There’s little debating that Patrick Mahomes, Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa are three of the biggest superstars of the 2023 NFL landscape.
Mahomes has already won two Super Bowls and two NFL MVPs, Hurts was second in the MVP voting last year while leading the Philadelphia Eagles to the NFC title, and it could be argued that Tagovailoa was the MVP of the first quarter of this season after being named the AFC Player of the Month for September.
But there is an area where all three of these dynamic quarterbacks have been human – when they’re pressured by the opposing defense.
Yes, most, if not all QBs aren’t as effective when under duress. But consider that Mahomes, Hurts and Tua aren’t just more mistake-prone than usual when pressured, they’ve been WORSE than the league-average QB in those situations.
Of course, when they’re not under duress, the trio is about as accurate as any QB in the league. Mahomes ranks second in the NFL with an 89.0 well-thrown percentage among those with at least 65 attempts without pressure, while Tua is third at 88.9% and second with a 1.40 pickable pass percentage.
Hurts is not quite as pinpoint with an 86.5 well-thrown percentage, but he’s still well above the 84.3% league average while also ranking fifth with a 2.00 pickable pass percentage.
That changes considerably once that clean pocket evaporates. Among those with at least 30 attempts under pressure, Tua has the fourth-worst pickable pass percentage (8.90%), Hurts has the sixth-highest mark (8.20%) and Mahomes is seventh from the bottom (6.60%).
That’s far worse than the league average (4.55%) in those situations and the rest of the bottom seven include far lesser reputations of Ryan Tannehill (12.50%), Jordan Love (10.80%), Joshua Dobbs (9.40%) and Gardner Minshew (8.80%).
OK, so we’ve established that the way to contain these high-profile playmakers is to pressure them. Sounds easy enough. But it’s not. In fact, the Miami Dolphins have the best pressure-allowed rate (27.5%) in the league and the Kansas City Chiefs (34.0%) rank better than the league average (36.6%). Hurts and Tua are also tied for sixth in the largest differential between pass attempts when not under pressure and attempts under pressure (plus-99), while Mahomes is ninth (+93).
However, when it comes to the largest differential between pickable pass percentage when not pressured and pressured, Tagovailoa has the league’s second-largest drop (not good) in pickable pass percentage (minus-7.50), and Hurts has the third largest (-6.10). Mahomes isn’t quite as bad (-2.00), though it’s still worse than the league-average mark (-1.15).
And if you plan on blitzing them to create the pressure, you’d better make sure to actually get into the backfield and create that pressure. That’s because Tagovailoa leads the NFL in completion percentage (77.8) and passer rating (139.4) when blitzed while throwing for five touchdowns and no interceptions, and Mahomes is seventh in completion percentage (67.1) and 10th in passer rating (96.8) with three TDs and one pick.
But Hurts is the one probably most impacted by the blitz whether it creates pressure or not. He’s 28th in the league with a 69.8 passer rating versus the blitz with two scores and four interceptions.
Philadelphia’s opponents know it, as the Eagles face a league-high 43.3% blitz rate. But the Jets didn’t need to sell out while dealing Philly its first loss of the season on Sunday. They blitzed an NFL-low 12.0% of the time but still managed one of the highest pressure rates of Week 6 against the Eagles.
Hurts had a 46.2 completion percentage on his 13 pass attempts under pressure (the league average was 52.0%), throwing two pickable passes (only Minshew had more) and getting sacked twice. It certainly didn’t help the situation that Hurts held on to the ball for a league-high average of 3.40 seconds in Week 6.
Which teams figure to give Mahomes and Tagovailoa the toughest time? It’s probably defensive fronts that are able to create pressure without blitzing. The teams that have a pressure rate above 38% (NFL avg. 36.6%) but a blitz rate under 25% (NFL avg. 29.6%) are the Atlanta Falcons, Houston Texans, Dolphins, San Francisco 49ers, Jets, Detroit Lions and New Orleans Saints.
We’ve already mentioned how the Jets took down the Eagles last week, and they came close to knocking off Mahomes and the Chiefs in a 23-20 loss in Week 4. The Chargers, who have a pressure rate just above the league average and a blitz rate just below, are Kansas City’s opponent in Week 7.
And all eyes will be on Sunday Night Football when Tua and the league’s best offense at 37.2 points per game have a showdown in Philadelphia against Hurts and the Eagles, who are fifth at 25.8 points per game. Philly has one of the lowest blitz rates in the league, but surprisingly, it also has one of the lowest pressure rates in the league.
That might not bode well for the defending NFC champs against one of the top QBs in the league this season – with a clean pocket.