The Chiefs’ offense hasn’t looked like the Chiefs’ offense in 2021. Patrick Mahomes has struggled through the worst slump in his four years as Kansas City’s starting quarterback.
So why is the team not rolling and lighting up the scoreboard per usual this NFL season? Because of uncharacteristic inefficiency and passing game limitations, the Chiefs are only 5-4 going into Week 10’s critical AFC West division game at Las Vegas. They are only No. 15 in scoring offense at 24.6 points per game, down from No. 6 and 29.6 points per game in 2020.
Should they get well on Sunday night, the Chiefs would jump back into at least second place in the division ahead of the Raiders, and maybe in first place ahead of the Chargers. But a loss would create more serious doubt about whether they can get back on track.
Here’s why Mahomes hasn’t been Mahomes and Chiefs’ offense has lost its explosive intimidation as a result, in five reasons:
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1. The Chiefs are facing a lot of zone defenses designed to take away their big pass plays
Mahomes isn’t the only big-armed young gun dealing with this. The NFL is a noted copycat league and defenses everywhere have worked to not let Mahomes, Josh Allen and Justin Herbert rip them downfield with shots to top wide receivers. This is not different from how teams used to play dangerous passing games of the past. The idea is to force teams to be patient in moving the ball downfield, hoping there’s a third-down mistake or turnover along the way over a required sustained long drive.
Mahomes has great confidence he can hit home runs on every snap because of his arm to fit the ball anywhere and his signature elusiveness to make magic happen when nothing seems to be available. Because he’s not taking what defenses are giving him, he’s up to 10 interceptions and 17 sacks through his league-leading pass attempts and completions. He has seen his yards per attempt drop to a career-low 7.0 and his frustrations with needing to dink and dunk more has made him force the ball into coverage.
2. The Chiefs are still struggling to find weapons to complement Hill and Kelce downfield
Mahomes has targeted wide receiver Tyreek Hill 101 times in only 9 games. Because of the big-play containment, he’s caught only 68 of those balls for a easy career low of 11.4 yards per catch. Tight end Travis Kelce has caught 54 of his 79 targets at 11.6 yards per catch, also his career low.
Then there’s a big dropoff to wide receiver Mecole Hardman, who has seen only 53 targets. Every defense against the Chiefs can continue to take their chances taking either Hill or Kelce out of games, knowing it’s not scared of anyone else making plays. Hardman has averaged only 9.8 yards per catch despite his speed and quickness profile.
When the Buccaneers did a good job on every level of their defense, vs. the run, creating pressure and covering downfield in Super Bowl 55, Mahomes and the Chiefs had no alternative answers. There is a little bit of Super Bowl hangover with the struggle to get third and fourth reliable options to emerge. It’s tied a little to no longer having veteran Sammy Watkins at wideout, but they also aren’t getting much of impact with their running backs in the passing game.
Mahomes hasn’t been the biggest checkdown QB early in his career, given he’s made the downfield passing success look so easy. The Chiefs could really use that element, making that a point of emphasis when second-year back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, a very skilled pass-catcher, returns from soon from his knee injury.
3. The Chiefs have not adjusted well to rely better on running the ball
When the Chiefs choose to run the ball under Andy Reid in 2021, they average a healthy 4.6 yards per carry. Their total 1,011 rushing yards in 9 games is good for No. 10 in the NFL, whether it was Edwards-Helaire early or either backup Darrel Williams or upstart Derrick Gore of late. But they are only No. 17 in the NFL in rushing attempts, averaging 24 per game. That might seem like a lot, but for the Chiefs’ purposes, with everyone giving them room to run because of the zone pass coverage, that’s not enough to run them out of the slump.
The Chiefs need to be more dedicated to the run to facilitate Mahomes. If they can start gashing teams enough with chunks and wear down seven-man fronts, it would face teams to adjust, take a man out of deep coverage and put him in the box. In turn, the running game can re-open up the passing game. It also can support Mahomes with play-action shots that come as a natural part of the offense vs. forced and sometimes needed out of down and distance.
Reid has been fickle about his commitment to the run through his his coaching career. He can get enamored with the pass until it gets to a point he’s pushed into an overcorrection. The time is now, even if it means taking the ball out of Mahomes’ hands more. The running also has the added benefit of ball security, ball control and keeping the defense off the field.
4. The Chiefs’ new offensive tackles have disappointed
Another reason for the Chiefs to pivot to be more of a running team is to take better advantage of the new strengths of the offensive line and rely less on the weaknesses. Rookies Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith, manning center and right guard, have been outstanding flanking pricey former Patriot Joe Thuney at left guard. While the interior focus was good, the Chiefs haven’t improved much on the edges after moving on from Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz, who both didn’t play in Super Bowl 55.
Orlando Brown Jr has just been OK protecting Mahomes’ blind side at left tackle. Mike Remmers hasn’t been good at right tackle and as he’s been hurt, Lucas Niang and Andrew Wylie have been a lot worse. The Chiefs are built to be a better running game more so than trusting Mahomes to drop back often and have plenty of time to find someone open downfield. The whole group is better at run blocking so Kansas City must make the pivot to help Mahomes, given the weather in November and December calls for more of that, anyway.
5. The Chiefs’ defense continues to put a heavy burden on their offense
The Chiefs also have battled some defensive issues, from big injuries to downright ineffectiveness, which adds to the offense pressing. The Chiefs are No. 28 against the pass and 28th against the run. There’s been a shaky version of complementary football and when Kansas City turns over the ball at its unusual high rate, either stoppings drive early or denying points in the red zone, the situation becomes more glaring.
Under Steve Spagnuolo, now with some healthier bodies, the Chiefs tend to correct some fundamental issues down the stretch and into the playoffs. There were signs of that against the Packers in Week 9, taking advantage of a “get-well game” against first-time starting QB Jordan Love.
The Chiefs have been too good with Mahomes and Reid not to turn the corner for the second half of the season. It’s hard to imagine Mahomes playing much worse with his talent level and nothing has been lost yet at 5-4. Although there’s no instant Mahomes magic for a turnaround, improved personnel and scheming will play and coach them out of it.
Mahomes may seem to be on the ropes, but every young QB needs to learn to counterpunch in the face of defenses adjusting to him. He is not one to lack confidence and the Chiefs must do a better job of building that back up in him — and they will.
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