Two weeks. That’s all it took for the Patrick Mahomes bandwagon to become standing room only. The Chiefs’ young quarterback set an NFL record with 10 touchdown passes in the first two games of a season. On Sunday, he threw for 326 yards, tied a franchise record with six touchdown passes and led the Chiefs to their first win in Pittsburgh since 1986.
Maybe most impressively, he has spread the ball around in those two games to the point that three receivers have already logged 100-yard receiving days and seven players have touchdown catches.
Here’s a closer look at some of what has the national media raving about Mahomes, and a look at what adjustments the Chiefs defense made to get crucial stops in the second half.
The coaches’ film is courtesy of NFL Game Pass. The game-day television broadcasts, a condensed 45-minute version of every game and the coaches’ film are available with an account at www.nfl.com/gamepass.
First touchdown throw to Travis Kelce
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Situation: Second-and-9 from the Pittsburgh 19.
Alignment: Mahomes is the shotgun with 11 personnel (three wide receivers, one tight end, one running back). Kareem Hunt is to Mahomes’ left pre-snap with all three wide receivers (Sammy Watkins, Chris Conley and Tyreek Hill) lined up to the left or wide side with the ball on the opposite hash mark. Watkins is off the line at the top of the numbers. Conley is on the line just a step outside the hash mark. Travis Kelce is on the opposite side lined up in a traditional tight end spot next to the tackle.
As they break the huddle, Hill lines up off the line to the wide side in a short slot. Pre-snap, Hill and Hunt shift to make the short side with Kelce the side with three eligible receivers — and all factor into the pattern. Hill goes in motion across the formation and settles in about two yards back and one yard to the right of Kelce. Meanwhile, Hunt moves over to Mahomes’ right.
At the snap: Hill runs his route up the sideline while Hunt swings out of the backfield to the same side. Meanwhile, Kelce runs up the seam between the hash mark and the numbers. In theory, the Steelers had the bodies to cover the route concept.
However, the cornerback passes Hill off to the safety and stays at the line of scrimmage to cover Hunt swinging out of the backfield. Inside linebacker Vince Williams (98), who pre-snap shifted to almost directly in line with Kelce and five yards off the line of scrimmage, runs with Kelce in his zone drop but keeps his eyes in the backfield and Hunt’s swinging route.
By the time Kelce gets to the 10-yard line, he is a step behind Williams, and Williams has his hips turned towards the sideline — not making him a threat to make a play on a ball to Kelce. The defender over the top, Cameron Sutton (20), is occupied by the speedster Hill racing up the sideline and having been passed off by the cornerback. The other inside linebacker, Jon Bostic (51), is lined up at the hash mark about five yards off the ball at the snap. He is dropping into the path of Kelce’s seam route, but can’t cover ground quickly enough to close the gap created by Cameron’s focus on Hill, Williams’ hips facing the sideline and Kelce’s speed.
While it sounds like an obvious thing to go to Kelce with a linebacker scrambling to catch up to him, the throw by Mahomes should not be taken for granted. This is where the arm strength, quick diagnosis/recognition and gunslinger mentality come into play.
It’s still a relatively tight window Mahomes throws into. Mahomes uncorks after Kelce gets clear of Williams and he’s sure Williams won’t undercut the throw. The safety Sutton is focused on Hill, but is still only two steps away from Kelce when he catches, while Bostic is bearing down on Kelce from the inside — though his head was turned. Kelce makes a good adjustment turning back for the catch as Mahomes threw it slightly behind him as opposed to leading him into the oncoming Bostic.
“Kelce is a guy that can line up all over the field and do a lot of different things,” Bostic said after the game. “It’s about slowing him down. You aren’t going to stop him. It’s slowing him down and figuring out what they want to do with him.”
The Chiefs showed throughout the preseason and early in the regular season that they’ll put three receivers on one side of the field and Kelce split wide to the other side in order to make a defense decide how they want to match up. In this scenario, as well as Kelce’s later touchdown catch, the Chiefs have used other receivers — including the threat of Hill’s speed — to create space and/or dictate a linebacker matchup on Kelce.
“Pat has great awareness, great feel in the pocket and sure enough he was able to throw that thing all over the field,” Kelce said. “It was a day to exploit matchups, and today I guess I was open more than usual.”
The route looks similar in concept — out of different personnel and formation — to the touchdown pass Anthony Sherman caught the previous week when he ran the wheel route up the sideline. This time Hunt ran that route and the ball went to Kelce, as we found out that was the intent on the original play.
Handling the blitz: touchdown pass to Kareem Hunt
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Situation: Third-and-5 at the Pittsburgh 5.
Alignment: Mahomes lines up in the shotgun and 11 personnel with Watkins, Hill and Conley on the right side/wide side. Hill is on the line just outside the college hash marks, while Conley as at the top of the numbers. Kelce is lined up as a traditional tight end on the opposite side of the formation on the line of scrimmage. Kareem Hunt is to Mahomes’ left. Pre-snap, Watkins goes in motion across the formation and wide to the left and off the line of scrimmage at the bottom of the numbers.
Mahomes recognizes potential blitzers off the edge for Pittsburgh, and he knows both Kelce and Hunt will release into the pattern. Anything beyond five rushers will not be picked up by the offensive line and he’ll be responsible for getting the ball out quickly.
At the snap: The Steelers rush the two down linemen in three-point stances, the two wide edge rushers in T.J. Watt (90) and Bud Dupree (48), as well as inside linebacker Vince Williams (98) from outside of Dupree. At that point, the Chiefs have one blocker to account for each pass rusher/blitzer. The Steelers also have safety Sean Davis (21) walked up to right behind the five-technique defensive lineman and safety Morgan Burnett (42) walked up behind the nose tackle. None of the 11 Steelers defenders were deeper than five yards from the line of scrimmage.
Burnett comes on a delayed blitz as Davis takes Kelce in man-to-man coverage. Mahomes recognizes the blitz coming and man-to-man behind it. He also knows that as long as the corner lined up across from Watkins runs with him and doesn’t peel off towards Hunt, Mahomes will be able to deliver the ball to Hunt, who knows to get his head around quick, in space with one defender to beat, to get into the end zone.
In this case, where the blitz comes from is almost irrelevant because the protection is set and Mahomes has identified where he can go with the ball right away. The left tackle, left guard and center are all sliding to their left to pick up the front side pass rushers/blitzers, including the one lined up directly over Kelce. Right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif takes the solo block on the nose tackle. Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz kicks out of his stance to set up with his eyes looking for an inside blitz and then picks up Watt off the edge. The inside blitz comes on a delay, but because Mahomes is decisive and gets the ball out quickly, that blitz had no impact.
One-on-one, Hunt muscles his way into the end zone. While a relatively short throw to an open man, Mahomes gets it out quickly and allows Hunt to catch and have time to react to the potential tackler closing in on him.
If this play looks familiar as well, it’s because Hunt’s preseason touchdown pass against the Chicago Bears came on a similar situation in which he was the hot read against the blitz and Mahomes got it to him quickly for a 19-yard touchdown. At the time, the Chiefs were happy to get Mahomes that experience against different defensive looks and blitzes.
Defending the empty set
Second quarter: The Steelers largely gave up on the running game early in the game. They did hand off to wide receiver/kick returner Ryan Switzer a couple times if for no other reason than to make the defense respect the threat of the run. Even with that, Switzer came onto the field in place of running back James Conner and allowed the Steelers to go empty with basically four wide receivers and 6-foot-7, 261-pound tight end Jesse James on the field at the same time.
In the first half, the Chiefs appeared to want to disguise looks and hedge their bets while bringing blitzers against Ben Roethlisberger. The problem the Steelers and Roethlisberger exploited: The Chiefs left pass rush/run stuffing linebackers such as Justin Houston, Dee Ford and Tanoh Kpassagnon in coverage while still not bringing more pass rushers than the Steelers could account for with blockers.
As a result, Roethlisberger was able to sit in the pocket without feeling as though he had to get the ball out quickly. James’ 32-yard gain on second-and-10 to help set up the tying touchdown in the final minute of the first half provides an example. Hitchens comes from his inside linebacker position on a blitz, but it’s part of just a three-man rush that fails to get pressure on Roethlisberger, who holds the ball for five seconds.
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In instances when he got the ball out quickly, Roethlisberger knew he had one-on-one coverage or receivers running uncovered or with front-seven defenders dropping into coverage as vulnerable targets. James’ 20-yard gain on second-and-4 came on a five-man rush with edge rusher Ford (55), safety Armani Watts (25) and nickel corner Kendall Fuller rushing off the edge from the wide side of the field (Roethlisberger’s left).
Outside linebacker edge rusher Justin Houston (50) lined up in the gap between the right guard and right tackle with defensive tackle Allen Bailey (97) lined up outside of the tackle. Houston dropped into coverage leaving five pass rushers — Bailey, Jarvis Jenkins, Ford, Watts and Fuller — with Houston coming from the opposite side of the center in a three-point stance to cover the tight end releasing to the opposite far hash mark. No defender touched James until he was 15 yards downfield with the football.
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Third quarter: The Chiefs came up with a critical stop on third-and-3 at the Pittsburgh 32 with a 35-28 lead. In this instance they sold out and brought six rushers and had rookie linebacker Dorian O’Daniel in the middle of the field lined up six yards off the ball and in position to get to the tight end releasing up the hash mark.
On the weak side of the formation, Roethlisberger has pressure in his face and throws hot to Switzer releasing into the flat. Switzer does not continue to run as Roethlisberger throws a pass leading him as opposed to putting it right on him.
During the broadcast, CBS analyst Dan Fouts said Switzer read zone. Cornerback Orlando Scandrick is lined up as though he’s playing press coverage on the side receiver outside the numbers, but as he puts hands on the receiver his head turns inside to Switzer. In this case, forcing the ball to come out quickly with the volume of blitzers helped speed up the offense and made the dubious coverage looks more effective.
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The risk of a big gain on a quick catch-and-run remained, but it paid off for the defense in this instance.