QR Bonus: Keys to Beating Kansas City

Detroit Lions RB Kerryon Johnson
Detroit Lions RB Kerryon Johnson
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

Each year at this time, we like to devote our Quick Reads columns to the two teams headed to the Super Bowl, looking not at when they played at their best, but when they played at their worst. The Chiefs and 49ers are great teams, yes, but they are not perfect. What weaknesses were opponents able to exploit and make these championship clubs look beatable -- and in some cases, beaten? Since Kansas City was the first team to officially clinch a berth in the Super Bowl, we'll start with them today, and cover San Francisco next week.

According to DVOA, these were the Chiefs' worst four games this season, in chronological order:

  • Week 1: Kansas City Chiefs 40 at Jacksonville Jaguars 26. No trouble for the Kansas City offense here, as Patrick Mahomes threw for 378 yards and three touchdowns with no sacks or interceptions. Sammy Watkins was the surprise star of the day, with nine catches for 198 yards and all three scores. (He failed to score again in the regular season, gaining only 475 yards, infuriating all the fantasy players who had grabbed him off the waiver wire.) The defense, however, was embarrassed. Nick Foles, a 30-year-old journeyman who had just changed teams for the fourth time in five seasons, threw for 75 yards and a touchdown in only eight passes. When Foles was knocked out of the game, a sixth-round rookie with a silly moustache making his NFL debut ripped apart the Kansas City defense, completing 22 of 25 passes for 275 yards and two touchdowns. Were it not for a pair of Jacksonville turnovers, this game could have turned out much differently.
  • Week 4: Kansas City Chiefs 34 at Detroit Lions 30. One of the craziest games of the 2019 season. I highly recommend re-reading the Audibles column that covered all the insanity, including five lost fumbles in the third quarter alone, one of them returned 100 yards by Bashaud Breeland for a Kansas City touchdown. The back-and-forth game saw nine ties or lead changes, the last of them a Darrell Williams 1-yard touchdown run that put Kansas City up in the final minute. This was the only game all year when Mahomes failed to throw for a touchdown, as the Lions held him to a very human 57% completion rate and 7.5-yard average gain over 42 passes. The Chiefs defense allowed Matthew Stafford to throw for 291 yards and three scores. This was also Kansas City's worst day of the year on special teams, with Mecole Hardman fumbling away a kickoff and Harrison Butker missing a 36-yard field goal.
  • Week 5: Indianapolis Colts 19 at Kansas City Chiefs 13. The Colts frustrated Mahomes occasionally -- though he threw for 321 yards and a touchdown, he completed only 56% of his passes and was sacked four times. The real failure, however, was in Kansas City's run game. Damien Williams only gained 23 yards in nine carries. Anthony Sherman and Mecole Hardman chipped in for one carry each for a net loss of 4 yards. LeSean McCoy did not get a carry, but he did fumble away one of his two receptions. The defense kept Kansas City in the game with a strong performance in the red zone -- Adam Vinatieri kicked four field goals of 32 yards or less -- but the problem was that Indianapolis kept getting into the red zone in the first place, running 45 times for 180 yards.
  • Week 10: Kansas City Chiefs 32 at Tennessee Titans 35. The two teams came into this game with a combined record of 11-9, and Mahomes was returning to the field two weeks early after dislocating his kneecap, so few at the time would have guessed that this would turn out to be an AFC Championship Game preview. Mahomes looked just fine on his gimpy knee, throwing for 446 yards and three touchdowns while completing 72% of his passes. But the running game floundered again -- Damien Williams carried the ball 19 times for 77 yards with one fumble, which was returned for a Tennessee touchdown. Darrel Williams, Sammy Watkins, Tyreek Hill, and Darwin Thompson combined for 20 yards on six carries. The defense held up well against Ryan Tannehill, sacking him four times and forcing one fumble, but they got thrashed by Derrick Henry, who ran for 188 yards and two touchdowns. Tannehill added 37 yards on three carries.

Keep in mind that DVOA is being a little unfair to Kansas City's defense here because they had bad games against "Detroit Lions QB" and "Tennessee Titans QB." DVOA doesn't realize that the Chiefs faced Matthew Stafford and Ryan Tannehill, not Jeff Driskel/David Blough and Marcus Mariota. It's similar situation for playing "Jacksonville Jaguars QB" and not differentiating between Nick Foles and Gardner Minshew, though less extreme since Minshew threw the bulk of Jacksonville's passes anyway.

Speaking of teams that played multiple quarterbacks, the Chiefs themselves had to start Matt Moore for two games after Mahomes hurt his knee, but surprisingly neither of those games was among the team's worst. With Moore taking snaps, the Chiefs lost to Green Bay in a game that was tied in the fourth quarter, and they beat the Vikings.

So what can we learn from these games? First of all, there really is no stopping Patrick Mahomes. Even in his team's worst outings, Mahomes still completed 64% of his passes for 8.8 yards per throw with seven touchdowns, no interceptions, and only six sacks. His DVOA in the Chiefs' bad games was 29.2%; in their other games it was 30.5%. He was at his worst in the two-week stretch against the Lions and Colts, with DVOAs of 0.9% and -4.3% -- basically, an average quarterback. Not coincidentally, Tyreek Hill missed both those games, and Watkins missed one. Mahomes' top wideouts were Robinson, Hardman, and somebody named Byron Pringle … who had 103 yards and a touchdown against the Colts, because Mahomes can hurt you with just about anyone. The running game was more erratic. These certainly weren't the best games for Damien Williams, who missed the Lions contest entirely and averaged just 3.1 yards per carry against the Jaguars, Colts, and Titans.

When it comes to the running game, though, it's the defense that really had a tendency to let Kansas City down. Their run defense DVOA in their four bad games was 10.8%, which would have ranked next-to-last in the league this season. It wasn't the efficiency of the running game that killed the Chiefs, however, it was the volume -- 122 carries for 672 yards in these four games. The Lions, Colts, and Titans each ran for at least 180 yards against Kansas City, three of the league-high five times the Chiefs gave up so many rushing yards -- and it's not as if Kansas City opponents were often killing leads in the fourth quarter. The Chiefs run defense was a bad unit overall -- they were bottom-five in both run defense DVOA and adjusted line yards -- but they were especially bad on their worst days.

Mind you, the pass defense had its struggles too, allowing the Jaguars, Lions, Colts, and Titans to complete 69% of their passes for 8.5 yards per pass, with eight touchdowns and two interceptions. They were particularly vulnerable to passes down the middle of the field, with a pass defense DVOA of 125.4%. In their worst games, the Chiefs allowed opponents to complete 25 of 27 attempts down the middle for 429 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. That's almost 16 yards per play -- and that's not even counting a 28th throw that resulted in a 53-yard DPI. The most unusual thing about this is that in their other 12 games, Kansas City's pass defense DVOA against throws down the middle was -11.7%, which would have been the best in the league over the full season. There are no obvious personnel changes to explain this discrepancy -- the Chiefs had four defensive backs and two linebackers start at least 15 games each (though safety Juan Thornhill is out for the playoffs with a torn ACL).

Unfortunately for the Chiefs, the 49ers seem like a team designed to exploit these defensive flaws. They weren't the best rushing offense this season (-0.5% DVOA, 13th), but they were nearly the most prolific, finishing with more carries than anyone but Baltimore. This is skewed, however, because they were often killing clock in the second half -- they only had 202 first-half runs, which ranked 13th. But as we saw last week, when Jimmy Garropolo only threw eight passes, the 49ers will gladly embrace a run-heavy philosophy if it's working. And when they did throw, they often threw down the middle -- 28% of the time, the fourth-highest rate in the league. Emmanuel Sanders, Kendrick Bourne, George Kittle, and Deebo Samuel each made the top 25 among all players in receiving DYAR on passes down the middle of the field.

One final note for Kansas City: all four of these games were played on the road, but that looks like a fluke. For the season, there was little difference between Kansas City's offensive DVOA at home (24.8%, second) and on the road (20.9%, also second). And their defense actually played better out of state (-8.3% DVOA, seventh) than at Arrowhead (0.7%, 17th). (EDITOR'S NOTE: We goofed -- the Colts game was in Kansas City. But we did this research so we're leaving this paragraph in.)

We'll be back next week to look at San Francisco's worst games, and how the Chiefs can take advantage of the 49ers' weaknesses.


25 comments, Last at 26 Jan 2020, 8:54am

1 The brutal reality is that…

The brutal reality is that the Niners absolutely must physically punish Mahomes if he chooses to leave the pocket. He's not quite as adept as Wilson at avoiding significant contact, and the Niners pass rushers and linebackers have to take advantage of that fact. The game remains one where violence prevails, even if it is correctly more restricted.

6 Gregg Williams encouraged…

Gregg Williams encouraged players to deliberately commit rules infractions, and then hope either they wouldn't draw the flag, or that the physical damage incurred by the qb would outweigh the negative value of the flag. That's unethical, severely so.

Telling your pass rush rotation and linebackers that they absolutely must play to the whistle at full speed, anywhere on the field, and if Mahomes leaves the pocket, he needs to be hit like you would Derrick Henry, is good coaching. On Mahomes long td run against the Titans, one of the Titans' linemen should have been 40 yards downfield, delivering a hammer blow, as Mahomes did his slow rotation at the two yard line. That was a failure of effort.

14 Failure of priorities

I noted the near the goal line gaffe too, and told my son as we watched that the defender erred by trying to strip the ball from Mahomes rather than trying to stop Mahomes.  I see a lot of this in games and for some reason it annoys me, especially when it works. 

22 Defenses are resistant to…

Defenses are resistant to lay out a QB, even when they have become a runner, because referees are prone to erroneously flagged that as a personal foul. 

Offenses have started to exploit this. Brees did it against the Rams last year. I'm inclined to flag the offense for unsportsmanlike for faking a pass when downfield or faking a slide in order to provoke this kind of defensive reaction.

16 Absolutely agree with this…

Absolutely agree with this. My first reaction after the Mahomes TD run was, "what the heck, why did no defender hit him?!". I dunno about the linemen's effort levels on the play, I'd need to see the coaches film. But the DBs who were falling off him at the goal-line, that was pathetic. Vrabel seems like an uncompromising character, I imagine some choice words were delivered at half-time. 

11 Williams deserves his bad…

Williams deserves his bad rep, but I have to play devil's advocate and point out that while the Jets defense was surprisingly good, it wasn't especially dirty.  There even was a play where Tom Brady tried to block Jamal Adams and Adams just jumped out of the way instead of killing him like he could.


Also, the best defense is to cover people.  Kind of why Rex Ryan liked drafting cornerbacks.

12 They blitz rarely, but all…

They blitz rarely, but all of their linebackers are very fast.  Mobile QBs may be their weakness, but they've had a lot of opportunity to practice against them:  Wilson twice, Kyler Murray twice, Jackson, Rodgers twice.  I'm hoping all that experience chasing down mobile QBs with big arms comes in handy against Mahomes.  There was a time this year when screens were their kryptonite, and everyone was screening them, but they compensated for that in time. 

19 I disagree with your statement...

Having watched every game he has started for KC, I have observed that Mahomes typically doesn't take big hits, especially true in December and January this season. With the exception of his TD run on Sunday, he's either run out of bounds or slid to avoid contact. He doesn't get sacked much and is good at rolling away from pressure. I can't speak as much about Wilson, but his offensive line is terrible and it appears to me he gets hit a lot more than Mahomes from what I've seen. 

I don't think the Niners will get big hits on him either, maybe early but not late. Mahomes is really smart and figures out what they're doing and then just starts picking defenses apart. I sure hope that trend continues in the big game. 

20 Russell Wilson runs a lot,…

Russell Wilson runs a lot, and his offensive lines have mostly been below average, and never especially good. He hasn't missed a start in 8 years. He is unbelievably good at avoiding contact. 

Mahomes is no slouch in this area, but he's not Wilson, and the injury history strongly supports this idea. Don't get me wrong; I want Mahomes to stay on the field, but a fundamental element of this sport is that hitting people hard degrades their performance over the course of a game. That's why the performances which I've admired most so frequently entail a guy performing at his peak, after absorbing extreme punishment for most of a game.

If Mahomes leaves himself exposed, like he did on that t.d. run, it will be important for all Niner defenders to be committed to playing to the whistle, to every spot on the field, in order to deliver a punishing hit within what the rules allow.

24 Injury history

the injury history strongly supports this? That’s a little bit of a stretch. Well a big one in my opinion. I’m a Seahawks fan and Wilson fan so I do think he’s better than mahomes I’m this aspect, but mahomes is extremely good at avoiding hits as well. If Wilson is a 98/100 mahomes has got to be a 95/100.


im just tripped up on the injury history thing. Because I agree with you on Wilson being better, but using this flimsy injury history thing bothered me. If you reference mahomes knee cap on this then maybe you should reconsider your stance.

25 I reference Wilson not ever…

In reply to by nsherrill24

I reference Wilson not ever missing a start, despite him running a lot, behind a lot of mediocre to poor protection, for 8 seasons now. It's truly remarkable. I pretty clearly wrote that Mahomes is good in this area as well, but not as good as Wilson. It happens to be true, and the kneecap isn't the only evidence of this.

4 Of course not. If your plan…

Of course not. If your plan is to be the Lions, you'll come tantalizingly close to beating an excellent team, before falling short, usually in a way that involves a newly controversial interpretation of the NFL rulebook, and then find out that your best player has injured his [abdomen/pinkie/calf/head/pride].

13 It is not a surprise that…

It is not a surprise that the Chiefs worst 4 games came when Mahomes was less than 100% physically. He hurt his ankle in the Jags game and his performance slipped in that game once that happened. He re-injured it in the Colts game, part of why they scored so few points. And he was just back from the knee injury in the Titans loss. His ability to scramble for gains and to keep pass plays alive has been a huge difference in the playoffs compared to most of the regular season.

One thing that has really hurt the Chiefs has been ST miscues. I know DVOA ranks their ST highly because a lot of those miscues are not predictive, but for every stopped fake punt or forced fumble on a return that they've had there has been an off-setting failure or blocked attempt or blown snap. I think a bad mis-play on ST could be their Achilles heel in the SB, much more so than their run defense.

18 The Chiefs are in fact…

The Chiefs are in fact ranked #1 in weighted ST DVOA, so I would be tempted to look upon the miscues in the Houston game as an aberration. In particular the punt return fumble was by Tyreek Hill, who is not the principle returner. I imagine we won't see him returning any more kicks, unless the Chiefs are really desperate.