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3 lessons the Chiefs’ offense should learn from the latest Bengals loss

Sunday’s loss to Cincinnati provides Kansas City with things to learn about the home stretch — and the playoffs.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Cincinnati Bengals Kareem Elgazzar-USA TODAY Sports

During the Patrick Mahomes era, no AFC team has defeated the Kansas City Chiefs more often than the Cincinnati Bengals. During the star quarterback’s early seasons, Tom Brady’s New England Patriots were the thorn in the team’s side. But the Patriots collected only two victories. The Bengals have now won three in the same calendar year.

There is a long list of ways the Chiefs could have been better in these games — but this team is driven by its offense. In each of these matchups, the offense had chances to overcome the defense’s struggles — but each time, it came up short in the fourth quarter.

Here are three lessons the Kansas City offense should learn from Sunday’s 27-24 loss to Cincinnati.

1. The running game is reliable

The Chiefs’ run blocking is gelling. Throughout Sunday’s game, it was very apparent that it is now hitting its stride. Running backs Isiah Pacheco and Jerick McKinnon collected a solid 22 carries, averaging 5.3 yards per carry.

Kansas City’s bread-and-butter running plays worked as well as they have all season — especially on outside-zone runs to the left.

These plays are made possible by right tackle Andrew Wylie and right guard Trey Smith’s ability to shove the defensive line down, maximizing the width of the cutback lane. On top of that, tight end Noah Gray sprung these cutback runs by taking a great angle toward his blocker and stalemating them — whether that was using his hands or a (legal) cut block.

It was good to see the Chiefs lean on the rushing attack when they could see it was working — but even when the offense was gaining chunks of yardage on the ground, multiple drives still ended with streaks of dropbacks.

Situationally, the running game should be given more trust. It is the strength of the offense’s front five.

2. The pass protection is not reliable against good edge rushes

The weakness of the offensive line has always been its pass protection — but Sunday’s game was a reminder of how impactful (and disappointing) it can be. It was another demonstration of the old axiom: an offensive line is only as good as its weakest link.

Left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. has never done very well against explosive edge rushers who win with burst off the snap, technical hands and bend. That’s how Cincinnati’s leading sack artist — EDGE Trey Hendrickson — plays. Quite simply, he gave Brown fits.

Brown allowed three hits on Mahomes. Two of them forced incompletions at critical points, while the third ended as the game-defining sack. Next to him, replacement left guard Nick Allegretti allowed two quarterback hits. One forced an underthrown, incomplete pass to tight end Travis Kelce, who was streaking down the sideline with a step on his defender.

Wylie’s performance in pass protection wasn’t much more impressive; he gave way on an early sack of his quarterback. But that sack — along with some other plays where the Bengals’ pressure made a significant impact — could have been avoided if Mahomes had played with better timing and threw in rhythm.

We’ve seen Mahomes consistently overcome pressure by staying on time. It apparently just needs to be a specific focus for Mahomes when Kansas City is playing units with top edge rushers. Both Brown and Wylie’s performances have depended on the quality of the edge rushers they’ve faced, so we may not see this problem reoccur during the remaining regular-season games. Nearly every playoff opponent, however, is going to present at least a Hendrickson-level challenge to the offensive line.

In January, Mahomes — and the team’s play-calling committee led by head coach Andy Reid — will both have to remember this lesson.

3. Against Cincinnati, more plays after the catch are needed

The reason Mahomes’ timing (and in-rhythm play) comes up against Cincinnati is because of the way the Bengals defend the Chiefs: they primarily rely on coverage, crowding receivers and taking away downfield throwing windows.

To beat that, Mahomes needs to get the ball out quickly — and pass-catchers need to make plays after the catch. Some of the game’s best offensive moments were when Kansas City was doing exactly that. On both a third and a fourth-down conversion, a quick throw to wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster allowed him to break through tackles and move the chains.

Even if the timing is disrupted by poor pass protection — like it was on the Chiefs’ last offensive snap — it’s important to understand how difficult it is to find space for throwing windows against eight defenders in coverage. When the play is busted by immediate pressure, it becomes even harder; there’s less room for receivers to operate in the scramble drill — or it takes longer to get into that space.

On this play, Mahomes evades Brown’s allowed pressure, resets in the pocket and has time to throw to his checkdown: McKinnon in the flat. While the back would have had to run through a cornerback’s tackle to secure the first down, we’ve seen McKinnon do that before.

But Mahomes chooses to extend the play, looking for a downfield option — but doesn’t have the time to find one before he is sacked. You can see where he is looking: Smith-Schuster is finding his way to the open field. It just takes too long for the receiver to get there.

The failure of this play can be put on Mahomes’ shoulders: after the pocket collapses, he holds the ball too long.

The bottom line

During Sunday’s loss, the Kansas City offense played well overall — but still failed in some of the same ways it did against Cincinnati in 2021.

But there’s now more room to trust the running game situationally. This will help the team’s offensive line — which is clearly more comfortable when creating lanes for ball carriers than it is when trying to contain good edge rushers in pass protection.

With all of that said, the Chiefs can win the next round if they trust pass-catchers to make plays after the catch — which should be easier if playmakers like wide receivers Mecole Hardman and Kadarius Toney are available in a potential postseason rematch with the Bengals.

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