It’s Super Bowl week! Exciting stuff for Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs fans, but also exciting stuff for your favorite football analysts. With two weeks of time available and only one game remaining to prepare for, everyone’s at the top of their game trying to figure out how this is going to go. High stakes stuff.
The angle for the Buccaneers? Figure out a way to stop Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offense. Such is the challenge of every team every week as the Chiefs rip through the league with ease. On the brink of a repeat Super Bowl bid, Todd Bowles’ defense is the final stand.
And perhaps they have an advantage others before them didn’t. The Chiefs lost starting tackle Mitchell Schwartz to a back injury in the middle of the season, and in the AFC Championship Game, lost his running mate, Eric Fisher. The Chiefs will start backups at both spots, and likely reshuffle right guard Andrew Wylie out to tackle in the process. After watching EDGE duo of Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett rip through a Green Bay offensive line missing their star left tackle in David Bakhtiari, there’s increased reason for concern.
The Buccaneers will have an opportunity to pressure Mahomes—perhaps the most drastic difference in a personnel matchup in this game. But how much do they need to pressure him? And will it really matter?
Part of the brilliance of Mahomes is how little he’s affected by aggressive pressure packages. Mahomes was the best quarterback against the blitz this season, which led to Bowles delivering his lightest blitz rate in the last five seasons when he dueled Mahomes in Week 12 this season. For fear of his elite play, as well as the weapons around him, no quarterback has been blitzed less across the last three seasons than Mahomes has.
Blitzing Mahomes simply won’t work. You have to get pressure with four.
But even that sounds nicer than it really is. Mahomes invites pressure with how he plays: he likes to leak out of the back of the pocket, he likes to hold the ball for a while, he likes to scramble and extend. As such, he’s one of the heaviest pressured quarterbacks on a yearly basis, registering in the top five of total pressured dropbacks in both 2018 and 2020. In those same seasons, the Chiefs were third and sixth in pass block win rate, respectively.
Mahomes invites pressure because of how he plays, but he also invites pressure because it… well, it doesn’t really matter. Mahomes is the most dangerous quarterback in the league and that doesn’t change when he’s pressured. His 2018 season was the best season against pressure in the last three years, and his 2019 and 2020 are both still top-10 performances in EPA/dropback. In the past three years, Mahomes is rarely made a below-average quarterback in any given game—and when he is, it’s usually not the result of heavy pressure.
It’s true, pressuring Mahomes 10-plus times a game can bring his peak performance down—but his worst games have come with only 5-10 pressured dropbacks. So if the Buccaneers think a blitzkrieg of pressure will be enough to take the wind out of the Kansas City offense, they have another thing coming.
Take the New Orleans Saints’ efforts against the Chiefs just this season. In a critical Week 15 matchup with first-round byes on the line, the Saints got more pressure on Mahomes than any team in the last three seasons. On 57 dropbacks, Mahomes was pressured on a stunning 25—nearly 50%—and still threw for 254 yards and three touchdowns. He was sacked four times and fumbled twice, which tanked his EPA a bit, but the Chiefs still scored 32 points. It was an absurd day for the defense, and it really just didn’t matter.
In Mahomes’ lone regular season loss in 2020, the Raiders got pressure on 20 of Mahomes’ dropbacks back in Week 5; the Chiefs again scored 32 in that loss. In the legendary 2018 win over the Ravens in overtime, Mahomes and the Chiefs scored a measly 27 points. In both of those games, his passing offense performed at a level above the average 2020 unit and put up solid points.
Pressure helps stop Mahomes; it has to. He’s still human, and the Chiefs offense still adheres to the laws of football, if only barely. But it is not a silver bullet, and never has been against the Chiefs. Even with multiple starting offensive linemen out, pressure alone cannot stop the Chiefs—even if you can get it with just four.
You still need 30 points—and probably more. The best defense against the Chiefs will remain an offense that can go punch for punch, attacking Andy Reid at the only spot he’s historically been weak: late-game management. Shootouts might be coin flips, but 50/50 is a better chance than most teams have against Kansas City. Tails never fails, Tampa.
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