The Kansas City Chiefs are no stranger to this moment, an AFC Championship matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals. In the same breath, Chiefs’ defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is no stranger to the challenge ahead of him.
The coordinator famously held the undefeated New England Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady in his prime to only 14 points in Super Bowl XLII — and has found success against Brady at other points of his career.
I bring up Brady because Spagnuolo has previously made the comparison between Brady and Bengals’ quarterback Joe Burrow.
When asked about that comparison again during his Thursday press conference, Spagnuolo thought it through even more.
“I feel like Joe has more weapons,” Spagnuolo pondered to reporters. “I know Tom had a lot of weapons at certain times when he was there in New England... it certainly looks like he’s on his way to that. We have so much respect for this quarterback.”
The respect has been earned, to say the least. Burrow has tormented the Chiefs’ defense when it has mattered most over the three games these teams have played. The most frustrating part to most fans is how little the Chiefs get Burrow on the ground. Over the last two matchups, Kansas City has had two sacks total.
“It has been the finishing part of it, we’ve talked a lot about that,” Spagnuolo assured. “Certain schemes we have for certain pass rushers, we’re going to try to do it all. This guy is elite at everything that he does, it’s not just throwing the football. It’s throwing it to the right spots, it is making the right decisions, it’s getting out of trouble when he is rushed by good pass rushers. You have to find a way to be a little bit under control, because he is nifty.”
The quick feet in the pocket, the ability to stand tall as he navigates it, and the slipperiness he shows as he avoids oncoming rushers all come together into one word for Spagnuolo.
“When you watch him, the word I come up with is ‘nifty,’” Spagnuolo shared. “He never panics in the pocket, it feels like he has six eyeballs around his head... he is elite. You have to be more under control — and yet, if you try to rush controlled too much, you never get there.”
That’s the delicate balance the Chiefs’ pass rush will have to work with. It could be said that defensive tackle Chris Jones was overly excited to sack Burrow in last year’s AFC Championship, wrapping up too high and not securing the takedown.
It happened on multiple occasions and at the most important times possible.
“Even when Chris is not getting sacks, you know he’s helping,” Spagnuolo wanted to point out. “With either a middle push, or making the quarterback step into somebody. When he does that, we need somebody else to finish him off.”
It may tempt Spagnuolo to lean into his blitz schemes, something he loves to do — but he knows the dangers of doing it against a quarterback like Burrow.
“Can you attack a protection and get someone free, that’s what we’re always trying to do,” Spagnuolo explained. “If you do that, then you can throw the timing off. If you can’t do that, then you have to be able to cover a little bit. We know what they have on the outside — so we’ll pick our spots, but we have to be careful because we know what he and his three running mates can do if protected.”
The Chiefs’ pass rush can win and still not impact the play; Burrow has been excellent at getting the ball out quickly and trusting his playmakers to get the necessary yardage.
When that does happen, he depends on his back end to be more active around the ball — something they didn’t do a good enough job at in the Week 13 matchup.
“They’re right there; it’s a third and five, and they get five and a half,” Spagnuolo recalled. “In our practices here against the scout team, we’re making sure we’re challenging completions, be at the confrontational point; let’s not just scout-team guys catch it, and tag off. We want to be more aggressive with that because of who we are playing.”
The familiarity between Spagnuolo and the Bengals’ offense can be felt in his words — but they’re just words. It will be up to the players to execute what he’s preaching on Sunday.