As Kansas City Chiefs fans know so well, sometimes there just isn’t a whole lot you can do to stop a truly great quarterback who is in the zone.
After all... we see our own quarterback Patrick Mahomes do it time and time again. And Mahomes turned in an all-time performance during Sunday’s 42-36 Divisional round victory against the Buffalo Bills.
But it was no different for Bills’ quarterback Josh Allen, who surely gave Kansas City defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo quite a migraine by throwing four touchdown passes and gaining 397 all-purpose yards against the Chiefs.
While injuries to defensive backs like safety Tyrann Mathieu and cornerback Rashad Fenton didn’t help matters, the truth is that the Chiefs’ defensive production on Sunday is not the kind of work that will make winning Super Bowl LVI easy.
So let’s dive into the film from what was probably the greatest NFL playoff game most of us have ever witnessed. We’ll examine what the defense did — and what that performance could mean as the Chiefs head toward another AFC Championship clash at Arrowhead Stadium.
Early in the game, the Bills’ offensive staff elected to roll with a lot of heavier offensive personnel, utilizing multiple tight ends and a fullback. This insured that the Kansas City defense would stick to its base package — which includes linebackers Willie Gay Jr., Anthony Hitchens and Nick Bolton. In a lot of ways, this forces the Chiefs’ defensive scheme to stay vanilla, relying on winning man-to-man matchups.
Bolton apexed out of the box - whether via film study and/or instincts, he was prepped for this play and shows a textbook shed vs. Davis.— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) January 26, 2022
Sneed also fills off of the WR crack block for one of his better plays of the game. pic.twitter.com/Zm0lq41bxA
- Clark and Sneed help to occupy both 13 and Morse (60) as he pulls— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) January 26, 2022
- Frees Bolton up to stay clean and make a drive-ending stop in space vs. one of the quicker WRs in the game in McKenzie pic.twitter.com/2qAVAl2a7J
In these situations, Bolton stood out most by doing what he does best: making impact plays at (or behind) the line of scrimmage. These running schemes — which include the quarterback and pinning/pulling linemen — can be awfully tough for linebackers to decipher, but the explosiveness of Bolton and Gay still put the Chiefs in some good spots.
This decision-making component is the first aspect of the game for which Allen deserves so much credit. Early in his career, he was notorious for trying to be a hero — especially during playoff games — and he has learned from those mistakes.
It also looked a lot like what we currently see in Mahomes. Both men are mature quarterbacks who can make any throw on the field — but instead elect to simply take the easy, reliable gains in front of them. An indirect consequence of these quick throws was that Kansas City’s primary pass rushers began to wear themselves down, rarely ever getting to Allen quickly enough. Defensive linemen Chris Jones, Frank Clark, Melvin Ingram and Jarran Reed all played at least 70% of Sunday’s defensive snaps.
Results aren’t pretty here bc Hughes and Sneed collide, but on the rare blitzes sent by Spags, it did at least speed Allen’s process up. Forced a few incompletions, too.— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) January 26, 2022
Probably coulda/shoulda done it some more given how great Allen was and the depleted back end for KC. pic.twitter.com/6yBR9ZPHyw
There were a few instances where the defense sent five or more rushers after Allen — and when it did, the results were generally positive. Outside of the first touchdown to Bills wideout Gabriel Davis, these pressures made Allen think just a tick faster — which led to some quick incompletions. In future matchups, Kansas City will probably mix in more of those blitz calls.
When the Bills did start to utilize more 11 personnel — three wide receivers, one running back and a tight end — Spagnuolo was quick to get into his dime defensive package with light boxes. In some shorter-yardage situations, the package also includes safety Daniel Sorensen and linebacker Ben Niemann. Unfortunately, the Bills took advantage — hammering forward to keep the chains moving with their diverse running game.
The added element of what Buffalo was able to do by running Allen vs. KC’s dime package.— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) January 26, 2022
An already light box having to match the body count AND tackle 17? Just had to pin Jones upfield and then clear out 49, 56, and 21 at the second level. pic.twitter.com/OkUUGAjPBs
Ingram continues to look like a player who is incredibly hungry to earn his first Super Bowl ring. Buffalo shifted tons of attention toward Jones — and players like Ingram, Clark and Reed took advantage at different times.
Ingram’s early sack:— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) January 26, 2022
- This four man front personnel is a ton of fun for a wide open pass rush scenario
- Jones’ penetration opens up the LG; Clark quick to capitalize
- Ingram’s initial leverage is excellent, able to stay on his feet and win w/ non-stop effort pic.twitter.com/Ek9T2wMDXb
Unfortunately, failing to recover this fumble proved very costly; the Bills downed the ensuing punt at the Kansas City 1-yard line.
Buffalo started the third quarter going back into more of their base/heavy offensive personnel — and this time, the Chiefs’ linebackers were a little more aggressive to attack underneath zones. Allen again took advantage, extending plays in order to find open receivers at the intermediate to deep levels of the field.
75-yd TD - Juan is 9-10 yds from the LOS at the snap and against Allen’s arm strength, the lack of depth gained post-snap was detrimental.— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) January 26, 2022
Tip your cap for the throw but also can’t ever let your guard down against this type of thrower. pic.twitter.com/zzpnVxfmJv
To this point, the Bills hadn’t taken many downfield shots, which lulled safety Juan Thornhill into making a critical mistake. It was a learning moment — Allen and the Buffalo offense are way too dynamic to ever change your approach against them. They can strike for huge plays at a moment’s notice — and in doing so, Allen proved he can match points with Mahomes.
Overall, Jarran Reed did some really nice things on Sunday, spinning off blocks and showing exactly why Chiefs general manager Brett Veach signed him.
But perhaps the most crucial tweak — not only on Sunday but in the games to come — is Spagnuolo electing to play his young inside linebackers much more frequently in his nickel package. Bolton and Gay led the team’s linebackers in downs played — and from now on, that will be a good trend to maintain.
2nd half adjustment was more nickel w/ 50 and 54 at LB; better results vs. plays like this QB counter.— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) January 26, 2022
Much credit to Clark though who goes above & beyond; closes down the kickout, stays on his feet and shows tremendous strength to get 17 down on his own. pic.twitter.com/113ahM6RJ2
While reviewing the game, it was evident that Clark played better than we might have thought while watching the game live.
With injuries in the secondary, it is easy to understand why Spagnuolo preferred to rely on his strong four-man pass rush — but by game’s end, there wasn’t enough gas in the tank at any level of the defense.
4th&4 - I don’t think the Bills anticipated the impact Ingram would have. He got chipped a fair bit bc of plays like this. Good rush all the way around; Allen just out-executes the D-Linemen.— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) January 26, 2022
These guys wanted to finish the game here but the aggressiveness backfires. pic.twitter.com/BWL0c4UEyY
For the most part, the Chiefs’ game plan relied upon zone-heavy coverage. But in the final Buffalo drives, it showed more of the common two-high ‘robber’ zone coverages in which Tyrann Mathieu can excel — along with man-style coverages in general.
The final Allen/Davis TD: Baker and Sneed are late to communicate + adjust their leverage, Davis has the inside lev. he wants before the snap.— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) January 26, 2022
Watts is hyper-focused on Diggs, so the window over MOF to Davis is there. Broken down more in this week’s AP Film Room show. pic.twitter.com/S1p1H9MdKJ
This is where it’s easy to see what the team lost when Mathieu exited the game with a concussion; it is just one example of a play that might never have happened if the respected veteran had been on the field. A lot of contributions don’t show on the stat sheet — especially from a safety like Mathieu.
The bottom line
Tip your cap, Chiefs Kingdom. When people say that Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes played nearly flawless football games on Sunday, it isn’t hyperbole. Against such performances, there just isn’t much a defense can do to create a strong overall outcome. Play-to-play, Allen simply overcame many of the good things the Kansas City defense did.
But there is good news. From here on out, the Chiefs won’t see another quarterback who can play the way Allen did. Whether it’s Joe Burrow in the AFC championship or Matthew Stafford (or Jimmy Garoppolo) in the Super Bowl, it simply isn’t going to get tougher than what we saw from Allen and the Bills.
All of those quarterbacks have specific skillsets and offensive schemes — but quite frankly, those offenses are far more favorable matchups for Kansas City’s defense. And early indications are that Mathieu and Fenton will return to the starting lineup this week. That timing could not be better.
Let’s go to another Super Bowl, Chiefs Kingdom. We’re on to Cincinnati.