As the clock struck triple zeroes on the Kansas City Chiefs’ third straight loss to the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, many in Chiefs Kingdom had the same question on their minds: Why can’t the Chiefs beat the Bengals?
Over the last 25 regular season and playoff games, Kansas City has only suffered five losses — three of them to Cincinnati. We’ve seen the Chiefs build leads in those contests — and also produce some highlight-reel plays. Yet each one has ended as a consequential loss.
The worst part? It felt like Kansas City made the same mistakes in Sunday’s loss as it did in previous ones.
Let’s take a look at why the Bengals currently have the Chiefs’ number.
It’s easy to first point to the defense. Who couldn't be frustrated with the way Cincinnati marched up and down the field on its scoring drives — even the one that Kansas City ended with fourth-down stop?
The biggest reason the Bengals had such an easy time? The Chiefs could not generate pressure on quarterback Joe Burrow.
Another recurring theme of losing to Cincy:— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) December 5, 2022
Not being able to rattle Burrow. This game was particularly special, they weren't even able to touch him!
They tried a 3-man rush, blitzing, typical 4-man rushes, and nothing got home. They couldn't even touch him on the broken play pic.twitter.com/rjKffyTfqv
Outside of rookie defensive end George Karlaftis’ fourth-quarter sack, Kansas City didn’t register a single quarterback hit. But it wasn’t for a lack of trying. With nothing coming from four-man rushes, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo called plenty of blitzes. But even then, no one could get home. He even tried three-man rushes, hoping to force Burrow into a bad decision. The Bengals’ quarterback easily beat it.
Burrow was rarely touched, maneuvering the pocket and consistently taking advantage of the Chiefs’ poor rushing lanes. When there was a chance to hit him on a broken play, Burrow scurried up the middle.
On one of the plays shown here, he runs through arm-tackle attempts by linebacker Willie Gay Jr. and cornerback L’Jarius Sneed as he collects a 16-yard gain.
1 recurring themes from 3-straight losses to the Bengals? Poor open-field tackling— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) December 5, 2022
We saw Justin Reid miss a few, but the most egregious example ended the game. 4 #Chiefs defenders vs. 2 Cincy blockers with the game on the line pic.twitter.com/0w15086Lno
Speaking of bad tackling, that was the other glaring theme from Sunday’s game that carried over from last season. Even with the new wave of young Kansas City defenders, we saw too many missed tackles — including on the game’s deciding play.
It’s a simple quick screen that’s in the sights of four Kansas City defensive backs — while they’re facing only two blockers. Safety Juan Thornhill leads the way, but misses his tackle attempt. That gives the ball carrier just enough space toward the sideline to get the five yards he needs to convert — and put the game away.
Similar play here, Bolton can force a 4th down with a better tackle— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) December 5, 2022
Need your leading tackler to make these plays pic.twitter.com/GjPlIGrgKw
It was an issue for the entire game — and why running back Semaje Perine totaled 155 scrimmage yards: he was rarely tackled backwards. Kansas City linebackers were not stout in containing him on quick passes out of the backfield.
Of course, Perine was also the player who forced missed tackles — and scored a breakaway touchdown — to get Cincinnati back into the game during last year’s AFC Championship.
But similar to the previous loss to Cincinnati, any lackluster efforts by the defense could easily be forgotten after a good performance by the Kansas City offense.
Just as the fourth quarter began, the Chiefs took possession with a 24-20 lead. The defense had held the Bengals to a field goal on successive drives — and on the two possessions before that, it had forced a turnover on downs and a punt. The Chiefs had the momentum.
Two plays into the drive, tight end Travis Kelce coughed up the football after fighting for more yards on a 19-yard reception. In a way, the turnover was similar to quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ interception in the last Cincinnati matchup: forcing the issue when it wasn’t necessary.
Cincinnati took a three-point lead off the turnover, but the Chiefs still got the ball back — past midfield and threatening to score with roughly five minutes left in the game.
Recurring themes of losing to the Bengals: 3-man rush edition— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) December 5, 2022
It's hard to beat 8-man coverages. It's especially hard when you get immediate pressure
Either way, alarm needs to go off in 15's head to go to Jet once he clears rusher the 1st time
Scramble drill is hard v. 8-deep pic.twitter.com/0rU21NKhSW
Again, Mahomes and the offense again demonstrated an inability to figure out Cincinnati’s eight-man coverage schemes. Just like in January, crowded passing lanes — combined with poor pass protection — doomed the offense.
On this third-and-3, left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. is beaten to the inside immediately after the snap, forcing Mahomes out of rhythm. This gives the eight coverage defenders ample time to blanket all of the downfield options — because they have the bodies to effectively do so. Mahomes tries to buy more time and find a window anyway, but is tripped up before he can.
These looks have to be beaten with on-time, in-rhythm passing concepts — and if that timing gets blown up, Mahomes has to understand that his best bet is to just get it into the hands of the nearest player in space. On this play, that is running back Jerick McKinnon, who is awaiting a checkdown throw to the left.
That’s how Mahomes can be better against the eight-man coverages when he has to drop back against them — but it’s also true that the team could have avoided them a few times. It might have made a difference.
After a 14-yard run and a 7-yarder, KC was set up w/ 2nd&3 on their opening drive— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) December 5, 2022
Two incompletions later, they settled for a FG. 3rd down pass was open, but batted down at the line
They trusted the run in these spots as the game went on, but it could've made a difference here pic.twitter.com/7WIQLed5P2
On the team’s first drive, they used a run of 14 yards — followed by a seven-yard rush — to get into second-and-3 from Cincinnati’s eight-yard line. Two incompletions later, they were settling for a field goal.
As the game went on, they did lean on the rushing attack more — running backs Isiah Pacheco and Jerick McKinnon finished with 117 yards on 22 carries — but more trust in the group could have made a difference on that first drive. This was also a takeaway I had from last year’s AFC Championship.
The bottom line
There’s no other way to say it: right now, the Bengals have the Chiefs’ number. Forget what the team looks like against other opponents. When facing Cincinnati, Kansas City forgets how to pressure the quarterback, tackle in open space and beat eight-man coverages.
The Chiefs may have believed they had learned their lessons from last year’s losses to the Bengals. But on Sunday, it was clear they had not.