Football analysts love to partake in this common one-two step.
Identify a problem, such as a team struggling on defense or a quarterback struggling to avoid turnovers.
Then, identify the reason behind that problem.
Through seven weeks of this NFL season, a common result of that love for the one-two step of analysis has been the sheer number of columns, podcasts and show segments focused on what is wrong with the Kansas City Chiefs offense.
Everyone agrees that the offense we are used to seeing is not what the Chiefs are putting on the field each week. Nevermind that the Chiefs are currently eighth in the league in scoring offense, allowing 26.9 points per game. Patrick Mahomes is currently tied for the NFL lead with nine interceptions.
Something is wrong, and we need something to blame.
The common culprit to this point of the season? Cover 2. The Chiefs face this coverage more than any other team:
Patrick Mahomes is facing two-high safety coverages at the highest rate in the NFL this season. Opposing defenses are clearly attempting to prevent the Chiefs explosive pass, and it’s working thus far. pic.twitter.com/myoeFOxV2u— Joey (@joeyanalytics) October 28, 2021
Coverage rate plot, but from the quarterback's perspective.— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) October 14, 2021
So here's the coverages Patrick Mahomes sees relative to other QBs.
More Cover-2 and 2-Man than anyone, less Cover-1 (labeled Man1 on the plot) and Cover-3 than anyone.
(ESPN / NFL Next Gen Stats) pic.twitter.com/KIElNOAxtl
Now, is that just it? Are the Chiefs struggling to find answers of one of the game’s most basic coverages?
Diving into the numbers might frame the story that way. This season, according to charting data from Sports Info Solutions (SIS), Mahomes has throws 145 passes against these coverages: Cover 2, Cover 2 Man Under, Cover 4 and Cover 6.
No other quarterback has more than 100 attempts against those coverages. Tom Brady is second with 94.
What has Mahomes done on those plays? Completed 92 of 145 passes for 1,060 yards, one touchdown and six interceptions. His Average Net Yards per Attempt on those throws is 4.9, on par with players like Jacoby Brissett, Mac Jones and Sam Darnold. His NFL Passer Rating on those passes? 70.5, which places him 39th in the league in that mark. In terms of EPA/Dropback, Mahomes’ 145 attempts against those coverages offered an EPA/Dropback of 0.043.
For comparison, against those coverages Justin Herbert has an EPA/Dropback of 0.263. Daniel Jones? Well, he is in the negative, so perhaps that is a story for another time.
So it is easy to say that the Chiefs, and Mahomes, have a problem with these coverages where the “middle of the field is open.” Against those MOFO looks, which they face more than anyone, the offense has struggled and Mahomes has put up brutal numbers.
But is that the complete story?
More on that in a second, but first, a few words on why teams are doing this to Mahomes.
Because they want to bait the Chiefs into turning him into a spectator.
NFL schemes often trickle-up from the lower ranks. Right now on Friday and Saturday nights, defensive coordinators are playing with these two-high coverages, or at least showing them pre-snap, to dare the offense to hand the ball off. If you get a chance, look for the Hudl Blitz ‘21 clinic presentation moderated by Chris Vasseur, on Twitter as @CoachVass. Vasseur hosted a number of high school defensive coordinators, and they all said they’ll show two-high before the snap and hope the offense runs the ball.
Why? Because passing is more efficient. So if you, as a defensive coordinator, get the offense to take the bait and turn the QB into a spectator, you’re already winning in the long run.
That goes doubly for Mahomes and the Chiefs. Because they are struggling to run the ball, even against these looks, if you get Andy Reid to take the bait and have No. 15 hand off, that’s usually a double win.
Again, however, the numbers and the theory might not completely match the film.
Because when you dip into the film, the picture becomes a bit cloudier. Take this interception against a red zone, two-high coverage from the Buffalo Bills:
Yes, the Bills are in two-high here, but on this interception the coverage has nothing to do with the result. The pass is tipped by rookie defensive lineman Gregory Rousseau, and he finishes the play with an interception.
Whether it was two-high or single-high, MOFO or middle of the field closed, it did not matter. This was getting intercepted at the line.
Take this interception against the Washington Football Team:
Sure, the Football Team is in a two-high coverage on this play, but once more, the interception has nothing to do with the defensive scheme. Instead, this throw is on the mark, but it goes right through the hands of Tyreek Hill and is intercepted.
Or what about this interception Mahomes throws against Cover-4, from back in Week 2?
This is perhaps where the true problem lies. Mahomes and the Chiefs face a third-and-long situation, and with some pressure in the pocket the quarterback tries to make a heroic throw, and the pass goes into traffic and is intercepted.
Chris Simms, on the Dan Patrick Show this week, had some advice for the quarterback that is on the mark:
"Don't be afraid to be somewhat boring."— Dan Patrick Show (@dpshow) October 26, 2021
-Chris Simms (@CSimmsQB) offers advice to Mahomes and #Chiefs on how to turn things around
Chris' full appearance: https://t.co/kMEAuKmeGg pic.twitter.com/45vbggBJ3F
Mahomes needs to be a bit more boring.
The problem is, he feels like he cannot be. The Chiefs have a bad defense. A unit that has allowed 29.0 points per game, fifth-most in the league. Beyond that, the Chiefs defense has allowed opposing passers an ANY/A of 8.2 this season. A passer with that ANY/A number would be ranked fifth in the NFL right now, behind Kyler Murray and just ahead of Tom Brady.
When your defense is turning every opponent quarterback into an MVP-level player, you feel some pressure to score every time out.
So that means instead of throwing the football away on third-and-long when you’re pressured, you try and force a throw into coverage while falling down. Live by low-percentage shots, die by low-percentage shots.
There are other moments where Mahomes does not help himself, and because they take place against these two-high coverages, they get folded into the discussion. For example, look at this play from last week against the Tennessee Titans:
Mahomes hits his drop depth in the pocket and almost immediately pivots to scramble mode. Sure, there is pressure coming off the left edge, in the form of pass rusher Harold Landry, but there is also a window to hit the final step of his drop, hitch up in the pocket and target Hill on the in-breaking route from the left slot.
Instead Mahomes scrambles for a gain of 2 yards, and that sets up a third-and-7 situation.
Mahomes is sacked on the next play:
Once again, Mahomes has an opportunity to target Hill in the middle of the field. But as he starts to throw, he for some reason pulls the football down. Maybe it is due to the pressure Tennessee generates with just four pass rushers. But Mahomes is dragged down for the sack, missing a chance to convert the third down by throwing to Hill, who has a step on the defender.
Oh, and the Titans are in Cover 2 Man Under on this snap.
Again, these two plays are missed opportunities in the passing game against these MOFO coverages, but have more to do with the quarterback and how he is perceiving the situation around him, rather than the coverages themselves.
But the other thing we are seeing work against Mahomes, in concert with these coverages, is when teams can pressure him with four up front. The Bills were able to do that a few weeks ago, and the Titans were able to do that last week.
Right now, the New York Giants are not getting a ton of pressure on opposing passers, as they rank fourth-lowest in the league with a pressure rate of just 19.6 percent. But, if that can change on Monday night, and the Giants can start making Mahomes move around in the pocket ...
And if they take advantage of the opportunities on offense to make plays against a defense that is struggling ...
Then it might not matter what coverage they are running, because they’ll generate moments like this:
This is Mahomes’ interception from last week against the Titans. Once more you see him pull the football down, flush himself out of the pocket, and attempt an ill-advised throw across his body while rolling to his left.
The pass is intercepted. The coverage? Single-high on this play.
Again, the issue is not the coverages they are facing, but rather what the circumstances around Mahomes are forcing him to try. Facing pressure in the pocket, and feeling pressure to score on every drive, he is trying to make every throw count.
To his detriment.
That, beyond what coverage to play, is what the Giants have to replicate on Monday night.