On Sunday, the Kansas City Chiefs will travel to face the Cincinnati Bengals. It will be the first time the teams have seen each other since the Bengals’ 27-24 overtime victory in January’s AFC Championship game.
Cincinnati’s elite weapons gave the Kansas City defense fits in two meetings last season. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo knows that against one of the league’s best receiving corps, his unit will have to be focused on stopping game-changing plays — just as they were during Sunday’s 26-10 victory over the Los Angeles Rams.
“We talk about explosive passes every week,” Spagnuolo told reporters on Thursday. “Last week was one of the few [games] where we did not have a pass play over 20 [yards] — I think we had a couple [of] other games like that. That makes a huge difference.
“Let’s face it, every offense in this league is going to prey upon explosive passes. It gets them going; it flips field position. Our guys are playing with good technique. We’ve had certain coverages to eliminate that.”
Though a counter-argument can be that selling out for the big play leaves a defense vulnerable underneath, Spagnuolo maintains that long drives — with more opportunities for defenses to capitalize on mistakes — better suit the defense.
“There was a play in the game last week,” he recalled, “where it was evident that they were taking a shot — and we took it away. Now the quarterback found the [running] back, and it ended up being a 15-yard gain because we had taken away all the deep guys. But we’d like to keep doing that — because I believe if you make a team drive the field, somewhere along the way, you can make a play.”
Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow may make driving the field especially frustrating due to his often flawless decision-making — and an underrated ability to move in the pocket.
“We’re dealing with another quarterback that gets away,” observed Spagnuolo. “He’s big and he’s strong and he can throw the football — but he’s not a statue by any means. He has a unique ability. He’s sneaky. He’s really good at protecting the football.
“This is one of the teams that have the fewest turnovers or fumbles in the NFL. He’s one of the reasons — because he’s really smart in the pocket with the football and how he maneuvers.”
On Wednesday, Kansas City head coach Andy Reid expressed confidence that his pass rush can be more successful in this game than it was in January — when Burrow escaped multiple near-sacks to continue drives.
“We’ve done better in that area — finishing the sacks,” noted Reid. “This kid is unique that we’re playing. He’s strong in the pocket so it presents another challenge — and you know our guys will work on that this week and make sure that they have a plan for that.”
Since January’s loss, the Chiefs have overhauled their secondary. Sunday’s contest will be the biggest test yet for rookie defensive backs Trent McDuffie, Joshua Williams, Jaylen Watson and Bryan Cook. Spagnuolo is happy that his rookies will now have a chance to experience a big-game atmosphere now, rather than being untested next month for the postseason games that will matter most.
“I haven’t talked about it yet — but I plan to on Saturday night,” he confirmed. “This is a real test to find out where we’re at. You just don’t want to be getting tested at a time when it’s really important that we win the game.
“[But] hopefully — with the other 11 games we’ve played — it’s prepared us for this. We’ll find out on Sunday. The young guys that we’ve had back there, I think have grown pretty quickly.
“Trent having not played a lot of games to this point, I don’t see him bat an eyelash on the sideline; Joshua certainly hasn’t. Jaylen’s dealing with that hand right now. I thought Bryan Cook did a nice job going in for Juan [Thornhill] last week. You think they’d have attacked a rookie back there, but he was solid. When you don’t hear a lot about a safety after a game, that’s a good thing — because of the position he plays.”
Even with so many players who did not play in last year’s meetings, Reid believes they all can learn from the Chiefs’ mistakes in those games.
“Every game is different,” he explained, “so we’re going into this [planning for the] same team — but they’ll have something different for us. But if you use it to get better, then that’s the objective. A lot of the guys weren’t here, so they just watch the tape and see what we did.”