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Film review: What the Chiefs can learn from last year’s losses to Bengals

Kansas City will need to apply the lessons they learned from last season in order to exact revenge.

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AFC Championship - Cincinnati Bengals v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

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:

Pass 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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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