Have NFL teams solved the Mahomes mystique?

Patrick Mahomes thrives in chaos. He has ever since NFL cyborgs started chasing him. He’s beaten them with his brain, his legs and his otherworldly arm. He’s dissected and sidestepped blitzes. He’s deflated defenses with off-balance bombs. It’s why he won an MVP, then a Super Bowl. It’s why he reached a second, and entered the 2021 season favored to win again.

Seven weeks into that season, though, his Chiefs are reeling. They’re 3-4, more likely to miss than make the playoffs. And their offense has regressed, in part because opponents have adopted a counterintuitive strategy to make Mahomes mortal.

They’ve increasingly opted against chaos.

They have, almost entirely in recent weeks, stopped blitzing.

The Titans terrorized Kansas City on Sunday, 27-3, by only once sending more than four pass-rushers. Two weeks earlier, the Bills slowed Mahomes without a single blitz. “This was unusual,” Buffalo defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said of his gameplan, “but for this opponent, it was the right thing to do.” And his peers around the league are catching on. Through seven weeks, Mahomes is the least-blitzed quarterback in football. Defenses are dropping seven-plus men into coverage — as the Bucs so often did in last season’s Super Bowl — on roughly 87% of plays against the Chiefs. That’s up from around 77% a year ago. It’s well above league average. And it has become something of a blueprint.

“The Tampa Bay Buccaneers put out film [in the Super Bowl]: Rush them with four,” says Orlando Scandrick, a 12-year NFL defensive back who played for the Chiefs in 2018. “No point in chasing him all around.”

Frazier added: “The more we studied Kansas City and their offense, and just watching Mahomes and how he operated versus pressure, man, it just created a lot of problems for defenses because of his ability to … make you pay sometimes for bringing pressure.”

So, defenses have simply stopped giving Mahomes that chance.

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How the NFL caught onto Mahomes

Of course, replicating the Titans masterclass is not simple. Nor is explaining why this strategy has worked. It isn’t that Mahomes is better under pressure than in the absence of it. He’s excellent on the run, of course, more prolific outside the pocket than any other QB in the league last year; but he’s still better stationary with time to throw.

Mahomes, however, has been better against five-plus pass rushers than against four or fewer — from 2018 through last year’s AFC playoffs, against the blitz, he compiled a passer rating over 116, with 25 touchdowns and just one interception — largely because more chaos up front means more space down the field.

Blitzes leave Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce or Kansas City’s other weapons 1-on-1. Mahomes’ ability to escape blitzers gives those weapons time to separate for big plays. Dropping seven into coverage, on the other hand, allows a defense to play two high safeties, or double Hill and Kelce, and take away those big plays.

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Plus, “you can kind of manipulate the quarterback to a degree, by showing him some different looks, because you’ve got more people in coverage,” Frazier said. “Sometimes he might think you’re playing a single-high defense when you’re actually playing a split-safety defense, or vice versa.”

In other words, he might see a single safety and think half the field is open, only for the defense to rotate a second safety back in coverage to close it up.

“When you’re bringing pressure,” Frazier continued, “sometimes, against a really really good quarterback like Patrick, they identify, they know exactly where to go with the ball in pre-snap, then you’re kinda imperiled if you don’t have great matchups. So having more guys in coverage, and having the ability to rush with four, can allow you to manipulate the coverage a little bit.”

This approach has gained traction around the league. Last year, Bill Belichick’s Patriots spent nearly half of their Week 4 game against Kansas City dropping not seven but eight defenders. This year, in Week 2, the Ravens blitzed on just 12.9% of pass plays, their lowest percentage ever under defensive coordinator Don Martindale. They quit the blitz entirely after Mahomes beat it for a touchdown on the opening drive of the second half, and only gave up seven points thereafter.

The approach, though, is not a silver bullet. The Eagles tried it in Week 4 and failed miserably. The Titans succeeded despite rarely blitzing because they still pressured Mahomes 18 times, on more than 40% of his dropbacks. They got the best of both worlds — backfield chaos and coverage downfield — in part because Kansas City’s offensive line crumbled just as it did last February.

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Shoring up the weak link comes at a cost for Chiefs

Not long after Mahomes got pummeled in Super Bowl LV — the Buccaneers, per Pro Football Focus, pressured him on 27 of 56 dropbacks (48%) — the Chiefs set in motion a plan to better protect him. Tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz, who missed the Super Bowl with injuries, were released. A week later, the team signed $16-million-per-year guard Joe Thuney away from the Patriots and coaxed Kyle Long out of retirement.

In April, they swung a trade with the Ravens for Orlando Brown, who was unhappy with his contract and wanted to move from right tackle to the left side. The Chiefs had the money, the draft picks and the opportunity. A week later in the draft, they took center Creed Humphrey in Round 2 and guard Trey Smith, a top-50 talent with medical concerns, in Round 6.

In a matter of weeks, a unit that was the Achilles heel of the Super Bowl now looked stacked on paper.

“We’ve got a handful of guys, plus some — maybe two handfuls — that we feel are pretty good players,” head coach Andy Reid boasted in August.

Early on, it appeared that the offensive line commitment was paying off. The two rookies (Humphrey and Smith) earned starting spots and have, more often than not, fared well. Thuney has been his typically sturdy self in pass protection, despite battling a hand injury.

The problem has been on the outside. Right tackle Lucas Niang has been the weakest pass-blocking link, eventually giving way to Mike Remmers in Week 6. Brown has had his moments, but was undressed by the Titans in Sunday’s loss — the first game this season that looked frighteningly similar to the Super Bowl meltdown.

And the consequences of their struggles seep into other parts of the roster. The costs associated with assembling the offensive line prevented the Chiefs from buttressing a defense that might have overachieved in 2020. Seven weeks into 2021, a relatively unchanged unit ranks 31st of 32 teams in Football Outsiders’ DVOA.

Its porousness demands brilliance from Mahomes. And for the first time in his young career, Mahomes hasn’t been equal to the task.

Taking away the Chiefs bread and butter

In his mere 53 regular-season starts, Mahomes has established himself as the ultimate Houdini quarterback. He’s masked defensive flaws. He’s engineered improbable comebacks. In his first four pro seasons, he did just about anything Kansas City needed from him en route to a 38-8 record.

This season, however, hasn’t always followed that script. The Chiefs came back from down 12 in the second half to beat Cleveland in Week 1, and cranked it up late in wins over the Eagles and the Washington Football Team. But Clyde Edwards-Helaire fumbled late in the Week 2 loss to the Ravens and again the next week against the Chargers. With that game against Los Angeles tied, the Chiefs took over with two-plus minutes left. But right as it looked like Mahomes would pull off his latest Houdini act, he threw a pick — and gave Justin Herbert the chance to lead a game-winning drive of his own.

On the surface, the Chiefs’ offense remains stout. It ranks third in total yards, fourth in passing yards, second in first downs and eighth in points. But one big thing has been missing: explosive plays. The Chiefs ranked top-10 in explosive pass rate in each of Mahomes’ first three seasons as a starter. This year, they rank 22nd. In losses to the Chargers, Bills and Titans, they had only six passes of 20 yards or more — and none longer than 28. With defenses committing to two high safeties, the opportunities downfield have dried up.

“People are learning not to play them all man to man [and pressure],” Scandrick says. “You can go zone, kind of [use a] ‘slow until you know’ [approach]. Try to make them take the long, hard route.”

This isn’t a completely novel approach. Defenses started adjusting prior to last year’s Super Bowl. And the impact of those adjustments shows up in numbers. In Mahomes’ first 44 starts, including playoffs, he averaged 8.55 adjusted net yards per pass, and threw 110 touchdowns to just 29 interceptions. He led the Chiefs to 24 wins by eight or more points and only one loss by more than eight points. But in his 17 starts since, dating back to last season, his adjusted net yards have fallen to 7.21 per attempt. His touchdown-to-interception ratio is a far less impressive 39-16.

Meanwhile, the Chiefs won only three of those 17 games by more than eight points, and lost three by eight or more. They’ve covered point spreads just three times in their last 15 regular-season games.

So is all of this fixable? Mahomes hasn’t had a true slump in his career. The offensive line, in theory, should jell and develop as the season wears on. The offense could right its ship.

But the defense might be what it’s been, leaving the Chiefs to rely on Mahomes’ wizardry, which once was reliable but this year has been much less so. Opponents have adapted. “A lot of the things Patrick has done well,” Scandrick says, “it’s not working.”

On one hand, the solutions aren’t secret. The Chiefs know the formula. “You have to play complementary football,” Scandrick says. “When they won the Super Bowl, they had a run game. They ran back kicks. They’re missing those.”

On the other hand, recapturing them isn’t easy.

“I don’t know, man,” Scandrick says. “The Chiefs are kind of limited in what they can do.”