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Defenses still try to stop Patrick Mahomes — but now, he’s adjusting

The Kansas City quarterback has spent his whole season rethinking the way he plays. And it’s paying off.

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

Throughout the 2021 season, it’s been the storyline that won’t go away: Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ struggles to deal with the way NFL defenses have countered a Kansas City offense that has averaged 30.3 points per game — more than any other team — since Mahomes became its starter in 2018. During that period, the Chiefs have compiled a regular-season record of 50-15 — also the league’s best.

But in the first half of the season, Mahomes was having trouble countering the two-high safety looks that were taking away the deep passes that had been the cornerstone of his success during his first three seasons leading the Chiefs. This season, he’s turned in six of the 10 worst performances of his career — four of them before Week 10.

Slowly but surely, however, Mahomes — and those around him — have learned to adjust.

“Seeing it a lot, you figure out answers and stuff you can do to combat [it] and have more success,” said Mahomes before the Week 17 game against the Cincinnati Bengals, in which he passed for just 259 yards but still turned in a passer rating of 113.9. “Then just finding that happy medium, where you’re taking shots still and attacking — but at the same time, hitting the guys underneath; guys are creating a lot of yards when they get the football in their hands at running back, tight end and receiver. I’m just getting the ball out of my hands and letting those guys make plays.”

“It was a matter of just sorting it out,” said head coach Andy Reid on Wednesday, as the team prepared to face the Bengals again — this time, in the AFC Championship this Sunday. “It’s all part of the maturation process with the offense, making sure that the offensive line’s on the same page, the receivers are on the same page — and the quarterback’s on the same page with all of them, including the running back. So I think they all adjusted; it’s not really one guy — although it falls in his lap because he’s a quarterback — but it’s a little bit of everybody.”

On Wednesday, Mahomes acknowledged the help he’s received from his teammates.

“I saw the persistence — and the championship swagger, I guess you would say — of the team that we have,” he said. “Guys didn’t hang their heads. They just wanted to get better. Every single day, they came out to practice, and we learned how to execute against these looks that we were getting.”

And those looks have kept coming. During Sunday’s Divisional round playoff game against the Buffalo Bills, Next Gen Stats reported that Mahomes faced two-high safety alignments on 92% of the team’s plays — the second-highest rate of his career — but when facing them, still completed 29 of 38 for 344 yards and two touchdowns in the team’s 42-36 overtime victory.

“He’s done a good job of it,” noted Reid. “We were seeing a little bit more man [coverage looks] beforehand — when he was young — and now we’re seeing zones with man mixed in.”

But Reid is well aware that when they play the Bengals on Sunday, they’ll throw everything they’ve got at the Kansas City offense.

“This group here does everything,” he admitted. “So you can’t go in and go, ‘All right. They’re going to play shell’ and go with it. They’ve got a bunch of shell coverages. They’ve got single-safety no-covers, a handful of zone ones and a handful of man ones.”

So for Mahomes, it’s back to the film room to once again study the team that managed a last-second victory against the Chiefs just three weeks ago. And he learned how to do that long before defenses were trying to figure out how to stop him.

“I got a good mentor in Alex [Smith] on how to get into the film room and learn how to study defenses,” said Mahomes. “I’ve kind of used that — and kind of turned into my own different direction of how I can study and get the film done. We have a great quarterback room, where Chad Henne and Shane Buechele are in there with me every single time I’m in that film room. They throw out what they see, I throw out what I see and we get a good game plan — before the actual game plan’s in — of what we want to do that week.”

Mahomes said that the offensive coaches are happy to integrate that brainstorming into each final plan.

“Coach Reid does a great job of letting me have my input on the offense, as well — [and] my ideas. Then they go out there and come up with a great game plan. I think when you have that communication, you know during the game what plays are being called — and why they’re being called — and you go out there and have success.”

“I think it just comes with maturity and experiences,” he said before Week 17. “If I was a little bit younger in my career, I might’ve tried to force the issue and make a lot of big plays happen. From learning from those experiences when I have tried to press too much, I’ve learned to trust my teammates, the coaching staff [and] the plays that are getting called to get the ball out of my hands and let guys make plays. At the end of the day, it’s all about winning.”