NFL News & Analysis

Patrick Mahomes' injury could spell trouble against the Bengals. Plus, how the Chiefs bottled up the red-hot Trevor Lawrence

Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) throws against the Jacksonville Jaguars during the second half in the AFC divisional round game at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Patrick Mahomes is a magician.

From his no-look passes to his unparalleled scrambling ability, he amazes onlookers every week with plays that once seemed unfathomable. He is without question the NFL’s greatest improviser, which is why the high ankle sprain he suffered against the Jacksonville Jaguars in the divisional round is concerning.

Mahomes still made magic happen despite the pain. He threw darts off one foot and even worked in one important scramble for a first down. But can the Kansas City Chiefs continue to thrive without Mahomes being able to improvise? And are they now too reliant on it?

Before the injury occurred against Jacksonville with just under three minutes left in the first quarter, Mahomes’ mobility appeared to be the difference in the game. Seven of his 13 prior dropbacks were either designed rollouts or scrambles. Post-injury, only one of his 20 dropbacks was a rollout or scramble, the aforementioned short rush that went for a first down. 

Rollouts and scrambles matter more to Mahomes and head coach Andy Reid than anyone else. During the regular season, the star quarterback led the league with 183 designed rollouts and scrambles. Not only was the volume there, but he led the NFL with a 90.6 overall PFF grade and an 84.4 PFF passing grade on such plays. The latter is especially impressive, as no other quarterback with at least 30 such dropbacks is within 10 points of that mark (Justin Herbert ranks second at 73.7).

Mahomes clearly wasn’t right after the injury. His passing grade during the final three quarters against Jacksonville sagged at 54.8. His inability to move was the primary culprit for his struggles. Mahomes is so good, though, that we should be able to expect him to continue to thrive from within the pocket. He finished with PFF’s third-highest overall and passing grades on straight dropbacks during the regular season. So what’s the problem? A deeper dive unveils an interesting caveat.

Patrick Mahomes Dropback Splits
Overall Grade Rank* Passing Grade Rank*
Straight Drops Wks 1-12 90.3 2nd 87.4 2nd
Straight Drops Wks 13-18 72.6 17th 71.0 16th
Rolls/Scrambles Wks 1-12 86.2 1st 77.9 1st
Rolls/Scrambles Wks 13-18 88.3 2nd 85.6 2nd

*Among passers with at least 25 such dropbacks in each timeframe

The magic clearly hasn’t waned, but something is amiss from the pocket. One might ask why Week 13 was so arbitrarily used as the cutoff in the above table. The answer? That's when Kansas City faced its upcoming conference championship opponent, the Cincinnati Bengals.

Since then, Mahomes has been very ordinary when dropping straight back and throwing from the pocket. The Chiefs' approach appears to have become far more conservative, too. There are struggles at wide receiver, as well as a declining amount of man coverage being played against Kansas City since that Bengals game.

If recent trends hold, there will be many nervous onlookers waiting to see if Mahomes’ injury hampers his seemingly unstoppable improvisational skills. If that is the case, then we will see a battle of two quarterbacks dueling from the pocket. The difference between them? Mahomes has struggled of late from there, while Joe Burrow is currently the best pocket passer the league has to offer.

Why Kansas City was hostile territory for Trevor Lawrence

Trevor Lawrence’s growth during the second half of the 2022 season is undeniable. Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Doug Pederson has done an incredible job of repairing his quarterback’s footwork, confidence and processing of the NFL game. That being said, NFL defensive coordinators will prod at any weakness they can find.

There are still some obvious things that Lawrence needs to improve upon. He can be rattled under pressure like many young quarterbacks. However, there is an interesting schematic split from the Jaguars' playoff loss to the Chiefs that’s worth digging into.

Trevor Lawrence Facing Cover 4 vs. Other Coverages (Divisional Round)

  • Vs. Cover 4: 16 dropbacks, 6/14 comp/att., 41 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT, 1 big-time throw, 2 turnover-worthy plays, 20.5 passer rating, 46.5 PFF passing grade
  • Vs. All Other Coverages: 28 dropbacks, 18/25 comp/att., 176 yards, 1 TD, 2 big-time throws, 0 turnover-worthy plays, 104.8 passer rating, 86.8 PFF passing grade

The Chiefs’ Cover 4, or Quarters, scheme gave Lawrence fits. The young signal-caller had been blazing hot entering the game, yet it would appear that Kansas City’s defense, which ran the sixth-most plays with Quarters coverage during the regular season, was the perfect counterpunch. The evidence suggests as much when diving into Lawrence’s breakout, which really started in Week 9.

Trevor Lawrence Facing Cover 4 vs. Other Coverages (Week 9-Wild-Card Round)
Coverage PFF Passing Grade
Cover 4 67.9
Non-Cover 4 87.0

A 67.9 passing grade is still respectable. In fact, it ranks 11th in the NFL in that timeframe. The 87.0 grade against other coverages ranks second, though, behind only Joe Burrow. Sometimes when facing elite quarterbacks, the idea is really to make them simply human instead of completely shutting them down. Cover 4 appears to be the concept that currently keeps Lawrence human as an NFL quarterback.

Compounding this slight weakness is the fact that the Chiefs occasionally blitz with Quarters behind it. It is an incredibly strange concept, yet it proves jarring for a quarterback to deal with. Generally, when a quarterback reads Cover 4, they are not expecting a blitz. 

The Chiefs, however, have made a habit of blitzing with Cover 4 behind it. They have run the second-most blitzes this season with Cover 4 behind it, trailing only the New York Giants. And the Giants blitz far more overall than Kansas City.

So we know Lawrence is disturbed by Cover 4 and that most young quarterbacks take time to master beating the blitz. How many times did these things overlap for Lawrence and the Chiefs in the divisional round? Exactly three:

  • A batted-ball incompletion on the first play of the game
  • A dropped interception on the third play of the game
  • Jaylen Watson’s game-sealing interception late in the fourth quarter

It could be argued that the first two set the tone for the entire game and that the final one sealed the Jaguars’ fate. In between, Lawrence looked shaken when facing Quarters, and Pederson decided to call a mostly safe game. 

Trevor Lawrence is on his way to greatness. He will likely enter MVP conversations sooner than later, but defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s plan got the best of him this time. Lawrence will be back on the big stage, and when he is, he’ll be looking to throw more dimes … against quarters.


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