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Review to preview: How to handle Patrick Mahomes’ running ability in 2021

You have to look back to look forward sometimes. I studied Mahomes’ rushes from 2020 to determine how his rare skill should be utilized moving forward.

Las Vegas Raiders v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

As we excitedly wait for Kansas City Chiefs training camp to open in late July, it’s a good time to recall the 2020 team’s performance in specific areas of the game and determine if it is set to improve or regress in 2021.

One of the most underrated aspects of quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ skill set is his running ability — but it’s important to be smart about how to use it while keeping the signal-caller healthy. I watched all of Mahomes’ rushes from 2020 and determined the best way to deploy them in the future.

The numbers

Before digging deeper into this phase of the game, I’ll lay the foundation with how statistically effective Mahomes’ rushing was.

  • Mahomes had 62 official rushing attempts in 2020, the ninth-most among all NFL quarterbacks. Most of his runs came in scrambling form; he scrambled 42 times in the regular season, per PFF. It was the fifth-most scrambles in the league; the players ahead of him were Deshaun Watson, Russell Wilson, Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray.
  • Mahomes averaged 7.1 yards per scramble in 2020, a nearly identical rate as Jackson and a higher rate than Watson.
  • Once you remove quarterback kneel-downs and scrambling situations, only six regular-season plays were designed for Mahomes to run — and three more in the postseason. He totaled 13 yards on the nine plays with one touchdown scored — and a scary injury in the Divisional Round against the Cleveland Browns.
  • The Chiefs did not attempt a quarterback sneak in 2020.

The film

Mahomes’ scrambling ability is a real asset to the Chiefs’ offense. It’s a big reason why the Chiefs faced blitzes as little as any offense in the NFL last season. Defenses need as many defenders in coverage as possible, but they also don’t want Mahomes evading the blitz and gaining a chunk of yards because every coverage defender was focused on their man coverage responsibility.

Mahomes doesn’t get the proper amount of credit for his athleticism, but it’s his intelligence as a ballcarrier that gives him an edge in the open field. He understands how worried defenders are about giving up a big play through the air, so he uses that fear against them with effective pump fakes.

Even when he knows he’s past the line of scrimmage, he uses them to move a defender and gain himself an extra chunk of yards.

His intelligence extends to the designed run plays as well — whether it’s a zone read or a classic option pitch play.

Mahomes’ comfort in running option pitch plays has been a real luxury for the offense over his three years as a starter. There have been many crucial short-yardage conversions from these types of plays, including multiple times in their Super Bowl LIV victory.

Unfortunately, the last time Mahomes ran an option play, it resulted in the neck injury that forced him to be in concussion protocol for the remainder of the Divisional Round game against the Browns. The damage wasn’t the fault of Mahomes, but there are a few examples of Mahomes unnecessarily putting himself in harm's way.

It’s hard to ask such a competitive player to run out of bounds before the first-down marker or give up on gaining extra yards. Still, Mahomes has to understand the imbalance when weighing the positive outcomes of the play against the negatives. You might gain a first down for this play, but you also could remove yourself from the field for multiple weeks, depending on the kind of contact you take.

Mahomes’ athleticism and running ability will still factor in the offense’s success but should be in a safer, more limited capacity.

Looking forward to 2021

AFC Championship - Buffalo Bills v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

In back-to-back seasons, Mahomes has suffered an injury on a designed quarterback run. We haven’t seen a sneak since the 2019 incident, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see fewer option pitch plays in 2021. If they do want to run them, I’m sure the coaching staff has been in Mahomes’ ear about protecting himself as much as possible.

It will be a lot harder to prevent Mahomes from scrambling — although the improved offensive line ideally allows him to stay in the pocket longer. As a playmaker that trusts his running ability, Mahomes shouldn’t hesitate to pick up chunks of yards on the ground when the opportunity presents itself. He just needs to be more consistent at sliding early and avoiding contact on the sideline.

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