There was nothing pretty about how the Kansas City Chiefs’ offense finished off the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC Championship. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes was forced to overcome numerous injuries among his normal receivers as the team worked its way to a 23-20 victory.
Tight end Travis Kelce was listed as questionable for the game after dealing with late-week back spasms, while wide receiver Justin Watson was inactive due to an illness. Then during the game, wide receivers Kadarius Toney, Juju Smith-Schuster and Mecole Hardman were all forced out with injuries.
By late in the contest, Marquez Valdes-Scantling stood alone as the only healthy wideout among the Chiefs’ main foursome — and the offense utilized him as such. He produced 116 receiving yards by catching six of his eight targets — one of them a third-quarter touchdown that gave the Chiefs a crucial 20-13 lead.
Let’s take a closer look at how Valdes-Scantling earned every bit of his first trip to a Super Bowl:
Taking advantage of one high safety
With so many of Kansas City’s skill-position players unavailable, it appeared that the Bengals trusted their back end enough to play heavier fronts. That gave them a leg up in the running game. The Chiefs’ running backs carried the ball 15 times for only 27 yards — and Cincinnati loading up the box was a big reason why.
To move that eighth defender closer to the line of scrimmage, the Bengals had to play with only one safety over the top. That’s a situation in which Valdes-Scantling can feast. With the seams and deep sideline more open, he can use his vertical route-running ability (and his length) to get into position for chunk completions.
MVS had a big game Sunday night partially because the Bengals were comfortable playing from 1-high to get more players close to LOS— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 31, 2023
This is a 2-man route, a smash concept with a quick fake rollout to give 15 plenty of time. A rope from the opposite hash, great adjustment by MVS pic.twitter.com/Cr7uVM92QY
Here, the Chiefs feed into the Bengals’ loaded box by faking a run into maximized pass protection, sending only two pass-catchers out on immediate routes. Facing man coverage with one safety over the top, Valdes-Scantling runs a corner route, getting away from the safety horizontally — and getting away from his defender vertically.
His man defender gets into a decent trailing position, forcing Mahomes to layer the pass just between the defensive backs. He gets that part down, but the placement is inside — and that’s where Valdes-Scantling’s excellent ball-tracking skills (and long arms) come into play. He adjusts to a throw behind him, securing a 29-yard gain that set up Kansas City’s first touchdown.
Cincy continued to go Cover 1 man, giving MVS these opportunities to the sideline— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 31, 2023
One of the strengths in his game is running through physical coverage on a deep route w/o losing speed. Easily fights through Hilton's outside leverage to get a huge catch here pic.twitter.com/EV4acPaWI6
Later in the game, Valdes-Scantling is assigned to break off a deep, out-breaking route while facing man coverage and only one safety deep. He sells the inside vertical to move the safety, then cuts back out to the sideline — appearing to break through slot cornerback Mike Hilton’s coverage so he doesn’t lose the timing of his pass pattern. That separation is enough to complete the pass and get a first down.
This pass also has to be layered. There’s just enough air under it it to get over the trailing defender’s head — and Valdes-Scantling makes another great adjustment in a tight window.
The team had many roles that needed to be filled, so Valdes-Scantling found himself taking on more than his usual responsibilities.
When MVS wasn't making a big play down the field, he was filling in as the orbit motion man and maximizing the yards gained on a check down here. 25 yards pic.twitter.com/wsWFeHsCIX— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 31, 2023
Here, he is in an unaccustomed orbit motion out of the backfield, ultimately ending up as a checkdown option underneath the deeper routes. With nothing open downfield, Mahomes dumps it off to Valdes-Scantling, who utilizes the initial space to gain 25 yards in all. He read the blocks well, maximizing the yards gained on the short pass.
Great effort by MVS to get the 1st down here. Blitz forces a quick, underneath pass, he knows his position on the field. Turns up and just lowers the shoulder to go thru 2 defenders— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 31, 2023
Stays up just long enough to stretch for the 1st pic.twitter.com/hURGYDDb77
Here is another important play where Valdes-Scantling — normally a downfield threat — was forced to make a play on a short pass. Facing third down, Mahomes had to get rid of the ball quickly — and short of the sticks — to beat the blitz. Valdes-Scantling turned upfield, then lowered his shoulder through to burst through two defenders, staying up long enough to stretch the ball out for a first down.
Getting open as a secondary read
Even when Valdes-Scantling wasn’t the go-to route on a play, he was still working to make sure he could make an impact if the opportunity presented itself.
Here's a simple, but good example of MVS keeping himself available to 15 once his initial reads are taken away— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 31, 2023
Doesn't run too far upfield once the play breaks, keeps in front of the adjacent CB & hugs sideline enough to turn up quickly and get the 1st down pic.twitter.com/kKtRvD6gsS
This is a simple example — but it is one where a busted pass play becomes a first down. Valdes-Scantling’s simple sit route isn’t targeted within the rhythm of the play. But instead of panicking — and running to other parts of the field — he keeps himself in front of the adjacent cornerback, far away enough that he can turn up the sideline for an additional six yards. On this play, Valdes-Scantling gives Mahomes throwing window by understanding the best place to be.
MVS continued feasting on the benefits of one-high. Here he does it w/o being a primary option— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 31, 2023
Man coverage, 15 wants Kelce but Robber S is helping over. As he comes back to Moore on shallow crosser, Bates overanticipates that throw -- leaving MVS wide open on the post for a TD pic.twitter.com/zJqAwnWnLT
On this third-down play in the red zone, it’s likely that Mahomes would prefer to find Kelce. The Bengals prepare for that by dropping one of their two safeties down to help bracket the tight end. When Mahomes sees Kelce is not an option, he comes back to the middle of the field — where wide receiver Skyy Moore is sprinting across.
Anticipating that throw, lone deep safety Jessie Bates attacks Moore’s shallow route. This leaves the end zone wide open for Valdes-Scantling — the third read — to run for the post. The pass protection (and Mahomes himself) buy just enough time to get the ball there.
The bottom line
The Kansas City offense didn’t have it easy during the AFC Championship. Whether it was from injuries or an inability to run the ball, the passing game was in a bad spot. It really needed someone to step up and make a handful of impactful plays.
That’s exactly what Valdes-Scantling did. It was his biggest game with the Chiefs — and with a few plays, he’s instantly been made an all-time Chiefs player.