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Against Bengals, Chiefs’ ‘Freeway’ play-call came much too late

According to linebacker Anthony Hitchens, the Chiefs were going to let the Bengals score at the end of Sunday’s game.

Syndication: The Enquirer Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

It would be an understatement to say that fans were frustrated with the Kansas City Chiefs after their defensive performance in Sunday’s 34-31 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. After becoming one of the league’s stingiest defensive units during the team’s eight-game winning streak, the defense allowed more points than it had in any game since the team’s 38-20 loss to the Buffalo Bills in Week 5.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday — as the team prepared for the regular-season finale against the Denver Broncos this Saturday — starting MIKE linebacker Anthony Hitchens said that while many factors entered into the defensive problems, one of them stood out more than others.

“I think it’s a combination of a lot of things,” said the eight-year veteran. “Obviously, we’ve got to give our credit to Cincinnati — they have great players over there that made some good plays — but for us as a defense, we need to tackle better and then eliminate the self-wounding penalties and things like that. Penalties are part of the game; we just couldn’t overcome them last week. So for us, we’re really just focusing on that tackling and ‘hidden yards.’ I don’t know how many yards they had after missed tackles, [but] I know that led to field goals and touchdowns.”

But that was hardly Kansas City’s only defensive problem. In several instances, there was questionable defensive play-calling. Among those was the team’s decision to do its best to prevent Cincinnati from scoring at all when they reached the Kansas City 11-yard line with just over three minutes remaining — and the score tied at 31. In the view of some observers, it might have been wiser to simply let the Bengals score, getting the ball back to the Chiefs with enough time (and three timeouts in their pocket) to tie the score again.

Kansas City Chiefs v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

As it happened, the Bengals ran two plays to get another first down at the 1-yard line right at the two-minute warning. Then on three successive running plays, the Kansas City defense held. Rather than kick a field goal to take a three-point lead with less than a minute remaining — and by then, with the Chiefs having used all their timeouts — the Bengals went for it on fourth-and-1. The Chiefs held again — but offsetting penalties forced a replay of the down. Cincinnati went for it again — now with just 50 seconds remaining — and again the Chiefs held. But this time, Kansas City cornerback L’Jarius Sneed was flagged with a hands-to-the-face penalty, giving the Bengals a fresh set of downs inside the one.

Cincinnati used a kneel-down to run time off the clock — and then spiked the ball with two seconds remaining. Evan McPherson’s field goal as time expired gave them the victory.

It was an unbelievable sequence of plays that seemed chaotic — but not to Hitchens.

“To be honest, maybe a couple of years ago, it would have been chaos and stuff — but I’ve seen a lot of different situations and scenarios; I mean, I’m pretty even-keel,” said the linebacker. “To be honest, it’s not as fast as you think when you’re actually out there; it’s more chaotic when you’re from a distance watching it. But I think we all handled that pretty well. If you just look at the guys, we fought all the way to the end. Obviously, there are a lot of things we’ve got to clean up — but in that situation, those stops we were making just shows you what type of guys we have on this team.”

But according to Hitchens, the Chiefs did ultimately decide to just let Cincinnati score; defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo called, “Freeway” over the radio headset installed in Hitchens’ helmet.

“Actually, right before they took a knee, we were going to let them score,” revealed Hitchens. “We call [the play] ‘Freeway.’ So we were trying to stop them — obviously — then once they got the penalty and got first-and-goal from the one, we were going ‘Freeway’ to let them score and try and get the ball back to our offense and Pat (Mahomes). But they did the smart thing and just kneeled it out — and then ended up kicking the field goal.”

But even without the final Cincinnati kneel-down, it probably would have been too late for it to make much difference. In the end, the Chiefs missed multiple opportunities to make the call — and even with less than a minute remaining, the Bengals were willing to do almost anything to keep the ball from getting back into Mahomes’ hands.

Asked about the sequence of plays on Tuesday, head coach Andy Reid was only willing to say that he and the team have moved past it, choosing instead to focus on the upcoming game against the Broncos.

But if the Chiefs once again face that set of circumstances, ‘Freeway’ is likely to be called much sooner.