In the days since the Kansas City Chiefs’ season-opening loss to the Detroit Lions, we’ve seen other AFC contenders fall in a similar fashion, then got the news defensive tackle Chris Jones was ending his holdout and returning to the Chiefs.
Along with optimism about tight end Travis Kelce returning from injury, it might be easy to forget about the upset in Week 1 and move forward. However, the messy performance of the Chiefs’ pass game not only cost them a win; it could be a concern moving forward.
I went through all 45 of Mahomes’ dropbacks on Thursday evening to show why it looked so sloppy, and to determine what it means for the rest of the season:
Timing and spacing of routes
I counted 11 times where an incompletion was caused by fault timing or spacing of a route concept. Mahomes had 17 incompletions for the entire game.
Looking at the reasons why the #Chiefs' offense was so unimpressive on Thursday (there's more than one!)— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) September 11, 2023
Route spacing was NOT clean on all 4 of these plays, some being very staple concepts for KC. Just sloppy pic.twitter.com/hax03qPT1S
These four plays were the strongest examples. On the first play, the Chiefs run their staple run-pass option (RPO) play with a slant route on the backside of run action. Wide receiver Kadarius Toney comes in motion and is tasked with running vertically to clear out space for Skyy Moore on the slant — but Toney congests the area by not getting vertical immediately.
On the second play, you can see three routes get bunched up at the top of the screen, leading to tight end Blake Bell tripping and falling followed by an incompletion. If you watch Mahomes, he looks towards Toney on the other side initially but comes off it when Toney doesn’t adjust his route to the coverage. The outside leverage of the cornerback should have turned Toney’s route into more of a slant, and Mahomes may have hit him.
The final clip in the post is the Mesh route where it appeared wide receiver Richie James initially took the wrong path, causing confusion and an incompletion off of Toney’s hands on third down.
These are basic concepts in the Chiefs’ passing scheme.
Toney felt like the primary issue of the game Thursday, and that could be more on the coaching staff than him. Head coach Andy Reid took the blame on Monday, featuring Toney heavily despite him missing the entire preseason.
Here's Toney doing something very similar. Running a curl pretty much at the sticks. Yet, he drifts too far across and upfield. Gives the LB a chance to deflect it (still a very good play by him) pic.twitter.com/zqvufp7WDU— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) September 11, 2023
This is a good example of how missing time this offseason may have hurt Toney.
On this intermediate curl route, Toney is expected to find space past the first-down marker and settle into a throwing window. However, he drifts too far across the field and upfield once he gets to the window, causing the throw to be batted away by a linebacker.
Here's a spacing example for Rashee Rice— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) September 11, 2023
He runs the M.O.F. curl that's staple in a mesh concept. The LBs in front of him jump on the crossers, which leaves an open window for Rice to settle into
Rice doesn't settle, moves closer to S, & likely makes 15 hesitate to throw there pic.twitter.com/UOoLB54F2b
Rookie wide receiver Rashee Rice did a similar thing on this play earlier in the game. He is running the curl route in the Chiefs’ Mesh concept, settling into a window above the shallow crossing patterns underneath him. The linebackers jump on the mesh, giving Rice plenty of room to work with. However, he works too far across the field and may have dissuaded Mahomes from throwing at him by how close he was to the safety.
Chemistry with receivers
The shakiness of the Chiefs’ pass catchers — especially without Travis Kelce in the mix — likely altered the confidence Mahomes had as he dropped back each time. He was not as comfortable as he’d like to be, and that showed up on a few plays.
The inconsistency of the WRs threw off Mahomes Thursday night, even when someone was open— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) September 11, 2023
This play from the 2nd half stood out to me. Skyy comes WIDE open initially on the in breaker, but Mahomes hesitates for really no reason
Once he's late, he has to throw over the LB pic.twitter.com/SzQuSDV5Jg
On this third down in the second half, Moore runs an in-breaking route that finds space initially — but Mahomes passes that up. Moore does throttle down before running into the linebacker lurking in front of him, but Mahomes still doesn’t like the window he’s being offered.
I believe that says a lot about Mahomes’ confidence or belief in Moore. If that was Kelce or another veteran pass catcher in that window, I don’t think he would hesitate a split second to throw the ball and move the chains; it’s a big enough window for the moment.
To be fair, he may have noticed wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling breaking open vertically, but pressure prevented him from attempting a throw there.
Here are a few other plays where Mahomes is impatient with the developing routes, despite a good pocket— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) September 11, 2023
The quicker throws aren't automatically bad, but 15 not waiting on them may indicate he didn't trust they'd come open or be where they were supposed to be pic.twitter.com/oohupZg1aV
Here are two more plays where Mahomes is impatient for the primary route of the concept. On both of these plays, the highlighted route does eventually come open into space, and could be a completion if thrown to in rhythm, but Mahomes finds the check down before each play.
It is important to give credit to the Lions’ defense for their performance. Detroit deployed a suffocating zone defense, one that was creative enough to never make things an easy look for Mahomes or the Chiefs’ pass catchers. They were excellent at switching off routes in zone, and the speed in which they played made throwing windows seem tighter than they were.
The bottom line
The Chiefs’ pass-catching group looks like a bunch of complements to a true primary target, rather than an incredibly deep group of legitimate playmakers. And while that is what they look like currently, but that can change as the season grows.
It was a good reminder that it is not easy playing wide receiver in Andy Reid’s offense, where timing, spacing, and earned trust are so important. Mahomes and Toney’s connection should improve with Toney simply being on the field now, but he and other receivers have plenty of room to grow in their down-to-down responsibilities.
It was a pretty discouraging start to wide receiver Skyy Moore’s sophomore campaign. Despite leading the wide receiver position in snaps, he didn’t record a single catch. Among his three targets, only one came in the rhythm of the play. He was used as the primary motion man, running decoy routes many times and not running downfield routes.
On top of that, the team clearly wanted the ball in Toney’s hands over Moore’s, despite Moore working all offseason and preseason with the starters. If that continues all season, it’s a pretty rough look for the development of Moore.