While the Chiefs’ defense started poorly, it took control as the game went on. In the end, it played an outsize role in securing an important win.
Let’s take a look at how it went down.
From the beginning of the game, the defense had some struggles. Most of them had to do with containing Cincinnati quarterback Jake Browning in the pocket. During the first two quarters, his ability to throw on the run gave Kansas City fits — but that had more to do with the Chiefs’ second and third levels failing to contain him than it did with a lack of pressure.
KC was putting pressure on the QB early, they just weren't prepared to contain or for any of the scrambles. Karlaftis uses a nice arm under to work back to the B gap. pic.twitter.com/6QU9TIov5r— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) January 2, 2024
Kansas City defensive end George Karlaftis played one of the best games of his career — and early on, he found ways to apply pressure and disrupt the pocket.
Karlaftis with a nice long arm early on in the game. He uses good leverage and lands the inside hand. The ball has to come out quick. pic.twitter.com/CgeEqpkYvo— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) January 2, 2024
Here, Karlaftis uses a long-arm bull rush (and a good inside move) to apply pressure — although he was unable to finish the play with a sack.
Browning was able to scramble and throw on the run while the Bengals built up a ten-point lead. But if not for Kansas City’s defensive line, the deficit could have been bigger.
Figuring it out
As the game progressed, the defensive line began making a larger impact. Charles Omenihu — who is having a great season — led the charge with a good heads-up play in the red zone.
Cinci is looking to run a screen in the redzone, but Omenihu recognizes the play and gets his hands in the air to swat down the pass. A good heads-up play, and once again Omenihu made an impact on the game. pic.twitter.com/uBPsFBQZo7— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) January 2, 2024
We see that the Bengals are trying to run a wide receiver screen — but on the snap, Omenihu reads the play. This allows him to get his hands in the passing lane to bat down the throw, forcing the Bengals to settle for a field goal.
Later, Omenihu and Karlaftis sacked Browning for the first time — and the tide of the game started to turn.
Karlaftis works his way up the field against Brown, and he does a good job of working his hands and re-directing his rush into the B gap. Omenihu's motor doesn't stop and he gets in on the sack as well. Slide protection was to Jones. pic.twitter.com/RbAfb53AD8— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) January 2, 2024
Karlaftis had started the game rushing on the right side. But as we see here, he later moved over to rush over left tackle Orlando Brown Jr.
The former Chiefs player’s tendency to struggle while blocking in space (or to fail against quicker rushers) is put on full display as Karlaftis works his way up the field before redirecting his rush back through the B-gap; Brown simply isn’t quick enough to power down his block. As Karlaftis dives to make the sack, Omenihu shows tremendous effort to power through the center and also get his hands on the quarterback.
As the Chiefs’ offense steadily put points on the board to re-take the lead, the pass rush started to heat up.
Getting home late
With a late lead, the Kansas City pass rush was able to attack the quarterback on obvious passing downs. Karlaftis continued his domination — and Brown's bad day got worse.
Karlaftis hits Brown with a rip move to bend the arc and work his way to the QB for a sack. He does a good job of trapping Brown's outside hand and then ripping and running through the block. pic.twitter.com/0IKS8ypQkR— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) January 2, 2024
Here, Karlaftis fires off the snap and uses a tremendous rip move to bend the arc and blow past Brown. The first step puts Karlaftis in a great spot to catch Brown lunging toward him. Taking advantage of this poor technique, Karlaftis traps Brown’s outside hand and throws the rip move to bend the arc. Browning doesn't stand a chance. The sack gives Karlaftis double-digit sacks in only his second season.
It’s important to note, though, that Karlaftis was able to rush one-on-one with the tackles for most of the game because Cincinnati was selling out to stop his teammate Chris Jones. In 2022’s AFC Championship against the Bengals, Jones had an all-time game, making the key stop that led to the game-winning field goal.
On Sunday, Jones once again made a late play to beat Cincinnati once more.
KC with six walked up at the LOS. Cinci has seven in protection, but with the look KC gave, Cinci can't double-team Jones. Quickly penetrating the A gap, Jones blows up the play before it can even get going. pic.twitter.com/AbwI2ZeLHi— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) January 2, 2024
We see that with men walking up to the line of scrimmage, the Bengals have to alter their protection plan — which leaves Jones one-on-one against the left guard. At the snap, Jones explodes off the line, knocking the guard's hands down while rushing the A-gap.
The guard appears to think that he has help from the center. But thanks to the confusion created by the Chiefs' alignment, the center is focused on blocking Nick Bolton, who drops off the line at the last second. This allows Jones to destroy the pocket and collect a sack.
While Jones’ production has been lower this year, his impact has still been felt on every play. Since opponents know he can wreck games, they have to scheme accordingly. This opens opportunities for Kansas City’s other pass rushers.
So while Jones doesn’t have many one-on-one pass-rush opportunities these days, he takes full advantage of the ones that he does get. On Sunday, he made one more very good play that put the Bengals into a fourth-and-impossible.
Final pressure for KC. Jones works a nice swim move to beat the RG and put a hit on the QB. The pass falls incomplete and sets up a nearly impossible fourth and long situation. pic.twitter.com/PhYCaYFFch— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) January 3, 2024
On this play, Jones is again working one-on-one, using a swim move to quickly beat the guard. Since Jones still has one of the league’s most-feared bull rushes, opposing guards tend to lean forward too much — but this is where Jones can use his quickness and explosion. Here, the guard is so concerned about the power rush that it gives Jones a perfect opening for his swim move.
The bottom line
The defensive line finished the game with four sacks. Their late-game domination put the last nail in the coffin in which the Bengals’ 2023 season will be buried.
After Sunday’s season finale against the Los Angeles Chargers, the team is going to need its defensive line to continue dominating the line of scrimmage in the postseason
With Jones, Karlaftis and Omenihu playing so well — and with Mike Danna and Tershawn Wharton continuing to make contributions — Kansas City will have a very formidable lineup. The Chiefs now lead the league in both pressure (28.8%) and sack rate (9.6%) — and their 54 sacks are second only to the Baltimore Ravens. In a league filled with pass rushers, the Chiefs have one of the NFL’s best groups.