I’m confident that most NFL fans watching the battle between the Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills in Week 6 were surprised to see the game end the way it did: an interception thrown by Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. After last year’s playoff battle, it felt impossible for this matchup to end that way.
However, that result wasn’t an outlier for the Chiefs’ offense this season. In fact, their only other loss of the season was solidified by another Mahomes interception as he tried to come back from a late-game deficit against the Indianapolis Colts.
It gets even uglier when you see what the unit has done overall with their fourth-quarter possessions in tight games.
#Chiefs O drives with one-score lead, tied, or trailing in 4Q this season:— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) October 17, 2022
- FG to go up 10
- Fake FG fail
- Missed FG
- Game-ending INT
- TD to go up 7
- FG to go up 3
- Game-ending INT
When the Chiefs have held a one-score lead, been tied, or trailed in the fourth quarter this season, they have scored on three of their 10 opportunities. They have only scored one touchdown — and have ended up punting back to the opponent to give them a chance to take the lead late in each of the last two games.
Quarterback Patrick Mahomes is only completing 56% of his fourth-quarter passes, the worst mark of any specific quarter. He has thrown three interceptions in that period — more than he’s thrown in each of the last two seasons (2). His fourth-quarter passer rating is 54.9; the lowest of the other quarters is 106.2.
So why has the offense come up short when it has mattered most this season?
I wanted to take a closer look:
Low-impact run game
In the win over the Chargers, the game-deciding field goal drive began with a 52-yard carry by running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. The beautifully-blocked, under-center run play was the only explosive rush the Chiefs have had in the fourth quarter this season.
Outside of that run, Chiefs running backs have totaled 25 yards on 15 attempts in a tightly-contested fourth quarter.
#Chiefs need the run game to help them sustain drives and finish teams off in 4th Q -- but the staff needs to give the RBs and OL a better opportunity to penetrate the defense— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) October 18, 2022
Run more downhill from under center, not horizontally from shotgun pic.twitter.com/JjfiQClg8i
The problem stems from the Chiefs leaning on the run scheme they’ve always leaned on: zone runs from shotgun. Running from this alignment — especially when it’s a stretch run towards the sideline — does not play into the strengths of the running back room. This group wants to get downhill, but it’s harder to do on these horizontal runs.
The offensive line wants to get downhill too, and that’s not what is asked of them on these run actions. They can’t create penetration of the defensive line when they’re moving sideways.
When defending a lead or tied in the fourth quarter, the runs need to do more than just kill time between pass plays; they need to move the chains for the offense. Whether on first down or a short-yardage scenario, a run from under center gives the back the best chance to maximize the blocking — especially when the defense is more inclined to expect a run.
When the Chiefs need to get back in a game with the pass, opposing pass-rushers can pin their ears back and go to work on every down — especially against Kansas City’s offensive tackles.
The offense can’t afford to give each tackle chip help on every play — it limits the pass routes available for the quarterback; that’s especially important when the team needs a productive drive to score in crunch time.
The Bills started to rush only 3 down linemen towards the end of the game on 3rd down. Milano was put in a spy responsibility as an 8th defender in coverage— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) October 18, 2022
These are very similar to the looks that Cincinnati tripped up KC with in the AFCCG pic.twitter.com/c8IcpOnd6e
It forces the team to leave left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. or right tackle Andrew Wylie on islands at times, and the Bills took advantage by winning those one-on-one matchups — even while only sending three rushers total. It was similar to what the Cincinnati Bengals did in last year’s AFC Championship game.
Lack of execution
Overall, it has come down to the quarterback and his pass-catchers executing pass plays — and aside from one drive, that has failed.
Game-ending INT is fascinating. An example of a new receiving corps still learning to play with each other— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) September 27, 2022
From post-play reactions, it looks like Juju expected Mecole's route to run to the flat, which would've opened the initial throwing window so Mahomes doesn't double clutch pic.twitter.com/OSC2Vfs3Y7
In Week 3, the game-ending interception appeared to have been caused by a miscommunication on the route pattern. Wide receiver Mecole Hardman needed to run to the flat to open up the window for wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster on the slant; it’s speculation, but Smith-Schuster’s reaction after the play is an indication of that.
Going through missed opportunities in the 4th quarter for the #Chiefs...— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) October 18, 2022
KC catches Raiders in a Cover 0 look, meaning Mecole should adjust his route to go vertical and take advantage of the open space
That's what Mahomes thinks too, but Mecole stays flat and it forces a punt pic.twitter.com/O9WdXMNoXF
In the Week 5 win over the Raiders, the Chiefs had a chance to convert third down with a deep pass to Hardman; they caught Las Vegas in coverage without a deep safety. However, Hardman’s route stays flat, as it should if there were safeties deep. Because there weren’t, Mahomes anticipates Hardman to get upfield with his throw — and the ball fell incomplete because of them not being on the same page.
Buffalo once again used the 3-man rush w/ Milano as the spy on Mahomes' game-ending INT— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) October 18, 2022
Miller's inside move sets up Mahomes to flush right, where Milano is ready to disrupt his passing lane. Not only does it make him hesitate, it allows defense time to get to the ball pic.twitter.com/rd0h0M5ay4
Finally, in the most recent loss, the Bills’ three-man rush continued to give both Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offensive tackles trouble. The spying Milano getting into Mahomes’ vision immediately as he leaves the pocket forces him to hesitate with his throw, giving Buffalo’s zone defense enough time to react and get to the ball to intercept it.
The Bills also had man coverage on intended receiver Skyy Moore while the rest of the defense played zone. That could have led Mahomes to believe he wouldn’t have any eyes on him.
The bottom line
Through six games, it appears the greatest new trend in the Chiefs’ offense from previous seasons is finishing strong in the fourth quarter. They have been unacceptably bad at scoring on important drives late in games this year, which does not align with how Mahomes and this Chiefs’ offense has always succeeded.
This could be where we’re really seeing the departure of wide receiver Tyreek Hill make a difference — being that go-to target when the team needs to sustain a possession.
Finishing is something every aspect of the unit needs to improve on as the season goes, whether it’s the coaches, quarterback, skill positions or linemen.