On Sunday afternoon, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes simultaneously played one of his best and worst games of the season. The MVP candidate electrified the crowd with highlight-reel touchdowns and over 350 yards passing — but he also threw three interceptions against the Denver Broncos, giving the division’s worst team the momentum to launch a comeback that was almost successful.
It was a roller coaster of a game. In its sixty minutes, we got the full Mahomes experience — and then some.
The most spectacular part occurred early in the second quarter.
Mahomes was surveying downfield on third down. Pressure from the left forces him right. The walk-up edge drops in coverage so 77 crashes down on the 3tech. This gives 15 a chance to create on the run. 1 is the check-down man, but he recognizes the void once 15 escapes. Magic. pic.twitter.com/pwYwTDvNvZ— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) December 13, 2022
Here, Mahomes looks like a point guard whipping a no-look pass to ignite the fast break, finding running back Jerrick McKinnon for a 56-yard touchdown. At this moment, it was starting to feel like one of those days when the Chiefs would be unstoppable.
The game would certainly not end that way.
3rd and four Denver brings pressure from the left. It's picked up, but at this point Mahomes was uncomfortable. He doesn't like the out to Kelce, so he tries to force it to JuJu down the field. Jewell leaves Kelce and jumps to pick off the pass as it goes by him. pic.twitter.com/O7wat2hMYb— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) December 13, 2022
Late in the fourth quarter, Kansas City found itself in a dogfight. A four-possession lead had dwindled to just six points — and on this critical third-down play, Mahomes throws his third interception. It’s the worst pass he’s thrown this season.
Although the Chiefs would then force a stop (and on their next possession, kill the clock), they made so many mistakes that they almost ended up on the short end of 2022’s biggest upset.
Very quickly, the game turned into an odd predicament.
On one hand, we continued to see Mahomes make the incredible look routine. He has dragged the Chiefs from certain defeats to improbable victories often enough that we can blindly put our faith in him to get the job done — no matter what happens.
On the other hand, teams have gotten smarter about how they play Kansas City — and in particular, the team’s quarterback. As time has passed, they have discovered more tendencies to exploit, learned how to overcome jaw-dropping passes and wait for the right moment to strike.
In Denver, the Chiefs were a pedestrian 6-of-12 on third-down plays — but looking at these individual plays reveals a bigger issue: in seven third-down situations where four or fewer yards were needed, Kansas City converted just twice.
Both of these plays were touchdowns that displayed every bit of the miraculous Mahomes Magic we have come to know and love. The other five plays resulted in a sack, two incompletions, an interception and a very bland fullback dive that Denver was more than ready to defend.
In other words, in none of those short-yardage situations did the Chiefs run what would be considered a traditional handoff to a running back. This made it very easy for Denver to pick when they wanted to heat Mahomes up — or mix and match coverages downfield.
3rd and four, 1 motions out, and KC has full slide right protection. Mahomes has to start to roll right looking for something and avoiding the free rusher. Nobody opens up downfield and 15 eats it. Denver was playing pass all the way and the motion let them tee off. pic.twitter.com/lrXh1jyxNx— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) December 13, 2022
The two interceptions leading to scores were horrific; they allowed Denver to hang around as long as it did. The Broncos knew the ball would stay in Mahomes hands — and they worked to make his life miserable.
So what can the Chiefs do to help their star quarterback — and keep themselves from becoming a one-dimensional offense?
Run the ball (with Isiah Pacheco)
Out of only 20 true running plays, rookie running back Isiah Pacheco tallied 13 carries — but amassed 70 yards for 5.4 yards per carry. Throughout the game, he ran with brute force and physicality. His effort — aided by an exceptional day from the offensive line and a nice running-game wrinkle from the offensive play-callers — led to some gashing runs.
KC runs zone to the same side the motion man is going. Running away from the strength of the formation was the theme of the game for KC. They were able to create angles to win second-level blocks while displacing the line of scrimmage. Pacheco hits the hole with a head of steam. pic.twitter.com/6VLOqexyKJ— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) December 13, 2022
As we see on this play, the Chiefs kept the running game simple — and yet, it was effective. Every one of Pacheco’s carries was a zone run — where every lineman blocks the zone to their play-side, while the back looks for a cut-back lane. Kansas City utilized its mid-zone scheme to near perfection.
While the Broncos were preoccupied with trying to figure out a scheme to slow Mahomes down, they put themselves in some unfavorable spots that the Chiefs were able to exploit.
Denver has five men in the box. KC runs zone into the LB who walks up, meaning it's a three-on-three play side and a DB will have to bring down 10. 27 makes a nice tackle to save a bigger gain, but it's the perfect play call into this defensive front, which is the playing pass. pic.twitter.com/JDy3TGy8ng— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) December 13, 2022
Any play like this one — in which an offense can get a running back heading for a defensive back one-on-one — is a win for them. Here, Pacheco displays explosion through the hole in a ferocious running style that the Chiefs’ offense has missed.
Pacheco just shredding arm tackles and eating contact to end the play. I love the cut he makes to get around the penetration in the backfield. The balance and core strength were on display this week. pic.twitter.com/t5sJxySBZ6— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) December 13, 2022
Closing the game
Leading by six points in the fourth quarter, Kansas City got the ball back with just over four minutes to play. At this point, Mahomes — fresh off of his third interception of the day — was a wild card. The Chiefs needed to create enough positive plays to move the ball — and kill the clock. They used a series of well-executed running plays.
Although they mostly ran zone, KC ran H counter to the weak side late with McKinnon in the backfield. The motion helps even up the box count. 65 leads and logs the EOL. 83 gets picked off, but with the log block and 9 hustling all 1 has to do is break a tackle for a solid gain. pic.twitter.com/9cXe6MKcTV— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) December 13, 2022
All afternoon, the Chiefs had taken advantage of the Broncos' light boxes — where the number of blockers compared to the number of defenders at or around the line of scrimmage is larger or equal — but this time, they didn’t use a zone run. They instead opted to attack the short side of the field, allowing right guard Trey Smith to pull to seal the end. McKinnon saw the space and created a nice play.
On a second-and-10 a few plays later — with the Broncos out of timeouts — Kansas City called Pacheco’s number.
KC ran zone away from the TE's. 47 starts to penetrate but one cut from Pacheco and he finds the hole. Running with pure anger he lowers his shoulder to break one tackle and fights through contact, legs churning all the way to get over the line. Thuney with the assist. Ball game. pic.twitter.com/zfyKGPMvlU— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) December 12, 2022
We see that Denver — with just one linebacker in the middle of the field — brings pressure from the weak side of the formation, finally countering what the Chiefs had been showing. Using vision that has improved through the season’s fourteen weeks, Pacheco sets up one cut and takes the ball through the A-gap between the guard and center. Lowering his shoulders, he doesn’t stop his feet until he is across the line of gain — and puts the game on ice.
The final 10-play, 49-yard drive (that consumed over four minutes) proved a lot of things for Kansas City — but none more so than the team can run the ball when it’s necessary. Seven of the 10 plays were runs — and while Mahomes did complete a big third-and-long pass to Marquez Valdez-Scantling, it was the effort in the running game that closed out the game.
How will it help Mahomes?
Nobody is ever going to deny that Mahomes is the league’s most talented quarterback. But we must dispel the notion that taking the ball out of his hands only hurts the team. The Chiefs’ offense — while still electrifying — is starting to become stale and unbalanced. Deferring to Mahomes to create unimaginable plays has become a cop-out for an offensive unit in need of some variety.
Sunday the Chiefs had ten offensive possessions where they ran the ball one or zero times. Of the 20 run attempts, 12 came between just two drives, with them running the ball seven times on the last possession of the game.— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) December 13, 2022
Even in situations where some teams would run the football on third down, we have seen that the Chiefs choose to pass. On Sunday, this allowed the Broncos to not even worry about the running game. It is ironic, but on the Pacheco’s game-sealing run, Denver was still defending the pass — even when all Kansas City had to do was kill the clock.
If the offense is able to run the ball well — and more frequently — it will also improve the effectiveness of the play-action passing game. In the past, these plays were among the Chiefs’ most effective. But now that teams know that Mahomes is more likely to be throwing the ball, they have lost their luster.
Run action look here for KC. Nobody from Denver was phased by the action, dropping into their zone and covering up everything. Mahomes tried to dart one to Kelce but he could not bring in the contested catch. pic.twitter.com/cnz5Snbsrp— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) December 13, 2022
On this play, for example, the Broncos are actually showing one of the heavier boxes that they displayed all afternoon. Yet their emphasis is still to defend against the pass.
The bottom line
The Broncos exposed Kansas City’s reliance on Mahomes — but in the process, they gave the Chiefs a blueprint for how they can diversify their play-calling.
Pacheco showed he can run with grit (and heart) for an entire game. While he has explosive speed, this game also demonstrated that he can function as a power back. The results were very impressive.
In order to maximize their quarterback’s greatness, the Chiefs’ coaching staff must find other ways to move the ball. Overusing Mahomes’ great moments is starting to stagnate — but with a back like Pacheco, the Chiefs can utilize an aspect of their offense that most teams would struggle to stop.