One of the criticisms Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes has faced during his career is his ability to navigate pressure in the pocket. According to Pro Football Focus, Mahomes self-generated 24% of his pressures in 2021, which was easily the NFL’s highest figure.
Mahomes self-created over 24% of all the pressure he faced in the 2021 #NFL season.— Brad Congelio (@BradCongelio) February 16, 2022
That said: I think the upper-left quadrant is most worrisome. What are Baker, Lamar, and Wilson doing in the pocket?!@karnsies817 @mattderrick @FilmstudyRavens @ByNateUlrich @KCChiefsBlog pic.twitter.com/TBQIHc1E8y
While it’s true Mahomes has had some of his most magical plays while beating pressure, it’s also true that Mahomes puts a lot of strain on his offensive line — particularly his tackles — to hold up on islands or in large spaces.
Mahomes is known to drift and scramble — both inside and outside the pocket. He’s the opposite of Tom Brady, who drops to the same spot on every dropback. With Mahomes, however, every dropback can bring a new way the quarterback will set up to throw. This makes it hard for the tackles to adjust to his landmarks in the pocket.
One of the key points of emphasis in Mahomes’ offseason plan was to fix this issue in the pocket. The tackles were going to be the same, but he needed to do more to make their jobs easier. Those results have shown up on film — especially during Monday’s night’s 30-29 win over the Las Vegas Raiders.
But first, let’s address the issues the tackles had in the game.
When the Raiders signed Chandler Jones to pair with Maxx Crosby this offseason, the goal was to be build around two elite pass rushers with tight man coverage behind them. Both Crosby and Jones are elite run defenders, which would allow the Raiders to give them advantageous pass-rushing situations. Both could win off the edge in every way. It would be a handful for teams to deal with both pass rushers for a simple reason: it’s hard to give help to two tackles and still be able to run a real passing offense.
Early in Monday’s game, the Chiefs felt the brunt of the conundrum Jones and Crosby presented. Tackles Orlando Brown Jr. and Andrew Wylie both struggled to hold up in pass protection. Andy Reid wasn’t giving either guy much chip help — and in the first half, both were consistently losing.
Chandler Jones was dominant all night, but he was his best as a pass rusher in the first half— Nate Christensen (@natech32) October 11, 2022
Jones is one of the smartest players in the NFL, took advantage of OBJ being sloppy with his feet and two-hand punching. Easy targets to cross-chop and clear corner every time pic.twitter.com/zpz8Y5SdCN
For the past decade, Jones has been one of the league’s best pass rushers — but if you just judge him physically, you wouldn’t guess that. Jones has above-average strength, flexibility and explosion for the position, but no real dominant trait as an athlete. Jones has produced because he is smart — and is a technical pass rusher.
Jones has made a living off the cross-chop, where he uses a chop move to open a rip move around the corner. This takes advantage of two-hand punchers — tackles who tend to use both hands to block a defensive end in pass protection.
Brown is a heavy two-hand puncher, because he doesn’t have the lateral movement (or foot speed) to stick with quicker pass rushers. He has to try and use his length to push guys upfield — but against Jones, that’s a massive problem.
So in the first half, Jones was able to consistently clear the corner against Brown. The left tackle’s footwork was sloppy — and Jones took full advantage. Sometimes, Mahomes couldn’t even hit the back of his drop because Jones was already around the corner. Early in the game, this limited Kansas City’s vertical game — and put them in a deficit.
Maxx Crosby also was dominant as well, winning on any shoulder vs. Wylie— Nate Christensen (@natech32) October 11, 2022
Wylie wasn't perfect but his overall play in the 1st half was fine IMO, but Crosby's such a good player who can win in every way. Regardless, Crosby also affected KC's passing game early pic.twitter.com/08q03OYBDK
On the right side, Maxx Crosby also hurt the Chiefs in the first half, continuously getting into Mahomes’ airspace. Crosby has developed into one of the league’s best pass rushers because he can win in any way. He’s explosive enough to be able to win around the corner, strong enough to win with a bull rush and agile enough to win with an inside counter. Crosby’s become a tactical monster, consistently changing his rush to keep a tackle guessing for all four quarters.
When rewatching the game, I came away feeling slightly better about Wylie’s first-half performance — but it still wasn’t great. Wylie wasn’t trusting his inside shoulder against Crosby, which allowed the defensive end to get into his inside counters and power moves.
With Jones getting clean looks around the corner (and Crosby collapsing the pocket inside), Mahomes just didn’t have a lot of room with which to work inside the pocket. Reid made some adjustments — but I came away impressed with Mahomes’ pocket feel.
Mahomes’ pocket presence
I thought the biggest difference between the first few drives of the game and the rest of the game was Mahomes's pocket presence— Nate Christensen (@natech32) October 11, 2022
Whether it was scrambling, stepping up and around to rip a ball down the MOF, standing tight, or hitting a checkdown vs. a blitz, Mahomes was crisp pic.twitter.com/l4HYVEff33
After a rough 20 minutes for the tackles, it seemed that Mahomes realized he was going to have to compensate for them. Neither were giving him enough time to stand still and hit the top of his drop.
So he adjusted what he did.
Mahomes was able to scramble for a few first downs — and even climbed up in the pocket to hit Marquez Valdes-Scantling on a deep curl route. Before halftime, Mahomes was navigating traffic well — which hurt how the Raiders were trying to rush him.
In order to reduce Mahomes’s ability to scramble through the middle, the Raiders came into the second half trying to crush the pocket even more. It worked relatively well, but Mahomes was willing to sit and hit throws underneath. The throw to Juju Smith-Schuster on the deep out was a great example of Mahomes dealing with traffic by hitting a difficult outside-the-numbers throw.
The Raiders even tried blitzing him — and while they got pressure, Mahomes was able to hit checkdowns quickly, so Las Vegas couldn’t necessarily blitz him easily.
Whatever the Raiders wanted to do up front, Mahomes had counters. If they wanted to rush him around the corner, he stepped up into the pocket and scrambled. If they wanted to collapse on his scrambles, he stood tall and hit tough passes within the pocket. When they decided to blitz, he quickly found his hot read.
In short, Mahomes had answers for every pressure look the Raiders had — allowing the Kansas City passing offense to hit every part of the field.
The Bottom Line
Mahomes spent the offseason talking about working on his pocket presence. It was his biggest issue in 2021 — and ultimately, it was the main reason the Chiefs couldn’t once again reach the Super Bowl. Even with the scheme changes, Mahomes had to be sharper in the pocket in order for the Chiefs’ offense to succeed.
To put it another way: if this game had been played last year, the Raiders would’ve blown the Chiefs out. Mahomes would have been bailing out of clean pockets, trying to create magic that wasn’t there. This year, the clear progression in his game has shown up — and on Monday, it helped spark a Chiefs comeback.
With a matchup against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, this is more relevant than ever. The Bills do an awesome job rushing in unison, punishing quarterbacks who aren’t comfortable sitting within tight spaces. Mahomes will have to prove he can do that against some elite pass rushers on the other side — and a much better secondary.
If Monday night was any indication, we shouldn’t have to worry about Mahomes too much. He’ll be ready.