When the Kansas City Chiefs take the field for Super Bowl LV, they’ll be down three starters on their offensive line. Veteran left guard Kelechi Osemele tore tendons in both his knees in Week 5 (which is as awful as it sounds) and went on injured reserve, ending his season. In Week 6, four-time All-Pro right tackle Mitchell Schwartz — the Chiefs’ ironman — injured his back in practice and missed the first game of his nine-year career the following week; he hasn’t returned to action since. And a little less than two weeks ago, left tackle Eric Fisher ruptured his Achilles tendon in the AFC championship, ending his season one game short of the Super Bowl. On the eve of the biggest game of the season, the Chiefs’ offensive line is being held together by duct tape, twine and good intentions.
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This could end up being a problem against Tampa Bay’s pass rush, a unit featuring Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul that ranks sixth in the league in ESPN’s pass rush win rate metric and that graded out eighth in overall pass rush in 2020, according to Pro Football Focus.1 But with Patrick Mahomes and his magic arm behind center for Kansas City, just how big of a problem is it?
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Over the course of the season, the Chiefs’ offensive line actually did a laudable job given the injuries, according to ESPN’s pass block win rate metric. There were just four games out of 18 (including the playoffs) in which the unit failed to post a league-average or better pass block win rate against the opposing defensive line.
Still, nearly all of their good performances included Fisher anchoring the left side, so it’s probably best to look a little more closely at how games with poor pass blocking affected Mahomes — and how Kansas City might have to adapt.
One of the strongest on-field effects of a good pass rush (and poor pass blocking) is that the quarterback is forced to get rid of the ball quickly or risk a sack. Over the past three years, the correlation between pass block win rate and average time to throw is positive, indicating that the more often an offense wins versus the defensive line, the longer the QB has to get rid of the ball. The converse is also true: the worse the blocking, the quicker the quarterback has to throw to avoid a sack. And the correlation is fairly strong (at least for football).2
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Since sacks are obviously bad for the offense, this sounds like something you might want to avoid. But with Mahomes, that doesn’t turn out to be the case. Some of Mahomes’s best games this season have come when he got rid of the ball faster than league average.3 Meanwhile, some of his worst games came when he patted the ball more than he normally does.
This counterintuitive result is perhaps explained by the fact that quarterbacks often hold the ball longer when their receivers are covered, or when the defense is giving them a look that they’re not used to seeing. For a player like Mahomes, who thrives even when the defense knows what’s coming, the only way to really slow him down is probably something approaching perfect pass coverage on top of a disruptive pass rush.
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Absent that, the answer for Kansas City seems clear: Adopt a quick passing attack — perhaps with some screens and jet sweeps to wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman thrown in — to help neutralize the Tampa Bay rush. That means the Super Bowl could be decided in the Bucs’ defensive backfield, even while a battle rages between Tampa Bay’s linebackers and Kansas City’s ragtag band of big men up front.
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