Ever since he took over as the Kansas City Chiefs’ starting quarterback in 2018, the NFL has had a tough time figuring out Patrick Mahomes. The results speak for themselves: one of the best QBs in football, Mahomes has led the Chiefs to four straight home AFC Championship Games as well as two trips to the Super Bowl with one win.
As opposed to the previous two appearances in the AFC title game, however, this year’s ended in disappointment. The Chiefs blew a 21-3 lead plus the advantage of receiving the ball in overtime to eventually fall 27-24 to the visiting Cincinnati Bengals.
The game appeared to be over before the half. Kansas City and its perennial Pro Bowl quarterback did as they pleased on the offensive side of the ball, scoring three touchdowns on their first three possessions.
While a pivotal goal line stop as time expired in the first half helped keep the Cincinnati deficit in check — the team headed into the locker room down 21-10 — its defensive performance in the second half played an equally big role in the successful comeback. The Bengals forced four punts and an interception before the Chiefs kicked the game-tying field goal to send the game to overtime.
How did they do that, especially after a hideous first-half outing? They
burrowed borrowed from Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots.
Belichick is the NFL’s leading defensive mind, and his teams have been able to make life harder for Mahomes than most others. While the hyper-talented QB and his head coach, Andy Reid, usually found ways to keep the games tight either way — you can only hold Kansas City’s offensive machine down for so long — they oftentimes struggled versus New England.
The Patriots achieved that by flooding the coverage areas. In last year’s game versus the Chiefs, for example, they employed eight defenders in coverage on 44 percent of Mahomes’ dropbacks. New England usually employed two deep safeties with the rest playing man-to-man and swarming the underneath area to eliminate the threat of crossing routes. Up front, the pass rush intentions were disguised regularly.
Kansas City did end up taking advantage of a lack of pass rush in the second round, and eventually ended up winning the game 26-10. However, the final result was more due to New England’s issues on offense — starting QB Cam Newton had tested positive for Covid-19 just hours before the team was set to depart — than the defensive battle plan.
The heavy coverage focus did help slow Mahomes and his outstanding supporting cast down, and on Sunday the Bengals went that route as well.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, they employed eight or more defenders in coverage on a season-high 35 percent of their passing game snaps. It worked:
The #Bengals dropped 8+ defenders in coverage on a season-high 35% of pass plays.— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 30, 2022
Patrick Mahomes struggled against 8+ defenders in coverage, completing just 7 of 13 passes for 59 yards & an INT with 2 sacks (-14.4 pass EPA, career-low).#CINvsKC | #RuleTheJungle pic.twitter.com/oGWhaVWx6z
The Bengals used that tactic on 24 percent of pass plays in the first half. In the second half and overtime, however, they almost doubled that number: they used eight-plus coverages on 45 percent of Mahomes’ dropbacks down the stretch.
The Chiefs ended up scoring only three points after intermission.
Cincinnati’s coverages were not the only reason why the team came back from a 21-10 halftime deficit, but they visibly forced Mahomes into uncomfortable situations. Arguably the league’s best quarterback, the 26-year-old looked rattled in the second half and overtime.
Not only did he throw two interceptions — one of them against an eight-plus look — he also was sacked four times, including twice in goal-to-go situations late in the fourth quarter. Not all of those plays saw the Bengals drop eight into coverage, but the heavy use of that look flustered the Chiefs’ quarterback for the rest of the game.
As a result, Mahomes and company will have to watch the Super Bowl from home for the first time since 2019. Cincinnati, on the other hand, will try to win its first ever Vince Lombardi Trophy in two weeks.