Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow completed a whopping 81% of his passes, including two touchdown throws and turnovers. Running back Samaje Perine ran for 106 yards on 21 carries and had another 49 receiving yards on top of it.
Cincinnati converted 7-of-11 third-down tries as Burrow was sacked just one time the entire game — so why did things go so wrong for the Chiefs?
Let's start in the middle of the Chiefs' defense, an area most opposing offenses have not exposed so far this season — and certainly not to the extent the Bengals did.
For whatever reason, there's a contingent of Chiefs followers who frequently like to blame linebacker Nick Bolton whenever something goes wrong. But let's be clear — while Bolton struggled largely Sunday, he was far from the only player who missed opportunities.
In fact, it can easily be argued that he wasn't even the Chiefs' worst linebacker on the field based on the film.
Nick Bolton isn't the only Chiefs LB who played bad despite the narratives some folks wanna push.— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) December 7, 2022
Willie in no-man's land here which is ultimately what got Darius Harris on the field over him for chunks of the game. pic.twitter.com/1SM7mT0FX4
If Gay is going to bite this hard on PA and transition this late, I don't know what to tell ya.— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) December 7, 2022
But don't worry, if you wanna feel like everything's Bolton's fault and he's the only LB who played bad, there's a special segment of Chiefs twitter for you to hang in. pic.twitter.com/ajXVNrqsyC
I would never accuse Kansas City's defenders of not properly preparing for any opponent. It just so happened that the Bengals' offense schemed the linebackers up so badly that neither Willie Gay Jr. nor Bolton ever felt sure of what they were up against.
The Bengals had the right running plays dialed up that matched their pass concepts in a way that had Kansas City defenders in nonstop mental conflict. Whatever confidence the Chiefs defense had entering the game was quickly wiped away in favor of pure confusion.
Creative runs like this had the KC LBs heads spinning the rest of the game.— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) December 7, 2022
CIN takes advantage of Jones' aggressiveness, LBs flow to the backside of the play, first tackle attempt is missed. pic.twitter.com/nS34nqyZaO
It always starts up front.
Cincinnati double-teamed defensive tackle Chris Jones play after play. Unfortunately, none of the other Chiefs' defensive linemen stepped up to quickly win one-on-one matchups very often. This meant that even when the back end of the defense put together a solid rep in coverage, Burrow had ample time to adjust.
He's so great at moving in the pocket and sliding away from pressure instinctively as it is. Kansas City rarely even forced him to do that though. Rather, Burrow could just stay in the pocket, scan the field and wait for a receiver or running back to find openings in zones.
Spot drop Zone + no pressure on Burrow = this every single time. TE just has to find the soft spot and pitch his tent. pic.twitter.com/ArPpekBfy4— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) December 7, 2022
While Kansas City's own offense had its share of struggles blocking along the edges of the Bengals’ occasional three-man pass rush, the Chiefs couldn't take that approach with their own defense. If the defensive line isn't going to win rushing the passer, they have to at least maintain pocket integrity and force Burrow to make throws into tight windows.
Instead, in the clip below, we see Kansas City's lane discipline falter, leaving a wide-open lane for Burrow to scamper through for a nice gain.
What's possible when you successfully block a 3-man rush?— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) December 7, 2022
A good coverage snap wasted pic.twitter.com/Bn3OJvhIs1
We already touched on the struggles of Kansas City's linebackers and how it proceeded to layer negative play on top of negative play. Whether there was too much thinking going on or not enough, it showed itself in so many critical situations.
In the next clip, Bolton appears afraid to be aggressive and closes the space as quickly as he can — perhaps it was because of the completions that had previously came 10 to 20 yards downfield.
It's 3rd-and-2. Has to be more physicality and urgency downhill against someone like Chase. pic.twitter.com/4VEsOLhYZU— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) December 7, 2022
The trickle-down effect went beyond just the linebackers. By the second half, pressing to make significant impact plays, Chiefs defenders could be seen taking risks to compensate for the vulnerability shown over the middle of the field thus far.
Brilliantly, the Bengals were another step ahead and began to counter with routes breaking toward the sidelines. Once again — easy and open.
After peppering the MOF for so long, Burrow catches Sneed guessing a bit here. The outcut is left wide open. pic.twitter.com/K5YaoGhNLS— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) December 7, 2022
We can't make this all about the shortcomings of the Chiefs' defense, though — the Bengals and their star quarterback earned this victory. On the final play that sealed the ball game, Burrow made perhaps the best throw of the entire game to wide receiver Tee Higgins.
Last play was one the Bengals fully earned. Special throw. But something the Chiefs can takeaway in terms of increased degree of difficulty. pic.twitter.com/fhaHA5MlLL— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) December 7, 2022
Rookie cornerbacks Joshua Williams and Trent McDuffie did some really promising things overall against perhaps the greatest wide receiver duo in the entire league, save for maybe the Miami Dolphins. However, Williams did give up inside leverage on these slant routes often and — unfortunately — he was never able to get a hand on the football to break up a pass. Most quarterbacks couldn't have been as consistently accurate as Burrow was in these spots.
The bottom line
Sunday represented one of the most frustrating defensive performances I can recall in the Steve Spagnuolo era. Outside of one play made at the end of the first half by defensive end Carlos Dunlap, the defense had almost nothing positive to show for their work.
This doesn't mean all hope is lost, though. Despite such a rough outing for the defense, the team still only lost by three points. A play or two goes differently, and they still win that game.
Where does the unit go from here?
The pass rush is unlikely to improve this season, although it's hard to imagine they could ever be any worse than they were in Cincinnati Sunday — especially given Spagnuolo's blitz packages.
Fans should hope this loss will trigger some uncomfortable changes that manufacture improvement before it becomes too late. Expect Spagnuolo to play more man coverage as the season winds down and the playoffs arrive, perhaps giving the pass rush and extra second or two to create pressure while the defense leans on its strength — the cornerbacks in coverage.
Also, newly added veteran defensive tackle Brandon Williams has a chance to be this year's Mike Pennel in terms of how he could transform the team's run defense. If they can play in more favorable down-and-distances, the Chiefs’ chances to succeed go up significantly.