Right when you thought that maybe Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes couldn’t get any better... maybe he just did.
In reviewing his film from this past Sunday’s season opener against the Cleveland Browns, there were some encouraging signs of improvement. Months from now — when we’re talking about who should be 2021’s NFL MVP — this game should be part of the conversation. Let’s take a look at some of the reasons why.
Patience against deep zone coverage
Coming off last season’s losses in Super Bowl LV — and to the Las Vegas Raiders during the regular season — Mahomes suggested that he was sometimes too aggressive in trying to force plays down the field. Rather than take the quick, short gains that those defenses left for the taking by playing conservative zone coverages, he often tried to extend plays to create explosive completions 20 or more yards downfield — with little success.
During the summer, this was one particular area in which Mahomes said he intended to improve — and so far, the returns have been good.
Lotta talk this offseason about Mahomes working to take what defenses give them more efficiently, and he did just that against the Browns' common soft zone coverage shells. Defenses can't just drop deep and expect that to work if he's going to operate this way. pic.twitter.com/x6MZqMk84M— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 15, 2021
These efficient, intelligent decisions are important because they keep an offense ahead of schedule. When Mahomes does what he can to ensure the team is in third-and-short situations, he enables head coach Andy Reid (and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy) to keep the playbook wide open. It also prevents opposing defenses from simply teeing off on Mahomes — as they could in third-and-long scenarios where passing plays are essentially guaranteed.
Trust in the interior offensive line
This season, we can already see the commitment Mahomes is making to stepping up in the pocket more frequently, rather than drifting backward from the line of scrimmage.
Against Cleveland, superb performances in pass protection by offensive linemen Joe Thuney, Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith made Mahomes’ transition to this new style of play even more seamless.
It was evident that 15 wanted to step up in the pocket more frequently than he has, and a very good interior OL performance made that possible as the OTs tried to run edge rushers up the arc. The way Thuney, Creed, and Trey pass that off is art. pic.twitter.com/tjDnQbjkcp— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 15, 2021
I just love the options Mahomes has when he can escape moving forward as opposed to backward. Can manipulate the 2nd level defenders to open passing windows or take off as he does here. Was expecting CEH to block #43, end result is a big hit taken because the block didn't happen. pic.twitter.com/cShKiNOSkc— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 16, 2021
Frequently escaping through the B gap (between an offensive tackle and guard) enables Mahomes to stress defenses more than he could in any other way. It’s something that Aaron Rodgers has done at an elite level for years — and Mahomes continues to take it to another level.
The homerun ball - I'll buy that this was just elite ball placement. Mahomes has the instincts to identify that the DB is sprinting toward the pylon w/ his back turned. Hill can see and adjust as needed. The throw is great b/c it was either going to be incomplete, or... touchdown pic.twitter.com/gEECh5v2Vp— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 16, 2021
Chemistry with Hill and Kelce
Mahomes, wide receiver Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce are already likely to go down in history as one of the game’s greatest trios of offensive playmakers. But if Sunday’s game was a sign of things to come, their best may yet lie ahead.
3rd-and-4, 3x1 formation w/ Kelce isolated. Browns again go zone blitz, the safety at top of the screen drops down into hole leaving a ton of green grass for Tyreek to race a LB (#4) and S (#43) over to. Mahomes delivers w/ accuracy as he's about to be hit. +++ pic.twitter.com/SnmvVPINH8— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 16, 2021
Mahomes and Kelce both probably know this is going to be a TD before the ball is snapped based on the defensive look. Hardman runs the CB off and Kelce's route stem keeps the LB on his heels to the inside. So much space, easy 6. pic.twitter.com/H0HyMO6dnP— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 15, 2021
CLE generally played soft zone coverage Sunday, but for key 3rd downs, they became more aggressive. They show a man coverage pressure pre-snap here, but Mahomes and Hill are on same page as we've seen so many times - Tyreek sprints the CB's hips open, sits down for the easy first pic.twitter.com/HL0OwUt3qL— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 15, 2021
In terms of their approach to covering them, Cleveland didn’t treat Kelce or Hill like the special talents they are — and they paid for that mistake. As the season progresses, it will be interesting to see which tight ends or wide receivers will step up when defenses commit greater resources toward limiting these two dynamic players.
In the just-for-your-viewing pleasure category, we have several plays from Sunday where Mahomes exhibits some of the unique playmaking capabilities that set him apart from so many other quarterbacks.
Yep, moves the LB like that w/ his eyes and just casually whips it in there to Kelce in stride. And it looks easy. Lol. pic.twitter.com/RuYRIeBtmk— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 15, 2021
There are small aspects to Mahomes’ game that are often overshadowed — but they all add up to making him who he is. His subtle ability to almost always throw the football to a receiver where it creates the greatest potential for yards after the catch is yet another way he helps keep the offense ahead of the sticks.
A small detail that can get lost within Mahomes' various arm angles and how he alters touch is his ball placement. All three of these throws position the receiver to quickly transition upfield and that stuff matters for gaining YAC. pic.twitter.com/1HYfFOl8Ac— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 15, 2021
Lastly, there’s no one better at keeping their eyes up amidst chaos around them. It is one of the traits that made Mahomes such an alluring prospect coming out of Texas Tech in 2017.
Mahomes TD run - he's notoriously great at keeping his eyes upfield at all times. Sees the CB dropping under Gray's crosser, still avoids 55 with his underappreciated agility and the instincts are on display to finish with a heady fake toward CEH. pic.twitter.com/0sIdZrk6be— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 15, 2021
Areas for improvement
While talking to the Kansas City media on Wednesday, Mahomes suggested that he is still working to reduce the depth of his dropbacks. This key play toward the end of the Cleveland game provides a good example.
3rd-and-10 ~ Mahomes mentioned in his presser today that he's still working on the depth of his pass drops, meshing it with Brown and Niang's pass sets. Here we see the steps do become a little too long and with quick pressure off both edges, the play never has a chance. pic.twitter.com/PVC6aTxBYU— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 16, 2021
Since Mahomes is surrounded by an entirely new set of starting offensive linemen, this sort of thing is bound to happen. But it should only get better with time and repetition.
The bottom line
Kansas City’s offensive players and coaching staff deserve plenty of credit for how they performed against the Browns, scoring on six of their nine offensive drives. But no one played at a higher level than their quarterback.