QR Bonus: Keys to Beating Kansas City
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.