Fans of the New England Patriots probably woke up Monday morning feeling pretty good. The home team improved to 2-1 on the young season with a victory over the Las Vegas Raiders, and there was reason for excitement. The running game got going with big plays from Sony Michel and J.J. Taylor, the defense shut down tight end Darren Waller, and the pass rush turned in a big play with a sack/fumble/touchdown late in the game.
Oh, and Cam Newton was smiling on the field, and doing this on the sidelines:
But then, Monday — perhaps more importantly Monday night — happened.
Patriots fans watched as the Kansas City Chiefs put on an offensive display against the Baltimore Ravens. Patrick Mahomes threw four touchdown passes and continued to defy the laws of mechanics and physics, Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman were getting over the top of the Ravens’ secondary, and Andy Reid was dialing up some creative screen concepts to screen concepts to outflank and outwit the Ravens’ defense.
Joy might have turned to nausea rather quickly.
So looking forward to Sunday afternoon, how can Bill Belichick and the Patriots stop — or merely slow down — Mahomes and company? Sure, they have managed at times to force some mistakes from Mahomes, but either pressuring him or showing him some complex coverages, but those seemed to work more two years ago. Now the quarterback seems to be playing a different sport. Nothing seems to confuse him or get to him.
However, a family member of one of Mahomes’ offensive line might have spilled some beans recently:
I know it’s doesn’t absolve some poor blocking by the Chiefs OL but Mahomes has to stop dropping past 9/9.5 yards. I’ve seen at least 4 clips where his back foot is close to 11 yards deep or more . And this is without interior pressure on 3 of the 4.— Geoff Schwartz (@geoffschwartz) September 22, 2020
Usually, when you think about stopping this offense, you start sounding like a crazy magician.* “We’ll get pressure with three, we’ll drop eight into coverage, we’ll play Cover 2 and have dedicated safety help over the top.” Sure, sounds great, but can you really do that in practice?
*Yes, I said almost those exact words on a recent installment of The Scho Show. I speak from experience here friends.
But looking at some of Kansas City’s plays this year brings the above point from Geoff Schwartz, the brother of right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, to light.
Entering Monday night the Ravens seemed to follow a game plan enacted by the Los Angeles Chargers, who forced the Chiefs into overtime despite starting a rookie quarterback: blitz and pressure Mahomes. The problem? Some of their best defensive plays came when rushing just four, and with Mahomes making life harder for his offensive line.
Take, for example, this sack of Mahomes by Joey Bosa:
This is actually a clean pocket, but instead of stepping up in the pocket, Mahomes retreats deeper, getting to a depth of about ten yards or more. All that does is give Bosa a better angle at him off the edge. Schwartz, the right tackle, cannot hold his block because Bosa can simple disengage for the sack:
If Mahomes were to climb the pocket here, he would give his right tackle the better angle to shield Bosa away from the quarterback. But by retreating like he does, he makes Bosa’s life easier.
On this play, also against the Chargers, Mahomes takes a deep drop in the pocket and gives the edge rusher the advantageous angle:
Once more, the deep drop into the pocket gives the edge rusher the advantageous angle working against the left tackle. Mahomes takes a shot, and the pass (delivered under pressure) falls incomplete.
Now, you might be wondering: why would Mahomes drop back like that?
Because he can do this too:
On this touchdown to Mecole Hardman, Mahomes retreats from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor all the way to Frederick and still can uncork a rocket downfield to his receiver for the touchdown.
When you have arm talent like this, you can feel comfortable retreating. You can feel confident in making life harder on your tackles, because if the pressure does not get to you first and you have a target downfield, you can still make the defense pay.
But this does give a defense an opportunity. You can get pressure on Mahomes with a limited number of rushers, because he might simply expose himself to it with these drops. On both of those examples from the Chargers game, the defense gets pressure on Mahomes due to a combination of him erasing the angles his blockers have, and the defense bringing just four pass rushers after him. They use some wide alignments and almost bait him into retreating and making things tougher on himself.
That allows Los Angeles to drop seven into coverage and have a numbers advantage in the secondary.
It is not much, but it is a start.