Any loss of mobility should be an insurmountable problem for a quarterback whose perceived greatest strength is his ability to create outside the structure of the play. But throughout this season, including against the Jaguars on Saturday, Patrick Mahomes has shown his real greatest strength is his ability to continually adapt.
After suffering a high ankle sprain in the first quarter of the Chiefs’ 27-20 win over the Jaguars, Mahomes left the game but returned in the third quarter, leading the offense to score 10 second-half points. Mahomes didn’t make his usual number of superhuman plays and the offense wasn’t as explosive as normal, but he found ways to move the ball, manipulate the pocket with his limited mobility and make throws when it mattered.
Now, though, the Bengals will have a chance to game plan to take advantage of Mahomes’ inability to move. How much will his injury affect the Chiefs’ offense?
Reid: Chiefs’ Mahomes plans to play through injury
In 2019, Mahomes suffered a high ankle sprain to his left ankle and played the following week against a terrible Raiders defense that finished 31st in points allowed per drive. Mahomes threw four touchdown passes in the second quarter of that game against the Raiders, whose pass rush couldn’t get to him, allowing Kansas City time for deep passes to develop.
Chiefs coach Andy Reid said Monday that Mahomes’ current injury “isn’t quite as bad” as that one his quarterback played through in 2019, though this time Mahomes is feeling pain in his right ankle, which affects his ability to plant and drive as he throws. Mahomes might be the best off-platform thrower in the league, but the Chiefs’ first drive against the Jaguars featured a sampling of plays that could be unavailable to Kansas City depending on how Mahomes heals. The Chiefs got a 12-yard gain off of a speed option; Mahomes made a spectacular jump pass on third down; he made another third-down throw while getting spun to the ground; and Reid called two boot plays, the second of which resulted in the Chiefs’ first touchdown of the day.
Mahomes to Kelce! @Chiefs start the scoring in KC
— NFL (@NFL) January 21, 2023
In the regular season, Mahomes led the league in pass attempts outside of the pocket (124) and tied for first in expected points added (EPA) per dropback on such plays. It’s a big part of the Chiefs’ offense, especially in the red zone. Reid will likely still attempt to get Mahomes outside of the pocket, but instead of naked bootlegs in which a defensive end is left unblocked like in the clip above, the Chiefs could call rollouts and boots with frontside protection, requiring the line to slide with Mahomes . This will ensure he has protection in front of him so he won’t have to move as fast, but it also invites the defense to move in that direction, cutting the field in half.
— NFL (@NFL) January 20, 2023
On the first play in the clip above, from the Chiefs’ win over the Jaguars in Week 10, Mahomes ran a boot to the right with two tight ends protecting him on the front side. The defense dropped in the direction of the boot, which left Travis Kelce wide open running a crosser against the grain. I’d expect Reid to have a few of these plays in the game plan. It allows Mahomes to get outside the pocket, but it isn’t demanding from a movement standpoint and involves misdirection. The Chiefs should also call a heavy dose of play action with straight dropbacks (no rollout), which Mahomes had success with against the Jaguars.
From undrafted free agent….
To scoring two game-changing #SBLIV TDs.
— NFL (@NFL) February 3, 2020
The speed option is an effective weapon for the Chiefs. The concept is to leave the edge defender unblocked and have Mahomes charge at him to hold him and then pitch the ball to a running back or receiver. Rarely does the quarterback actually keep the ball, he just needs to be a threat. The Chiefs even ran one after Mahomes was injured against the Jaguars, and Mahomes was able to quickly pitch to receiver Kadarius Toney after the Jacksonville edge defender got caught inside. But the Bengals’ defensive coaches will likely tell their edge defenders to ignore Mahomes and run straight to the pitch.
In the first play in the clip above, the Chiefs ran a variation of a speed option in Super Bowl LIV. This variation is called a “freeze option.” Mahomes faked a handoff, which caused the end to crash inside, opening up the edge. Reid can call this variation if the Chiefs want to run to the outside. I wouldn’t expect the option to be a big part of the game plan, but then again, that’s exactly why Reid might include it.
In the divisional round playoff game against Jacksonville, Mahomes wasn’t just catching and throwing the ball. He held the ball longer than three seconds on 33.3 percent of his attempts, which is slightly more than his season average. The Chiefs have a very good offensive line, and Mahomes trusts his protection and his ability to navigate the pocket, even when he’s hobbled and facing a talented Jaguars pass rush that finished eighth in ESPN’s pass rush win rate. The Bengals’ pass rush, which finished 21st in the same metric, isn’t as formidable. Reid will likely include more concepts in which Mahomes can catch and throw, but on third-and-medium and third-and-long situations, the injury won’t stop Mahomes from holding the ball to manipulate the rush and hunt for opportunities downfield.
OFF ONE FOOT. Mahomes to MVS!
— NFL (@NFL) January 22, 2023
On Mahomes’ only touchdown pass in the second half, he moved off his first read and stepped up in the pocket, which caused the “lurk” defender to step up before Mahomes threw behind him. Mahomes might not break the pocket against the Bengals as often as he does when he has full mobility, but he still has a strong pocket awareness and can still buy time within it.
The Jaguars tried to force Mahomes to move by blitzing him on 43.8 percent of dropbacks in the second half, but Mahomes was great in those situations, posting an EPA per dropback of 0.45 — that would have ranked ninth among all quarterbacks against the blitz during the regular season. Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo had success blitzing Bills quarterback Josh Allen in the divisional round, but I don’t believe he wants to give Mahomes the ability to quickly find hot throws.
Anarumo is one of the NFL’s best game planners, and how he chooses to defend a weakened Chiefs offense will determine the game.
(Top pic: David Eulitt/Getty Images)