At the beginning of the Kansas City Chiefs’ 34-31 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, it appeared that the hyped-up Bengals offense led by quarterback Joe Burrow was in for a long day against Chiefs veteran defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
The game started with two Cincinnati drives that ended in punts, only running seven plays total. Each possession featured a sack and forced the Bengals to play from well behind the sticks.
As the game went on, Spagnuolo continued to be confident in his plan to rattle the young quarterback — but the more Burrow saw, the better he became at attacking it. With the unbelievable talent of his No. 1 wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, Burrow could use Spagnuolo’s strategies against him.
The Chiefs’ failure to adjust on defense directly led to some of the Bengals’ biggest plays.
Personnel decisions with a formation
After Chase had already burned the Chiefs for 111 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, Kansas City showed that they weren’t ready to give special attention toward him following halftime.
The theme of the 2nd half #Chiefs defense was not respecting Burrow and Chase enough— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 4, 2022
3rd&4: Dime package. Spags has Mathieu play in the box rather than Sorensen, with him as the deep Safety on Chase's side in Cover 2
49 bites on short route, allowing Chase to get over the top pic.twitter.com/CyMvei271Q
On the first possession of the second half, the Bengals faced third-and-4. As they typically do, the Chiefs used their dime personnel — six defensive backs — to counter a third-down attempt. Safety Dan Sorensen is usually a box safety or just generally closer to the line of scrimmage in these packages, but for this snap, his role was swapped with safety Tyrann Mathieu — who is usually one of the two deeper safeties alongside Juan Thornhill.
Not only is Sorensen responsible for the deep half of the field in this Cover 2 defense, he is aligned over the top of Ja’Marr Chase — but apparently, he isn’t aware of how dangerous Chase can be. A quick look to a short route by Burrow draws Sorensen away from his deep-field jurisdiction, allowing Chase to get behind him and easily score a 69-yard touchdown.
It will be hard for Spagnuolo to justify putting Sorensen in that deep-field role, where we’ve seen him struggle mightily this season — but to then put him over the top of a receiver like Chase is difficult to explain.
Not giving cornerbacks help on third down
It’s no secret that Spagnuolo loves to blitz — and is not afraid to send them when it seems least likely. Yet, his reliance on the strategy ultimately led to the deciding play of this game.
3rd&7: Spags goes Cover 0 and leaves Fenton in 1v1 coverage w/ Chase. It works this time, with the blitz making Burrow just late to Chase's stop at the sticks pic.twitter.com/Zth0rnq1Yp— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 4, 2022
Before that, he trusted a Cover 0 blitz on third-and-7 in the third quarter — and it worked! A hurried Burrow throws to Chase on a stop route at the sticks, but the pressure forces the timing of the throw to be off. That puts Chase behind the first-down marker as he catches it and allows cornerback Rashad Fenton to simply sit at the sticks and make the tackle.
While still risky, this decision is more sensible; the offense only needs seven yards to gain, so it’s likely that they’ll run routes right at the sticks. With defensive backs knowing the ball has to be out quickly, they can play aggressively off the line without the fear of a long, deep pass.
That was with seven yards to convert, but 20 more?
3rd&27— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 4, 2022
Goal is to get a sack to take them out of FG range; at worst, Burrow settles for better FG position and quickly dumps off to Higgins (bottom of screen)
But 9 isn't settling for anything -- and why would you when your favorite WR is singled up after dominating all game pic.twitter.com/AJPhhXj3da
With the game tied 31-31 with 3:19 remaining, the Chiefs forced the Bengals into third-and-27. Like the previous third-and-7, Spagnuolo sends all seven players he can to get to Burrow and ideally earn a sack — which would knock them out of field-goal range.
The difference here is that the first-down marker is much further away — meaning there are bound to be routes designed to gain those 27 yards. Spagnuolo banks on the Bengals settling for a check down and a field goal, but he doesn’t account for Burrow’s desire to win the game rather than play conservatively.
Burrow, realizing that Chase is in single coverage with no safety help, quickly sets his feet and gets out a beautifully-thrown pass, perfectly placed on Chase’s outside shoulder and away from cornerback Charvarius Ward’s leverage. The play results in 30 yards and a first down, leading to a game-winning field goal.
You can see that the press-man coverage was only the plan for Chase; on the other side, wide receiver Tee Higgins is played with softer coverage. The defensive strategy banked on forcing Burrow to that easy throw, but Burrow countered by going exactly where Spagnuolo didn’t think he’d go.
Ignoring game trends
The frustrating part about the Cover 0 blitz was that it may not have been necessary to get pressure on Burrow.
The incredible part of the stubbornly blitzing is that the DL was constantly wrecking the Bengals' OL in pass pro. Don't know if they needed any help getting to Burrow— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 4, 2022
These are all from the 2nd half pic.twitter.com/ajlNmlCNuW
Out of 45 dropbacks, the Chiefs got pressure on 16 of them — or 36% of the time. It was all because of the defensive line, which earned all four sacks and 11 quarterback hits. It didn’t slow down in the second half; the sacks and hits were evenly distributed throughout the game.
If Spagnuolo really wanted a sack on that third-and-27, it should have come by way of a creative pressure stunt with his best pass rushers on the line. It’s obviously easier to accomplish by sending the house — but trusting the front four would have allowed there to be safety help, lowering the chances of a miraculous conversion.
The bottom line
You live by the blitz, you die by the blitz, and that’s what has to be said about Spagnuolo’s plan on that final drive. The blitzing strategy has worked for most of the win streak, even getting the best of a great quarterback like the Dallas Cowboys’ Dak Prescott.
However, it’s not necessarily about blitzing; it’s about the unwillingness to adjust and take away what an opposing offense is doing best. For the Bengals, that was getting the ball to Ja’Marr Chase, who clearly had an all-time performance.
Whether it was a mistimed blitz or a misplaced player, Spagnuolo failed to put his defenders in the best position to stop the Bengals’ offense.