Patrick Mahomes, Drop-8 Coverages, and How the Bengals flustered the Chiefs
Sweet Lou came through when the Bengals needed him most
All season long, there have been raging discussions about the sluggishness of the once-dominant Chiefs’ offense.
Two-high safety shells were the issue, you were told ad nauseam. Stick two guys deep, tack on some wonky rotations here and there, and Patrick Mahomes will get flustered. His ego will get in the way; he wants to throw the ball deep, and once that supply line is cut off, he will get frustrated. He will force the ball deep anyway, refuse to check it down, make sloppy decisions. The whole machine will, therefore, bog down.
For much of the season that was waffle. Early on, the Chiefs were indeed stuck in the mud. They were sluggish out of the gate, switching to a more static style that belied their past success. But by the second month of the year, all was, pretty much, fine.
Defenses were limiting explosives, but the Chiefs’ machine was adapting and evolving; they shifted from an offense built on explosive plays to one built on patience. They added a touch more diversity to an otherwise bland run-game — a run game that had been the emphasis of the team’s offensive line overhaul last offseason (it was about protecting Mahomes following the Super Bowl debacle in Tampa Bay, yes, but also about adding beefier bodies inside who were more adept at running as sophisticated running system).
It worked. Heading into Sunday’s game vs. the Bengals, the Chiefs ranked first in the league in offensive EPA per play, by some distance (0.157 to the Bills 0.132). They were first in the league in rushing success rate, the only team in the league to sit over the 50 percent ‘elite’ threshold. They were torching the field in passing game success rate – 53.7 percent (!) to the Bills 51.6 percent.
During the first half against the Bengals, Mahomes and company were at their obnoxious best. The run-game was rolling. Mahomes was dancing. Everything was clicking. Mahomes completed 85.7 percent of his passes for 220 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions.
Then, things flat-lined. As I’ve noted in these parts and elsewhere throughout the year, Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo has, for my money (whatever that is worth), been the league’s top assistant coach this year. Not so much because of the raw output, but for his willingness to ditch his own dogma in favor of chasing what’s worked.
Anarumo has built his setup around three core principles: safety movement, prioritizing his unit’s best position group (in Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell he has one of the league’s finest safety tandems in the league); an organic pass-rush, blitzing rarely, and allowing his down four (or three, or five in their late-moving ‘bear’ front) to get after the passer without extra help; fresh packages each week, a new formation, blitz design or personnel groupings that he has yet to show throughout the season (or at least used in minimal snaps).
During the second half against KC on Sunday, that all paid off. He relied on his two best players, those safeties. He relied on a three-man rush, refusing to send extra help. And he settled on a strategy of drop-8 coverages, a rarity over the course of the season.
Drop-8 coverages — eight players dropping into coverages and three rushing — are typically used as part of a situational package: The end of a half, the offense backed up in third and whatever. A team might move to a pseudo-drop-8 style with a spy (of the old or new variety) if they’re facing an electric athlete a quarterback, a Kyler Murray or Lamar Jackson, to keep eyes on the quarterback.
On Sunday, though, Anarumo used drop-8 as his base from the second quarter onwards. The impact was immediate and profound: Against eight men in coverage in the second-half, Mahomes completed only three of his eight pass attempts for fifteen yards, tossing one pick and being sacked four times.
Throughout the season, teams have looked to the college ranks to find schematic resolutions to the great Chiefs riddle. Box in-box out defenders. Shifting the landmark of the ‘robber’ to cap any glance or post route. Three safety sets. Morphing two-deep shells. All have become the base of the college football vocabulary. All intended to take away the potent cocktail that is at the heart of college offenses and has been indulged by the Chiefs: an RPO-based attack (every run having some sort of tag); attacking the MOF with posts and glances, often built into those RPO actions; Air-Raid style passing concepts, with the five eligible all out in the pattern.
The Chiefs pair those basic tenets with as much formational diversity as any offense in the league. They run as many 4x1 sets as any coach could imagine. They’re constantly looking to get to the benefits of two-back sets post-snap sending one of their speedsters into the backfield. They’re a whirring, zooming grab bag of the best the game’s top offensive minds currently have to offer, at any level. Of note: A whole bunch of the Chiefs’ most creative ‘gadget’ plays are pinched from the high school ranks; the team has a designated high school spotter/scout who combs the tape for the most creative designs from across America.
Good design is essential. The Chiefs pick only the best. And they fuse those designs with the holy triumvirate: Mahomes, Kelce, Hill. That gives them: A crafty scheme that’s ahead of the professional curve; the game’s best off-script creator; a matchup nightmare at tight end; the most explosive wide receiver in the league. Pair that with a so-so (or better: first in EPA per play this season) run game and you have something that, in the abstract, is as close to unstoppable as it gets. Gulp.
And yet Mahomes rode the system into the ditch on Sunday afternoon: He completed just 44 percent of his passes for 55 yards, with two picks and no interceptions in the second half. Even when Anarumo was not dropping eight into coverage, Mahomes’ radar was frazzled. At times he tried to speed things up; others he slowed down, holding onto the ball… and holding onto the ball… and holding onto the ball. When he had extra time, he got rid of the ball earlier; when the ball needed to be out now – today, this minute, out, get rid! – he held on for a crucial pair of beats, by which point any point of a ‘concept’ flew out the window.
Anarumo dug into the college bag of tricks to try to match the Chiefs’ college-led style. Drop-8 has grown in prominence over the last decade. It’s now more than a situational defense. Against Air-Raid style passing games that pair sophisticated RPO schemes with the traditional Air-Raid mechanics in the passing game (which makes up the bulk of the top offenses in college), the top defensive minds at that level —Kirby Smart at Georgia; Mel Tucker at Michigan State; Dave Aranda at Baylor — have turned to drop-8 to mitigate the concerns.
Why is it effective? By sticking eight defenders in coverage, a coach is able to swamp all levels of the field. It sounds obvious, right? And it kind of is. Eight defenders back are more than seven (duh), which is traditional for an ‘organic’ four-man rush. If there are five eligible out in the pattern, the defense will have plus-three in coverage. If there’s an even split, that’s four apiece; meaning even if the offense gets into quads looks (as air-raid style attacks are want to do) the numbers should remain even across the field.
Modern defense is about two things: disruption and levels. A defense must always be disruptive. It’s the only real way to detonate what an offense is doing. But unless a defensive line is flat-out crushing an offensive line, the best way for a defense is to manufacture disruption is by adding extra beats to a quarterback’s drop. The longer the quarterback holds the ball, the more time for the pass-rush to get home or indecision to creep in. The goal is to ask the quarterback to second-guess his programming. To not grip-it-and-rip-it. To not play on-time and in-rhythm. To think maybe-possibly. Should-I-Shouldn’t-I?
To do that, a defense must add extra levels to the coverage in order to force difficult throws down the field if the quarterback is playing on time or in rhythm, or to compel him to hold onto the ball altogether.
There are a bunch of options for adding levels. Shifting from a single-high safety structure — basing out of man-free or cover-3 — to a two-high structure is one way, and the most obvious change across the league as a whole over the past 24 months. Having two safeties deep means a defense can get to anything on its menu: it can stick in two-deep or spin to traditional single-high shells, but do so from depth. And that movement from depth adds an extra layer — now there’s the boundary corner (or corners), the nicker or star, the deep safety, and whenever the defense is moving that second safety.
Or a defense can look at zone pressures, still bringing four rushers but dropping different defenders out from traditional blitz looks – the defense might get to the same coverage shell, but the paths taken are different, which means the throwing windows are different, and that the levels of the coverage are different at different phases in the quarterbacks drop.
(That’s the style Spagnuolo and the Chiefs defense ran with against Burrow and the Bengals offense)
Or, as Anarumo did on Sunday, you can simply add extra players to the coverage shell. More players equals more coverage options, which equals a wider scope to add in extra layers. The offense doesn’t know who the eighth defender will necessarily be — who will drop out — nor where he will drop too. And in that unknown, as the quarterback tries to identify the who and the what, you have the disruption; disruption of the thought process rather than a linebacker in the lap. And by staggering the levels, by allocating the resources to stick with two safeties deep while having the numbers underneath to stagger the coverage, a defense is able to add extra layers to the shell, too. Disruption and layers.
Plus, adding extra players into the shell allows a DC to get a touch more creative with hybrid coverages, running zone-match coverages to one side (matching routes in man-to-man depending on the receiver’s release) while spot-dropping to the other side. That makes the look tough for the quarterback: Is it man or zone? Is it zone-match? Is it a combo coverage, man to one side and zone to the other? Is that guy a trapper? Oof. Best of luck.
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