KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Where have the big plays gone for the Kansas City Chiefs’ passing offense? It’s a central question in trying to answer why Patrick Mahomes and company are struggling to light up the scoreboard in 2021.
During Mahomes’ first three seasons, the Chiefs were the most-explosive passing team in the NFL based on data from Sharp Football Analysis.
Kansas City led the league with 238 explosive passing plays — defined as completions of at least 20 yards — and a 10.87% explosive pass rate.
Only two other teams, Tampa Bay (227) and the Los Angeles Rams (204), had at least 200 explosive passing plays from 2018-20.
Only three others — Tampa Bay (10.64%), San Francisco (10.45%) and the Rams (10.01%) — had an explosive play rate of at least 10% during that span.
Those four teams account for five of the last six teams to play in the Super Bowl, including Kansas City’s back-to-back appearances, with the lone outlier being New England in 2018 with Tom Brady at quarterback.
The Chiefs haven’t finished worse than ninth in the league in explosive passing plays or explosive pass rate during that span, but the 2021 team sits 23rd in the NFL at 7.6%.
Meanwhile, Kansas City's offense has scored more than 22 points only once in the last six games.
So, what gives? Mahomes said it’s a combination of opposing defenses guarding against the deep ball and his own failings when those chances do arise.
“Obviously, defenses are playing different types of defenses, so that has an effect on it,” Mahomes said. “I’ve missed a good amount of them this season. ... If I hit those throws I’ve hit in the past, then we’ll have those explosive plays. It’s going to take me being better, hitting those throws when they’re there, because the defense is limiting them. Whenever we do have that shot, kind of like I said, I’ve got to hit, and I haven’t done that these last few weeks.”
The Chiefs’ intended air yards per pass attempt has dropped each of the last three seasons — from 9.1 yards, which ranked fourth in the NFL in 2018, to 8.5 in 2019 and 8.1 in 2020.
But it plunged off a cliff in 2021. Kansas City currently ranks 19th in the NFL at 7.5 yards in 2021.
Yards after the catch haven’t been a significant issue as the Chiefs are tied for third in the NFL at 6.0 yards after catch per completion in 2021, which is less than in 2018 (6.8) but in line with the last two seasons (5.9 in 2019 and 2020).
It’s the depth of Kansas City’s targets in the passing game, a byproduct of the two-deep safety looks many teams present, that has declined precipitously from 8.8 yards, which ranked fourth in the NFL in 2018, to 8.2 yards in 2019 and 7.8 yards in 2020.
The average depth of target for passes this season has been only 7.0 yards.
As a result, the Chiefs’ intended air yards per completion, which was consistently 6.0 yards or better from 2018-20, has dipped to 4.9 yards in 2021, which ranks 30th in the NFL ahead of only Pittsburgh and Detroit.
While Mahomes shoulders his share of the blame, drops have been a major issue. Kansas City has an NFL-worst 6.3% dropped-pass rate this season.
“Those guys are always catching footballs,” Mahomes said. “Before or after practice, during practice, but I think for me as the quarterback, I got to throw the ball in better places. Some of those drops are because the ball is not in the right placement. If I can get the ball in a better place where it’s more catchable, especially when they’re in traffic, it will probably cut down on those numbers. It has just as much to do with me as it does with them.”
During the previous three seasons, the Chiefs’ dropped-pass percentage was no worse than 5.0%, but the 2021 team has already racked up more drops in 12 games (31) than any other season with Mahomes at quarterback, according to Pro Football Reference.
Kansas City is tied with Miami with a league-high 31 drops this season.
“You go back to what we just said, the fundamentals of it,” Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy said. “You get guys on the Jugs machines before practice and after practice, and then you just let them know, ‘Hey, it’s not like we’re going to stop throwing you the football.’ Things happen in this league and, unfortunately, it seems like we’re going through a whirlwind of things that have taken place.”
Among players with at least 20 targets, Byron Pringle and Travis Kelce have struggled the most with drops. Pringle has dropped four of 36 targets (11.1%) and Kelce has dropped 10 of 105 targets (9.5%).
Tyreek Hill also has a 5.5% drop rate with seven on 127 targets, a career-worst since Pro Football Reference began tracking the stat in 2018.
“Every day after practice we catch extra balls, so we make sure we get that done,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “Just concentration on the ball and looking it all the way in, going back to those fundamentals during practice on every throw. Any time you’re catching a ball, look it all the way into the tuck. We’ll keep working on that.”
Improvements in the run game could help the passing offense get untracked.
Kansas City ranks last in the NFL with seven broken tackles on rushing attempts, averaging a league-worst one every 42 runs, and ranks 31st in average yards after contact (1.3) ahead of only the Dolphins (1.2).
If there’s good news, it’s that the Chiefs rank second in the NFL in average rushing yards before contact 3.2 — trailing only the league’s top rushing team, Philadelphia (3.4).
The Chiefs also lead the NFL with 31 broken tackles in the passing game, but that’s partially offset by the rash of drops.
“I feel like we’re focused,” Mahomes said. “I mean, we’ve won five in a row. We might not be playing the best that we thought we played offensively, but as a team we’re coming together as a team and winning football games. For us, we know we can get a lot better. We just have to take the mindset of continuing to get better and better and you want to be playing your best football going into this part of the season. Hopefully, we can continue to build and get better as the season goes on.”
Here the tale of the tape for Chiefs vs. Raiders:
Las Vegas Raiders (6-6) at Kansas City Chiefs (8-4)
Series record (last meeting): Chiefs lead 67-53-2 (Chiefs, W 41-14)
When (TV/radio): 12 p.m. (CBS/WDAF-106.5 FM)
TV commentators: Ian Eagle, Charles Davis, Evan Washburn
Spanish-language radio: KPRS-103.3 HD2