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Film review: Chiefs’ back end has big challenge ahead with Bengals’ offense

Cincinnati’s explosive unit will put a lot of stress on Kansas City’s off-ball defenders

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

In the fourth edition of the AFC’s new elite rivalry, the Kansas City Chiefs will need everything they can get from their young defense, going up against what has proven to be one of the NFL’s best, most explosive offenses with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Over this series, Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow has evolved from just a confident gunslinger to a calculated, decisive signal caller who rarely makes mistakes or gives defenses a chance to make a negative play. That was on display most in the last meeting: Week 13 of this season, especially on the game-ending drive.

The Chiefs failed to get a stop when it mattered most, so that’s exactly what they’ll need to do on Sunday in the AFC Championship. While Arrowhead Pride film analyst Caleb James previewed the matchup from a defensive front’s perspective, I looked at it from the back end:

Early downs

The Bengals will not hesitate to pound the rock, using a downhill run scheme that allows running backs Joe Mixon and Semaje Perine to get a head of steam and maximize yardage on their handoffs. Mixon missed the Week 13 matchup due to injury, but Perine racked up 106 yards on 21 carries.

Against Buffalo, the Bengals could lean on the ground game because they established an early lead and kept it. Mixon and Perine combined for 138 yards on 27 handoffs, none of them gaining more than 16 yards at a time.

Their run scheme puts a lot of onus on second-level defenders to make the plays. When the Bengals run inside, they’ll look for double-team blocks at the line to create the initial run lane — putting linebackers in one-on-one battles with the back. When they run outside, they love a classic toss sweep, where linebackers and safeties will be challenged to fight through traffic to the sideline and make tackles.

The back end of the Chiefs’ defense didn’t step up in these moments during the Week 13 game. According to PFF, slot cornerback L’Jarius Sneed was marked for three missed tackles — while linebackers Nick Bolton, Willie Gay Jr. safeties Juan Thornhill and Justin Reid were all faulted for two missed tackles.

The Bengals will also use pre-snap motion to manipulate a defense and get a favorable look in the box. Against Buffalo, that meant constantly sending wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase in an orbit motion — influencing the defense to overcorrect their alignment, then running to the space that the defense just vacated. The attention on Chase led to some of Cincinnati’s biggest runs in the Divisional round.

Passing downs

Burrow’s development has made the pass offense as efficient as it is capable of producing a big play. That’s why there is so much pressure put on an opponent’s coverage.

Nothing symbolizes that development from Burrow like his performance against the Chiefs in Week 13, when he completed 13 of the 14 passes he attempted between the numbers. That’s a stark difference from the tight-windowed sideline jump balls that got the best of Kansas City the first time these two teams met in the 2021 regular season.

The throws over the middle are easier to make; the Chiefs should want Burrow to throw the contested catch jump balls. That means Bolton and Gay will need to do a better job of staying sound in their zone coverage and covering as much ground as possible.

In the clip above, Gay overreacts to a route crossing his face and leaves his zone — resulting in an easy completion to the tight end. Then, Bolton drops into coverage but doesn’t feel the route development — putting him in no man’s land as Burrow completes a pass to the tight end right next to him. A better feel for their coverage responsibility could have made these throws much harder.

So when the coverage can force Burrow to hold it, Burrow has improved at taking the check down and living for another day. That was a great strategy in Week 13 because of the Chiefs’ missed tackling issues. Here, Burrow is forced to dump it, but a lack of effort on rallying to the ball allows a first down anyway.

So what should the Chiefs do?

With what feels like an offense that has all the answers, Kansas City’s defense can’t be expected to pitch a shutout.

However, the Chiefs’ back end can make things more complicated for the Bengals by putting a greater emphasis on closing down throwing lanes and rallying to ball carriers. There needs to be an urgency from the linebackers, safeties, and cornerbacks that can be noticed. The Bengals will take advantage of players whether they’re too aggressive or too passive on a given play, so Chiefs’ defenders might as well be more aggressive.

Regarding schematics, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo needs to continue the trend he was using in the Divisional round and disguise coverages before the snap. It worked for the Bills on this third down early in the game: after showing one high safety and a slot blitz, Buffalo rotates into a two-high look with only three rushers coming. The scenery change is enough for Burrow to hold the ball and eventually get sacked.

So watch for late safety rotations and movement from the defense on passing downs. Even if Burrow gets to the answer eventually, it may take him longer than usual — which could be the difference between a pressure and a sack for the Chiefs’ defensive line.

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