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:
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.
We know, they know, but #Chiefs defenders have to bring their hard hats in the run game Sunday— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 26, 2023
The Bills didn't last week, and KC didn't in Week 13. It's not a coincidence that both teams lost pic.twitter.com/UyfxNoYmSe
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.
Bengals put Ja'Marr Chase in orbit motions over & over against Buffalo. Here, it helps open up the box in the run game— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 26, 2023
The motion pushes Edmunds (LB) out of the box, and brings Johnson (Nickel) in. An already light box gets lighter for Iso lead (with the T pulling through!) pic.twitter.com/qQNEYboYE2
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.
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.
Burrow completed 13/14 passes between the numbers in Wk13#Chiefs LBs need to be more sound in their zone coverage— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 27, 2023
- You wanna see Willie stay in his hook zone on the 1st clip
- Bolton's gotta see the routes develop & feel the TE as the only threat to his zone, then get on him pic.twitter.com/8duJcXGl0c
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.
#Chiefs knew they needed to move around and mix up coverages post-snap in Wk13— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 27, 2023
3rd Down here, they come out in a man look -- then flip to zone after the snap. Burrow has to hold, then dump off, but KC can't finish the play before the sticks pic.twitter.com/1FzwOaj9KV
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.
#Chiefs did more pre-snap disguising coverage v. JAX last week, something they haven't done much this yr w/ the new faces at S & CB— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 26, 2023
Bills do it here, showing Cover 1 man w/ a slot blitz -- then getting into Cover 2 man with a spy
One of the few ways they got a stop last week pic.twitter.com/Y7gv0gCX98
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.