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Opponent Scout: Bengals’ offensive line will be key point in AFC Championship

The Bengals have an incredible, young quarterback — but protecting him has been a challenge.

NFL: AFC Divisional Round-Cincinnati Bengals at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

In this weekly series, I break down the Kansas City Chiefs’ upcoming opponent by examining its strengths, weaknesses and tendencies — and how those things affect its matchup with Kansas City.


After an incredible overtime victory over the Buffalo Bills, the Chiefs will host the Cincinnati Bengals with a spot in Super Bowl LVI up for grabs. The Chiefs are currently a 7-point favorite over the Bengals — according to DraftKings Sportsbook.

Overview

In the postseason, the Bengals have beaten the Las Vegas Raiders and the Tennessee Titans, surviving the Raiders’ last-minute drive to win in the Wild Card round — then kicking a game-winning field goal as time expired against the Titans last week.

After averaging 27 points per game in the regular season, the Bengals have failed to reach that mark in either of their postseason games. They’ve only scored three touchdowns between the two matchups while also averaging 40 fewer yards per game than their regular-season rate. They’ve been safe with the ball; however, they have a +8 turnover differential over the last six weeks.

The Cincinnati defense had its ups and downs this year, but they’ve settled into a groove in the postseason — not allowing 20 points in either playoff game, while also taking the ball away five times in the two weeks. They’ve been stout against the run for most of this season, and that came to fruition when they held Titans’ running back Derrick Henry to 62 yards on 3.1 yards per carry.

Offense

When you first think of the Bengals’ offense, you may think of how explosive their passing attack can be. Quarterback Joe Burrow was one of the statistically-best quarterbacks in the NFL this season and the array of weapons he has made that possible.

However, the first thing you think about with their playoff performances is the woes of their offensive line in pass protection.

Last week, they allowed Burrow to be sacked nine times — an NFL playoff record for one game. The main issue was their inability to pick up stunts and creative blitzes; some plays ended with a free rusher in Burrow’s lap before he could even think to throw. Burrow is also conservative in these situations, meaning he’d instead take the sack than throw an errant pass.

The run blocking hasn’t been anything special, either. After using running back Joe Mixon as a legitimate weapon on the ground this season, he is only averaging 3.3 yards per carry in the postseason — and it has put the Bengals in more third-and-long situations than they’d like to be in.

One of the Bengals’ favorite ways to manufacture a chunk play through the air is by running pass routes from a trips, bunch alignment — meaning three receivers are tightly lined up on one side of the formation. The advantage is that man defenders have to sift through more traffic, while zone defenders have to decipher more routes than usual in one specific area of the field.

A simpler way for them to get a big play is by getting the ball in wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase’s hands quickly and in space. He’s shown incredible production in terms of yards after catch this entire season.

Defense

On the other side of the ball, the Bengals’ defense suffered a critical injury when they lost defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi for the rest of the playoffs; he injured his foot against the Raiders.

In his place, defensive tackle D.J. Reader stepped up against the Titans — playing a key role in keeping Titans’ running back Derrick Henry at 62 yards on 20 carries. Along with stout players like defensive end Sam Hubbard and linebacker Logan Wilson, the Bengals have been tough to run on all year — with the exception of the Chiefs game, where Kansas City totaled 155 yards on 23 team carries.

When they’re getting after the quarterback, edge rusher Trey Hendrickson has been as good as it gets this year; including the postseason, he’s earned 15 sacks. Yet, the Bengals will still blitz situationally — and it worked against Tennessee. On the seven dropbacks they blitzed, the Titans only mustered 33 yards on four completions. They tend to overload one side of the line, trying to send more players than there are blockers.

It didn’t work as well against the Chiefs in Week 17 — until it needed to. On third-and-5 during the Chiefs’ final possession of the game, a blitz forces Mahomes to retreat and throw off his back foot. The pass flew out of bounds, forcing Kansas City to settle for a field goal.

When the Chiefs are able to avoid a sack, they need to be aware of safety Jesse Bates’ location at all times. The Cincinnati cornerback group has been solid this postseason, but it’s Bates’ help on the back end that has made the most difference. On this play against Tennessee, he trusts his eyes and makes a great play to jump the route for an interception.

The Bengals won’t play as much two-high shells as a team like the Buffalo Bills — so it will be more tempting to get passes down the field against them. Bates can erase what looks like an open throwing window in a hurry.

The bottom line

When the Bengals have the ball, the Chiefs need to take advantage of their pass-protection issues by using defensive-line stunts often — while also constantly giving pre-snap blitz looks, even if they don’t always turn into blitzes.

When Cincinnati is playing defense, Kansas City needs to have plans to neutralize the impacts of edge rusher Trey Hendrickson and safety Jesse Bates. If those two can be kept from making a big play, the rest of the Bengals’ defense can be exploited by a high-powered offense like the Chiefs’.