KC Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes studies 3rd downs: NFL analysis

As the annual bye week hit their calendar, Chiefs players dispersed their separate ways, some visiting hometowns, others making stops at their alma maters.

How much football remains part of the equation? Depends whom you ask. For quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the answer is what you’d probably expect: A lot.

A week off provides a unique opportunity for big-picture reflection, and so a week ago, Mahomes already had an idea of exactly what he’d reflect on.

Third downs.

“We have to better there,” he said.

OK, makes sense. Third down conversion rate is a key indicator of the best offenses in the NFL. Never hurts to place more time into the game’s most critical situations.

But what about this piece of Mahomes’ quote: We have to be better there.

Must mean third downs are some sort of problem, right? That the Chiefs must be held back by a paltry success rate on third downs?

Not at all, actually. The Chiefs are converting 51.5% of their third downs this season, a figure that leads the NFL. It gets better yet. You have to backtrack all the way to 2011 to find a team that’s converted at that rate, when the Saints did it, per data available on

So why in the world would Mahomes identify this area as a point of study during a week off?

“You’ve got to stay on top of it. That’s what he was doing,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “If you don’t stay on top of it, then you’re going to be back at the bottom. And you don’t want to go there.”

When Mahomes mentioned his bye-week plans during a post-game conference after the Cowboys win, he didn’t bother to bring up that the Chiefs are already the league’s best team on third downs. Left that detail out. Just said it was something they needed to address.

But that’s the point of it all. This is who he is. It’s not always necessarily a competition between Mahomes and the rest of the league. It’s more like a competition between himself and … well, himself.

That’s how he’s wired, his head coach likes to say in the most complimentary way possible. Or, as his offensive coordinator once more bluntly stated it, it’s the competitive prick in him that never settles.

“That’s one of the reasons why we drafted him,” Chiefs OC Eric Bieniemy said. “Obviously we knew he was a pretty talented kid, but sometimes certain people just have that ‘it’ factor.”

Mahomes willingly raises his hand when things don’t go well — to the point of having no problem talking about his 11 interceptions over and over again.

But the inverse is true, too. He wants to improve his perceived strengths. Wants to widen the gap, so to speak. Wants to be better than he is, no matter the bar he has set.

That’s the whole concept behind this third-down business.

“The great offenses in history — and obviously in today’s age (too) — they really do a great job of third downs and the red zone,” Mahomes said. “I just feel like these last few weeks, here and there we just didn’t execute at a high enough level in certain parts of the game in third downs. … At the end of the day, the players have to go out there and make plays. I think we have the guys who can do it.”

Here’s where we remind you that only two weeks ago, in a blowout win against the Raiders in prime-time, the Chiefs were 9 of 15 on third downs. Dominated those situations.

A week later, they were 4 of 12 against the Cowboys. All of one lousy week. So now Patrick Mahomes wants to talk about third downs.

Fine, we’ll oblige.

So, about those third downs …

Defenses are trying to trick Patrick Mahomes. Trying to bait him into a really bad decision.

He’s not alone in what he sees as he drops back, of course. That’s the purpose of most defensive schemes — fool the guy who’s making the decisions.

But there’s a particular scheme Mahomes has noticed a lot more often lately. He calls it thief. His coach calls it robber. It comes in several different forms, but the concept is pretty much the same, and “a lot of teams are playing it to us,” Mahomes said.

Much has been made of the two-deep shell opponents play against the Chiefs, and for all of the right reasons — it’s changed not only the way the Chiefs have to play offense but the way they have to think while doing so.

Think of robber as more of a wrinkle.

In the concept, a defense takes a player, often one of those safeties who appears to be deep-lying, and moves him toward the line of scrimmage to cut off a quick route — such as a slant, cross or dig pattern. The hope is the quarterback doesn’t anticipate it — especially a quarterback so used to seeing safeties back pedal at the first sign of the snap. The best defenses can disguise which player will be the robber until the last possible split-second.

That’s a very simplified explanation, because there are complex variations of robber and the Chiefs have seen many of them recently, mostly with man-to-man coverage underneath.

“Teams are doing a good job of mixing up different coverages, whether they’re playing some form of 11 robber and bringing that guy down late, or they’re playing their shell defense and cheating a guy down late,” Bieniemy said. “But that’s all a part of it. Our guys know exactly what’s going on.”

In response, the Chiefs are studying up on pre-snap recognition, attempting to find indicators the defense is coming. They do a lot of this. Bieniemy estimated “there are about 16 to 20 things that our guys have to think about as they break the huddle coming up to the line of scrimmage.” (That’s one of the reasons why a quarterback and wide receiver “getting on the same page” is more complicated than it might seem on the surface.)

But no one more has more to consider than Mahomes. Hence the bye-week study.

Even though they’re already quite successful against it. That part can’t be forgotten, even as the Chiefs allot it enough time to make you think they struggle with it. This isn’t that aforementioned shell that has caused them on-again, off-again problems throughout the season. The Chiefs are prolonging offensive series at a better rate than anyone in football, and they’ve seen robber along the way.

Which reverts us back to the original point. Mahomes doesn’t care about the current rate. He’s going to pour time into it. It’s the third downs that will ultimately dictate the success of drives during the most important stretch of the season.

Why not be even more prepared?

“I think we just have to continue to execute. I have to make sure I try to throw it and put it in the right spot, especially against man coverage so they can make catches and we can move the chains,” Mahomes said. “We do a great job of really breaking it down (in practice) — it’s just about executing it, especially when it comes to this time of year.”

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Sam McDowell covers the Chiefs and sports enterprise for The Star.

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