We have a first for the 2018 Kansas City Chiefs this week.
We have to look forward to the next game and figure out how the Chiefs match up with their opponent coming off of a loss. Fortunately for the Chiefs, there still isn’t a ton of adjustments to be made, at least on the offensive side of the ball, so it’s still a matter of figuring out the weaknesses of the upcoming defense and trying to identify some ways the Chiefs should be looking to attack them.
The Chiefs are taking on the Cincinnati Bengals this Sunday night in a second straight primetime game.
The Bengals defense has had mixed results this year, surrendering more than 30 points twice but holding teams under 24 points three times.
Coming off of a tough divisional lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Bengals will look to catch the Chiefs on a bit of a down trot after a big primetime loss, so it’s a battle of which team has left last week behind sooner. Let’s take a stroll down the stairs into the AP Laboratory and break down some Bengals film to see what the Chiefs can do to put up another 30-plus point game.
Cincinnati Bengals defense
The Cincinnati Bengals run a 4-3 pretty exclusively, some late game/third-and-long snaps with three defensive linemen and stick to that base 4-3 a lot more often than any team the Chiefs have played thus far.
Any personnel grouping up to 11 personnel will often draw all three linebackers out from the Bengals on early downs or possibly a running down.
Even when making the decision to play the pass more heavily, the Bengals still get two linebackers on the field as often as possible.
One major reason for the insistent use of linebackers is how often the Bengals like to blitz, which is far more effective with linebackers than defensive backs. The Bengals will show pressure often with these linebackers—think of Mike Zimmer’s defenses and their A-Gap pressure looks—and drop out of it or bring both on any given play.
Even when not showing that pressure, the Bengals still often send extra pass rushers through the interior of the offensive line.
The Bengals play multiple coverages ranging from Man to Man to Quarters (Cover 4) but don’t necessarily hide it from the offense pre-snap. Pre-snap motion forces the Bengals to show the type of coverage (zone or man) early, and they haven’t shown an ability to hide their coverage through that motion. The biggest threat, in terms of confusing the offense, is going to be determining when it’s a Static Zone and when it’s a Match Zone. The Bengals will play Cover-3 match as well as 2-read coverage (which is essentially Quarters coverage but with the DBs matching certain routes) as well as the spot-drop version of each coverage shell.
The trio of cornerbacks for the Bengals, William Jackson, Darqueze Dennard, and Dre Kirkpatrick, are near the best in the NFL. It’s a little confusing they don’t play even more man coverage given the talent level of these three, but their defensive plan is to play plenty of zone. The free safety, Jessie Bates, is a rookie that has been a playmaker for the Bengals but is apt to take overly aggressive angles and let guys slip behind him eyeing underneath routes.
Whether Shawn Williams (concussion) or Clayton Fejedelem starts next to him shouldn’t affect the gameplan much as both are solid, intelligent players but don’t pose a threat to the run or pass. The linebackers for the Bengals are relatively poor in coverage, whether zone or man, and have been targeted frequently.
The Bengals pass rush hasn’t been clicking the last few weeks, which has led to even more blitzing. Geno Atkins has been a monster this year but hasn’t gotten much help on the interior while Carl Lawson hasn’t put up huge sack numbers yet he’s been even more disruptive than last year.
The run defense of the Bengals hasn’t been particularly strong this year and seems to depend on upon defensive linemen to make a big stop. The linebacker group as a whole—Preston Brown, Vincent Rey, and now Vontaze Burfict—has struggled to step up and fill gaps while flowing to the ball. The team speed isn’t overly high when pursuing runs and their success comes through defensive line stunts and twists and run blitzes that land home.
The Bengals stick to their heavier personnel package so it’s not easy to just out-muscle them up the middle but the edges can be taken. Carlos Dunlap and Lawson are both good at holding the edge but if blockers can get out around them on the edge the flow to the ball isn’t fast.
How the Chiefs win
The Chiefs have to continue to get the run game working at the correct times. There is no need to run the ball 30-plus times in today’s NFL, but Kareem Hunt has been running hard and well these last few weeks. The Chiefs should focus on getting Hunt going on some outside zone runs as well as utilizing misdirection and pulling blockers to help get to the outside.
When the Chiefs drop back to pass, which should be and will be often, the biggest key is going to be identifying hot reads and protections calls vs the blitz. The second area to focus on is an underneath and intermediate attack utilizing the slot wide receivers, tight ends and running backs. When attacking downfield, pick the shots against one-on-one coverage and be patient for guys to uncover when they aren’t presented. The broadest plan is to run consistent 11-personnel and spread the field out.
2-Read by Cincy which results in a theme, the underneath coverage doesn't/can't run with a crosser and leaves him open for a big gain. Vance McDonald had a big game in the short-intermediate range and after the catch, and there is no reason to expect MORE from Travis Kelce Sun. pic.twitter.com/RYsY7SVd2n— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 19, 2018
Simply put, the Bengals will play more linebackers and less defensive backs when they see a running back and a tight end on the field at the same time. The Chiefs’ 11 personnel can be deadly with both the run and pass with the ability of both Travis Kelce and Kareem Hunt’s ability to affect both parts of the game. The majority of the game, and the rest of these key parts of the gameplan, should come from the most common offensive personnel grouping but one unique changeup that should be used is the Empty formation.
Pre-snap movement forces Cincy to adjust their alignment and tip the coverage. Based on alignment zone is likely, which ends up being match, and forces the ILBs to pick up a RB running full speed across the field. Not the most athletic LB group makes this a massive mismatch. pic.twitter.com/nv5VcAWKA4— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 19, 2018
Here we see the offense motion out to Empty, and the Bengals adjust by kicking the cornerback out over him but backing him off while the safety drops down. Essentially, this lends one to expect a form of zone coverage to come next rather than man. Vertical routes to the weak side of the formation to clear out the space, then three routes designed to attack to the two linebackers holding down the middle of the field. There is no chance for the inside linebackers to turn and run with a running back moving full speed across the field here and if he does, the whip in behind it is wide open.
Attack the ILBs and SS
The Bengals’ underneath middle of the field defense has been a major problem whether in man or zone coverage. Most often they will ask their inside linebackers to play zone coverage and they simply lack athletic ability and the discipline to see players coming into their zone on time, as well as reaching proper depth.
Cincy still shows a fair amount of A gap pressure even with the DC change but when they opt to drop out of it, they often run C3 or Quarters with 7 in coverage. The downside is they leave 2 or more LBs on the field a ton and can easily been spread out underneath. pic.twitter.com/QHtRsp02sy— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 18, 2018
A basic Cover 3 here from the Bengals as they back out of the double-A-Gap pressure look, which leaves four players in underneath. In theory, the coverage is nearly perfect for this sticks concept by the offense but as the protection holds up and the running back leaks out of the backfield, the underneath defenders are asked to identify and move with the quarterback and receivers who are now working open. The 3x1 formation forces the Bengals to drop three defenders to the passing strength of the offense so when the running back leaks out there is only a single hook defender for two players.
I.D. the blitz
The Bengals will blitz often, and when they blitz, they will run man coverage behind it exclusively, and it’s up to Patrick Mahomes to set the protections and identify who is the hot receiver. Playing man coverage will still often mean the hot receiver still has a defender near him, but the key is to find the receiver running the route that is most likely to beat man coverage (slant, dig, comeback, etc..), usually in the area of the field the blitzers have vacated.
The Bengals run a variety of coverages but something they do consistently is bring LB pressure. When blitzing, Cincy often runs man coverage behind it and the lack of underneath defenders and only 1 deep Safety leave a lot of room for their CBs (who are v good) to cover. pic.twitter.com/rnykAJYbHe— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 18, 2018
Again, 11 personnel and a 3x1 alignment, only this time, the Bengals are bringing a linebacker on a blitz, resulting in man coverage on five potential receivers. The blitz is picked up well, which already spells doom, and the quarterback does a good job of identifying the wide receiver crossing the vacated space by the blitz on the dig/over route. It’s simply too much space for a cornerback playing against a potential two-way go to cover.
An interesting twist to a traditional C1:Man coverage is that Cincy showed no qualms with rolled the single high safety to bracket a teams most dangerous weapon. Numerous snaps, especially when Brown was isolated, was rolled his way. Ton of pressure for CBs in man w/ zero help BS pic.twitter.com/4Hpv2LL2GD— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 18, 2018
Here’s another blitz with man coverage behind it. They blitz and run man or don’t blitz and run zone, only this time the Bengals throw out a wrinkle and shade the safety toward the isolated wide receiver (happens to be the best WR on the offense). This helps reduce the space the weak-side cornerback has to cover but leaves three other players in man coverage completely on an island. One-on-one coverage vertically is a risk worth taking and despite good coverage by the Bengal’s cornerback, the ball is caught by the wide receiver for a big gain.
Attack the edges in the run game
Different rushing attacks work for different games, and we’ve seen games in which power running should be more effective, games in which looking for hard cuts should line up well against aggressive linebackers and now there is a game in which the Chiefs should look to get Hunt outside the offensive tackles and into space.
Cincy's LBs aren't the quickest group and are a little late to ID too many plays. Little counter misdirection and every LB starts the wrong way allowing blocks to get to the second level. Outside runs forcing Cincy LBs to run should play into KC's favor. pic.twitter.com/Kjt8BS63cp— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 19, 2018
It may look, at first glance, like there is a linebacker in position to make a play here that gets slowed down by his own player on the ground, but what’s missing is how late the linebacker is to beat the cornerback to the block. If the linebacker can take on the block earlier in the play, the cornerback is in a better position to square up for a tackle or force the running back back inside. All three Bengal linebackers initially move the wrong way with the counter motion and are late to I.D. the pulling blockers putting them behind the running back and blockers.
Both of Cincy's ILBs are playing through outside gaps first (playside B and backside C) allowing the combo blocks to create movement and easily climb to late LBs as the RB heads straight through the A gap. pic.twitter.com/2ti6cQYaLb— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 19, 2018
Not every run can go outside, but you can set up the interior runs through attacking the edges then coming back inside. One tight end splits out wide, removing a linebacker from the box and gives the numbers advantage to the offense.
As the play begins, the slow reaction by the middle linebacker allows the combo block to succeed and easily reach him and the choice to crash the crash towards the C-gap by the weak-side linebacker rather than try to spill the play leaves a massive lane up the middle. Not only do the Bengals linebackers lack top end athletic ability, but they also react slower to plays than they need to be effective.
The bottom line
The Bengals defense as a whole has good personnel that are high caliber in the important areas of the game (CB, FS, EDGE and 3 Tech) but their general scheme and weakness through the middle of the field is a problem against KC.
When the Bengals bring pressure, receivers should be able to uncover through so much space on the field against man coverage.
When the Bengals try to play space and run zone, they struggle to pressure the quarterback and Mahomes has diced up zone coverage all year. The cherry on top is the Bengals struggles against the run and rather slow play speed of their MOF defenders.
The Chiefs should have big games from Travis Kelce, Kareem Hunt, and whichever receiver gets the majority of the slot reps this week, as there simply isn’t much the Bengals have shown to stop that kind of attack.