The Kansas City Chiefs offense once again struggled to produce points on Sunday night, this time the big factor was dropped passes. A consistent theme for the Chiefs season is self-sabotaged drives, and Sunday night was no exception.
This has been an odd season for the Kansas City Chiefs. The season started weird, things got interesting toward the middle, the fans had a giant meltdown, and now somehow as we enter the home stretch of the season the Chiefs once recorded setting bad defense has been the driving force in the team’s current resurgence into first place of the AFC West.
You read that correctly.
It’s been the defense that has led the turnaround, but why not the offense you ask? Like I said, things have gotten weird, and plays that were once routine have now become a chance for a potential disaster.
Let’s start at the top of who is receiving the majority of the blame for the offensive struggles, Patrick Mahomes. The national media is all over him, as well as the local media, and for good reason.
After Sunday Nights win over the Broncos he is 5th in the NFL in Touchdown passes with 25, 5th in the NFL in passing yards with 3,384, and third in interceptions with 12 behind Joe Burrow and Lamar Jackson.
These numbers don’t add up, until you kind of look at just how it is that the interceptions and turnovers have occurred.
Don’t hear something I’m not saying, Mahomes deserves some blame for the team’s struggles. He hasn’t played the same high level of football we have grown used to in Kansas City. Early on in the year, I highlighted how his struggles with pocket discipline and not taking checkdowns had hurt the team.
It all unfolded in the disastrous loss to the Tennesee Titans, but since then Mahomes has looked better, calmer in the pocket, and he has steadily fed the running backs from the backfield. He and the Chiefs offense even showed us a blast from the past vs the Raiders, with Mahomes putting up a staggering 406-yard game with five touchdown passes. As a matter of fact, Mahomes has actually only played three games where he failed to put up more than 250 yards passing in the air. The disaster vs the Titans, the Green Bay Packers game, and this past Sunday against the Denver Broncos.
We haven’t seen a bad interception since the Titans game, and while Mahomes has had issues reading coverages and with his accuracy, there has been a big factor that hasn’t been paid attention to enough with this rocky offensive play.
The Chiefs have been dropping a lot of footballs, specifically, the Chiefs’ playmakers.
There is a time and a place for analytics, the efficiency of running the football is not one of them, but it is fun to look at the probability of possible scenarios based on dropped football.
EPA or expected points added is a good tool to use for hypothetical situations like what could have happened after a pass was dropped because it takes into account that not all plays on a football field are the same. A dropped football in or around the red zone creates a greater deficit for an offense to overcome than a loss of one yard on a run play on second and four.
I’m not going to do any advanced math equations, no one wants to read about that (sorry math majors), but here is the basic takeaway; the dropped passes on big downs like third down, or in the red zone, or the ones that turn into turnovers have killed the Chiefs offense this season, as well as limit what Mahomes is capable of doing.
It also doesn’t help that Mahomes’ two top targets, who are also very highly paid, are among the league leaders in dropped passes this season.
Hill and Kelce are superstars, potential future Hall of Famers, and some even use them as the explanation for the ridiculous success that Mahomes has had so far in his career, with some suggesting that any quarterback with such weapons could have the kind of career Mahomes has had thus far. The chart above it shows that they are one and two in weeks 1-12 in EPA lost due to dropped balls. This chart does not include the game against Denver, which I highlighted below by showing the five total drops, one of which became an interception.
I also calculated 44 yards lost just based on where the intended receiver dropped the ball and the line of scrimmage, not even including the yards after the catch.
It was a bad display but Mahomes was still not perfect, sailing an RPO pass high to Hill that went off of his hands for an interception. Not perfect, but how many times in the past have we seen Hill go up and get a ball that doesn’t always come out perfect? On the other end for those who want to argue that it’s the skill players responsible for Mahomes success how many other QB’s can even deliver a ball as far as Mahomes can for some of the bombs he and Mahomes have connected on.
Looking over to Kelce this season, while he is still leading all tight ends in receiving yards has been down by his standards. He makes some phenomenal throws, but how many times has Mahomes kept a play alive with his legs, looked off defenders, to deliver Kelce a good football? It’s a two-way street, the drops have killed the Chiefs’ momentum and taken potential points off the board, but it has also been the ever so slight inaccuracy in Mahomes throws this season that has caused some of the drops.
We have expected Mahomes, Hill, and Kelce to be perfect, and up to this point, we have seen nothing to think otherwise.
Kelce has been banged up all season, listed with a possible lingering neck/shoulder issue that has caused him discomfort and not allowed him to play his same brand of physical football as effectively. This could be a reason for some of the drops.
Hill has dazzled, becoming the most respected deep ball threat in league history, as well as developing himself into a legit top WR candidate in the NFL. He has changed his playstyle drastically to help the Chiefs offense beat some of the deep coverages they have seen this year, it is possible while focusing more on underneath route running fundamentals he has not had the same laser focus on catching the football.
Patrick Mahomes has the weight of a franchise and city on his shoulders, all while being under the microscope 24/7. The Chiefs struggles, in general, have magnified his mistakes, leaving us breaking down whether a pass was two inches high or two inches low, if his feet could have been set another half-second or if he scrambled too early, and even if his electrifying deep ball and rocket sidearm slings are him trying to showboat, or just how the game come to him.
Like I said this has been a weird season. What makes it even more strange is that while the big three have struggled so much, teams still respect them enough to continue to play deep zone coverage, and mostly abandon stopping the run or underneath patterns to other players. This is what gives me hope, and what should give you hope for this season also.
Early on it was a scheme issue for the Chiefs. They refused to run the ball, or throw check-downs. Now they have made a concentrated effort to throw more short passes and run the ball as I highlighted in another article I published this week I looked at how Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Darrel Williams impacted the passing game. The run game and underneath game are evolving by the week, making it seem optimistic that whenever the Chiefs decide to stop dropping passes, and Mahomes delivers the ball more accurately that this team should be rolling teams.
Andy Reid seemed to send the message best at the end of the first half. Instead of trying to fire passes in an effort to double up Denver and get a score before the half, he was content to run the football. It stunned many, but it was not surprising if you had been paying attention.
That message should have been clear to the team at that point. The offense was no longer going to be run and gun on all downs. The Chiefs were going to play a conservative brand until the mistakes stopped, and I suspect that will be the case moving forward. With a defense turning into a problem across the league, two running backs hitting their stride, and a young, hungry, physically dominating offensive line the Chiefs are in a position to play “Marty Ball” to finish up the regular season.
Will it win the Division? It seems likely?
Can they win with it in the playoffs? That is where the water gets murky, but it’s exactly where it all comes back to Mahomes, Hill, and Kelce. It will be their play that decides how the season ends up, it’s how the Chiefs are designed, it’s how they win, and it’s how they will lose. The rest of the league still respects them because they know if the full offense and defense all get going at the same time this team will be nearly unstoppable. First, they need to get back to basics, and that starts with catching the football. Once they master that again they can move back into trying to get explosive. Not many teams have a chance to notably improve during the middle of the season.
The defense did it and they are clicking now. How the season ends will be dependant on if the offense finds its click.