The Plays That Set Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson Apart

By Andrew Beaton

Explaining why the Kansas City Chiefs and the Baltimore Ravens are the NFL’s two best teams requires just two names. Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson.

Mahomes plays quarterback for the Chiefs. Jackson plays quarterback for the Ravens. And on Monday night, the league’s two most valuable players square off in a showcase of the forces that have reshaped the NFL in just a few short years.

It’s the rare early-season matchup that teems with potential ramifications for the playoff picture. Both teams play in the AFC, and under the NFL’s new playoff format only one team gets a bye. This game, in the season’s third week, could decide that. (When these two teams played last year, the Chiefs won 33-28, dealing the Ravens one of their two regular-season losses.)

The game is also a crash course on the two transcendent talents taking over the NFL. They’re generational players within the same generation. Their short career arcs have mirrored each other in a remarkable fashion.

Quarterback-needy teams passed over Mahomes at the top of the 2017 draft. Quarterback-needy teams passed over Jackson at the top of the 2018 draft. Mahomes broke out and won MVP in his second season. Jackson broke out and won MVP in his second season. Mahomes and the Chiefs won the Super Bowl in his third. Jackson and the Ravens are the favorite to win the Super Bowl in his third. (The other favorite at sports books: the Chiefs.)

The similarities between these players are clear. They’re young, fast and possess powerful arms. But everything they have in common disguises something else: they have rapidly risen to the top of the same profession by playing differently.

The strongest demonstration of their differing abilities is through their signature plays. For Mahomes, it’s the one that stung the San Francisco 49ers during the Super Bowl and engineered a Chiefs comeback.

The strongest demonstration of their differing abilities is through their signature plays. For Mahomes, it’s the one that stung the San Francisco 49ers during the Super Bowl and engineered a Chiefs comeback.

“Do we have time to run Wasp?” Mahomes asked on the sidelines.

It was during the fourth quarter, with Kansas City down by 10, when Mahomes posed that question to his offensive coordinator. The Chiefs faced 3rd and 15. Their season was on the line. They ran Wasp.

It was a crazy decision for a team that needed something crazy. Wasp is a slow-developing play, and a strong pass rush could break it up before the critical moment. The 49ers reached the Super Bowl because their pass rush was so strong.

When the Chiefs run Wasp, the ball is designed to go to Tyreek Hill, their speedy wide receiver who first breaks toward the middle of the field and then back toward the sideline at the precise moment the defense has committed to defending him over the middle. The difficulty is that it takes several seconds for that to unfold—and the San Francisco pass rush rarely gives opposing quarterbacks several seconds to sit comfortably.

But the Chiefs’ decision to run the play anyway was a faith in Mahomes’s ability to make plays he shouldn’t be able to make.

Mahomes dropped back to pass and 49ers defensive lineman DeForest Buckner was charging straight at him. Mahomes had to throw the ball before he wanted, without any room to step into his toss, and it had to go far down the field. Off his back foot, fractions of a second before getting rammed by Buckner, Mahomes slung it—almost side-armed.

The result: a perfectly placed bomb to Hill for a 44-yard completion. The ball traveled 57 yards in the air, and it encapsulated everything that makes Mahomes so dangerous in every game. Whether it’s on the run or in the pocket, sidearm or even left-handed, he can make throws other quarterbacks wouldn’t even think of attempting.

The Chiefs offense with Mahomes can be a mystery because a defense can do everything right and still come up short of actually solving it. The Ravens offense with Jackson can be a mystery because it’s designed to be deceptive.

The Ravens ran more plays than any NFL team last year out of the Pistol formation, where Jackson lines up a few yards behind the center but not quite as far back as in the shotgun. In the pistol, the running back lines up behind the quarterback instead of at his side—opening up both sides of the field, instead of just one, for him to attack.

The formation’s efficacy relies on the sheer number of things Jackson can do from the same set-up: he can run; he can hand it off to the running back in either direction; he can give it to a receiver on a jet sweep across the field; he can drop back and throw it. It’s a range of options that exploits how Jackson can run more effectively than any quarterback in the NFL while also making the quick decisions necessary to burn defenses through the air.

The play that showed this more than any was celebrated afterward for a dazzling spin move that will be shown on highlight reels for eternity. The play was also a tour de force in how guarding against Jackson and the Ravens offense can be nearly impossible to predict.

Baltimore faced second-and-3 from the Bengals’ 47-yard line last year when Jackson lined up in the pistol. First, tight end Nick Boyle bolted horizontally across the backfield just prior to the ball being snapped. The ball wasn’t going to him. Then running back Mark Ingram charged forward to take a handoff. The ball wasn’t going to him either.

Jackson kept it himself. But the misdirection made the Cincinnati defenders half-a-step behind Jackson, who was about to spend his next several steps making them look quite silly.

Jackson sprinted to his left and downfield. He spun around the only Bengals who were brazen enough to think they could tackle him. By the time Jackson reached the goal-line, his arms were already raised. He had just shown the NFL why he was going to supplant Mahomes as the league’s MVP.


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