The Kansas City Chiefs are on the doorstep of completing the Run It Back tour and cementing their place as one of the greatest teams in the history of the NFL.
COVID has loomed large over football the same way it has all of our everyday lives. In the case of the Chiefs, two key players along their offensive line opted out before the season even started. Super Bowl starting guard and doctor Laurent Duvernay-Tardif elected to stay on the front lines in the fight against an illness ravaging the world. Top-100 selection in this year’s draft Lucas Niang became the only draft pick to opt out of his rookie year.
The Chiefs were behind the 8 ball with their offensive line group before the season began. The one position Kansas City could least afford to lose players (besides Patrick Mahomes, of course) was the position that fell victim to the rigors of an NFL season. Three starters from the Chiefs’ Week 1 game will not line up for the Super Bowl.
The Chiefs have pieced together an offensive line for the majority of the season without starting guard Kelechi Osemele and All-Pro right tackle Mitchell Schwartz. The cruel realities of football popped up yet again late in the AFC championship game when Pro Bowl left tackle Eric Fisher came down with an Achilles injury that ended his season one game short of the ultimate goal and placed at least a portion of next year in question.
The Chiefs will be on their fourth and fifth options at tackle heading into the biggest game in the sport. Mike Remmers signed for the veteran minimum this offseason and has had to play significant snaps at right tackle this season. He will likely move to the left side on Sunday. Former undrafted free agent Andrew Wylie is slated to kick outside from his right guard position to play right tackle.
The Chiefs will start two undrafted free agents (Remmers, Wylie), two seventh-round picks (former backup Nick Allegretti, former waiver claim Austin Reiter) and an offensive lineman signed midseason after being released by the Pittsburgh Steelers (Stefen Wisniewski). The cap hit for their Super Bowl offensive line is $6,293,616 — less than the dead cap hit the team incurred for former safety Eric Berry in 2020 ($8,000,000).
This group will be thinner than an already-depleted group. It won’t be easy to handle a very good front in Tampa that’s coming on strong. EDGE rushers Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul were excellent in the NFC championship. Interior force Vita Vea returned, and Ndamukong Suh still has something left in the tank for his chance at a ring.
Make no mistake about it — the Chiefs have their hands full in their attempt to keep the Lombardi Trophy in Kansas City. But here’s the dirty secret about this offensive line and their especially concerning depth at tackle: it can’t get much worse than Super Bowl LIV.
This will not be the first Super Bowl that Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs will have to deal with significant pressure.— Kent Swanson (@kent_swanson) February 1, 2021
The Niners front last year (which is better than Tampa's) made Mahomes' life miserable. Nick Bosa was exceptional lined up across from Eric Fisher. pic.twitter.com/E1LGEczLLy
The pressure last year in Miami was unceasing.
Mahomes was forced to exit the pocket and run for his life at an alarming rate. Even when he had time to throw, he was forced to alter his arm angle to find a completion. Fisher had a miserable time trying to handle premier edge rusher Nick Bosa — it was a mismatch that looked like a fourth-string tackle lined up over a good rusher.
The Buccaneers have a good front — but it isn’t what the Chiefs saw last year with Bosa, DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, Dee Ford and Solomon Thomas. All hope is not lost for this group despite the sizable loss of Fisher. There are things that the Chiefs can do to mitigate the struggles that seem likely up front on Sunday. There’s a blueprint — and the truth is they’ve already been utilizing it.
There are keys in last year’s Super Bowl, the last time Tampa and Kansas City met up and the last time we saw this team to glean information about how the Chiefs can navigate their issues along the offensive line.
Run-pass options (RPOs)
Andy Reid will be in his bag with the RPO game to help mitigate the pass rush. It was diverse last week and the last time these two teams match up.— Kent Swanson (@kent_swanson) February 2, 2021
Barrett is neutralized with run responsibility, Mahomes drops it over the corner's head for 34 yards on the first play. pic.twitter.com/tDdfRK75eL
This is one of the countless examples of the variety this team showed in the run-pass option game both recently and against the Buccaneers. Just some of the looks the Chiefs have had success with — Travis Kelce in the flat and on a hitch, Hill on a slant, quick out, a bubble to Mecole Hardman. The list goes on and on.
They’ve attacked all over the field with a variety of weapons on the pass concepts tied to their run plays. And they’ve been lucrative — Hill popped a slant last week for a gain of 71 yards. The well designed RPO wheel to Hill above yielded 34 yards on the first play of the game. The beauty of the RPO game is the ball is out quickly and forces run responsibility on the defense. Barrett was slowed down and the ball was out so quickly that it didn’t matter who the Chiefs had lined up on the offensive line.
If Mahomes is decisive in the RPO game, he will be protected when they’re called.
The Chiefs leaned on the sprint pass in Super Bowl LIV, week 12 against TB, and in the AFCCG this year.— Kent Swanson (@kent_swanson) February 1, 2021
They called several each game to move from the rush, trusting Mahomes will find a completion in a reduced space.
They sealed the game against TB week 12 on a sprint out. pic.twitter.com/HhQe2qwHS3
Every game I studied for this article saw the Chiefs dialing up multiple sprint-out plays.
The concept is great for a poor offensive line — move the pocket away from the rush and afford an athletic quarterback more space to operate. It’s on the quarterback to make the right decision with a field cut in half — if you trust your quarterback to find a solution in and out of the structure of the play, you’re fine.
The Chiefs called six sprint-outs against the Bills to help take some pressure off the offensive line, and they trusted Mahomes to execute. In the Week 12 matchup between the two Super Bowl participants, the Chiefs dialed up several sprint-outs — including one to ice the game in the fourth quarter on a key third down. Mahomes had to get creative still on this play, but others were cleaner. I expect the Chiefs to call at least five of these this week.
Head coach Andy Reid is always harping on fundamentals and improving daily. Sometimes, the basics will do the trick when mitigating a pass rush.
Andy Reid always harps on fundamentals - doing the little things right.— Kent Swanson (@kent_swanson) February 1, 2021
Good chips by the running backs out of the backfield will help slow down the pass rush in spots. pic.twitter.com/ZMyiKywHzo
A good, effective chip by the running back on his way out of the backfield can help slow down an edge rusher. Darrel Williams is an outstanding back in protection and can provide a good pop as he heads out on his route. The same can be said for Le’Veon Bell.
Well executed, chips are a viable asset as the Chiefs try to boost their line as best they can. When it’s not, sometimes it helps to have the best player in the world.
There was supposed to be a chip on Wasp. It didn’t work. It didn’t matter.
There wasn't time to run Wasp. Mahomes made time.— Kent Swanson (@kent_swanson) February 1, 2021
If the Chiefs are going to beat the Bucs' excellent front with their pieced together offensive line, there are simply just some plays Patrick Mahomes will have to make to account for it - be it deep drops or out of structure. pic.twitter.com/5QKD8iMxck
There are going to be 10 to 15 plays — maybe more — in which the best player in the world is going to have to take it upon himself to make something happen. This isn’t a bad thing.
This is why this team is here — this who Patrick Lavon Mahomes is. He can bail you out of a bad play-call or shoddy protection. The Chiefs do what they can to avoid that — as evidenced by all the things they’ve done this entire season to help take some of the pressure off of him. He did it just last week.
Mahomes was a rhythm passer last week (more on that in a second). Between the sprint-out plays, screens, RPOs, runs and quick game — Mahomes had to hold on to the ball or beat pressure 11 times. He completed 8 of 11 passes for 105 yards and a touchdown in those plays.
Mahomes was actually better when his team needed him to make those plays. The problem for Tampa is he was exceptional at getting the ball out of his hands — surgical with the quick passing game.
Mahomes was surgical, decisive with the short passing game in the second half.— Kent Swanson (@kent_swanson) January 25, 2021
Off and soft? Mahomes was content to give the Bills death by papercut. Doesn't hurt when Tyreek Hill is running after the catch.
Still, the patience to attack short was awesome to see. pic.twitter.com/Oplfa4Nbyw
Tampa Bay will need quick pressure to affect Mahomes if he plays like this again. He was simply getting the ball out of his hand too quickly for pressure to be a significant problem. Quick pressure often requires free rushers — but blitzing Mahomes could prove fatal with how quickly he’s processing and getting the ball out.
The bottom line
This is the growth of Mahomes — how decisive he’s been getting the ball to his playmakers. It’s a veteran savvy that players this young typically don’t have. But Mahomes has added another tool in his belt. Yes, he can create plays — but recently, he hasn’t had to create because he’s operating so efficiently within the structure of the offense. There isn’t much defense can do.
For these reasons, I wonder if Tampa plays more man coverage to try and force Mahomes to hold the ball a tick longer behind this offensive line.
The stage is set — and the legend of Patrick Lavon Mahomes has another chance to grow behind a pieced-together offensive line against the old GOAT, Tom Brady. What’s being asked of him can be done — and will have to if the Chiefs are going to hoist the Lombardi trophy.
Mahomes finds new ways to amaze every week; I wouldn’t advise betting against him.