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AFC title defensive preview: How the Chiefs ground the Bills’ aerial attack

The Arrowhead Pride Nerd Squad breaks down the Bills’ offense — and a concept we might see on Sunday.

NFL: AFC Divisional Round-Cleveland Browns at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Chiefs find themselves hosting their third straight AFC championship game on Sunday, putting themselves in a position to go to back-to-back Super Bowls. Standing in their way is a formidable opponent and one of the hottest teams in football: the Buffalo Bills.

The Chiefs are no strangers to this team, having defeated them once in Buffalo earlier this season. That defensive performance from the Chiefs was one of their best of the year, and they’ll look to repeat it against a Bills team that’s a little less healthy than the last time these teams saw each other.

With that in mind, let’s dig into changes in the Bills’ personnel since Week 6 — and a concept we may see on Sunday. Then we’ll discuss how the Chiefs defense can try to slow them down — and win back-to-back Lamar Hunt trophies.

The personnel

NFL: AFC Wild Card Round-Indianapolis Colts at Buffalo Bills Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The last time these teams lined up on this side of the ball, the Bills were a fairly healthy squad. Since then, Buffalo has lost its primary ballcarrier in rookie Zack Moss. Moss was having a terrific season before his injury in the Bills’ wild card matchup. Devin Singletary will continue to play a big role in this offense, but the Bills have opted not to run the ball quite as heavily in his absence.

All three of Buffalo’s top receiving options popped up on the injury report this week. Stefon Diggs has practiced for most of the week and is expected to be a full-go in the Bills offense on Sunday. Cole Beasley was limited in his snaps last week — the first time all season he didn’t catch a pass — and once again had a light practice week leading up to this week’s game. Finally, Gabriel Davis did not practice the first two days of the week before being limited in a Friday walkthrough. Davis has emerged as a serious deep threat for the Bills, so eliminating him from the equation would be significant news. All three players are listed as questionable against the Chiefs.

The Bills started two different guards the last time they faced the Chiefs in Cody Ford and Brian Winters. Ford was put on IR after the Bills' next game and has been replaced by former Chief Ike Boettger. Winters has been replaced by Jon Feliciano after he was activated off of injured reserve just after the last time these two teams played.

The offensive concept: Deep mesh with underneath flats

Josh Allen has had a terrific season, and Diggs is one of the best wide receivers in the league, but Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has developed a fantastic system to maximize his quarterback’s efficiency. One of the best ways he’s been able to do that is by influencing the second level of zone defenses.

The play above is one of many examples of Daboll getting Diggs — a focal point for every defense — into open space. Diggs releases slowly, allowing the back-side vertical time to clear the field cornerback and the other crossing route time to draw the attention of the boundary cornerback. As Diggs clears the depth of the linebackers at the second level, the tight end and running back aligned in the backfield release into the flat. This pulls the linebackers forward, and Allen buys enough time in the backfield to find Diggs open behind the second level.

It’s natural for players on the second level to want to get downhill — especially on early downs. Late in the dropback, most quarterbacks will quickly work to their checkdown, leading to linebackers and safeties to collapse to limit yardage. Since Allen is able to buy time against the four-man rush — and Daboll trusts these later developing route concepts — the Chiefs’ second level will have to have exceptional eye discipline and zone awareness to limit the damage of the Bills’ passing attack.

The bottom line

This will be the Chiefs' toughest test on defense of the entire year — fitting for their biggest game of the season.

The Bills have a dynamic passing offense that has the potential to actually hang points at a rate to keep up with the Chiefs' offense. Allen is capable of extending plays, and his big arm forces the defense to cover the entire field. He’s got one of the best receivers in the league, multiple deep threats — and some fantastic route runners to exploit the space left underneath. Finally, he has an offensive coordinator that maximizes his abilities and puts him in the best chance to succeed. It’s a very difficult offense to stop.

The Chiefs were one of the few teams that were able to limit this offense in their earlier matchup. Chris Jones had a phenomenal day rushing the passer — which will be needed once again — and Steve Spagnuolo was able to throw a diverse coverage scheme at Allen to slow him down.

I expect a similar approach in coverage for the Chiefs defense. Spagnuolo will likely go deep into his coverage calls, throwing late shifts, traps and robbers throughout the game. If he can force Allen to take an extra split-second to read the defense — and try to get receivers to run an incorrect option route while reading incorrect leverage — the Chiefs might be able to get pressure on Allen. He’s not been sacked or hit often this year, and he’s struggled in games where he’s taken some shots.

The Bills' run game has struggled without Moss, and I don’t expect a heavy dosage of the ground attack this week. We may see the Chiefs front take a bit of an opposite approach to the Cleveland Browns’ game — playing tentative when stepping forward, and dropping into coverage to give up the run. If the Bills have their full complement of weapons at receiver, Spagnuolo will likely opt to keep two deep safeties for most of the game to help the Chiefs slower boundary cornerbacks.

Fortunately for the Chiefs, referees tend to allow a little more physical coverage play late in the year. In the first matchup against the Bills, Bashaud Breeland and Charvarius Ward had a few penalties that extended some of Buffalo’s offensive drives. With safety help over the top this week, I’d expect these cornerbacks to play physical at the line of scrimmage and test the willingness of the crew to throw the flag on some downfield contact. If both players are allowed to use their physicality — arguably their best trait — this could be a long day for the Bills receiving group.

Finally, the pass rush has to get home. This is a good offensive line, but not quite to the level of some of the groups the Chiefs have seen in the back half of the year. Jones, Frank Clark, and Alex Okafor have looked better rushing the passer as of late, and a good day on Sunday could tilt the game in the Chiefs' favor. I still expect Spagnuolo to send the blitz against Allen — he rushed five or more players 39% of the dropbacks in the previous matchup — but the four-man rush will be the most important part of the defense if Buffalo has all their weapons.

Spagnuolo’s defense has ramped up at the end of each of the last two years, helping the Chiefs to not only get to this point in the season but also be an integral part of their victories down the stretch. They’ll need to perform well in this matchup if the Chiefs are to advance to their second straight Super Bowl.

Fortunately for Chiefs fans, Spagnuolo and company have answered that bell in each attempt.