Patrick Mahomes hasn't been bad against the Cincinnati Bengals in their past three meetings. The Kansas City Chiefs haven't won any of those three games, but there's more to winning and losing games than a quarterback's production, no matter how often you hear otherwise.
In the three meetings, Mahomes has completed 67.3% of his passes for 757 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions. His 101 passer rating is good. But the Bengals have also done well in not letting Mahomes go ballistic against them, often because of their willingness to throw different looks at him.
Mahomes hasn't had more than 275 yards in any of the three meetings. In the second half and overtime of the AFC championship game last season, he struggled as much as we've ever seen him struggle. Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo is adaptable during games, and that has presented a challenge to Mahomes and the Chiefs.
In Sunday's AFC championship game, Anarumo and the Bengals defense will be creative.
“It’s never the same," Mahomes said this week of the Bengals' scheme, via Harold Kuntz of Fox 4 in Kansas City.
Bengals flustered Mahomes last postseason
There were a few reasons the Bengals came back from a 21-3 deficit against the Chiefs in last season's AFC championship game, but the key one was flustering Mahomes with a schematic shift.
In the first half, Mahomes got the ball out fast, and the few times he didn't, he found something after scrambling. His 5-yard touchdown to Travis Kelce was a vintage Mahomes play.
SCORE On 3rd & 2, Mahomes 5-yd TD pass to Travis Kelce#Bengals 3 #Chiefs 14 Q2 pic.twitter.com/Prv9RXhfHV
— Sᴘᴏʀᴛs 24/7 (@Sports_24x7_) January 30, 2022
Then in the second half, the Bengals often dropped a lineman, giving them eight defenders in coverage, and Mahomes was indecisive. He'd hold the ball but couldn't find anything open.
The #Bengals dropped 8+ defenders in coverage on a season-high 35% of pass plays.
Patrick Mahomes struggled against 8+ defenders in coverage, completing just 7 of 13 passes for 59 yards & an INT with 2 sacks (-14.4 pass EPA, career-low).#CINvsKC | #RuleTheJunglepic.twitter.com/oGWhaVWx6z
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 30, 2022
The #Bengals almost doubled their usage of dropping 8+ defenders in coverage in the second half and overtime, and held the Chiefs to only 3 points during that span:
🔸 First Half: 24% of pass plays
🔸 Second Half/OT: 45% of pass plays#CINvsKC | #RuleTheJungle
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 30, 2022
And the Bengals kept Mahomes from running against three-man rushes by sometimes employing a spy. He would just stick in the pocket with the coverage zones flooded.
"They just had a spy on me, for the most part, and I've usually done a good job getting around that guy, but they had a good game plan," Mahomes said via The Athletic. "They were doing a lot of similar stuff in the first half. We were just executing at a higher level."
The Bengals threw a lot of looks at Mahomes, coverage-wise and in the pass rush. On a key play in the second half, the Bengals had a safety blitz to Mahomes' right from Vonn Bell, they dropped defensive end Trey Hendrickson into coverage on Mahomes' left, and as he drifted to his left, Mahomes threw a forced pass that was tipped at the line and intercepted by defensive tackle B.J. Hill.
Anarumo can throw a lot at a quarterback. In that AFC championship game, he made the bold call to double up on the three-man rushes against Mahomes, and it flustered the star quarterback.
What will Bengals do on defense?
You'd think that if a scheme worked so well against Mahomes, Anarumo would go right back to it. However, in the Week 13 regular-season meeting between the teams, Anarumo didn't utilize the same method. There were only a handful of plays on which the Bengals dropped eight in coverage (though one came on the Chiefs' final offensive play, a third down that resulted in a sack and a field-goal attempt, which missed). But the Bengals' defense was fairly effective. Mahomes played fine with 259 yards, two touchdowns and a 113.9 passer rating, but the Bengals won.
Mahomes threw 27 passes, his second-lowest of the season (he threw 26 in a season-ending blowout of the Las Vegas Raiders). The Bengals mostly did a good job covering Travis Kelce (four catches, 56 yards) and kept Mahomes from hitting many explosive plays. He connected on two deep completions, and both came against the blitz.
The Bengals rushed six on a third down and with no deep safety in the third quarter, and Mahomes found Marquez Valdes-Scantling deep down the middle for 42 yards. Later in the quarter, Mahomes threw to Valdes-Scantling downfield for a 29-yard gain on third-and-10 when the Bengals sent five rushers. The Bengals didn't blitz Mahomes that often, likely because Mahomes is great at beating it.
Mahomes' mobility could affect the Bengals' plan. Again, Anarumo is willing to change his approach, and he knows Mahomes is dealing with a high ankle sprain. Mahomes beat the blitz a couple of times for big plays in the regular-season meeting, but the Bengals might send extra rushers early on Sunday to find out how well Mahomes can move.
Mahomes has done OK against the Bengals on the whole, but they have gotten to him a few times with some wrinkles. The Chiefs can't account for everything the Bengals' defense might do Sunday. Figuring it out could be the difference in the Chiefs' attempt to end their losing streak against Cincinnati.
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