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The Lounge>Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen Looked Unstoppable. This Defense Stopped Them.
MahomesMagic 02:44 PM 11-24-2021
Defenses are increasingly using schemes that guard against big gains, and it’s helping quash the big-time plays that have taken the NFL by storm in recent years.

By Andrew Beaton

Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen walked into an October matchup against the hapless Jacksonville Jaguars as the leader of the NFL’s highest-scoring team, a Super Bowl favorite that routinely exploded for huge gains.

But against one of the NFL’s worst teams, Allen ran into a problem: a popular defensive scheme teams are reviving specifically to contain quarterbacks like him and Patrick Mahomes, the types of players who can torch defenses with a single flick of their wrists.

Defenses are using “two-high” schemes more and more to limit the big-time plays that have taken the NFL by storm in recent years. There are various varieties of two-high concepts, but the general idea is that it involves two safeties who camp out deep down the field to guard against big gains.

Against the Jaguars, when the Bills saw their high-powered offense get unplugged in a 9-6 loss, Allen saw these defensive looks 57% of the time—more than he had in any regular season game over the last three seasons, according to Sports Info Solutions. Allen saw a lot of it again on Sunday in the Bills’ 41-15 loss to the Indianapolis Colts.

“Offenses have to adjust,” says Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy, “and find ways to attack it.”

Dungy is an authority on the subject as an architect of perhaps the most famous two-high defense in NFL history. When Dungy was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ coach from 1996 to 2001, his team mastered a variant of the “Cover-2” defense, in which two safeties each sit deep and cover half of the field. It was so iconic it became eponymous: the Tampa-2 defense.

The scheme eventually fell out of vogue and evolved—the Tampa-2 defense isn’t suddenly re-emerging to reconquer professional football. But the general philosophies behind it are increasingly prevalent. While Cover-2 accounts for only around 10%-12% of snaps these days, the number of two-high snaps—which include other variations featuring four deep defenders, like “quarters”—is up to about 36%.
That’s a jump from 29% just a few years ago, according to SIS.

The fundamental idea driving all of these types of schemes is the same. With defenders focused on closing off areas farther down the field, the space closer to the line of scrimmage is more open. In effect, it dares offenses to beat them by running the ball or throwing short passes—and getting down the field through a collection of small gains in lieu of a few big ones.

“That is the opposing teams’ motivation for doing this stuff,” said Bryce Rossler, who works in research and development at SIS.

It’s a trade-off defenses are willing to make because they have accepted a reality: offenses are better and more explosive than ever. In 2020, offenses averaged 24.8 points per game—more than a point higher than at any point in NFL history. Modern offenses throw the ball more than ever, march down the field easier than ever, and defenses are increasingly incentivized to concede smaller gains because they suddenly had so much trouble preventing the bigger ones.

The Chiefs are the ultimate example of a team that vertically attacks the field with a quarterback in Mahomes who led the NFL in 2020 in passing plays that went for at least 15 yards. But in 2021, he’s running into an inordinate number of these two-high looks in response: Entering Sunday’s action, he had seen them 55.8% of the time—or about 55% more often than the league average.

That has been part of a steady increase. In 2019, when Mahomes won the Super Bowl, he saw two-high 31.1% of the time. In 2020, he saw it 49.2% of the time.

“The intermediate passing game is how you attack that, but if you don’t like to throw intermediate passes and you don’t like to run, it can be tough,” Dungy says. “If you make a team take eight or 10 plays, you have a chance to create some havoc and cause an error.”

In the season when Mahomes is seeing it even more than that, he has gone through the worst struggles of his career. He has thrown 11 interceptions, or as many as he tossed over the previous two years combined. He averaged 8.4 yards per attempt entering this year, and that’s down to 7.1 in 2021. Even Kansas City’s offensive output in Sunday’s 19-9 win against the Dallas Cowboys was paltry compared with the Chiefs’ norms over the past few years.

The problem for offenses like the Chiefs and Bills is they thrive on going deep and aren’t as accustomed to nickeling and diming their way down the field. On early downs, excluding situations when the game is out of hand, Kansas City has passed 62.3% of the time—the second most often in the league entering Sunday’s games, according to

The team that’s far and away first in that early-down passing metric: the Bills, at 68.7%.

Typically, that’s one of the things that makes their offenses cutting-edge and effective. But their struggles to do that against these defenses they’re seeing more often has weaponized their own styles against them.

On Mahomes’s snaps against two-high coverage, he has averaged 0.014 expected points added (EPA) entering Sunday. That number—essentially zero—means that, on average, when Mahomes goes up against this defense the Chiefs’ projection to score isn’t really improving relative to their opponents’ chances. That’s far below the average quarterback EPA. In layman’s speak it says that Mahomes, the greatest quarterback of his generation, has been neutralized against these defenses in 2021.

What’s curious is that the more Mahomes has gone up against these schemes, the worse he has fared. When he saw them 31% of the time in 2019, he averaged 0.2 EPA—a strong number, even though it sags behind his overall rate. In 2020, when that shot up to 49%, the EPA dipped to 0.12. Then in 2021, defenses have essentially made forms of two-high their base look against Mahomes—and they’re reaping the benefits.

Allen hasn’t struggled quite as much as Mahomes in these situations, with 0.187 EPA against two-high going into Sunday. But it has also been deployed against him effectively, with the past few weeks showing how. The team that used it most against him, the Jaguars, limited what had been the NFL’s best offense to its worst output of the season. Allen, afterward, said Jacksonville used “two-high shells forcing us to throw underneath” and that he didn’t do a good enough job against it.

“We’re going to learn from this,” he added.

Fortunately for Allen, the next week he played the New York Jets, who apparently didn’t know much about this. They used two-high just three times against him—and Allen torched them in a 45-17 win.

That changed again Sunday. The Colts showered him with those looks. Allen struggled, again. He threw two interceptions and ended the game on the bench after getting blown out 41-15.

Write to Andrew Beaton at

Copyright ©2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8
Appeared in the November 23, 2021, print edition as 'NFL Defenses Are Striking Back.'
MahomesMagic 07:01 PM 11-24-2021
Originally Posted by Bearcat:
One thing I've noticed play calling-wise that's been annoying is the pointless plays on 2nd and long.... they were masterful at getting to 3rd and short in previous years and I can't count the number of times on 2nd and 8+ they've run the ball or basically wasted a play that's ended with 3rd and long.

It would be interesting to see how many, let's say, 3rd and 7+ they've had this season compared to the past few years... and specifically the percentage of run plays on 2nd and long that cause 3rd and longs.

(and I know they're still near or at the top of the league in 3rd down conversion %, too, mostly since they were so efficient the first month of the season)

Right. Plenty of room between everything is fine and they figured out Chiefs, Mahomes.

You can see Reid scheming his way out but you can also see how uncomfortable it makes us when teams stay in shell the whole time.

Dallas we attacked them and did well but eventually you could see our offense get frustrated with it.
Hammock Parties 07:10 PM 11-24-2021
only thing our offense did was start doing dumb things like dropping passes and committing penalties
Valiant 09:21 PM 11-24-2021
Penalties And turnovers have killed like 25percent of our drives.

I think wco solves a lot of this until we get a lead and force them to drop their safeties down.

But our team just wants chunks. I mean I understand, but we can feast in the wco. Especially if this is teams whole strategies is cover 2.

Let them waste 2 guys deep.
Pasta Little Brother 09:35 PM 11-24-2021
There are 3 things that will prevent a Superbowl run......drops, fluke turnovers, or corrupt officiating like the Superbowl

Not some bullshit cover 2 shell
BigRedChief 09:47 PM 11-24-2021
Originally Posted by Marcellus:
He’s having a shitty year.
/90% of media
BigRedChief 09:54 PM 11-24-2021
Originally Posted by Valiant:
Penalties And turnovers have killed like 25percent of our drives.

I think wco solves a lot of this until we get a lead and force them to drop their safeties down.

But our team just wants chunks. I mean I understand, but we can feast in the wco. Especially if this is teams whole strategies is cover 2.

Let them waste 2 guys deep.
Throw Kelce/Hill 5/10 yard passes across the middle and let them rack up the YAC. That’ll bring those two highs down. Then go for the throat.

It’s chess. They have made a move and it’s working. We have a simple counter move and the players to execute that move.
Bearcat 10:05 PM 11-24-2021
Originally Posted by Pasta Little Brother:
There are 3 things that will prevent a Superbowl run......drops, fluke turnovers, or corrupt officiating like the Superbowl

Not some bullshit cover 2 shell
The taunting calls last weekend were a good reminder and I know there was a Steelers game recently that was pretty horrible. :-)
Chris Meck 08:02 AM 11-25-2021
Look, Mahomes is a generational talent. No question. I wouldn't trade him for ten #1 picks.

But he's not perfect.

The deep cover shell (let's call it that, because sometimes it's cover 2, sometimes it's quarters, sometimes it's cover 3) works well against Mahomes (and other guys with similar downfield aggression) precisely because the defense is betting that he WON'T take that easy completion, or run the ball on the RPO because what he wants to do is gun it downfield.

Any other argument is absurd. The struggles are magnified due to the turnover issues; we have gotten a little sloppy. So the defense's bet is working TWO ways: 1) they bet Mahomes will get greedy and keep chucking it into double coverage, holding the ball and allowing the pass rush to get to him, and 2) We've shown tendencies to give the ball up and drop passes, and fumble. If we don't do both of those things, we'll hang 40 on you. If we do either of those things, you've got a shot. If we do BOTH of those things, we'll get blown out. This is the pattern of this season.

You can acknowledge Mahomes' greatness and still see that he's not perfect.

If teams ran that shell defense against Brady, Brady would throw 30 passes to his RB, score 40, and probably have a 20 minute TOP differential.

These guys are forcing Mahomes to check it down and betting he won't. They know he will throw in the RPO most of the time, so they don't honor the run. It's just playing tendencies, and it's knowing that he's still young and bulletproof and wants the highlight reel play.

He was really patient in LV and that's what this offense can look like right now against these shells. He was less so against Dallas, and we saw it stall out some. It's ok. Mahomes just REALLY wanted the kill shot.

Those downfield targets open up BECAUSE you take the easy yards and the offense EXECUTES. No drops. No fumbles.

They're betting we won't.
Molitoth 08:18 AM 11-25-2021
Originally Posted by InChiefsHeaven:
Sigh, can we PLEASE dispense with this bullshit? The Chiefs have been their own worst enemies this season. Turnovers and penalties. That's it. Yes, teams are trying other things to stop them, but they have NOT stopped them. The Chiefs have stopped themselves FFS.

I think that is the point though...

Teams forcing offenses like the Chiefs to take 10+ plays to get the ball downfield opens up more opportunities for offenses to beat themselves with fumbles, dropped passes, INTs, and penalties.

It's really been a simplistic, yet genius move by whomever started this trend against the Chiefs.

I still think there isn't a defense in the league that can stop the chiefs offense, they can only beat themselves.
Coogs 09:06 AM 11-25-2021
I do think this defensive alignment has caused 1st down to become far more important to us. No research or stats to back it up. Just what I think I am seeing.

In the past, it didn't matter if we had 1st and 15. 1st and 20. Heck, even 1st and 25. Kinda felt like we were going to pick it up.

Now if we are forced into 2nd and 10, or 1st and 15 type of situations it seems like we are in a bit of trouble converting 1st downs.

Just a general observation that I am not even sure is correct.
PAChiefsGuy 09:19 AM 11-25-2021
I think it was a great adjustment by the defenses and it will stop Chiefs and Mahomes from dominating the way they have before. This isn't to say Mahomes can't adjust and pick apart defenses but I think for a gunslinger like Mahomes this is a great strategy for defenses to have.

Chiefs just need to take their time with drives and take what defenses give them. The goal is to win the game. Not to try and force big plays in order score a bunch of points. That's a bad way to do things because as we have seen it leads to more INTs. Chiefs D is also playing well so there's no need to feel like Chiefs have to score quickly every single drive.

Chiefs and Mahomes can still be great just not in the same way. They've got to adjust.
Marcellus 11:13 AM 11-25-2021
Originally Posted by Rausch:
Because every team in the league other than Buffalo and KC will just run the football until they quit...
Just like Dallas should have just run the ball more against us except they couldn't run the ball against us.

It only works until doesn't work. Defenses are also expecting the run in those situations and are playing the run as well.

Prime example against Dallas, CEH runs for 5 yards on 1st down, then CEH runs for 0 yards on 2nd down as the DL mauled our OL, then we threw incomplete on 3rd down.

I wasn't a fan of the run on 2nd down. Its too predictable and the defense was also expecting it.

Everyone thinks they are smarter than than 32 NFL coaches. Just running the ball until they stop that defense isn't really an option unless you have success every single run against a defense daring you to run it and expecting a run.

As we have seen covers 2 doesn't mean you cant stop the run. You still have to play balanced offense and use the short passing game which we have done.

As has been noted penalties and drops are the biggest issue with the offense.
dlphg9 11:51 AM 11-25-2021
Originally Posted by Deberg_1990:
That’s part of the strategy though. Make the chiefs go on longer drives which increases the chance for error. So far it has worked for some teams.
No it hasn't worked. I did a thread a few weeks ago about it and we were turning the ball over early in drives and not late like you would expect if forcing us to drive the ball was actually causing us to turn over the ball.
RunKC 11:55 AM 11-25-2021
It’s all about execution. The Chiefs have made horrendously uncharacteristic mistakes turning the ball over.

The Clyde fumble cost us a game. The Kemp tip cost us momentum in the Chargers game that we were up to that point dominating.

The Kelce INT was just a stroke of bad luck.

It’s just execution. Get back to an Andy Reid football team and we are cruising to the Super Bowl.
Redbled 11:56 AM 11-25-2021
Imagine if we had an elite back and used them. Even Hunt and this offense would be so different.
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