Though the first nine weeks of the 2021 season, Patrick Mahomes completed 236 of 362 passes for 2,534 yards, 20 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. Considering that Mahomes had thrown 11 interceptions total in his previous two regular seasons, this has been kind of a big deal. Kansas City ranked 10th in Offensive DVOA, and 13th in Passing DVOA — the Chiefs ranked second overall and second in passing last season.
There have been all kinds of theories as to why this decline has happened. Mahomes is still affected by a disastrous offensive performance in Super Bowl LV, he’s getting used to an offensive line with five new starters, Mahomes is playing outside of structure too often, Mahomes’ formerly freakishly fortunate interception luck has turned.
There appears to be legitimacy to all those thoughts to a greater or lesser degree, but the primary explanation seems to be the proliferation of two-high coverage against the Chiefs, and the Chiefs’ inability to respond to it. In the 2020 season opener, the Texans tried to play a ton of two-high against the Chiefs in order to wait Mahomes out with deep coverage and try to force him into desperation throws.
The Chiefs responded by running rookie back Clyde Edwards-Helaire 25 times for 138 yards and a touchdown against Houston’s deep safeties and light boxes. Mahomes completed 24 of 32 passes for 211 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions. It was a ruthlessly efficient, if less than explosive, performance. This season, the Chiefs have not been as effective at forcing opponents away from two-deep coverage, and it’s showing.
Through the first nine weeks of the season, Mahomes had faced far more two-high snaps than any other NFL quarterback (203 dropbacks; Sam Darnold ranked second with 127). And in those 203 dropbacks, Mahomes completed 106 passes in 174 attempts for 1,217 yards, one touchdown, and six interceptions. Not that all the interceptions were absolutely Mahomes’ fault, but there’s been a schematic message throughout the league, and it’s worked.
Which is where the Raiders came in on Sunday night. Mahomes completed 35 of 50 passes for 406 yards, five touchdowns, and no interceptions in a 41-14 win. That had everybody insisting that Mahomes was “back” after a confusing first half of the season. Whether that’s actually true or not is worthy of examination. Coming into Sunday night’s game, no team had played more Cover-3 than the Raiders —
127 snaps of it in pass coverage, and Gus Bradley’s defense had allowed 80 completions on 100 attempts in Cover-3 for 829 yards, four touchdowns, and three interceptions. This is a hallmark of Bradley’s defenses wherever he’s been — he’s a single-high guy to an abnormal degree. Last season, the Chargers played single-high on 69% of their defensive snaps. Guess who their defensive coordinator was?
Through Week 9, Bradley’s Raiders have played single-high on 65% of their snaps, the highest rate in the league. Mahomes has completed 63 of 107 passes in 121 dropbacks for 780 yards, five touchdowns, and four interceptions. So, single-high hasn’t been the automatic solution we may think. To their credit, the Raiders came into this game with the desire to switch up their tendencies, which Chiefs head coach Andy Reid noticed.
“He blended it a little bit between Cover-4 and single safety middle zone,” Reid said of Bradley after the game. “Listen, that is kind of where the whole thing started. They have done a good job against us the last few years, just playing zone. He mixed it in playing heavy three and then man to man, different doubles taking place.” According to the Raiders’ coaches, the Raiders’ failures were more about execution and communication than scheme.
“What we were trying to do with some bracket coverage and having the ability to communicate with each other, we had some stumbling blocks there,” Raiders interim head coach Rich Bisaccia said Monday. “And then we had people behind us for the first time in certainly the last month making some explosive plays in that particular area for us on defense… 12 explosive plays we gave up on defense. We only had six on offense.”
So, was this a case of Mahomes exploiting a sub-standard defense ill-suited to attack his weaknesses, or is Mahomes really “back?”