In Week 17, the Chiefs faced the Bengals on the road. Cincinnati trailed at halftime but came back to defeat the Chiefs 34-31. Quarterback Joe Burrow threw for 446 yards and four touchdowns — including three to rookie wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, who ended the day with 11 catches for 266 yards.
On Thursday, Kansas City defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo discussed preparing his unit for a better showing on Sunday.
“Certainly the talent, the speed, the catch radius,” Spagnuolo said of what impresses him about Chase. “I think one of the things we found out first-hand is that their quarterback and that receiver really work well together. They know each other really well — obviously the time together at LSU makes a difference. You can see it in the confidence in the way they play. Those two together are a dynamic duo.”
“He’s an elite wide receiver,” agreed Chiefs cornerback L’Jarius Sneed of Chase during his time with reporters. “He’s got good speed. He’s a hell of a catcher. We’re going to compete with him this week.”
While much of the narrative for Sunday’s rematch has focused on Chase’s outstanding performance on January 2, Spagnuolo cautioned that he cannot build a game plan entirely around the rookie. The Bengals also boast Tee Higgins — a second 1,000 yard receiver — along third wideout Tyler Boyd, finished the regular season with 828 yards and five touchdowns.
“It’s not like they have one weapon — commit two people to it and you’re home free,” observed Spagnuolo. “Throughout the course of the season, all three of those guys have been the leading receiver for them on a given day. They’re all capable of what we call ‘wrecking the game.’ So we’ve got to pay a lot of attention to all three of them. The quarterback knows where to go with the ball; he’s sharp enough to know that if you’re taking one of his guys away, he’s going to go somewhere else. So we have to play that cat-and-mouse game. As dynamic as Ja’Marr Chase is, there’s certainly some other weapons there as well.”
“Chase is not the only wide receiver they have,” echoed Sneed. “From the balls that he caught, they were all contested balls. The corners were there when he was catching the ball. We just have to get the ball out this time. I think we’re ready for it.”
Spagnuolo agreed that his secondary was able to challenge Chase, but the Rookie of the Year candidate consistently came out on top.
“They had the upper hand on that day, but they were all contested,” he said. “Our guys were where they were supposed to [be]. Just somehow, someway, we have to find a way to make a play. Hopefully, when that same situation happens in this we can find a way to get it knocked out — or have him go through somewhere else. We need to make those plays — our guys understand that.”
Prior to the first game, Spagnuolo made headlines by comparing Burrow to an all-time great. But now — after having now competed against and lost to Burrow — the coordinator is even more convinced.
“He is special,” Spagnuolo said of the second year quarterback. “I told you guys last time what I saw out of him: Brady-like. I certainly feel the same way coming out of that game. I think he’s smart enough to know you don’t want to make a mistake. He’s not turning the ball over. At that moment when he thinks he might get sacked, he protects the football. He’s got two hands on that football all the time.
“And he’s slick enough and athletic enough to make a guy miss — like he did to us twice in that game when we a couple of pressures off the edge. We’ve got to find ways — if we get in those situations again — to finish him off. All of our guys — myself included — have a great deal of respect for this quarterback.”
While any defensive coordinator relishes the opportunity to face an opponent a second time so soon after a loss, Spagnuolo explained the difficulty in making major changes this late in the season — and the reality that his unit is coming off a disappointing performance in a rematch.
“We spent a lot of time on the film of the last game because you get to see matches,” he acknowledged. “How they attacked you and how you attacked them. You try to put a couple of tweaks in there. At this time in the season, you can’t venture too far from who you are and what you do. Because then sometimes you jumble the brains up here and the feet don’t work quite as good — and you slow it down.
“I’d like to think the second matchup with Buffalo was good — but we didn’t do as well as we wanted to last week. I hope the outcome of this one is a lot better. We know the challenge we have. We know this offense is very productive with a lot of weapons — just like the one we just got done playing. We just got to find a way to be better than we were a week ago — and better than when we played them last time.”