Despite holding a 21-3 lead over the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC Championship game last January, the Kansas City Chiefs saw that lead slipped away, and were forced to watch the Bengals represent the AFC in Super Bowl LVI.
Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes is still dealing with the wounds from the collapse, calling that game recently his “worst playoff football:”
That second half I played, I didn’t play really good football at all. Probably my worst playoff football I’ve played was the second half of the game. So I’m just trying to use that as a learning thing that whenever I’m struggling or a team’s struggling, just find a way to get positive plays, because when you have a lead like that, you don’t want to lose that lead.
As has been well documented, a shift in defensive strategy in the second half of that game helped spur the Cincinnati comeback. In the second half, the Bengals relieved on more drop-eight coverages, and those worked to frustrate Mahomes and eliminate big plays from the Kansas City offense. As was found by Next Gen State after the game:
The #Bengals Almost doubled their usage of dropping 8+ defenders in coverage in the second half and overtime, and held the Chiefs to only 3 points during that span:
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 30, 2022
Part of the allure of drop-eight coverages? How they can manage to frustrate quarterbacks and make them impatient. Settling for checkdown after checkdown, or “taking what the defense gives you” on snap after snap can have that effect, especially if a QB is seeing a lead slip away. They become impatient, holding on to the football longer in the pocket to try and create an explosive play.
That is something Mahomes noted himself recently. “We played such a great first half. Even if we weren’t getting what we wanted in the second half, I have to get better at taking what’s there to try to get some points on the board, come away and get to the Super Bowl.”
Perhaps the biggest example of this came at the end of regulation. With the Chiefs on the verge of staving off the comeback with a touchdown to pull out the win, Cincinnati delivered a sack of Mahomes to force a field goal try, and overtime.
Facing a 3rd and goal from the nine-yard line with under 40 seconds left, the Chiefs are looking to throw out of this formation:
They isolate Tyreek Hill on the left, and put Kelce as the middle receiver to the trips formation on the right. Here is the route concept they dial up:
Kansas City tries to get everything flowing to the left side, from the post-corner route from Hill to the three routes coming from the trips side of the formation.
Beyond just the coverage, it is important to note what Sam Hubbard does on this play:
Hubbard is going to spy Mahomes, dropping to about the five-yard line and mirroring the quarterback in the pocket. Mahomes takes the snap and looks first to the left side of the field, before coming to the three routes breaking in his direction from the right. But there is nowhere to go with the football…and Hubbard is lying in wait:
That is when Mahomes tries to slide to his right to make something happen, and Hubbard, seeing a path open up, decides to pounce:
Hubbard explodes downhill, crashing into the quarterback and jarring the football loose. Only a quick reaction from Mahomes prevents the Bengals from recovering the loose football and ending the game right there.
Mahomes is not without options on this play. He has a window to target Kelce underneath, right at the goal-line. He could also play it very conservative, and target his back out of the backfield and hope he makes a defender miss. The Chiefs have two time outs remaining at this point, so if the back gets tackled in-bounds, they can still stop the clock to set up for the field goal attempt.
Instead, you see the impatience from Mahomes, something that had been a problem for the Kansas City offense earlier in the year. Mahomes tries to buy time with his legs to create the explosive play, and it ends up leading to a sack and almost a lost fumble for the Chiefs.
As you know, the Bengals would go on to win in overtime. Despite starting with the football, the Chiefs turned the ball over on a Mahomes interception.
With Cincinnati dropping eight into coverage on third-and-long, and Mahomes trying to make the big play into coverage:
Given how the AFC Championship game played out — particularly in the second half and overtime — the Chiefs might be wise to expect a lot of drop-eight coverage as the 2022 season unfolds. If Mahomes learns from how that second half played out, then Kansas City will be a better team, and he will be a better quarterback, in the long run.