On Saturday, Kansas City Chiefs’ quarterback Patrick Mahomes sprained his right ankle on the second drive of the team’s Divisional Round game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. He stayed in for the rest of the drive, but ultimately sat out the rest of the first half — and then returned for the entire second half, putting on a legendary performance while in considerable pain.
Unfortunately, high ankle sprains typically don’t heal in a week. Mahomes is surely is doing everything he can to get to 100% — but it’s likely that Mahomes will be feeling his injury during Sunday’s AFC Championship against the Cincinnati Bengals. He’ll have to alter his game — but head coach Andy Reid is also going to have to change the way he calls plays.
Here are three schematic tweaks Kansas City could make.
1. Put Mahomes under center
KC's splits from UC run game— Nate Christensen (@natech32) January 26, 2023
CIN game: 10 carries, 6.0 YPC, 80% success rate
Post-Pat injury vs. JAX: 5 carries, 6 yards, 0% SR(!!!!)
JAX was CRASHING everything inside with LBs and DTs. With no threat of PA or rollout, it became a huge tendency for KC
Can Pat go UC this week pic.twitter.com/RxjfhD8ojh
Reid has said that the team didn’t alter the game plan very much while Mahomes was out on Saturday — and that was largely true. After the injury, Kansas City wasn’t running as many deep vertical concepts — but most of the dropback offense was still out of the shotgun. The ball came out more quickly, but the Chiefs didn’t do a lot to alter the core offensive scheme.
After the injury, the only thing that was really bad was Kansas City’s running game from under center. The Chiefs tried running out of that alignment five times, gaining just six yards — with zero successful runs.
There are two reasons why this happened.
The first was that Mahomes’ timing was affected by the injury. Multiple times, NBC’s cameras showed Mahomes hopping as he handed off the ball on stretch plays from under center. This consistently messed up the timing of the run blocking. Because Mahomes couldn’t reach the mesh point as quickly, the defense had more time to read and react to the running plays.
Another issue was that the Jaguars weren’t respecting the possibility that Kansas City would run play-action or roll Mahomes out.
It’s easier to alter your footwork and mechanics to throw from the shotgun, where you don’t need to plant your back foot to drive on throws. In play-action, however, hitting the top of your drop means planting that foot and driving a pass over the middle of the field. You also have to turn your body 180 degrees to get a good base from which to throw. That’s very difficult to do if your mobility is limited.
So the Jaguars knew they could crash inside on any run from under center — and if Jacksonville knew what was coming, the Chiefs couldn’t block it well enough.
But here’s the thing: in the last game against Cincinnati, Kansas City was extremely successful while running the ball in 11 personnel (one running back and one tight end) from under center, gaining 60 yards on 10 plays — with a success rate of 80%! The Bengals were playing those alignments with an even front with two high safeties, giving Kansas City favorable run looks.
If Mahomes gets a week of rest, can he turn his back, rotate, plant his foot and drive a pass? In the scripted plays in the first quarter, the Chiefs would be wise to try a play-action run from under center — just to see if Mahomes is comfortable with it in game conditions. If he is, everything from the running game to 13 personnel would be available. If he isn’t, then the Chiefs should be prepared with a backup plan.
2. Expand Kadarius Toney’s use
KaDarius Toney played 20 snaps on Saturday— Nate Christensen (@natech32) January 27, 2023
He got a target/touch on 8 of those snaps. 40% usage
Average Air Yards per Target: 1.1
KC's answer post-Pat injury was to get ball in space and flats to Toney, help manufacture quick offense. Bet that package expands this week pic.twitter.com/25LmZL1vlR
After Mahomes’s injury, Reid had to dial up more plays to get the ball out of his quarterback’s hands more quickly. By playing a lot of Cover 3, Jacksonville was consistently allowing passes to the flats — so Reid just kept manufacturing plays for Toney in those areas.
In 20 snaps last week, Toney got a target or touch on eight of those reps. That’s 40% of his snaps with a play designed just for him. His average air yards per target was 1.1 yards — meaning the Chiefs were getting him the ball in the flat and letting him turn upfield to manufacture offense.
Traditionally, Cincinnati has played a lot of zone against Kansas City on first and second down. If that continues, I’d expect Toney’s use to increase; the Chiefs just don’t have another receiver for whom they can manufacture yards in space. I’d expect Toney to get a bigger share of snaps — and more touches in those reps.
3. Pick up funky pressures
Lou Anarumo's defensive plans are always great, but it's also philosophy. His goal is to get a QB to hold the ball— Nate Christensen (@natech32) January 26, 2023
We'll bring late pressure by dropping a ton of guys into zone, taking away MOF with guy running pole, and spin into anything. You can't afford to waste RB in protec pic.twitter.com/QGHE1jlO9N
One of the most common things that Cincinnati defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo will do against quarterbacks like Mahomes (or the Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen) is to use simulated pressure.
Anarumo will sometimes send all-out pressure, but prefers to send three or four rushers from different angles. His goal is for the offense to waste a running back in pass protection by forcing him to respond to these pressures — while also having a speedy defensive back available to help contain the quarterback in the pocket. Defensive ends Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard are also very good at maintaining pocket integrity, which was a big factor during Kansas City’s loss in the 2021 title game.
There’s been discussion about whether Anarumo will blitz Mahomes to test whether he can scramble with his ankle — but I’d expect the opposite. I think Anarumo will turn up the simulated pressures while dropping seven or eight bodies into zone coverage. He’ll want Mahomes holding on to the ball for as long as possible — which is already a strategy he typically uses against the Chiefs’ quarterback. Anarumo may figure that if he doesn’t have to worry about the scramble drill as much, those late pressures might work.
So Kansas City will have to be tuned in to their protections. Simulated pressures are a great way to get a quarterback to hold the ball, but they’re not always the best path to generating actual pressure. If Mahomes has time, he’s eventually going to find a hole in the coverage and exploit it. So if you can pick up those pressures over the course of the game, you’re going to be able to move the ball.
The Kansas City offensive line will have to be aware of pressure coming from different spots — and the team’s running backs will need to be ready to find the incoming blitzers.
The bottom line
The Chiefs have one big advantage: they’re the only ones who know the extent of Mahomes’ injury. They already know what they need to do in order to compensate for it — but the Bengals can only guess.
So this is going to be a big Reid game. He has to find ways to take pressure away from Mahomes. It reminds me of the head coach’s game plan for the Super Bowl against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Reid didn’t relieve any of the pressure on Mahomes, who was forced to be great while he was hobbled. Hopefully, Reid learned a lesson that day; the Chiefs can’t afford for that to happen again.
Still, Reid called a great game against the Jaguars — and given that he’s had time to adjust and prepare for the Bengals again, I don’t expect many offensive issues. The updates on Mahomes’ ankle seem to be positive. If he’s able to execute all parts of the offense this week, I expect the Chiefs to score. Mahomes is going to have to be at his best, but I trust him to rise to the occasion.