In their preparation for Week 13, the Kansas City Chiefs will be reminded of their two disappointing results against the Cincinnati Bengals last season. The Bengals are essentially the same team with the same personnel, meaning they’ll likely attack the Chiefs in similar ways for this year’s game.
The Chiefs played well in both first halves, outscoring the Bengals 49-27 in the first two quarters in both games combined. Late-game performances doomed them, and both sides of the ball have lessons to learn from watching last year’s tape.
I started with the defense:
In both games, the Chiefs’ run defense did its job. The Bengals’ backfield averaged 4.2 yards per carry or less in each contest, forcing Cincinnati into plenty of third-down opportunities. All of the Bengals’ significant plays came through the air; all six touchdowns scored between the two games were passes.
In the 1st KC-CIN matchup last yr, many of the game's biggest plays were simply Joe Burrow triggering deep and to the sideline when he saw a Cover 1 or Cover 0 look— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) November 30, 2022
He completed 4/6 passes 20+ air yards & outside the numbers to Chase/Higgins in 1v1 coverage w/ a KC CB pic.twitter.com/EuMlZI1IX9
In the first matchup, Bengals’ quarterback Joe Burrow had six targets to a wide receiver 20 or more yards downfield, one-on-one with a cornerback outside the numbers. He completed four of those throws for 122 yards and one touchdown. Burrow pulled the trigger on every attempt because the Chiefs were either in a one-high safety look or on a Cover 0 blitz.
Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is naturally going to test every quarterback he faces, daring them to make a play. Burrow made them in the first matchup and tried to in the second as well. However, Burrow didn’t complete any deep sideline passes in the AFC Championship game, despite still throwing five times to the same wide receivers in the same individual matchups.
In AFCCG, Burrow's success deep and to the sideline in 1v1 situations flipped. He was 0/5 on those throws, including a 4th quarter INT— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) November 30, 2022
KC didn't present as many Cover 1/0 opportunities, but it's also the law of averages on those contested-catch throws pic.twitter.com/NnVjtRAruD
There were fewer pass-down looks with one or no safety deep, so Spagnuolo had already learned a lesson about leaving talented wide receivers Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins alone too often — but that’s also a testament to how difficult it is to complete those contested passes consistently, no matter the cornerback or wide receiver.
Burrow is going to push that envelope either way, and the Chiefs widened their margin for error in those situations by investing a first-round selection in a true coverage cornerback: Trent McDuffie.
One of the lessons learned from last year's games v. Cincy was not underestimating Burrow's mobility— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) November 30, 2022
It's easy to overlook Burrow's size, and how hard it is to get him down. Not a ton of throws after escaping pressure, but he gets out of tackles like a young Big Ben pic.twitter.com/SHcRxm3iN8
Another reason that deep passes were harder to complete in the AFC Championship had to do with more pressure on Burrow; the Chiefs increased their pressure rate from one game to the next by nearly five percent. It took Burrow out of rhythm more, but he overcame pressure to make a positive play too often, mainly with his legs.
I believe Kansas City’s pass rush will respect Burrow’s mobility more this time, rallying harder to gang tackle and being deployed with more disciplined, strategized rush lanes in mind.
The Chiefs had little trouble scoring on the Bengals for the vast majority of the first six quarters these two teams played. The second half of the AFC Championship was a different story and gave Cincinnati an idea of how to accelerate discomfort for Mahomes.
The Bengals’ defensive strategy took the idea of not blitzing Mahomes to another level. On many second and third downs, the defense would drop eight players into coverage — leaving only three to rush the quarterback.
Cincy's 8-man coverages can just win at times— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) December 1, 2022
On these 2nd & 6s, they have a robber at both the 1st and 2nd level of the defense - jumping routes that could quickly move the sticks
Best result might be a few yards on a scramble sometimes. 3rd&short is better than 3rd&6 pic.twitter.com/ioIscSvpPK
Both of these incompletions came on second down with six yards to go. The Bengals flood coverage for short and intermediate passes by having a robber on both the first and second levels. It muddies the water enough to force Mahomes into uncomfortable throws, trying to move the chains.
When it’s second down, and nothing looks good, it may be wise for him to climb the pocket and just get what he can with his legs; a third and short allows you play-calling flexibility that third and six doesn’t.
Another example of Bengals' 8-man coverage winning, this time on 3rd&3— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) December 1, 2022
The mesh concept has no chance with so many bodies over the middle
15 has to take the only thing given: McKinnon in the flat. Holding onto the ball longer doesn't help anything with so many guys in coverage pic.twitter.com/rWTzn8xLut
When they drop eight on third down, Mahomes has to take any initial open space he can get in rhythm; the longer he holds onto the ball, the harder it will be to find a receiver with so many defenders in coverage. On this third-and-3, the mesh concept is doomed with all the traffic over the middle — but running back Jerick McKinnon has a step to the flat initially.
He has to live with getting to that quickly once he sees such a congested secondary, knowing it really will be their best chance to get someone in space.
Trusting the run game
The other way to help Mahomes against these eight-man coverages is by keeping the offense ahead of the sticks, and an effective run game can do that. In last year’s AFC Championship, Chiefs’ running backs rushed for 5.6 yards per carry on 18 attempts. In the first half, they racked up 59 yards on 10 carries.
Yet, Kansas City continued to pass with the lead in the second half — only rushing five times after halftime while in front.
I'd be careful with RPOs on 2nd down this week. 15 tried to force the pass option last year with an extra guy dropped, and it's picked— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) December 1, 2022
It's a bad read by him, but take the read out of his hands more often this time around. Trust the designed run game pic.twitter.com/lB4fR5m42w
Knowing the Bengals were dropping an extra defender on many second downs, taking the pass on this run-option call is a bad mistake by Mahomes, and it leads to a crucial interception. The lesson here may be to trust the designed-run game more than relying on run-pass options and not be afraid to run more often on second-and-5 or 6.
To reiterate, third and short gives you much more play-calling flexibility than a longer third down would.
The bottom line
All of this can be useless information if Patrick Mahomes just plays with confidence for a full four quarters. On the final drive of regulation in the AFC Championship, there were open throws that could’ve won the game — yet, an unexpectedly hesitant Mahomes didn’t make them.
Whatever the reason for that was, I believe Mahomes has learned from it — so he and the rest of the team can apply those lessons to this year’s big matchup.