For some time watching the Chiefs was an oasis of serenity as they navigated battle with an invincibility like that of a Jedi knight shrugging at innocuous stray Stormtrooper shots. For every rare sight of conflict there was a new equilibrium around the corner; any chinks in their armour were swiftly veiled, any setbacks were bullishly quashed. Their narrative was inevitable behind Mahomes, Reid and co.: ‘Score 20? We’ll score 30. You call that pre-snap motion? Watch this’.
But their supremacy has been diluted this season amid an elongated version of the mistake-ridden, power-drained opening that saw them trail 24-0 in the second quarter of their 2020 Divisional Round playoff against the Houston Texans.
Even then, the Texans knew their cushion was dangerously lacking, as did Arrowhead. A Mahomes pep talk and seven touchdowns later and a 20-point margin victory belonged to the Chiefs as they marched towards Super Bowl glory. That’s who they were, it’s who they might still be – stay tuned on the latter.
For the first time in a long time they have dared to blink on offense in a league designed to resist any flicker of invincibility. They are 4-4, yet to enjoy a win streak, coming off a toothless and unconvincing victory over the toothless and unconvincing New York Giants, and are the only team in the NFL not scheduled to face a sub-.500 side for the rest of the season.
It says plenty about the bar Mahomes and the Chiefs have persisted to raise that amid all the grumbling they still rank fourth in total offense with an average of 412.9 yards per game, ninth in scoring with 26.0 points per game and sixth in offensive DVOA, which calculates a team’s efficiency based on down-and-distance of each play.
“Everything’s not beautiful right now, but we’re fighting through that,” said coach Reid after Monday’s 20-17 win against the Giants. “That happens in this game. There’s great competition in this league, which I think you know. You saw those games [Sunday], and teams that were supposed to win by X number of points get beat. There’s so much parity in this league, so you’ve got to fight.”
One week on from their end-zone shutout against the Tennessee Titans – just the second time that has happened with Mahomes under center – the Chiefs stumbled again on Monday night as they scraped by the Giants thanks to a pair of fourth-quarter Harrison Butker field goals after managing just 368 total yards on offense, giving up 12 penalties for 103 yards and seeing their quarterback throw a league-high 10th interception of the season, before escaping a catastrophic 11th during the game-winning drive as Darnay Holmes’ pick was negated by an offside flag. How very Giants of them.
A test was coming and this, branching off their Super Bowl loss to the Bucs, is that test. A test, as much as anything, of mental unity and composure that probably doesn’t need Tyrann Mathieu labelling the fanbase ‘toxic’ on social media – a remark he has since apologised for.
“Teams have caught up to Mahomes, caught up to the Kansas City offense, their defense is not special,” said Pro Football Talk’s Chris Simms. “There are so many issues that compound things.
“I think that fear has left opposing teams. I don’t know if it is there quite the way it used to be. They’ve been the kings of the hill for so long, everybody has studied them – and stolen their plays – but, more importantly, they’ve learnt from other teams how to defend them. And the Chiefs right now don’t have another move on the chess board to make anybody think twice.
“The other top offenses in football have a bunch of different schemes and players that teams have to think about when they play them. The Rams and the Bucs are not even comparable to the Chiefs right now.”
The Chiefs surrendered a tied-fourth-fewest 16 turnovers in 2020 – they currently lead the league with 19 after nine fumbles and 10 interceptions, including at least one pick across seven successive games in the longest streak of Mahomes’ high school, college and NFL careers combined.
A ‘you stop Mahomes, you stop the Chiefs’ mantra has equated to a league-leading rate of two-deep coverages and a further reduction in blitzes in a collective effort to eradicate the Tyreek Hill deep-overs and crossers that have been a chunk-play staple of Reid and Eric Bieniemy’s offense.
Giants defensive coordinator Patrick Graham could not have made it more obvious, pairing the likes of Xavier McKinney, Logan Ryan and Julian Love as high safeties 15-20 yards off the ball pre-snap, to such an extent that soft, really soft, coverage remained in play on third-and-short scenarios: ‘Take the first down, we’ll deal with you once you get to the 20′.
Then came the occasional three-man rushes, with pressure as humdrum as that of a five-man Giants rush, in aim of doubling down on the Travis Kelce outs and hitches. The tight end was limited to just four catches for 27 yards, his void in production somewhat eerie.
Mahomes’ interception came on a red-zone laser that cannoned up off Jerick McKinnon’s helmet – that probably wouldn’t have happened over the past two seasons. On his touchdown pass to Hill at the back of the end zone Mahomes appeared to miss a wide-open Kelce curl – his eyes had not got there yet, but in the past they might not have needed to. A trick play in which a motioning Mahomes took a behind-the-back flip from Kelce in wildcat before seeking out Hill amounted to a frustrated throw away – the unpredictability was a little… predictable?
In predominantly clean pockets he looked skittish with awkward mechanics at times, while often-unerring accuracy from any angle fluctuated and the conviction of his release and decision-making came with a noticeable speck, just a speck, of doubt.
His off-script success has been among the notable dips in recent weeks, with his yards per attempt with a time to throw of four-plus seconds falling to a career low 7.8 and his passer rating in such instances dropping to 62.4 having been 94.8 between 2018 and 2020. His off-the-cuff ingenuity has taken a hit, but should we really be surprised? It would have been negligent for teams to not prepare for it more extensively.
“It’s just execution,” said Mahomes. “I know I say it all the time, but we have guys open, and if we’re on the same page, me and the receivers with the routes, and then I throw it and hit the right spot, we can move the ball on pretty much any coverage. We have answers versus everything.
“But you’ve seen it in every game, pretty much, that there’s been times where we kind of stall out and we don’t execute or I throw a ball and don’t hit the right spot, or the receiver doesn’t see it the same way I do or penalties or turnovers. I know in this league it’s showing and it’s happening week after week these last few weeks, but I think we’re going to snap out of it, and we’ll find a way to start executing and when we do, we’ll be a tough offense to stop.”
And then there was the side-arm throw around Benardrick McKinney while rolling to his left that stuck it to queries over his confidence, along with the maturity to try and adopt a dink and dunk patience by taking what he had in front of him as the Giants played deep quarters.
Mahomes went 15 of 15 on passes behind the line of scrimmage for 121 yards (amounting to 165 yards after catch) to mark the most completions behind the line of scrimmage by any quarterback in a game since 2016. It’s an adjustment that has been forced upon him by opponents, one he and Reid must get used to.
Taking the top off a defense has become trickier as teams challenge the Chiefs to be patient while stringing together long, exhaustive drives. Naturally, the instincts to let rip will always come out. The task isn’t to ignore them, but perhaps rather to temper them.
“I think that’s probably, more than anything, collectively as an offense, what we’ve been trying to do,” said offensive coordinator Bieniemy on whether players were trying to force the issue at times after the Titans loss. “We want guys to let their personalities show. Be yourselves. Relax. Go play football. This game is meant to be fun. When our guys are having fun, when they’re relaxed, when they’re playing for a purpose, when they’re accountable to one another, that’s when we’re at our best.”
Pressure on an answer to the ‘life outside of Hill and Kelce’ question has meanwhile loomed for some time, the only surprise is that it took defenses so long to truly devote play-design and game-plans to shackling them. A remodeled offensive line is meanwhile still in the teething stages after enduring its worst performance of the season against the Titans (they were considerably better against the Giants). They are merely the obstacles a search for longevity and sustained dominance entails.
“They sat and played man on him and then they doubled him from there with a man over the top, kind of a halo-type technique,” said Reid of the Giants’ approach to stopping Kelce. “Eventually, we worked it out. We called about every different release we could give him, and he worked through it and had a couple big plays right there down the stretch. They’re making an effort to play him a little different than the other guys.”
Even in a period when the ball has been more difficult to move, Hill has 64 catches (1st in the NFL) for 735 yards (fifth) and six touchdowns (tied-fourth) after eight games, while Kelce has 49 (seventh) catches for 560 yards (17th) and four touchdowns (tied-sixth) after eight games. Then comes a slight drop off, albeit with Mecole Hardman next up on 352 yards to put him on course to surpass his career-high 538, followed by Byron Pringle’s career-best 255 yards. So sure, there is always potential for expansion for offense, even in one that has been as creative as that of Reid.
When needed most in the wake of Mahomes’ late interception scare, Hardman exploded for a 24-yard jet-sweep catch-and-run to help propel the Chiefs into Giants territory ahead of Butker’s game-winning field goal. On a day when the offense was again lacking its usual fluidity and fear-factor, a motioning Hill and Hardman were still electric with the ball in their hands.
Earlier in the game Derrick Gore had reaped the benefits of the lighter boxes that teams are setting up with against the Chiefs as he ran the ball seven times and on five straight plays to spearhead a drive ending with his three-yard rushing touchdown. Finally, Graham and the Giants had a reason to question their coverage, only for the ground game to subsequently take a beak-seat once again. When it’s working, run the ball.
Striking a better balance on offense had been signposted as a prime area for improvement heading into the season; injury to Clyde Edwards-Helaire has hardly helped the process, but Reid and Bieniemy have to persevere with an approach capable of relaxing the pressure on Mahomes.
“When it comes to Pat, I’m not worried about him. And I don’t think anybody really should be worried about him. When you’re a transcendent talent like that, it’s only a matter of time (before you struggle some). The most difficult thing is sustained greatness, I think in any sport. There’s an idea of plateauing at your peak and being able to sustain an incredibly high level of play that puts you in the upper echelon. And I believe that’s Pat’s destiny.”
Aaron Rodgers on Mahomes during The Pat McAfee Show
“He’s already established an incredible level of play, and he probably will for the next 10 or 15 years, depending on how long he wants to play,” Rodgers continued. “But that is definitely the most difficult thing because they are just waiting for you to show a chink in the armor, a slight fall off so that they can, you know, they can bury you.”
It’s easy to be lured into overreacting by forgetting that the Chiefs were the No 2 ranked offense through the opening six weeks while averaging 433.5 yards per game. It may not be the fast and furious machine that cruised to successive Super Bowls, but they aren’t in the funk some are making them out to be. Not yet, anyway.
The bigger, more pressing problems lie with a Kansas City defense currently ranked 29th overall, 25th against the pass, 22nd against the run, 25th in scoring and second-last in DVOA, while having registered a tied-second-fewest 11 sacks. Stop somebody, anybody, starting with Jordan Love and an Aaron Rodgers-less, albeit Davante Adams and Aaron Jones-fuelled Green Bay Packers offense.
The IQ and athleticism of run-swarming linebacker and Defensive Rookie of the Month Nick Bolton has been a lonely positive, and the arrival of Melvin Ingram on the edge should allow Chris Jones to switch back to his favoured inside role on a permanent basis. Oh and The Honey Badger can still play, too, though seems to have been sucked into what is very much a funk for the Chiefs secondary.
In the past an underperforming defense might have been disguised and rescued by the magic on the other side of the ball, which has faded slightly but by no means fizzled out overnight. It will be back.
This is Patrick Mahomes. This is Andy Reid. This is Kansas City. The Chiefs will be just fine… right?