We all remember the iconic image that defines the Bills perspective on the 2020 AFC Championship game. Stefon Diggs looking upon the celebratory Kansas City Chiefs, exasperated, exhausted, overwhelmed, hands on his head, and pain in his heart. For so many, that photo is relatable; that memory forever imprinted within our souls. At that time, we all knew that the time for vengeance and redemption would eventually come. When the NFL schedule released, all of Bills Mafia circled this game and the anticipation began in earnest. A spade is a spade and as it stands, this game is not a cliché. It is not a litmus test. It is not a measuring stick. This game is as pure as it gets. It is two elite football teams determining superiority. Two apex predators collide at Arrowhead.
As BF’s own Mitch Broder said, this game plays a crucial role in determining the AFC’s “1 seed” heading into the 2021 Playoffs. The Buffalo Bills have a chance to virtually dagger the Chiefs’ hopes and, in doing so, kill the status quo. They can dispose of the media narratives that “the Chiefs are invincible”; “the Bills can’t hang with them”; “Josh Allen cannot meet the challenge”. It is, indeed, Buffalo vs. Everyone. Despite this introduction steeped in hype and emotion, the realness is here. The Chiefs are not invincible. What can we expect from this tribe on Sunday?
SPY 1: Mahomes Full of Magic
Patrick Mahomes is, arguably, the best QB in football right now. Perhaps he is even the most talented QB of all time. Like the Buffalo Bills’ beloved Josh Allen, Mahomes has everything a QB needs to be successful. He has elite offensive weapons, linemen, coaching, and training. Most of the improvisational play we see from Mahomes comes in situations that are outside of the play design. The success of those plays depend on his own initiative and instinct, similar to Josh Allen. This season, we have seen those magical plays from Mahomes, but they’re a bit stiff and stagnant at times; more vanilla and less ad-hoc. The Chiefs now have troubles scoring in the red zone on offense; continuing a trend from 2020. Meanwhile, the Chiefs defense cannot stop a nosebleed in the red zone (we will get to this later).
Up until the 2021 season, Patrick Mahomes had not thrown an interception in the month of September. He threw three interceptions in September 2021 alone. His interceptions in 2021 have come under duress, but the pressure is not consistent; it never can be against Mahomes. Interceptions are not as much an obstacle or detractor of success for Mahomes as they are for most other QBs. He can put up so many points that one or two picks may matter little on the other end. The burden falls on opposing offenses to capitalize on these rare mistakes and miscues.
Combatting the Aerial Assault
According to Pro Football Reference, Mahomes’ deep shot throws are down in 2021, while his yards-per-attempt on deep throws are up by a full yard (from 5.0 in 2020 to 6.1 in 2021). The constant upward trend of the offense is completely uniform, aiding in an improvement to throwing accuracy. On target throw accuracy is up in all scenarios in 2021 by four percentage points, to 81.8%. Most worrisome is a mark of consistency Mahomes still maintains that presents a big problem for the Bills defense.
This needs to be clear: If you blitz Patrick Mahomes, he will destroy a defense. His timing snap to throw is the lowest of his career in 2021, clocking in at 2.1 seconds. This means that if blitz pressure does not arrive in 2.1 seconds or less, then large areas of the field are now vulnerable and unprotected.
It’s simple, the goal is to pressure and contain Mahomes with the front four. In the 2020 season, Mahomes was more inclined to hold the ball and search for a target while evading pressure. Oftentimes, this led to sacks, including an NFL record 30-yard sack by Miami LB Jerome Baker. If the defensive front gets pressure on Mahomes, then he has to move from the pocket. This is a critical moment during a play. If he breaks contain, then his options are virtually limitless. Therefore, reinforced containment or area denial by the linebacking corps is just as critical.
In 2021, defenses have been challenging the KC offense by dropping safeties back deep (approximately 30 yards on average) to defend the Mahomes Air Raid. The problem is that the intermediate areas of the field become vulnerable; more stress is placed upon the LBs to defend this area while also reading the LOS, pocket, and play development. This type of defensive tactic has allowed for WR Tyreek Hill and TE Travis Kelce to be even more prolific than usual. They produced almost 260 yards combined last week vs. Philadelphia. For Mahomes and the KC offense, the use of RPO and play-action playsets are trending up and have increased annually. This is aligned with a slightly more efficient use of the run game in 2021, just like the Buffalo Bills.
Pressure on Mahomes will need to come (mostly) from the Bills improved defensive front. The Bills have numerous players in the defensive front rotation getting pressure. This pressure will be an absolute must-have. Pressure borne from the Bills explosive secondary blitz packages will be high-risk, high-reward. They need to be FREE in their blitz, rush, and pursuit. If they cannot rush freely, then the secondary blitz will fail in an epic manner. Inside pressure from the Bills defensive front will be interesting to watch in this game. This type of pressure was completely absent vs. Kansas City in 2020. With the return of DT Star Lotulelei, the improved play of Ed Oliver and Justin Zimmer, and the enhancement and increased usage of interior pressure concepts, this could yield much better trench play.
SPY 2: Weapons of War
Beyond Mahomes, Buffalo’s chief concerns (pun intended) on the KC offense are TE Travis Kelce and WR Tyreek Hill. While the Chiefs did sign journeyman WR Josh Gordon, I would not expect him to be a primary weapon yet. Despite his talent and adaptability, he is in his 30s and is integrating into an extremely complex KC passing attack. Expect Gordon to be on a snap count of sorts or be used in specialized tactical pass packages that are easily installed into his game.
Tyreek Hill is not the hill any defense wants to die on, and yet, he so often is just that. He (seemingly) gets better with each passing season, is rarely hurt, and rarely drops passes when targeted. He is coming off a spectacular 186-yard performance, posting a catch rate of 91%. Hill will likely be shadowed closely by Bills CB Tre White, who, unfortunately, is recovering from a shoulder sprain. Hill is currently ranked second in the NFL in receiving yards (453).
The sheer volume of targets that Hill receives wears down whomever is assigned the tall task of covering him. Usually, his target numbers are in the double digits. His catch ability, combined with his speed and crisp route running ability, is a deadly combination. He is The Spy’s most dangerous threat at Mahomes disposal. One way (really, the only way) to contain Hill is to be extremely physical with him at the LOS and while tackling. Normally, the Bills play a zone coverage scheme. However, it would be wise to jam and hit Hill immediately during and following the snap (within five yards to prevent penalties). Hill is not the biggest or heartiest receiver; he can be disrupted by physical coverage.
Travis Kelce is one of the most prolific TEs in NFL history. He is the most consistent target of QB Patrick Mahomes; his safety outlet. His most dangerous characteristic is his athleticism, which always make him a mismatch against any coverage, especially in contested catch situations. Travis Kelce’s route tree execution this season in particular is note-worthy.
In weeks 1-3, Kelce’s yard run per route (YPR) were all above 10, which means he was destroying the intermediate spaces of the field with safeties playing deep (as explained earlier). Interestingly, in week four, his YPR dropped all the way down to 5.75, which suggests two things:
- Kelce was being utilized differently, more specifically, in short range situations.
- The Eagles made in-game adjustments to their defensive coverage pattern, changing the position of their safeties in coverage pre-snap.
This may force the Chiefs to be honest and keep with their short area approach. If it works then why change it? If Bills LB Matt Milano is inactive (due to a hamstring injury), then containing and covering Kelce will be significantly harder. Expect Kelce’s YPR to climb and for him to run more routes into intermediate areas.
While the KC run game has been efficient, Clyde Edwards-Helaire (CEH) is no Chubb, Barkley, McCaffrey, or Henry. Expect the run game from KC to be complimentary in nature and to be used as a foundation for the establishment of RPO and play-action in the attack. (Again, similar to the Bills.) CEH has also had ball security issues. Therefore, violent tackling and punch tactics (similar to Zimmer’s almost-forced fumble last year) will be on display from Bills defenders come Sunday. (Do note that wet conditions are expected per the forecasted weather.)
SPY 3: Deteriorated Defense
It certainly bodes well for the Buffalo Bills offense that the Chiefs defense is utterly atrocious. In fact, the KC defensive unit is ranked second to last in the entire league. KC Chiefs Radio Personality (AM 610) Alex Gold was emphatic in his references and comparisons of the current KC defense to the iteration featured by the 2019 Chiefs team. The assertion is that, that team was terminally doomed by a weak defense opposite its deadly offense. So far, the Chiefs Defense is towing the same line in 2021.
Personnel-wise, it is mostly the same unit, save for the addition of DT Jarran Reed and departure of CB Brashad Breeland. The important takeaway from these two roster moves is how it alters the Chiefs defensive formation; more specifically, the defensive front. Jarran Reed was supposed to provide interior pressure in lieu of Chris Jones, who is now playing on the edge. This has not worked. Jones’ position change has negatively altered his play style, stressing the entire front as a knock-on effect.
The Chiefs are incapable of stopping teams in the red zone. So far in 2021, the Chiefs defense has allowed red zone TDs to opposing teams 80% of the time. Furthermore, the Chiefs secondary is weak and does not adapt well in-game. Josh Allen will have a chance to dismantle this secondary.
Speaking of a lack of adaptability, communication (or the lack thereof) seems to be one of the most notable problem areas of the Chiefs defense. It causes miscues at a shockingly high rate. The Chiefs defense also cannot consistently defend the run. With their defensive line in a state of flux and DE Frank Clark not in the lineup, the defense is in a mess. Also missing is second-year starting MLB William Gay. A big loss that forces Tyrann Mathieu to make most of the defensive calls and reads. Expect a big game from the Bills offense.
DARKHORSE BONUS POINT
Buffalo Bills QB Josh Allen and Arizona Cardinals QB Kyler Murray lead the league in successful 30+ yard pass plays (tied at five). It is conspicuous that Mahomes is not also atop this list. However, it speaks to the points made earlier in this article.
THREAT RATING: Each opponent is ranked on a 1-10 scale. The higher the number = The greater the threat.
Threat Rating = 9
NOTE: KC would be a 10. However, given their poor defense (ranked last), a slight downgrade is appropriate.
In closing, please follow The Buffalo Fanatics on all platforms, trust the process and go Bills.
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All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference.