Like most elite quarterbacks, Patrick Mahomes dominates zone defenses.
This week, the Kansas City Chiefs are facing the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday Night Football. The Colts use predominantly zone looks on defense.
Mahomes should bounce back from last week’s subpar game with huge numbers on Sunday.
Mahomes Report: Week 4 vs. Detroit
In his only previous meeting with the Colts Mahomes had a somewhat pedestrian game, posting an 85.2 passer rating without a touchdown. He still did more than enough for the Chiefs to cruise to a win, and this week over at The Athletic Zac Keefer broke down some of the decisive plays in that game.
A few months later an it will be a far different scene at Arrowhead. The weather will be better, Mahomes is better and the Colts are banged up. Their best defensive player, linebacker Darius Leonard, is dealing with a concussion, while safeties Malik Hooker and Clayton Geathers have been held out of practice due to knee and concussion problems, respectively.
Injuries and an exploitable defensive scheme are not a likely recipe for success.
For the latest examples of Mahomes’ dominance against zone defenses, we look to this past Sunday’s game in Detroit. The Lions had one of the best game plans for Mahomes yet, but when the game was on the line he still took over and led the Chiefs to victory. For example, in this first play we see QB1 keeping the play alive long enough to find Travis Kelce wide open in a soft spot in the zone.
According to Football Outsiders, the Colts have a mediocre defensive line in terms of rushing the passer, in the same neighborhood as the Lions this year. If you can’t create pressure on the quarterback, he will keep the play alive long enough to take advantage of soft coverage like he does here.
For a better idea of how coach Andy Reid and Mahomes use scheme and arm talent to beat the zone, look at this first-quarter pass from last Sunday to Demarcus Robinson.
Despite the entire defense moving to Mahomes’ right with the pocket, he still finds Robinson wide open up the right hash. Mahomes has to make the throw back against the grain, but the route design is what makes this play work out so well. Robinson runs a dig with a pivot variation, making it look like he’s flowing with the play when he actually breaks off against the defense’s momentum. Even if he doesn’t pull off the nifty run after the catch it would have been a solid gain.
Both of these examples are classic cases of how to beat a zone. Reid’s creativity is what puts the Chiefs’ attack over the top. It’s one thing to make a throw when moving the pocket or taking advantage of great blocking from the offensive line. Using RPOs and getting players from deep down the depth chart involved is an extra special wrinkle for this offense.
This was a featured play in the Week 4 Mahomes Report. RPO run action forces the defensive line to shift left, leaving the middle and right thirds of the fields open. Kelce’s movement across the line in the backfield forces Devon Kennard (42), who’s already the read for Mahomes on the RPO, into no-man’s land. Inside linebacker Jarrad Davis (40) is also forced to respect Kelce’s flat route.
That leaves Deon Yelder, one of the least likely pass catchers on the offense, open on a deep crossing route. Due to Yelder’s alignment tight to the left he was able to run free since the front seven was entirely occupied by the run action and Kelce.
Mahomes’ arm strength and Reid’s play design will kill any zone defense.
How does this apply to facing the Colts, though? Again, they run a lot of zone looks, and just last week they were picked apart by Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr.
Carr actually missed numerous throws and should have been able to do more damage against the Indianapolis zone. He still finished 13-of-20 passing for 115 yards and a touchdown against zone looks in Week 4, including a 4-of-4, 36-yard opening drive capped off by a score.
This isn’t a particularly complex pair of routes that sets up the score for Oakland. Darren Waller and Foster Moreau release in a stack, with Waller breaking off on a post and Moreau on the corner. The latter’s route splits two defensive backs and Carr hits him for a score. An accurate throw with enough velocity makes it almost impossible for either one of the DBs to recover in time.
Later on in the game Carr and the Raiders were again able to take advantage of the Colts’ zone with a deep ball, this time hitting Tyrell Williams for a long first down.
This is the dagger concept, with the inside receiver (Hunter Renfrow) clearing the coverage with a deep post route from the slot while Williams runs a dig into the vacated space. Safety George Odum (30) is caught in between and the Raiders end up on the fringes of the red zone.
Indianapolis’ zone can be exploited deep.
One more crucial example from the Raiders-Colts tilt should look familiar.
A receiver on the right side of the formation runs an in route with a pivot, the quarterback rolls to his right and fires back to said receiver in a soft spot in the zone. If this play rings a bell, it’s because the Chiefs ran a similar play we saw earlier in this post.
They aren’t perfectly identical, but in practice they worked out the same way.
To repeat, Carr should have had an even better game last week against the Colts’ defense. A more physically gifted quarterback probably will.
Indianapolis defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus probably won’t change the entire nature of his scheme for this Week 5 matchup. Their execution will need to step up, but they’ll also be facing a quarterback who can make more throws and throws of a far higher difficulty than what they’ve seen so far this year. Expect Reid to employ plenty of RPO action and deep route combinations to add pressure to the Colts’ secondary.