In the seconds before Kansas City center Austin Reiter snaps the ball on third-and-long, the Chiefs are in a bad place. Third-and-long is a last chance for the offense, but with a hand tied behind its back, an unfavorable situation, to say the least. Statistically speaking, these plays are successful only about 10 percent of the time.
Then, Reiter snaps the ball to Patrick Mahomes. What the down-and-distance doesn’t know is that when Mahomes has the ball, things can never be so bad for Kansas City. Reiter can’t see the play begin behind him, so he has to wait for the ball to arch over his head and into the arms of a receiver downfield, or for Mahomes to scramble past him, to find out whether Houdini got out of the tank. When he does, what started as an uphill struggle can become a coup de grâce.
“I think that’s the magic we’ve got going on, and some of the extreme talent we have,” Reiter said. “Being able to watch that, sometimes I’ve got to pinch myself and be like, ‘This doesn’t happen all the time.’”
In fact, it happens rarely. But Mahomes is Kansas City’s force multiplier—no deficit is too big and no distance is too far. The Chiefs have earned a reputation for mounting comebacks, and what’s a third-and-long conversion if not a comeback shrunk to fit into a single offensive drive?
Mahomes became Kansas City’s full-time starting quarterback in 2018. Since then, the Chiefs have been the best team in the NFL at converting plays of third-and-15-plus yards. They get a fresh set of downs or a touchdown on 22 percent of those tries. (The second- and third-best teams in that category in that span, somewhat funnily, are the Patriots and the Buccaneers.) On third down with 10-plus yards to go, Kansas City ranks second in the NFL in the past three seasons having converted 26 percent of those attempts.
This season alone, Mahomes has picked up a third-and-20 against the Chargers with a scramble up the middle. He completed a deep shot to Travis Kelce on third-and-15 against the Raiders and tossed a dump-off to Tyreek Hill that Hill ran past the sticks on another third-and-15 against the Saints. He’s thrown passes of 37, 29, 28, and 26 yards this season on third-and-long. In Week 3 against the Ravens, he turned a third-and-14 into a 49-yard touchdown pass to Mecole Hardman. For most teams, third-and-very-long means the drive is over. For the Chiefs, it can mean a chunk play is coming.
“It looks very comfortable for them,” Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said.
No offense wants to be in third-and-long, but converting one puts a defense on its heels. Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians said the cost of allowing those conversions carries over into the ensuing play.
“I don’t think there’s anything worse than giving up a third-and-14 on defense other than giving up a touchdown,” Arians said. “It demoralizes a defense. You think you’re off the field and then you’re back out there. You’ll see a lot of big plays happen after people give up that type of down-and-distance.”
“It’s a very frustrating feeling,” said Buccaneers defensive end William Gholston. “You feel like you can pin your ears back and go after them and then they buy time and convert on the play.”
The Chiefs are effective in those situations because of Mahomes. He’s effective in these situations because of both his arm and his legs. He has the highest expected points added among quarterbacks with at least 300 dropbacks since 2018 on thrown passes, but also the second-least negative EPA on sacks and scrambles on late downs.
Patrick Mahomes has been *BEST IN THE LEAGUE* in late down (3rd & 4th) efficiency every single year of his career as a starter.— Ethan Douglas (@EthanCDouglas) January 2, 2021
One highly underrated aspect of this consistent efficiency is his ability to avoid sacks and move the chains with his legs.
He's the perfect QB. pic.twitter.com/NKzuEPIiJ0
Third-and-longs are obvious passing situations, and the Chiefs have run a passing play on 45 of their 54 third downs with 10 or more yards to go this season. Mahomes has been the quarterback for 51 of those plays and is 18-of-39 passing for 349 yards and a touchdown. He’s taken four sacks for a total loss of 52 yards and picked up 10 first downs through the air. He’s also rushed seven times for 52 yards and three first downs. As would be expected, Kansas City’s running backs don’t get involved much in these situations—Darwin Thomson got the lone handoff in third-and-long this season and gained just 2 yards when he did. Either by throwing or scrambling, Mahomes is the key, though he spread the credit around.
“I think it speaks to the guys on this team and that never-give-up attitude,” Mahomes said. “We go out there, we try to execute and keep the drive alive.”
Attitude is difficult to quantify, but there’s clear value in turning a stressful situation into an opportunity to be aggressive through repeated success. On Sunday, the Chiefs will know they can keep any drive going as long as Mahomes gets another chance with the ball. The Buccaneers will know they can’t assume any drive is over until it actually is. To pin the Chiefs in third-and-forever may just be to find out that, against Mahomes, forever isn’t long enough.
“That can kill defenses,” Reiter said. “It’s unbelievable to watch.”