If you’re like me, you may have felt like the Kansas City Chiefs’ 42-21 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers was not a typical playoff victory. With the expanded playoff field, Pittsburgh hobbled into the playoffs despite having a -55 point differential — and the result on Wild Card weekend mirrored how their season has gone.
So it might be hard to have significant takeaways from the performance and how it can affect the Chiefs’ remaining playoff run — but I believe the offense’s day is worth looking into, both the sluggish start and the explosion late in the first half.
I looked at three aspects of the game:
A confident Patrick Mahomes
Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes has made it clear all season that the team was still confident in its abilities, whether winning or losing. Against the Steelers, that statement was tested; the first five drives resulted in zero points — and it could have led to the pressing we’ve seen from Mahomes in the past.
It’s safe to say that it didn’t.
The Pringle TD was a unique score; rarely do you see the #Chiefs run a goal-line fade type of route in the RZ— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 19, 2022
It makes me believe that Patrick recognized CB playing the slant, audibled to slant&go, and executed it
Tells you how confident and comfortable Mahomes is playing pic.twitter.com/IehSv8lLNa
The second touchdown of the Chiefs’ 35-0 in-game run happens because of a route the Chiefs rarely use: wide receiver Byron Pringle fakes a slant, then cuts vertical towards the back pylon. A pump fake from Mahomes sells the initial slant — then a perfectly-placed touch pass scores.
It’s a great play, but it’s the mindset behind the quarterback that makes this notable. Before the snap, Mahomes communicates with his teammates and appears to audible; one of the last motions he makes is towards Pringle. I believe Mahomes recognized the Steelers’ leverage in coverage to take away a slant and wanted to take advantage.
It proves how comfortable and confident he is with what he sees from the defense — especially because the route he audibles to is nearly never utilized by the Chiefs. They attack horizontally in the red zone more than vertically, but Mahomes just wants to run what the defense is giving him; on this play, it’s a vertical route — and he recognizes it.
Another play showing the confidence Mahomes was playing with— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 19, 2022
Fake re-load motion at the bottom, Mahomes starts looking that way to hold one-high S, trusts Hill is going to win vertical on the other side, and lets it fly in rhythm
I doubt they get this look against Buffalo pic.twitter.com/RgoFXYQc7T
Later in the game, the Chiefs extend their lead with a deep touchdown to wide receiver Tyreek Hill. If it looked easy, it’s because it was: the Steelers decide to play man coverage on Hill with only one high safety. The bold strategy did not pay off.
Mahomes identifies man coverage pre-snap and understands he’s going to have Hill in single coverage going vertical to his right. With that in mind, Mahomes takes the snap and looks left — holding the single safety in the middle of the field. In the next split second, Mahomes gets his eyes on the safety to make sure he didn’t cheat over to Hill’s side. Once he sees him still squarely in the middle, Mahomes knows he’ll have a big window to throw to Hill.
The throw is perfectly accurate and in rhythm. It’s an easier play to execute — but it’s still good to see Mahomes taking advantage of teams when they give him advantageous looks like that. They won’t every time.
A well-designed screen game
For the last two years, the screen game has not been as big a part of Andy Reid’s offense as it has been in the past — and some speculate it’s due to how he felt about the individual talents of his offensive linemen.
In the Wild Card game, the screen game was a huge part of the offense’s success; it’s no coincidence that left guard Joe Thuney — who was signed this offseason as the highest-paid guard in the NFL — was the primary blocker for all three significant gains.
Andy was on one with the screen designs. Each of the three were setup in different ways -- but all three turned into significant gains— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 19, 2022
The timing of both the blockers and McKinnon on these is what truly makes these plays pic.twitter.com/nq8IkP8vyp
All three of these plays gained at least 12 yards — and all three involved Thuney setting up the run space for the ball carrier. The timing of his release, his quickness in space and his finishing ability are all on display here. The most intriguing part is that all three screens were set up in entirely different ways.
Running back Jerick McKinnon was the beneficiary of all three screens, and he deserves credit for how each of them opened up. The biggest key was his timing into the route. On the third play here, McKinnon actually fakes like he is going across the formation in pass protection — then pivots back out to the open space in the flat.
Not only was the screen game effectively game planned, but it was also perfectly executed — and there are plenty of screen designs still left for the remainder of the postseason.
Mahomes affected by pressure
When pressured against PIT (11 dropbacks), Mahomes completed 2/7 passes and was sacked 3 times (PFF)— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 19, 2022
He wasn't able to neutralize it as much as we've seen him do at times by being insanely accurate from off-platform. He didn't let it faze him though, which he deseves credit for pic.twitter.com/M9gXsiGYl6
Mahomes wasn’t able to neutralize the pressure like he has been able to in the past at times — where a leaping Mahomes can still place the ball right where it’s supposed to be.
Patrick Mahomes jump pass.— NFL on CBS (@NFLonCBS) November 10, 2019
Mecole Hardman runs fast.pic.twitter.com/gmdysmv58q
It didn’t help that his offensive tackles struggled against the Pittsburgh pass rush. Edge rusher Alex Highsmith beat left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. on multiple occasions — including a 10-yard sack towards the end of the first half.
Fortunately, no other AFC team can match the talent the Steelers had on their defensive line — but teams will see how pressure affected Mahomes, and will try to take advantage of the offensive tackles to do the same thing.
The bottom line
It was a game that will be quickly forgotten as the rest of the playoffs move forward, but the Chiefs’ offense gave the NFL a preview of what’s to come for the rest of the playoffs for their unit — for better... or for worse.