INDIANAPOLIS – There’s really no blueprint for defending Patrick Mahomes – at least none that’s been proven to work consistently.
Conventional wisdom says to play tight, physical coverage on the Kansas City Chiefs’ wide receivers and attempt to corral the quarterback in the pocket. Mahomes is dangerous in any scenario, but when he has time to run around the field behind the line of scrimmage, magic tends to happen.
Pressuring him and keeping him confined between the offensive tackles is a good plan on a whiteboard. It becomes much more difficult in live action.
“A guy like that, you can’t keep in the pocket,” Indianapolis Colts defensive end DeForest Buckner said. “I’m just being honest. Watching the film, there’s a lot of guys rushing as one, as a unit. But he finds ways. He can escape everywhere, outside, within the tackles. Whatever it is, he slips away. So he’s a very elusive guy who likes to, obviously, extend plays, and as a d-line when you’re rushing, we just have to be relentless in our rush and try to contain him as much as we can and get after him and try to affect his passes.
“Because he’s Patrick Mahomes, but he’s human. Obviously, watching film, there’s some mistakes that he’s made, and when he makes those mistakes, we’ve gotta take advantage of it.”
The 27-year-old quarterback already has a Super Bowl ring and an MVP trophy in his collection, and as he prepares to visit Lucas Oil Stadium for the first time Sunday, he might be playing some of the best football of his career.
Talk around the NFL during the offseason centered around the idea Kansas City might take a step back without speedy wideout Tyreek Hill. At the very least, it was widely believed an adjustment period would be necessary before head coach Andy Reid and Mahomes got the offense up and running again.
Hill has been a beast for the Miami Dolphins, catching 19 passes for a league-high 284 yards and two touchdowns during the team’s 2-0 start.
But Mahomes hasn’t missed a beat. He’s completed 73% of his passes for 595 yards and an NFL-leading seven touchdowns. He’s been sacked just once on 75 dropbacks and has yet to throw an interception.
That’s bad news for an Indianapolis defense that has just one sack and one turnover in regulation and has allowed four touchdown passes and a 71.6% completion rate.
And those numbers have come against second-year quarterbacks Davis Mills of the Houston Texans and Trevor Lawrence of the Jacksonville Jaguars — who can’t match the resume or offensive weaponry of Mahomes and the Chiefs.
“Obviously, when you have a talented group coming in like Kansas City — Mahomes and all those weapons they have around him — they speak for themselves,” Indianapolis linebacker Zaire Franklin said. “For us, it’s really just focusing on us, getting back to what we do. Be the type of players we want to be, be the type of defense we know we are and everything will take care of itself. For us, it’s just getting back to who we are, focusing on execution and being the best version of ourselves.”
The Colts will find out soon whether that version will include the return of three-time All-Pro linebacker Shaquille Leonard.
Still recovering from offseason back surgery, Leonard’s absence has been felt through the first two weeks. Indianapolis beat Mahomes and Kansas City without him on the road in 2019, but there’s no question his presence would raise the morale of a defense looking for a spark.
Leonard’s athleticism could be a unique tool against Mahomes. He’s one of the few defenders in the league capable of pressuring the quarterback from sideline-to-sideline and perhaps rushing the pace on some out-of-pocket throws.
Leonard’s also proven to be a supremely capable big-play producer with 15 career sacks, 17 forced fumbles and 11 interceptions.
He was a full participant in each of the first two practices this week, but his status for Sunday’s game remains unknown.
“It’s feeling better than it was last week,” Leonard said. “So just continue to stack the days up, wait for that moment to come and just make a decision from there.”
New Colts defensive coordinator Gus Bradley faced Mahomes twice a season for the last four years — the first three with the Los Angeles Chargers and last season with the Las Vegas Raiders — but the results are not encouraging.
Mahomes is 6-1 in his career against Bradley-coached defenses, completing 65.2% of his passes for 1,821 yards with 17 touchdowns and two interceptions.
The Chiefs scored 89 points in their two meetings against the Raiders last year, and Mahomes completed 74.3% of his attempts for 664 yards with seven touchdowns and no picks.
“They do a great job of getting their receivers the ball, their backs the ball to operate in space,” Bradley said. “We’re going to have to do a good job regardless whatever (scheme) we’re playing of doing a good job of tackling in space, giving some different looks and then execution.”