The thing about pressuring quarterbacks is that it’s supposed to work. The thing about Patrick Mahomes is what’s supposed to work against other quarterbacks doesn’t work on him.
Mahomes has been pressured 19 times during the playoffs, according to Sports Info Solutions. On those dropbacks, he has completed 61.1% of his passes for 8.4 yards per attempt, two touchdowns, no interceptions, 7.4 Expected Points Added, and a 52.9% positive play rate (the percentage of plays that produce positive EPA). Quarterbacks aren’t supposed to have positive EPA under pressure.
Sure we’re only talking about 19 dropbacks at the moment and that’s a small sample, but tell that to the Buffalo Bills, who were able to send free rushers at Mahomes in the AFC Championship Game and were completely ripped apart because Mahomes isn’t fair. Against the Bills, Mahomes went 6-of-9 for 77 yards (8.6 yards per attempt), one touchdown, and one sack. He averaged 0.47 EPA per attempt and a 60% positive play rate which are better numbers than he had during the regular season from a clean pocket — 0.34 EPA per attempt with 61.9% positive play rate.
During the game, Mahomes’s throws under pressure included this 11-yard throw to Travis Kelce:
Also included was this 33-yard pass to Tyreek Hill that saw Mahomes break a tackle in the pocket, readjust his platform, and find Hill open on a crosser against Buffalo’s zone.
This obviously matters now as the Kansas City Chiefs prepare to take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Super Bowl. The Buccaneers finished the regular season with the seventh-highest pressure rate, per SIS, and were one of the heaviest-blitzing teams in the league. The Chiefs have been without Mitchell Schwartz for most of the season and will now be without Eric Fisher, who tore his Achilles against the Bills in the AFC Championship Game. That’s less than ideal against a defensive line that runs out Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul on the edges.
Performance under pressure isn’t new for the Kansas City quarterback. During last season’s playoff run, capped off with a Super Bowl win, Mahomes also had positive EPA under pressure. Accounting for the entire 2019 season through the Super Bowl, Mahomes finished with positive EPA under pressure. The next closest quarterback was Lamar Jackson at -9.4. No other quarterback was better than -20.
It’s not fair to assume Mahomes can keep this up at this pace. Even during this past regular season he was more normal, relatively. He had the fourth-most passing attempts under pressure (partly due to his high volume of passing) and on those throws, he averaged -0.12 EPA per attempt with a 43.7% positive play rate. While those numbers are significantly worse than Mahomes’s production from a clean pocket, among 36 quarterbacks with at least 50 pass attempts under pressure in 2020, those Mahomes figures ranked fourth for EPA per attempt and fifth for positive play rate.
What makes Mahomes so difficult to defend against under pressure, is how no spot on the field makes him uncomfortable. He doesn’t need his feet set or his hips square or his arm in the perfect repeatable slot. Mahomes can make a throw from any platform, even when that platform looks impossible to throw from or there is a defender in his face. Off-platform is his platform.
Here is a throw from last year’s Super Bowl that turned into a touchdown pass to Damien Williams. Mahomes had late pressure come off the edge from the 49ers and when Mahomes released the ball, his feet were off the ground.
This was Mahomes’s platform in the previous round, last year’s AFC Championship Game against the Tennessee Titans, on a 60-yard touchdown pass to Sammy Watkins that went 42 yards in the air.
Here’s a throw from this past week against the Bills, which turned into a 9-yard gain to Kelce, who is just barely in view at the top of the screen.
Before last week’s games, Michael Lopez, who runs data and analytics for the NFL, shared the release points on the field of each of the final four quarterbacks according to the player tracking from Next Gen Stats.
Mahomes had release points all over the field from all the way to the sideline, right against the line of scrimmage, and two that were more than 15 yards deep. He can throw from any part of the field.
That’s what makes him so dangerous, there’s no bad spot for him. Against other quarterbacks, pressure and pushing him from the pocket makes throws awkward. Mahomes lives in awkward. Compare Mahomes’s release to Tom Brady. Brady is a master manipulator of the pocket but with his age and athleticism, Brady doesn’t have those out-of-pocket throws in his arsenal. The pocket is Brady’s stoop and Stoop Kid’s afraid to leave his stoop.
It’s a reason why pressure with four is the “book” on beating Brady. That, obviously, would work against most quarterbacks but pressure with four leaves Brady with nowhere to flee and has that extra defender in coverage that doesn’t give Brady an open hot route like a play against the blitz would.
Mahomes is already outside of the pocket so often, that forcing him there doesn’t make much of a difference. No quarterback has more pass attempts outside of the pocket than Mahomes’s 146, including the playoffs. On those throws, he has 16 touchdowns and no interceptions. Lamar Jackson and Derek Carr were the only other quarterbacks with at least 50 attempts outside of the pocket with no interceptions. Though, it should be noted Carr only averaged 5.2 yards per attempt on those throws, while Jackosn was at 6.6 and Mahomes had 7.3.
No quarterback came close to Mahomes’s production on throws outside of the pocket, either. Mahomes led the league in every category on those throws. The below table is how he matched up against the next best quarterback in each category, a hypothetical player who is the mix of Josh Allen, Russell Wilson, Baker Mayfield, and Deshaun Watson.
Patrick Mahomes vs Next Best Quarterback Outside Pocket, 2020
|Next Best QB
With Mahomes so comfortable outside of the pocket, pressuring him there has had less of an impact against him as it would other quarterbacks. Nine quarterbacks had at least 50 passing attempts outside the pocket this season, including the playoffs. Mahomes, again, was the only one with positive EPA. Pressured outside the pocket doesn’t exclusively mean pushed out from pressure, but those plays are included. Pressure outside the pocket can be a play in which the quarterback was already outside and pressure came late. Either way, Mahomes is the outlier with positive performance.
Quarterback Performance vs Pressure Outside Pocket, 2020 (min. 50 att)
What makes Mahomes so frustrating to defend is what’s worked against quarterbacks since the inception of passing doesn’t always work on him. He’s pushed the boundaries of plays that can be made. Tampa Bay can hope pressuring Mahomes can help the defense in the Super Bowl, but it’s no guarantee.