Leading into Sunday’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Cincinnati Bengals’ wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase was questionable to play as he recovered from a shoulder injury. But still answered reporters’ questions about the Chiefs’ defensive backfield, stating his belief that the unit didn’t have a standout player.
Meanwhile, Chiefs’ cornerback L’Jarius Sneed — who would normally have the primary responsibility to cover Chase — was unable to practice all week due to a calf strain. He worked to a game-time decision, improving during the weekend — but it’s easy to imagine that a comment like the one Chase made might cause Sneed to push harder to return.
L'Jarius Sneed aligned across from Ja'Marr Chase on 21 of his 34 routes (61.8%), allowing 2 receptions for 27 yards on 3 targets.— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 1, 2024
Chase gained fewer receiving yards than expected (-6) for the first time in his five career games vs the Chiefs.#CINvsKC | #ChiefsKingdom pic.twitter.com/bHd6P7LtJt
Sneed’s presence ended up as bad news for Chase, who was limited to only 41 receiving yards over the seven passes thrown his way; only three were caught. Even after Kansas City’s victory, Chase still had words for Sneed.
All the words were simply noise to the Chiefs’ defense, which has largely carried the team to its eighth straight AFC West title. After Sunday’s game, defensive tackle Chris Jones reminded reporters how the Chiefs feel about these kinds of things.
“We don’t comment, we just play,” Jones assured them. “We don’t really talk. We don’t engage with the back and forth. They do this every year. Last year [it] was the playoffs — this year in the regular season.”
Even without starting quarterback Joe Burrow, the Bengals were putting up a fight in the AFC playoff race. The Chiefs’ defense surrendered scores on the Bengals’ first three drives, allowing 17 points by midway through the second quarter.
But then the unit began swarming Cincinnati quarterback Jake Browning, pairing up with lockdown coverage to hold the Bengals to no further points — and just 159 net passing yards.
“Kudos to Sneed,” declared Jones. “Every top receiver we’ve played against, Sneed has held his own.”
Then Jones realized he didn’t even know exactly how many yards Chase had gained. Told that the Bengals’ star had recorded just 41 yards against the Chiefs, Jones smiled.
“Exactly,” he said.
The secondary’s latest lockdown of a star wideout was paired with pressure from Kansas City’s defensive front. In the Bengals’ last possession, quarterback Jake Browning was sacked four times — one of them by Jones on a second-and-long. Two were from an unlikely source.
“Guys saw their opportunity to seize the moment,” Jones recalled. “George Karlaftis, Charles Omenihu — we had [safety] J-Reid get two of them. I don’t like that — I’m not for a defensive back getting sacks — but it’s all good.
“We just got after it... we did what we were supposed to do.”
Jones explained how a persistent rushing attack had allowed the Bengals to get into a rhythm against Kansas City in the early part of the game. But once the Chiefs’ front began closing down running lanes, the Bengals couldn’t move the ball as effectively.
Things came to a head in the third quarter, when Cincinnati was threatening to add to its 17-13 lead. But the Chiefs forced a fourth-and-short — and then clogged gaps, allowing linebacker Willie Gay Jr. to make a significant tackle for loss.
“That was a huge momentum shift,” Jones recalled. “We were in goal line out there... they saw how many guys we had in, they checked it to the downhill run, Willie knocked it back, we were able to get off the field and the offense went to score. I think that was the shift in the game right there.”
The Chiefs own sideline appears to be having some issues. pic.twitter.com/M6ylGDLXsR— NFL on CBS (@NFLonCBS) December 31, 2023
Gay’s explosion through the line of scrimmage was matched by his emotional explosion on the sideline earlier in the game. It’s something fans have gotten used to seeing from Chiefs players, who are clearly passionate about the game — a point that Jones reiterated.
“We’re just so competitive,” noted Jones, who was observed calming Gay down after the outburst. “With a lot of competitiveness going on, it can look bad — but it’s not as bad as it seems.
“I think Willie is a fierce competitor. Sometimes his emotion gets in the way; sometimes you just have to bring him back in and let him know, ‘We’ve still got your back.’”
Gay later channeled that passion into a big play — something that’s easier for defensive players to do, since they tend to have less to think about than offensive players.
But however that passion is expressed, it’s something the team does on the field — not in front of microphones and cameras in the locker room.