Patrick Mahomes was the most popular man in Kansas City this summer. Chiefs fans were wild with excitement over the rookie quarterback. But Mahomes was on the sideline watching starter Alex Smith turn in a very solid 2017 season, forcing fans to hold their excitement in abeyance. That changed Sunday when Mahomes made his professional debut against the Denver Broncos. The numbers were pedestrian, as he completed 22 of 35 passes for 284 yards and an interception. However, beyond the numbers was the film, which showed both the peril, and the incredible promise, that Mahomes has to offer.
Let’s deal with the negatives first. Mahomes threw one interception on the afternoon, and very easily could have thrown a second. These two plays outline some of the dangers with Mahomes at the quarterback position. He is, for lack of a better expression, your proverbial gunslinger. He has a Favre-like level of confidence in his right arm and while warranted, there are times when that can get you into trouble.
First, let’s examine the interception. This play comes early in the first quarter. The Chiefs face a 1st and 10 in plus territory, on the Denver Broncos’ 34-yard line. The offense lines up with Mahomes (#15) in the shotgun and a 2×2 formation. There is a slot alignment to the right and a pro alignment on the left. Denver’s 4-2-5 nickel defense shows Cover 1 in the secondary, with the free safety in the middle of the field:
The Chiefs run a Dino (“double post”) concept to the right side of the formation. This is a concept broken down well by Matt Bowen in this piece. The inside slot receiver runs a post route. The outside receiver runs another post pattern using a Dino stem. He breaks outside on a potential corner route before cutting toward the middle of the field. As Bowen notes, the goal of this play is to attack the free safety. Against a Cover 1 look – which the Chiefs see here – if the free safety bites on the inside post, which is likely, he faces a difficult turn and recovery on the outside pattern:
As this play unfolds, the inside post pattern is technically open. De’Anthony Thomas (#13) does get separation as he works across the field. But with the free safety squatting and lurking over the top, there is more room for Mahomes to throw the outside post route, which comes open a bit later in the play. However, Mahomes trusts his ability to make the perfect throw in this spot. The pass is both high and behind the target, and is intercepted:
Now, at the moment he pulls the trigger, the outside post route is covered. The decision to throw inside is understandable. Mahomes would have needed a much better throw to complete this, especially with the free safety lurking. However, in the overall context of this play and the route design, he would have been better served waiting a step more and throwing the outside route. That route was a true one-on-one situation with the free safety much too far away from the play to make an impact. He was pressured late in the play. However, he had time to either slide to his right and make the throw, or anticipate the outside route coming out of its break.
The other play to break down is the near interception thrown toward Demetrius Harris. With under two minutes remaining the game is tied, but Kansas City has a 1st and 10 again in plus territory. They align with Mahomes again in the shotgun. This time in a 3×1 alignment with Harris (#84) an the inside trips receiver on the right. Denver’s nickel defense shows two-high safeties, but one is cheating down pre-snap, an indicator that the coverage will be rolled to a single-high look:
Kansas City runs a spacing concept, with the three wide receivers plus the running back executing short curl patterns. There is a twist, as Harris releases on a seam route vertically:
When the play begins, Mahomes opens to his left and looks like he is going to throw the quick hitch route to the single receiver side. He even goes as far as starting his throwing motion in that direction. That influences the free safety to that side of the formation – and away from Harris:
Everything up to this point is great, but then things take a turn so to speak. By pulling the ball down on the hitch route to the outside he has manipulated the free safety away from the middle of the field, allowing Harris to work a one-on-one on the seam route. That is breaking open. But rather than simply stepping up in the pocket or sliding to his right and then making a throw from a set position, Mahomes tries to bail the pocket to the left, then spins back around before making an off-platform throw late down the middle of the field:
This is a prime example of Mahomes’ trust in his arm. Harris is open, and a better throw might even be six points. Instead, by waiting and then throwing late from an awkward platform, the ball is underthrown, and nearly intercepted. The end zone camera angle highlights this aspect of the play:
There are times when Mahomes will need to be cleaner with his decisions and not rely too much on his pure arm strength. This is one of those moments.
Promise and Development
Now let’s break down three plays that stood out from Sunday, plays that illustrate both his incredible talent as well as the development that is already taking place in his ability to play quarterback in the NFL. First, there is a reason Mahomes trusts his arm, and you can see it on a play like this:
You cannot coach this, you cannot teach this, it is pure talent.
Denver brings a blitz here, and the Broncos have a free rusher at Mahomes against this curl concept from the Chiefs. But the rookie is able to slide to his left, stay upright, and somehow make a throw with a defender around his ankles with accuracy and velocity to move the chains on a 3rd and 14. This is why as a coach, you will live with and accept throws like the previous two, because it is rare to find a quarterback who can make a throw like this.
When I am evaluating quarterbacks, specifically trying to uncover how their development is coming along, I look for signs that the game is slowing down for them. One way to track this is by identifying anticipation throws. Many younger quarterbacks are more “see it, throw it” players. They have to see a receiver break open before trusting that the play is there, but as they mature, they can start to anticipate breaks and throwing windows, and get the ball out before they have to see the break. Here are two examples of this.
The first comes on a 1st and 10 play late in the second quarter. The Chiefs are in another 3×1 formation. Albert Wilson (#12) the inside receiver in the trips formation on the right. They run a dual passing concept, with vertical routes from the two outside trips receivers, coupled with a smash concept on the left. Wilson’s deep crosser sets up the smash look. Denver, as we saw on the previous play, brings pressure:
The Broncos have a free rusher again, but Mahomes anticipates this crossing route perfectly and drops it in to Wilson:
What’s more impressive is how Mahomes places this throw. He knows that the weakside boundary defender can peel off the route in the flat and break on the ball. But the QB gets both enough on it, and places it well enough, that the defender cannot make a play on the throw.
The final example of anticipation comes on this double-move throw to Demarcus Robinson in the third quarter:
Robinson (#13) runs a great pattern here along the left side. First he shows a hitch route, but then breaks vertically, making the defender think this is a stutter-and-go route. But after taking a few steps vertically, he stops on a deep curl route. It is a great route for sure, but the anticipation from Mahomes is exquisite. Look at this still that shows when Mahomes pulls the trigger:
Because the quarterback anticipates the throw so well, pulling the trigger before the final break, the defender has no chance. Even though the defensive back recovers pretty well, he cannot prevent a big completion.
For more on these plays, you can check out this episode of Reading Progressions over at Inside the Pylon. I break down each of these plays from Mahomes in greater detail:
Despite the numbers, this was a very positive debut from the rookie quarterback. Mahomes still carries a bit of risk as a passer, but given the potential rewards, it is very clear why the Chiefs traded up to get their hands on their future signal-caller.
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