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How Patrick Mahomes’ ankle injury could affect the Chiefs’ game plan against the Bengals

Any loss of mobility should be an insurmountable problem for a quarterback whose greatest strength is his ability to create outside of the structure of the play. But throughout this season, including against the Jaguars on Saturday, Patrick Mahomes has shown that his greatest true strength is his ability to constantly adapt.

After suffering a sprained ankle in the first quarter of the Chiefs’ 27-20 win over the Jaguars, Mahomes left the game but returned in the third quarter, leading the offense to score 10 points in the second period. Mahomes didn’t make his usual number of super plays and the offense wasn’t as explosive as usual, but he did find ways to move the ball, manipulate the pocket with his limited mobility, and throw layups when it mattered.

Now, though, the Bengals will have a chance to plot to take advantage of Mahomes’ inability to move. How much will his injury affect the Chiefs offense?

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In 2019, Mahomes suffered a sprained ankle in his left ankle and played the following week against a terrible Raiders defense that finished 31st in points allowed per drive. Mahomes threw four touchdown passes in the second quarter of that game against the Raiders, whose pass rush was unable to reach him, giving Kansas City time to develop deep passing.

Chiefs coach Andy Reid said Monday that Mahomes’ current injury “isn’t quite as bad” as the quarterback he played in 2019, though this time Mahomes feels pain in his right ankle, affecting his ability to plant and drive. Like throws. Mahomes may be the best off-pilot pitcher in the league, but the Chiefs’ first drive against the Jaguars featured a sampling of plays that might not be available to Kansas City depending on how Mahomes treats. The Chiefs gained a 12-yard option rush; Mahomes made a stunning jump pass on third down. He threw a third down while he was spinning on the floor; Reed called two prep plays, the second of which resulted in the team leader’s first touchdown of the day.

In the regular season, Mahomes led the league in out-of-the-pocket pass attempts (124) and tied for first in expected points added (EPA) per touchdown in such games. It’s a big part of the bosses attack, especially in the red zone. Reed will probably still try to get Mahomes out of the pocket, but instead of bare shins in which the defensive end is left unblocked as in the clip above, the Chiefs can call roll runs and forward guard boots, requiring a line slip with Mahomes. This will ensure he has protection in front of him so he doesn’t have to move so quickly, but it also invites the defense to move in that direction, cutting the field in half.

On the first play in the above clip, of the Chiefs’ win over the Jaguars in Week 10, Mahomes ran a boot to the right with two tight ends protecting it on the front side. The defense went down towards the boot, leaving Travis Kielce wide open and he ran a cross into the boot. I would expect Reed to have some of those plays in his game plan. It allows Mahomes to get out of the pocket, but it is not demanding from a movement standpoint and involves misdirection. The Chiefs must also call for a heavy dose of play action with straight backs (no throws), which Mahomes pulled off against the Jaguars.

The speed option is an effective weapon for bosses. The concept is to leave the premium defender unlocked and have Mahomes run up to him to catch him and then throw the ball to the running back or receiver. The quarterback rarely actually keeps the ball, he just needs to be a threat. The Chiefs even ran once after Mahomes was hit against the Jaguars, and Mahomes was able to quickly run up to receive Kadarius Toney after the Jacksonville Edge defender was caught inside. But the Bengals’ defensive coaches will likely tell their elite defenders to ignore Mahomes and run straight onto the field.

On the first play in the clip above, the Chiefs performed a variety of speeding choices at Super Bowl LIV. This variation is called “freeze option”. Mahomes faked a delivery, causing the end to collapse inside, opening the rim. Reid can call that variation if the Chiefs want to run outside. I don’t expect the option to be a big part of the game plan, but then again, that’s exactly why Reid might include it.

In the divisional playoff game against Jacksonville, Mahomes wasn’t just catching and throwing the ball. He held the ball for longer than three seconds in 33.3 percent of his attempts, which was just over his season average. The Chiefs have a very good offensive line, and Mahomes is confident in his protection and pocket mobility, even when he’s up against a handicap and faces the Jaguars’ talented passes that rank eighth in ESPN’s rushing win rate. The Bengals’ pass rush, which finished 21st on the same measure, isn’t formidable. Reed will probably include more concepts in which Mahomes can catch and throw, but in third-meddlery, third-and-long situations, an injury won’t stop Mahomes from holding the ball to manipulate the rush and look for opportunities on the field.

On Mahomes’ only pass of the second half, he pulled away from his first read and climbed into the pocket, causing the “latent” defender to squirm before Mahomes threw in behind him. Mahomes may not break out of the pocket against the Bengals as he does when he has full mobility, but he still has a strong awareness of the pocket and can still buy time in it.

The Jaguars tried to force Mahomes to move by attacking him on 43.8% running back in the second half, but Mahomes was stellar in those situations, posting an EPA per dropback of 0.45 β€” which would have ranked ninth among all quarterbacks against blitz during the regular season . Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumu has managed to beat Bills quarterback Josh Allen in the divisional round, but I don’t think he wants to give Mahomes the ability to find hot throws quickly.

Anarumo is one of the best game planners in the NFL, and how he chooses to defend against the Chiefs’ weak offense will determine the game.

(Top photo: David Eulitt/Getty Images)


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