As you would expect for any team that began the season 3-4 — and has now won five consecutive games to put themselves back into the thick of the AFC’s postseason race — a lot of ink (or electrons, as we would say here on the Interwebs) is being devoted to the unusual way the Kansas City Chiefs have recently been taking care of their business: by depending on the team’s defense to win games.
It’s something we really haven’t seen since quarterback Patrick Mahomes took over the offense in 2018. Although the unit started the way we expected — averaging 30.8 points per game through the first six weeks of the season — it’s averaged just 19.7 in the six games since then. Meanwhile, the team’s defense — which allowed an average 29.3 of points during those first six games — has averaged just 13.8 in the second six.
And after going 3-3 through that first part of 2021, the team is 5-1 through the second.
The most apparent difference in the offense has been the number of interceptions Mahomes has thrown. When measured as a percentage of attempts, it’s been two and a half times as many as has he has thrown in each of the last two seasons — when he threw a pick on just one of every 100 attempts. Last season, that 1% rate was the NFL’s lowest.
The blame for many of these interceptions has been laid at the feet (or more appropriately, the hands) of Mahomes’ receiving targets. A NextGen Stats statistic from after the team’s 19-9 victory against the Dallas Cowboys is being referenced everywhere.
Patrick Mahomes throws his sixth interception this season that had above a 75% chance of being completed (twice as many as any other QB).— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) November 21, 2021
Mahomes had thrown just two INTs on such passes in his first three seasons as a starter combined.#KCvsDAL | #ChiefsKingdom pic.twitter.com/n6UeIO2QiW
During Sunday night’s 22-9 win over the Denver Broncos, the quarterback’s 12th interception of the season came when a pass bounced off the hands of wide receiver Tyreek Hill into those of Denver’s rookie cornerback Patrick Surtain II — meaning that exactly half of Mahomes’ interceptions have been on passes that should have been completed — and in previous seasons, overwhelmingly have been.
Considering the half-and-half nature of Kansas City’s season so far, what else would you expect?
“Every day after practice, we catch extra balls,” Chiefs head coach Andy Reid told reporters on Wednesday. “We make sure we get that done. [We focus on] concentration on the ball and looking at it all the way in — going back to those fundamentals — on every throw during practice; any time you’re catching the ball, look it all the way into the tuck. And we’ll keep working on it.”
But in typical fashion, Mahomes just isn’t having that explanation. Like Missouri’s favorite son, Harry S. Truman, he says the buck stops with him.
“Those guys are always catching footballs — before and after practice, during practice — but I think for me, as a quarterback, I’ve got to throw the ball in better places,” he insisted during his turn at the podium on Wednesday. “Some of those drops are because the ball is not in the right place. So if I can get the ball in a better place where it’s more catchable — especially when they’re in traffic — it’ll probably cut down on those numbers. It has as much to do with me as it does with them.”
Getting down to cases, Mahomes refused to pin the blame for his most recent pick on Hill.
“Some of the dropped passes [that] people get hung up on — even the one in [Sunday’s] game that got intercepted — if I throw the ball in a better spot, he makes the catch and probably splits and scores. But I threw it high and hard, [so] it gets tipped up and picked. People kind of put it on him, but it’s really on me to make a better throw.”
And while acknowledging that the way opposing defenses have chosen to defend against him in 2021 has played a role in the team’s lack of offensive success, he doesn’t consider it an excuse — at least not any longer.
“We’ve seen zone coverages before,” noted the quarterback. “Obviously, they’re playing a little deeper than we’re used to — but [we] should be [used to it] by now, because it’s happened kind of [through] this whole middle part to the end of the season.”
Those defensive adjustments have caused the team to emphasize a more traditional version of the West Coast offense on which Reid’s scheme is based — one that is designed to use the short-to-intermediate routes a defense allows when it is in deep-coverage schemes. The idea was that the team could move the chains — and when defenses adjusted in turn, opportunities for the explosive plays (for which Mahomes is famous) would develop.
#Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes favored short passes on #SNF vs. Broncos (5.2 air yards per attempt) and 2.7 air yards per completion. This season, Mahomes is averaging 4.7 air yards per completion, which is tied for the third-lowest in the league.— Pete Sweeney (@pgsween) December 8, 2021
(per Zebra Technologies)
As this Zebra Technologies statistic makes clear, the team has been doing exactly that. But so far, it hasn’t worked out as planned.
“I hit those throws that I’ve hit in the past, we’ll have all the explosive plays,” promised Mahomes. “It’s going to take me being better — hitting those throws when they’re there — but defenses are limiting them. And whenever we do have that shot, I’ve got to hit it. I haven’t done that this last few weeks.”
The quarterback also said that opponent pass-rushing schemes have changed, preventing him from using the outlets he’s typically used to make his famous out-of-structure plays.
“Teams are doing a pretty good job of when they rush, they kind of stay in certain lanes — they don’t get over-aggressive to make me scramble out and do stuff like that,” he explained.
But even then, Mahomes was unwilling to list that as an excuse, saying that behind the team’s newly-revamped offensive line, he’s getting plenty of time and space within the pocket to maneuver.
“It’s just finding ways to execute,” he said. “Finding ways to get the ball out of my hand, make some better passes, complete some throws and continue drives kind of the way we’ve been starting drives. And that’s with touchdowns.”
The good news, of course, is that as Mahomes and the offense have struggled in recent weeks, the Kansas City defense has risen to the challenge.
“Luckily enough, our defense is playing good enough that whenever [turnovers] happened, they’ve been able to get stops [or] get turnovers — or whatever it is — and not let it impact the team,” noted Mahomes. “But you understand that turnovers are a huge part of this game. Luckily, our defense is getting a lot of turnovers — so we’re still winning that turnover battle — but I’ll try to limit them as much as possible. But at the same time, I’ve just got to be me — and I’ll continue to throw the football and give guys a chance to make plays.”
But at the end of the day — to borrow a phrase from Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy — Mahomes believes the team’s recent success starts with the character of the players the franchise has assembled.
“You’ve got a lot of guys — a lot of leaders — in this room that know how to deal with adversity,” maintained Mahomes. “They know how to go throughout the process — and I think [there are] a lot of guys that just know how to win football games. You’ve seen it. People talk about it. We’re not winning the same way as we’ve always won.
“But it takes a lot of leaders to win the football game — no matter how it’s played. So to be able to have the defense step up the way they have been playing, the offense making drives whenever they need to [in order to] win football games, it shows the type of guys we have in this locker room.”
And that starts with a quarterback who insists that winning — not his own success — is the primary goal.
“As a quarterback, [when] you go out there, you want to throw the ball and score and do all [the] different kinds of stuff — but I think I’d feel better if we won,” he said of Monday night’s game between the New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills, in which the Patriots’ rookie quarterback Mac Jones threw only three passes in a 14-10 victory. “So I mean, if you throw three passes — [and] you win the football game against a division opponent that’s right there with you at the top of the AFC — I think [that] at the end of the day (there’s that Bieniemy phrase again!), you’re going to be happy going home.”