Imagine you’re the unluckiest person on earth: a defensive coordinator game-planning for the Kansas City Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes. You’ve barely slept all week, a cocktail of Red Bull and fear keeping you from any semblance of peace. No secret combination of film study, coaching, and analytics hold the answer to a four-quarter defense of the league’s greatest quarterback. A dark cloud hangs over the upcoming Sunday, and you have no way to lift it.
With a flash, your fairy godmother appears at your bedside. She claims that this Sunday, she can turn Patrick Mahomes into Kirk Cousins—no strings attached, no midnight transformation. Without hesitation, you take the deal.
There’s a reason this is in your imagination. There are no fairy godmothers; Kirk Cousins and Patrick Mahomes aren’t Freaky Friday–ing anytime soon. But this season, defenses seem to have at least a pinch of fairy dust on their side in the battle against Mahomes and the Chiefs. They’ve all decided to stop blitzing him.
Through five weeks, Mahomes is the least-blitzed quarterback in the NFL, at 12.6 percent of his dropbacks—the next closest is Ben Roethlisberger at 17.8 percent, and then Baker Mayfield at 19.3 percent, so it’s a pretty substantial difference. And while Mahomes and the Chiefs offense is still scoring at exorbitant rates, Mahomes’s performance against non-blitzing defenses has been human: Per PFF, he’s completing 68 percent of his passes and averaging 7.1 yards an attempt with an average depth of target of 8.3, and has taken six sacks and had five turnover-worthy plays. Those numbers just about match the overall 2021 season of Cousins, who’s averaging 7.3 yards per attempt, completing 69.6 percent of his passes, has an average depth of target of 7.0, and has taken nine sacks and given up four turnover-worthy plays.
The comparison doesn’t stop there. In both the regular and postseason in 2020, non-blitzed Mahomes completed 65.4 percent of his passes at 7.7 yards an attempt, with 22 sacks, 19 turnover-worthy plays, and an ADOT of 8.5. 2020 Kirk Cousins: 67.6 completion percentage, 8.3 yards per attempt, 39 sacks, 18 turnover worthy-plays, 8.7 ADOT. Cousins is taking a lot more sacks, but otherwise things hold up.
So, yeah. Just stop blitzing Mahomes and he becomes Kirk Cousins. Defense is solved, the Chiefs are going to lose every game for the rest of the season, end of the article, let’s all go home.
OK, time to put the bad-faith comparison aside. Mahomes’s numbers may fall from their stratospheric heights when you filter his snaps by blitzes, but in practice, defenses don’t treat non-blitzed Mahomes the way they treat Cousins. Everyone knows that Mahomes is a different cat. Numbers lie sometimes. As TikTok comedian Scott Seiss would ask, “What do your eyes say?”
This also isn’t a “eureka!” moment that will lay the blueprint for beating Mahomes and the Chiefs. Mahomes was the second-least-blitzed quarterback in the regular season in 2020 at 22.4 percent of his dropbacks, so teams have been hesitant to send heat at Mahomes for a while. But this season, Mahomes has faced a few teams that simply refused to blitz him. As Cris Collinsworth pointed out many times during last week’s Bills-Chiefs duel, the Bills barely blitzed Mahomes, and were rewarded with a 20-point outing from the Chiefs and a season-defining win; but just one week previous, the Eagles barely blitzed Mahomes (three snaps), and he dropped five touchdowns on them. You still need the personnel to make whatever you’re trying to do work. There is no secret sauce.
But now that we’ve talked about what it isn’t, let’s talk about what it is: a tactical retreat by NFL defenses. For elite quarterbacks the blitz is not just a hindrance, but an opportunity to take advantage of fewer coverage defenders. The blitz is something welcome, something exploitable, and defensive coordinators simply won’t give it to Mahomes—and some other elite quarterbacks—anymore.
We’ve seen this in more games than just the Chiefs’ few early-season losses. In Week 1, the Steelers blitzed the Bills on exactly one dropback, according to Sports Info Solutions. Somehow, they were still able to pressure Josh Allen on 41.1 percent of his dropbacks—and that pressure, combined with seven-plus defenders dropped into coverage, forced Allen into his worst game of the season. Since then? Dominant performances. The Raiders took a similar approach against the Ravens in Week 1: Las Vegas blitzed Lamar Jackson on only three snaps, but pressured him on 46 percent of his dropbacks—and it was Lamar’s worst passing performance this season.
Another example: The Packers’ loss to the Saints, again in Week 1. The Saints blitzed Aaron Rodgers only three times all game, by Sports Info Solutions’ charting, and again, it was Rodgers’s worst game of the season. Rodgers was pressured on just 34.5 percent of dropbacks—a healthy amount, but not too notable. But it wasn’t the pressure without blitzing that got Rodgers and the Packers offense—it was the surprise: “We came in thinking they were gonna pressure us a bunch, like they did last time,” Rodgers said after the game, referring to a 37-30 Packers win over the Saints in Week 3 of the 2020 regular season. “They didn’t really pressure us a lot. It was a lot of two [high] shell.”
That two-high shell—two deep safeties with man coverage underneath—is something teams simply cannot run with fewer than seven defenders in coverage. Defenses need five to match each eligible receiver in man coverage, and then two deep safeties to play over the top of each half of the field, capping any deep vertical routes along the sideline or the numbers. And if teams need seven in coverage, they can rush with only four.
Beyond the lack of blitzing, there’s a notable similarity here: Almost all of these games were Week 1 performances, and the way the defenses played befuddled their opponents. That’s the nice thing about having all summer to game-plan: Defensive coordinators can study up on protections and route combinations, custom-build a game plan, and execute in the secondary with confidence that they’ll take away all of their opponents’ go-to looks.
For most defenses, that’s been a one-off—a game plan they could build for Week 1, but didn’t have the time to build out for future weeks. After that initial week, Allen and Jackson and Rodgers have all seen their opposing blitz rates jump back up to expected levels. Jackson actually leads the league in blitzes faced; Rodgers and Allen are middle-of-the-pack; all three have been lights-out when not blitzed, and struggle a bit when blitzed, just like regular quarterbacks do. Only one quarterback has continued to see a blitz-free approach: Kirk Cousin—err, Patrick Mahomes.
But that still makes sense within the context of building custom game plans for particular offenses. Who else would the Ravens (who played the Chiefs in Week 2), Chargers (Week 3), and Bills (Week 5) spend their whole summer concocting a plan to beat? All three teams are good enough that they can overcome lesser opponents with their basic stuff. The Chiefs are the team that matters. If these teams can beat the Chiefs, they can make the Super Bowl.
So the Bills blitzed Mahomes exactly zero times on Sunday Night Football—a simply shocking development for Leslie Frazier’s defense, which was eighth in blitz rate last season. “I don’t know if I’ve ever been in a game where we didn’t pressure at least once,” Frazier said after the game. “So this was unusual. But for this opponent it was the right thing to do. The more we studied Kansas City and their offense, and watching Mahomes and how he operated versus pressure, man, it just created a lot of problems for defenses because of his ability to be able to see things and identify early and make you pay for bringing pressure.” Mahomes completed 61 percent of his passes at only 5 yards an attempt, the lowest single-game number of his career; the Chiefs offense scored just 20 points.
The Chargers didn’t blitz the Chiefs much less (14 percent of snaps) than they blitz the average team (20 percent blitz rate on the season), but held Mahomes to a 55.6 completion percentage and 5.2 yards per attempt on those non-blitz downs.
In Week 2, the Ravens did the unthinkable. Wink Martindale, an even more blitz-happy coordinator than Frazier, blitzed Mahomes on just 13 percent of his dropbacks, the lowest number of any game in Martindale’s tenure in Baltimore. On those four total blitzes, Mahomes had four completions for 73 yards and a touchdown, according to Next Gen Stats. The final blitz came on the opening drive of the second half: a 40-yard touchdown pass to Byron Pringle to put the Chiefs up 28-17. After that, Martindale said enough. The Ravens held Kansas City to just seven points on its next four drives by sitting in zone coverage and grabbing some timely turnovers. Again, the surprise factor got the Chiefs, as tight end Travis Kelce said after the game, “We thought we were going to see a lot more man, a lot more blitzes. When a team is rushing three and playing off coverage, we’ve got to be able to put up more points.”
Kelce’s comments on rushing three and dropping eight allude to the infamous Mahomes v. Belichick matchup in 2020. In that game, the Patriots rushed three defenders and dropped eight into coverage on an astounding 44 percent of Mahomes’s dropbacks, up almost three times New England’s season average (16 percent). Those extra droppers could clog up throwing windows in the thicket of zone coverage, but they also allowed the Patriots to play man coverage across the board with multiple deep safeties and a low-hole defender to take away shallow crossers and spy Mahomes. The Chiefs scored just 19 offensive points.
Three examples of New England dropping 8 into coverage and rushing 3. Secondary is in man coverage across the board, with 1-high safety and 2 underneath zones to prevent/re-route crossers and contain Mahomes when he extends the play #GoPats pic.twitter.com/CmvZ2foDEx— Brad Kelly (@BradKelly17) October 7, 2020
Belichick has kept up the approach. This season, the Patriots lead the league in snaps with only three rushers, and are using their “drop-8” defense to neuter opposing quarterbacks on key passing downs. In their Week 4 game against Tom Brady, New England rushed three and dropped eight on 27 percent of plays, including 31 percent on third and fourth down. For previous Patriots defenses, those would have been pressure downs, with man coverage and one safety on the back end—now, they’re dropping everyone they can.
The inescapable reality for defensive coordinators is that opposing quarterbacks have become too good, and Mahomes is leading that charge. Historically, pressuring good quarterbacks prevented them from sitting in the pocket and dicing up defenses. But as quarterbacking increasingly becomes an exercise in improvisation, pressure packages come with a steeper cost. If elite quarterbacks are now just as good off their spot as they are on it, sending five or six or seven players just makes it easier for them to find downfield throwing windows to hit with their absurd arm angles, scramble drills, and launch points. The juice just isn’t worth the squeeze.
But in surrendering to this reality, defensive coordinators can suddenly become powerful again. Instead of scrounging for the one blitz that will fool these quarterbacks, they can pour those hours, those gallons of Red Bull, into winning with coverage on the back end. They get more bodies to dedicate to bracketing Travis Kelce or putting a safety on top of Tyreek Hill. They can force more checkdowns, more scrambles, and more uncertainty.
Take this play from the Bills on Sunday night. The Chiefs are in one of their “screw you” looks: an unbalanced set, with four eligible receivers to one side of the formation, and Kelce isolated on the back side. Then, they do something really gnarly: quickly release running back Jerick McKinnon into the passing concept, while also pushing Hill out on the bubble and sending wideout Mecole Hardman flying up the seam. If this were a man coverage rep by the Bills, navigating all this traffic would be a nightmare.
But it isn’t. The Bills are dropping seven, and because they have an elite corner in Tre’Davious White, they’re able to lock White with Kelce on the backside in one-on-one coverage. White expects no safety help, no underneath zone defenders to assist. He’s on an island. That lets the Bills play with six zone defenders over four eligible receivers, and gives them a bevy of rules, checks, and safety valves to react to whatever route distribution the Chiefs give them.
When the back releases quickly out of the backfield, you can see linebacker A.J. Klein (54) alert Tremaine Edmunds (49) that he is responsible for the back, while Klein will take over his responsibility in the middle of the field. As the speedy Hardman climbs upfield, Klein is able to pass him along to safety Jordan Poyer (21), who is available because he isn’t helping White with Kelce on that side of the field. Now Klein is free to get his attention back on Mahomes and read wherever his eyes are looking. The Bills didn’t even really generate any pressure, but Mahomes still floats his way out of the pocket, finds no space in the zones, and is forced to scramble—something he does a lot when faced with seven or eight defenders in zone coverage.
This is a win for the defense, but it’s a small one. Mahomes still leads the league in QB rating; he’s second in EPA per dropback behind Matthew Stafford; the Chiefs are fifth in points per game. But in limiting the explosiveness of the Chiefs offense, defenses have made them become something they’ve never been with Mahomes at the helm. In each of the three previous seasons, the Chiefs were top 10 in explosive pass rate (plays that gain 15-plus yards); this year, they’re 25th. Only the Chargers (17) have more drives of 10-plus plays than the Chiefs (15) do, and the Chiefs are last in total drives, with 46 on the season. Their offense has become more methodical, more moderate—and even though Mahomes is largely playing mistake-free and intelligent football, a few bad bounces have created untimely turnovers. In an offense struggling to find explosives, and with fewer drives altogether, those mistakes become more damaging, as there are fewer opportunities to overcome them.
The league innovates on a pendulum’s swing. In recent years, we’ve seen an explosion in creative and aggressive blitz packages, a commitment to creating chaos, to aggression, to confusion for the sake of causing hesitation within the league’s top offenses. But the great improvisers at quarterback have found comfort in that chaos, and accordingly, the pendulum is swinging back the other way. It’s starting with a few one-off game plans—the best available tool for desperate AFC contenders to slow down the Chiefs. And though it may never become the dominant defensive approach in the league—blitzing Carson Wentz and Jimmy Garoppolo and Daniel Jones is still a great idea—it will become a familiar obstacle facing the top quarterbacks. It takes the sport’s greatest creators and forces them to let others make plays for them; it takes the boldest risk-takers and makes them methodical game managers. It doesn’t so much confound them as it does irritate them; it doesn’t stop them, but it slows them down. It’s the best answer defenses have, and it’s not going away anytime soon.