Game What did the Bengals do to cause Patrick Mahomes to melt down?

Game What did the Bengals do to cause Patrick Mahomes to melt down?

Game

It’s not often we see Patrick Mahomes look completely lost on a football field, but the Cincinnati Bengals made it happen in the second half of the AFC Championship Game on Sunday. A dominant first half that had everyone punching Kansas City’s ticket to the Super Bowl was quickly replaced by nervous glances as Mahomes was reduced to a non-factor, leading to the Cincinnati’s remarkable comeback to steal a Super Bowl bid.

This wasn’t like the Super Bowl last year. This was not a case of simply not having an offensive line that could adequately protect Mahomes, preventing him from doing anything on the field. Instead it was a product of brilliant adjustment, flawless execution, and a shift in game plan that broke Mahomes’ rhythm, and never let him get it back.

At halftime it was safe to assume this game was in the bag. The Chiefs were up 21-10 in a game that felt much more dominant than the score showed. Mahomes had passed for 220 yards and three touchdowns, rolling without the Bengals having an answer for either his quick-hitch throws to Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill, or deep punctuating gashes to Mecole Hardman. The safe assumption was this game was going to have to become a shootout, because the Bengals defense wasn’t going to hang against this attack.

That assumption assumed the Bengals were going to stick to the plan.

It’s important to pause for a second here and discuss the Bengals defense. It’s a unit that, honestly, is very shaky. There’s nothing they do particularly badly, but also nothing they really do well. Cincinnati ranked 17th in the NFL in yards allowed, only six teams gave up more passing yards, and they allowed a lot of points this season — 16th in the NFL. These aren’t the kind of numbers that instill confidence that they can adjust to stop a quarterback like Mahomes, especially after he eviscerated the Bills’ defense the week before.

However, Bengals’ defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo made schematic changes that completely altered the course of the game and destroyed Patrick Mahomes in the process. ESPN’s Bill Barnwell broke this down brilliantly. In his analysis the Bengals moved away from running two deep on their safeties to only having one, with the second playing up in the box. This gave Mahomes more freedom on his deep throws, but took away a lot of the quick passing lanes which allowed guys like Kelce and Hill to wreck havoc over the middle.

On the surface this seems simple, but it was coupled with another core concept I noticed, which really made it all click: Having a QB spy. For much of the second half Sam Hubbard would drop off his block on obvious passing downs to fall into coverage and spy Mahomes. Not only did it prevent Mahomes from running much in the second half, but it put yet another defender in the box to prevent the kind of big YAC plays we saw burn the Bills.

It was clear then once those short routes were taken away, and Mahomes didn’t see an obvious lane to run, he became rattled in the pocket. Take a look at the most defining play of the game, which prevented the Chiefs from scoring a go-ahead touchdown that would have won the game.

Notice how Hubbard drops back into his spy role and prevents a potential scramble up the middle. Mahomes completely misses Kelce breaking on an open throw until it’s too late, and ends up dancing around the pocket with great protection, but no confidence he can find a receiver. Then, believing the coverage behind him was set, Hubbard breaks off his spy to pressure Mahomes, leading to the strip sack. While it was recovered by Kansas City, it made the Chiefs settle for a field goal to send the AFC Championship to overtime, rather than an outright win.

The pressure of the Bengals’ comeback, paired with defensive adjustments Mahomes wasn’t accustomed to caused the QB to melt down. A lot of this was on Mahomes, who unquestionably played poorly in the second half, but credit where it’s due: Cincinnati was the catalyst for all of this. The Bengals tore apart the league’s blueprint on how to beat Mahomes. They dared the Chiefs’ QB to throw deep on them, even making it enticing by taking away a deep safety — but remained confident it wouldn’t burn them.

Instead they focused on real and potential pressure, taking away the rhythm throws that moved the chains in the first half, and preventing Mahomes from scrambling to pick up those 5-6 yard gains that cause the Chiefs to keep their drives alive. The end result was seeing one of the best QBs in the NFL looking his most uncomfortable on a big stage since losing the Super Bowl last February when the Buccaneers blitzed him into the ground all game long.

After a first half that saw Mahomes throw for 220 yards and three scores, in the second half he only gained 55 yards, and threw an interception. His passer rating plummeted from 149.9, to 34.0. In overtime his QB rating had flatlined, and become 0.0.

So while there’s definite cause to slam Mahomes today for letting the Chiefs down and playing poorly, don’t forget to tip your hat to the Bengals defense today too. They took a major risk to try and change the face of the game instead of trying to copy the rest of the league, and they won on their terms. They became one of the few teams to take Mahomes into deep water, and he did not have an answer for the defensive front they were showing him.

Fortune favors the bold, and the Bengals are rich today because of it.

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