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Film Session: Patrick Mahomes didn’t know how to “Read Defense” until halfway through the 2018 season.

Patrick Mahomes improved this season, and he improved by a lot. No, he didn’t put up the record-shattering numbers we saw in the 2018 season. He had a modest 26 Touchdowns compared to 50 a year ago and nearly one thousand fewer yards. He had far fewer of the miraculous plays that made him a household name but his improvement as a QB and a leader was never more evident. Through injury and adversity, Mahomes was the leader that the Kansas City Chiefs have lacked for 50 years. His infectious confidence and selfless team approach propelled the Chiefs to the promised land. It wasn’t easy but the ultimate goal was reached. This didn’t just happen overnight as natural talent can only take a player so far. As we learned when Mahomes was interviewed in the HBO hit series “The Shop” his game is nowhere even close to being done evolving.

“I understood coverages but how to be able to pick up little tendencies defenses do, stuff that Brady and them have done, they know it, and they just do it. I was just playing.” — Patrick Mahomes

While it would be foolish to think Mahomes didn’t know how to tell the difference between zone and man defense, it is entirely believable that over the course of the past two seasons Mahomes has developed his ability to read the defense and find the tendencies that every team, coach, and player in the NFL plays with. With his physical gifts, ever-growing mental evolution, and a knack for the incredible Patrick Mahomes firmly cemented himself for years to come as the face of the league.

The Improviser

Improvisation- something that is improvised, especially a piece of music, drama, etc., created without preparation.

Very few players have ever graced the NFL with as many physical gifts and as much creativity as Patrick Mahomes. When nothing else is there and everything is going wrong it’s time to make something happen. Mahomes’ ability to improvise was put on full display during week 5 against the Indianapolis Colts.

The play below displays the amazing arm strength combined with the presence of mind that Mahomes has. The pocket collapses causing Mahomes to have to scramble. Mahomes knows he can avoid the defenders and even could take off and run if he wanted but the Colts secondary can only cover for so long and Mahomes only needs a small window. Mahomes could have completed a shorter pass to Travis Kelce or Lesean McCoy and let them work for a first down but he keeps his eyes surveyed down past the line to gain. Byron Pringle pops open for just a second as the Colts were looking to keep everything in front of the sticks. Mahomes is aggressive and fires it in for six. He doesn’t just want first downs, he wants touchdowns. Fantastic awareness to see the Colts were playing the markers and take a shot to the end zone.

The Colts secondary played the Chiefs well all game but Mahomes completed one of his best passes of the season off his back foot. His football IQ is on full display again. Mecole Hardman was covered well and should have no chance to get this ball. But as the pressure started to get to Mahomes he throws off his back foot seeing how tight the corner was trying to get a flag. He gets the flag but the pass was perfect. He hits Hardman with very little separation. This was an example of a great thought on the fly turned into a sensational throw. Mahomes sees the game differently than almost every other quarterback to play the game.

Below is another example of how Mahome’s downfield vision allows him to be so effective in these scramble situations. As he starts to roll out, the defenders converge on Mahomes and the receivers he is headed towards. As he runs, it gives him a chance to open up Travis Kelce. Mahomes goes through his initial reads quickly but the wide view of the film shows how as he pulls the defenders toward him Kelce opens up in front of the safety.

This is another Mahomes scramble and another tremendous throw. This time there is less to read and process but in order to pull off these types of throws, it takes a certain level of talent. Falling away he has to put it on Pringle who was well covered. There are times to let it fly and this was one of them. It’s the throws like this that Mahomes can rely upon his arm and athletic ability but it has been too often that when he has had to complete passes like this the Chiefs end up losing the game, much like they did here against Indianapolis. Mahomes keeps the Chiefs in every game with plays like these but when he can sit in the pocket and dissect teams are when the Chiefs are at their most effective.

The Technician

Technician- a person skilled in the technique of an art or craft.

The highlight plays are what have propelled Mahomes to national stardom but his growth and development as a player have come with his ability to read defenses and find similarities in the way teams try to defend him.

In week six the Houston Texans were determined to not give up the deep ball vs the Chiefs. Mahomes is looking long but the route just isn’t there and he doesn’t have the time to complete that deep of a pattern. Kelce pops open for a second but Mahomes is fixated with looking deep. He is sacked and gives the ball up in what was a huge turning point play.

Fast forward to the divisional round the Texans show the same high safety look as they key in on Tyreek Hill and the other deep routes. Mahomes spots this and doesn’t try to force the ball into a tight hole deep and doesn’t try to improvise, but instead waits for Kelce to get into his out route and throws for a nice pickup. The best throw doesn’t have to be the most spectacular. The Chiefs torched the Texans with the short game, with Mahomes throwing for five touchdowns and the team scoring 51 points.

Finding success in the short and intermediate game really helped Mahomes this year especially after his knee injury in week seven vs Denver. Early in week two of the season, Mahomes bombed the Oakland Raiders in the air and much like the Texans would try to stop the deep ball at all costs. The secondary sucks toward Demarcus Robinson as he heads to the middle of the field. But Hill has a favorable matchup for his deep out route. The CB has to spin to cover Hill and at this point, it’s all over. Mahomes sees this also, knowing pre-snap that the Raiders were going to prevent the deep ball. The more and more he sees from a team the more ways he will have to beat them, finding every detail and exploiting it.

Simple man and zone coverage schemes did very little to stop Mahomes this year. As he motions Darryl Williams over, the LB follows him, an obvious sign for man coverage. Everyone else is covered well but Williams has just enough space on his wheel route for Mahomes to fire a dart for a big gain. This is another instance of impeccable accuracy and it also shows that simple coverages no longer fool Mahomes. With him, other teams either have the players to compete with him or they don’t.

This is the technician at work, more machine than man. He processes the two safeties playing a deep zone but with the four vertical routes, he knows they will go to play the outside routes leaving the middle open for Hill to split them. This is a mismatch of epic proportions with a backer 1v1 on Hill and of course Mahomes makes the pinpoint throw.

QBs are categorized and judged on what special unique ability they have to make plays. While the NFL has seen plenty of deadly pocket passers and big armed gunslingers, what sets Mahomes apart from the rest is his eyes.

Mahomes works his eyes in the pocket as well as anyone to ever do it. DBs read quarterbacks eyes to decide which routes they should try to jump. It’s hard and frustrating for defenses when the QB can go from one read to another and in no time flat throw it to the opposite side of the field. In order to play QB at high-level reading coverages and finding tendencies is key. Mahomes’ eyes have taken the learning curve that most QBs face and cut it in half.

Understanding what needs to happen on a play for success to occur is half the battle of playing the game. Mahomes knows Hill will be covered 1v1 and he knows the coverage will be close, throwing the ball too hard could result in the ball being out the back of the end zone, if the throw is too soft Hill would have to come back and try for a contested ball. Mahomes hits it on the sweet spot for six. These are the routine throws that the Chiefs offense asks Mahomes to complete game in and game out. The fact that he makes them look so easy is a testament to how much he has been able to pick up in the last two years of leading the Chiefs. The technician at work is certainly a key piece in Mahomes’ game but it takes more than being able to read teams and find tendencies to be truly special.

The Genius

Genius- exceptional intellectual or creative power or other natural ability.

Patrick Mahomes is an artist, the football his brush, and the field his canvas. It is his realm and when you play as well as he does you can paint your own picture of how things go.

“Do we have time to run wasp?”

This is the Mahomes shot heard round the world. To turn the momentum of the game it would take more than just a first down on third and fifteen. The San Fransisco pass rush was unrelenting. To buy time for Hill to get open, Mahomes takes an 11 step drop, knowing he is going to be hit. The 49ers secondary was playing the sticks with one deep man preventing anything from going to the end zone. Hill found the sweet spot and a flat-footed Mahomes delivered the biggest play of his life. The play perfectly illustrated not only the physical attributes that set Mahomes apart from everyone else but also highlights his development as a QB.

Mahomes’ long bomb to Watkins in the AFCCG this season was a testament to him being able to read through the double coverage that the Tennesee Titans wanted to play on Kelce and Hill. This was a great read on the play but the little roll out to buy Watkins time to win his route is what made it special.

The basis for the success of that play came a year earlier in the 2018 AFCCG against the New England Patriots. Needing a big play down by 14 points, Mahomes let another play very similar to the one vs Tennessee a year later fly to Watkins. Mahomes sees that the wheel route they had found success with in the past and Hill were both about to be double covered. Mahomes rolls seeing this and it gives Watkins a chance to extend his route deep for a monster play. The foundation had been set for the play that sealed a trip to the Super Bowl. The Patrick Mahomes evolution was in full effect.

The culmination of Mahomes’ ability to uses his improvisational skills and read the defense as a machine came in the AFCCG game this year as well. Tennessee wanted to play with very little pass rush and elected to keep Mahomes in the pocket with a spy backer and as many men in coverage as possible. In the play below Mahomes tries to scramble but there is too much traffic around and nobody is open so he just has to throw it away. Tennessee would go to this coverage and strategy one too many times.

In this wide view of the play, the routes the receivers run clear out a little space for Mahomes to have enough room to make something happen. The spy is still firmly in place but his back is to the secondary and WR’s. This illustrates that the spy is fully locked in on Mahomes. Here, like so many plays before, Mahomes realizes he has space to create a play once nobody is open on his initial read. As he scrambles, the only person between him and the big play is the spy man. Mahomes keeps his eyes downfield like he has done so many times before and the spy is expecting a throw. This is where the genius of Mahomes is shown. Just a little head fake is all it takes to get the defender to take a poor angle and gives Mahomes all the space he needs to make the extraordinary happen. This is the perfect example of knowing what a defense is going to do to stop you and using it against them. Mahomes makes them pay.

While Jet Chip Wasp will be remembered for sparking the Super Bowl comeback, Mahomes’ pass to Watkins should go down in history as well. Not only was it the prettiest and tightest spiral of any pass Mahomes has thrown in his career but it was also the perfect read. Here he knew that he had the matchup he wanted on the outside.

In the 2018 matchup between the two teams, Richard Sherman had a similar play in a similar defensive look vs Watkins. When San Francisco isn’t playing zone, Sherman usually plays a bail technique with outside leverage. The play from 2018 Sherman allows Watkins to go outside and runs step for step with him. Flash forward a year to the Super Bowl and it’s the same man look with a high safety. This time instead of allowing Sherman to play him outside, Watkins rips inside and has a step on his man. Mahomes knows a blitz is on its way and the deep safety has to check the opposite side of the field to make sure Hill and Kelce are accounted for. Mahomes puts it on the money.

It’s the little things that create great players. No matter how much natural talent one has the game always falls back to the details. With someone like Patrick Mahomes, who has once in a generation talent, the fact that he is not only understanding but mastering the finer points of the game should make defensive coordinators have sleepless nights. In his brief time in this league, there hasn’t been a hurdle he hasn’t been able to climb and no obstacle has been too big. He has taken the football and sports world by storm over the last two seasons and is only getting started.

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