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Chiefs Film Review: How Steve Spagnuolo limited the Bengals’ Ja’Marr Chase

Kansas City’s defensive coordinator formulated a plan that kept Cincinnati’s best wideout from having a big game.

Syndication: The Enquirer Sam Greene/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

Over the past four years — a time when the league has arguably never been as talented and deep at wide receiver — the Kansas City Chiefs have faced a lot of elite wideouts. It seems that each week, there’s at least one receiver who can wreck what the Kansas City defense is doing.

While the Chiefs have tended to defend elite wide receivers pretty well, there has been one exception: the Cincinnati Bengals’ Ja’Marr Chase.

Chase blends a rare balance of speed, size, coordination and strength. He’s given Kansas City trouble more than once — but his 11-catch, 266-yard performance in Week 17 of the 2021 season was a bitter pill for the Chiefs’ defense to swallow.

There’s not a single player who can cover Chase one-on-one. Even worse, the Bengals move him around to give him matchups opposing defenses don’t want to see. To win Sunday’s game, the Kansas City defense had to find a way to stop him.

And for the most part, that’s what it did. Chase had six receptions in the AFC Championship, but only generated 75 yards. Even his best moments were incredible plays into tight coverage.

Let’s see what the Chiefs did to limit a very productive wideout.

When Chase was on the outside

Cincinnati likes to isolate Chase on the back side of their formations — a common approach for star receivers. (Kansas City frequently does the same thing with tight end Travis Kelce). When coverage is rolled over to the formation’s front side, this typically forces man coverage on the back side. For an elite receiver, that’s generally a win.

So when the Bengals isolated Chase, Chiefs’ defensive coordinator Steve Spagunolo responded by either clouding or bracketing him. Clouding refers to keeping a safety over the top of a receiver in Cover 2, which gives vertical help. Bracketing is similar. What’s different is that the defense plays the receiver inside-out. This helps take away underneath routes.

These are common defensive calls — but Kansas City made a concerted effort to use them each time Chase was on the outside. And to ensure that the coverage was always rolled to the star wideout, the Chiefs didn’t blitz. All evening, Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow kept looking for blitzes — which would give him the man coverage matchup he wanted — but Kansas City wasn’t accommodating him. This is what led to the controversial intentional grounding penalty — and cornerback Jaylen Watson’s interception.

When Cincinnati moved Chase into the slot — typically to get him a matchup against a linebacker — the Chiefs ran QQH (quarter-quarter-half) coverage — that is, quarters against the strength of the formation, with Cover 2 on the weak side. Kansas City treated these plays like a 4-strong formation, pushing safety Justin Reid to the back side to help.

As we see here, linebacker Nick Bolton does a great job covering Chase in quarters, playing with hard inside leverage to take away any crossing route. If Chase runs an over route, Bolton has safety help on the back side. If Chase runs down the seam, there is still safety help from the front side. All Bolton has to do is wall off the middle of the field — which he does well.

After this, the Bengals didn’t put Chase in the slot very often.

When Chase was in motion

In their Divisional Round game against the Buffalo Bills, the Bengals often put Chase in motion — particularly out of the backfield — to cause alignment issues for the defense. If Buffalo pushed its second-level defenders over to stop a potential bubble screen, Cincinnati would run right at the nickel back. But if the Bills didn’t push, they had to try tackling Chase in space.

Spagnuolo was ready with a different plan. When the Bengals try motioning Chase on this play, Spagnuolo pushes his slot defender out to defend the bubble — rather than pushing his linebackers out of their gaps. This leaves a vacant C-gap in the run fit — but Spagnuolo rotates his weak-side safety down into the box and slants the defensive line to compensate.

Spagnuolo scouted this look very well. The Bengals only ran Chase with a backfield motion this one time — and the Chiefs stuffed it.

This brings up a good question, though: couldn’t Cincinnati just throw to the bubble screen?

Absolutely — and the Bengals tried to do exactly that.

Here — on the first play of the game — Cincinnati moves Chase across the field, actually getting a three-on-two matchup that would have put him one-on-one against safety Juan Thornhill. But slot defender Trent McDuffie is ready for the screen. He makes an incredible play to slip the block inside and tackle Chase in space.

So even when Kansas City didn’t have a numbers advantage, having a defender who was able to win that block — and tackle Chase — was critical.

This play also dissuaded the Bengals. For the rest of the game, they didn’t run another screen for Chase.

The bottom line

Spagnuolo is a playoff coach. While his defenses might not always produce optimal results in the regular season, the postseason is where he always shines.

This time, he found a way to stop one of the league’s most dangerous receivers. Wherever Chase was aligned, Spagnuolo had a plan. It’s one of the big reasons the Chiefs are now in the Super Bowl.

Their opponent — the Philadelphia Eagles — is a team with tremendous offensive talent. Spagnuolo will have to have a great plan against them, too. But if these playoff games have been any indication, that’s exactly what it will be.

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