The New England Patriots face perhaps their biggest challenge of the young season in Week Six, facing off against the 5-0 Kansas City Chiefs. Kansas City has several fantastic players on their offense, but the engine that makes the machine run is quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Mahomes is in the midst of a fantastic season, but there is a weakness in his game. Mahomes isn’t the same player when he can’t throw to the middle of the field. If the Patriots want to leave Week Six with a victory, New England’s defense will need to force Mahomes to throw to the sidelines.
New England Patriots Must Take Middle of Field Away From Patrick Mahomes
Second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes has arguably had the best season of any quarterback during the young 2018 season. On the year, Mahomes has completed 63.6% of his passes for 1,513 yards, 14 touchdowns, and just two interceptions. This includes a fantastic three-game start to the season where Mahomes threw for 896 yards, 13 touchdowns, and no interceptions.
However, his last two weeks have not been nearly as dominant. While the Chiefs keep finding ways to win, they’ve been doing it somewhat in spite of Mahomes. In Weeks Four and Five, Mahomes threw for a combined 617 yards and just one touchdown to two interceptions. The Chiefs offense as a whole only averaged 22.5 points per game during these two games, compared to 39.3 in their first three games.
Clearly, Mahomes hasn’t been the same guy, but what is the difference? Is this just a case of a player regressing to the mean, or did the Denver Broncos and Jacksonville Jaguars figure out a way to slow down Mahomes and the Kansas City offense?
Mahomes In The Middle
Patrick Mahomes has been one of the best quarterbacks in the league by just about every statistical measure, but he’s been especially good over the middle. Over the first three weeks of the season, Mahomes completed six of 10 pass attempts to the deep middle part of the field (15+ yards beyond the line of scrimmage) for 154 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions, and an overall passer rating of 144.
Mahomes’ work in the short middle has been even better. After three games, Mahomes completed 13 of 15 passes for 174 yards, five touchdowns, no interceptions, and a 154.6 passer rating.
By all accounts, Mahomes was basically unstoppable going over the middle. His 154.6 passer rating on short middle throws was the second-best in the league, and his 143.8 passer rating on deep middle throws was fifth-best in the league.
However, his production in the middle of the field has fallen off a cliff these past two games. In Weeks Four and Five, Mahomes has a 30.6 passer rating to the deep middle of the field (25th among quarterbacks) and a 44.0 passer rating to the short middle (30th among quarterbacks).
Granted, this data should be taken with a grain of salt, as Mahomes has thrown just 17 passes to the short or deep middle of the field. Still, the fact that he’s targeting the middle of the field this infrequently shows that defenses are changing what they’re doing, and Mahomes is struggling to adapt. He’s throwing over the middle less often, and when he does throw it there, bad things happen.
The Patriots Defense
Fortunately, the Patriots are one of the best teams in the league at taking away the deep middle of the field. Duron Harmon is one of the more underrated “center fielders” at the safety position, and cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Jason McCourty rarely get beat deep. On the season, opposing teams have only thrown deep middle nine times. The Patriots have picked off two of those nine attempts and allowed just two completions for 46 yards. All this equates out to a passer rating of just nine.
The short middle of the field is a different story. The Patriots defense thus far has surrendered a 100 passer rating when opposing offenses target the short middle of New England’s defense. Teams have targeted the short middle of the Patriots defense 44 times, completing 32 passes for 337 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception.
Even with the Patriots defense playing better over the past two weeks, this is still an area of concern. Against the Miami Dolphins and the Indianapolis Colts, the Patriots allowed a passer rating of 109 on short middle passes. Whether the Patriots systematically decided to allow these short passes to eliminate the big play is up for debate, but the Patriots can’t afford to use the same strategy against Mahomes in Week Six.
Last Word on Defending Patrick Mahomes
Stopping the Kansas City Chiefs passing attack won’t be easy, but it is doable. While Kansas City can beat defenses in a multitude of ways, the Broncos and Jaguars found success in taking away the middle of the field.
Over the last two weeks, Mahomes’ numbers on passes over the middle have dropped considerably. Kansas City’s offense, while still good, has scored 16.8 fewer points per game over their past two games. The Patriots need to build on the work done by the Broncos and Jaguars and finally hand Kansas City a loss.
Executing this gameplan won’t be easy, and it won’t be possible to completely stop the Chiefs offense. However, it’s more than possible to slow them down. With Tom Brady, Julian Edelman, and Rob Gronkowski all healthy and on the field, the Patriots offense should score points all day against a bad Kansas City defense. As long as the Patriots defense can stop Kansas City from doing the same, New England should emerge with a victory.
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