pass game. Lines up at WR, pre-snap motion into backfield, then ball is snapped midway there and he runs route— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) December 28, 2021
Turns into smash concept here. Mahomes looks that way, sees flooded flat area, comes back to Bell in rhythym #Chiefs pic.twitter.com/Pu1sa947L9
On a first down, the Chiefs’ opening script calls for a formation wrinkle they’ve used in recent weeks to target running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire in the passing game. Initially lined up as the outside receiver, Edwards-Helaire motioned toward the backfield pre-snap — but then he pivoted to run a route as the snap is taken halfway through his motion.
The purpose of the snap’s timing is to catch defenders out of position. Offenses typically use that running back motion as a way to simply identify how the defense would react to that alignment. The player is usually motioned all the way back into a traditional running back alignment before the snap — and the defense can generally take that time to communicate and adjust.
On this play, Edwards-Helaire’s responsibility is the quick out route in the smash concept. This route combination features two patterns towards the sideline at different levels of the field. As Mahomes looks that way, he identifies that Pittsburgh has flooded the flat area — where he was hoping to quickly pass to Edwards-Helaire — with multiple defenders.
Instead of panicking, he quickly moves to his second read, which is tight end Blake Bell breaking into an open area vacated by the defense’s attention to the flat.
Example of 15's quick recognition of what D is giving him— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) December 29, 2021
Off of play action, his primary read is a downfield crossing route combo-- but PIT's blitzer leaves the short MOF open
As soon as Darrel turns around, ball is on him in time to take advantage for 12 yds pic.twitter.com/Z2fkoQg6wt
A much simpler example of taking what the defense is giving: Mahomes drops back out of play-action here and looks for which crossing route at the intermediate level is going to come open — then he recognizes the space in the short, middle of the field because of the Steelers’ fifth rusher.
Without hesitation, Mahomes delivers an easy pass to Williams — allowing him to catch and smoothly pivot away from the closest defender, ultimately gaining 12 yards.
Pass protection is a relationship between the quarterback and the offensive line; the inexperience of the Chiefs’ unit was always going to be a hurdle when striving to strengthen that relationship — but this game was a great example of the group’s improvement this season.
The amount of time Mahomes has here is ridiculous -- but also impressive the way he calmly bounces from read to read, staying in a triggering position— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) December 29, 2021
Running out of options, he attacks LOS, still staying in a trigger position -- allowing him to fire as soon as he sees Pringle pic.twitter.com/XdTZqKZENP
On this play, the pass protection gives Mahomes an unreal amount of time to operate from the pocket and decipher where to throw the ball — and he takes advantage of every second of it. We’ve seen these plays turn into Mahomes looking panicked or antsy at times this year; here, he calmly goes from one option to the other, staying in a prime-throwing position.
After five or six seconds doing that, he finally decides to attack the line of scrimmage — but he stays in a ready-to-fire position as he does so. That allows him to quickly trigger when wide receiver Byron Pringle enters his line of vision.
Stepping up to avoid edge pressure, Mahomes ID's Mecole on the crosser -- then tries to use his body and eyes to hold the LB from following him— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) December 28, 2021
It doesn't work, but 15 is talented enough to make a pinpoint throw going the other way w/o resetting his feet/shoulders pic.twitter.com/0tfONL6AIO
The Chiefs dial up a short-crossing route to wide receiver Mecole Hardman for this third-and-short conversion.
From the snap, edge pressure forces Mahomes to step up into the front of the pocket. He does so while keeping his eyes downfield — identifying that Hardman is running in front of the linebacker as he does so. In an effort to hold the linebacker from following Hardman, Mahomes directs his body language and eyes to make it look like he’s throwing to his left.
The linebacker isn’t fooled and commits to Hardman anyway. Without shifting his shoulders or feet back to normal position to make the throw, Mahomes can make a pinpoint pass going the other way.
It’s a great example of how his insane talent can make playing the quarterback position look much easier than it is.
Putting receivers in position to make plays
As Mahomes played with confidence, it led to him trusting receivers to make tough catches in certain situations.
For wide receiver Josh Gordon, two third-down attempts ended with the ball bouncing away from his intended hands.
Despite season-low 8 snaps, Josh Gordon saw a season-high 3 tgts. His 1st was out of reach, but the next two here are catchable -- albeit tough -- passes— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) December 28, 2021
Both on 3rd down too. You like to see Mahomes giving him chances, but you'd like to see Gordon complete it at the other end pic.twitter.com/9MOhrhhf27
On this first play, Gordon does a great job identifying that Mahomes is in a scrambling situation; he sprints into Mahomes’ line of vision from across the field and gives him a good option to convert the first down — but the tough catch was not made.
On the second play, Mahomes purposefully takes the safety to Gordon’s side away from his over-the-top coverage by pump faking to a route over the middle of the field. After the safety bites, Mahomes immediately sets himself up going right — pointing to Gordon to make a break towards the corner of the end zone. However, the well-placed pass was broken up.
The bottom line
Patrick Mahomes played one of his best games of the season on Sunday — doing so without his most reliable, consistent target in tight end Travis Kelce.
In an opportunity for Mahomes’ confidence and comfort in the pocket to wane because of it, he overcame it to look as in control of the offense as he has all year.