Welcome to Conference Championship Weekend. Here at Buffalo Sports Page we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming playoff games and what each team might do to emerge victorious.
This season’s AFC Championship Game will take place at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri as the Cincinnati Bengals will face the Kansas City Chiefs. Here’s what you should know:
BENGALS’ OFFENSE CONTINUING SUCCESS IN 2022
The Cincinnati Bengals’ head honcho is former Rams quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor. Naturally, Taylor employs a version of his former colleague Sean McVay’s offensive playbook which emphasizes a running game built around zone-blocking (especially to the outside on “stretch” plays) and passes that are created off the threat of play-action. It’s a West Coast-style of offense that can create a lot of big plays down the field from craftily designed routes that work off one another, and the skill position players often line up in reduced splits to the line of scrimmage to become both extra blockers on handoffs and to have more room to run routes on the field.
At the helm of this attack is former first overall draft choice Joe Burrow. Burrow not only possesses a strong arm and high football I.Q., but also has a strong sense of rhythm and timing for a young quarterback, is consistently accurate and moves well within the pocket. He’s aggressive when attacking one on one matchups outside the numbers and executes well out of empty sets – allowing him to become the first quarterback ever to be selected first overall in the NFL Draft and start in a Super Bowl within two years.
Those movement skills came in handy in his first two pro seasons as Burrow operated behind one of the league’s worst offensive lines. Despite the left side of Cincinnati’s line being serviceable (and held down by Jonah Williams and Quinton Spain), Trey Hopkins, Hakeem Andeniji and Isaiah Prince were not – thus putting Burrow under duress, taking a lot of sacks and sometimes anticipating pressure when there wasn’t any – leading to hurried throws and interceptions.
Entering this past offseason the Bengals addressed those issues by replacing Spain, Hopkins, Andeniji and Prince in their starting lineup with rookie Cordell Volson and free agent signings Ted Karras, Alex Cappa and La’el Collins. Those additions bolstered the Bengals – while they got off to a rocky start by surrendering three sacks or more in five of Cincinnati’s first eight games, they’ve given up just 17 sacks in their last 10 outings including playoffs (perhaps not coincidentally, all were wins). With Collins now out with a torn ACL plus Williams with a knee injury and Cappa with an ankle ailment, that newfound success will be put to the test with Andeniji, Jackson Carman and Max Scharping now in the starting lineup.
While pass protection isn’t the Bengals’ strong suit their run blocking isn’t all that bad, and Joe Mixon – one of pro football’s better running backs when healthy – took advantage by having the best season of his five-year career a year ago with over 1,200 yards on the ground and 13 touchdowns. His solid vision and good cutback ability have meshed well with Taylor’s scheme, especially on first down where the Bengals like to give him the rock, and Mixon has played well again this year while also setting career highs in all receiving categories.
Burrow has plenty of weapons at his disposal in the passing game. Ja’Marr Chase, his former college teammate at LSU, finished his rookie season last year with the second-most receiving yards and touchdowns ever by a first-year player and has done most of his damage as the boundary ‘X’ receiver on three-by-one trips formations and slant patterns on slant-flat combinations. Tee Higgins is a red zone target and excels on vertical routes and shifty slot receiver Tyler Boyd is a nifty option on short patterns.
Chase, Higgins and Boyd are so prolific, in fact, that they are one of just two trios in the NFL (along with Jacksonville’s Christian Kirk, Marvin Jones and Evan Engram) to each rank in the top-25 in receiving yards and are a major reason why the Bengals were one of the league leaders in yards after the catch. Hayden Hurst is their tight end.
Cincinnati was seventh in points per game, fifth in passing and eighth in total yards per game heading into the playoffs and have won 10 in a row including last week. They’ve become the first team ever to win 25 or more games in a two-season span after losing more than 25 in the previous two seasons and have won five playoff games in the last two seasons after emerging victorious in five playoff contests in the previous 53 years combined.
CINCINNATI’S DEFENSE IS OVERLOOKED
Cincinnati’s defense is mainly zone-based while using split safety coverages (such as Cover Two, Three, Four and Six) and coordinator Lou Anarumo is their play-caller. Although they may not be among the league leaders in many statistical categories, they are good situationally, adapt well to their opponents, are fundamentally sound and well-coached. Additionally they disguise their coverages well and have multiple front packages, blitz concepts and coverages (watch for them to rush three and drop eight into coverage against the Chiefs – with bracket coverage on Travis Kelce).
Trey Hendrickson, formerly of the New Orleans Saints, lived up to his free agent contract with a career-high 14 sacks a year ago (he had eight this year while battling through a broken wrist) and his cohorts on the Bengals’ defensive line include Sam Hubbard, D.J. Reader and B.J. Hill. These four execute a lot of creative pass rush concepts along the line of scrimmage, including stunts, twists and shifting from four to three man-rush looks before the snap (Hubbard’s go-ahead 98-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown against Baltimore was the first such defensive score to win a playoff game in the fourth quarter since 1996). Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt are their starters at linebacker.
The Bengals have plenty of cornerbacks with experience in zone defenses like Eli Apple, Chidobe Awuzie (out for the season with a knee injury), Cam Taylor-Britt and Tre Flowers (who they love to match up against tight ends in man coverage on third down but is doubtful with a hamstring problem). Slot corner Mike Hilton isn’t just one of the game’s best nickelbacks – he’s also an elite blitzer off the edge, and their safeties are the undersized and underrated Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell.
Anarumo’s charges were sixth in points allowed, seventh against the run, 16th in total yards given up and 18th in interceptions but just 23rd against the pass and 29th in sacks in the regular season. They rarely blitz, ending the 2022 season 22nd in that category but get pressure on opposing quarterbacks on over 23 percent of their snaps – the 12th best mark in pro football. Cincinnati also allowed just one quarterback to throw for 300 yards against them all season – Tom Brady in Week 15.
The Bengals are looking to advance to the fourth Super Bowl in franchise history and have won three straight against Kansas City.
CHIEFS’ OFFENSE IS DANGEROUS
Andy Reid’s version of the West Coast offense has taken on many forms over the years. In Philadelphia his passing game with quarterbacks Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick was vertical-based to take advantage of their arm strength, conversely with Alex Smith it became conservative and horizontal.
Now with Patrick Mahomes under center it has returned to its downfield version. The system has also incorporated many college concepts in recent years and heavily relies on the design of the play to get people open. According to former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit, “Kansas City’s passing game is unique because it doesn’t depend on wide receivers winning one-on-one battles outside. The scheme relies on route combinations and creating opportunities for tight ends and running backs. This means the throws are more about timing than velocity.
“Reid features presnap motion, misdirection and multi-option reads. Those tactics put a defense on its heels by presenting the illusion of complexity, but they can transition into traditional concepts once the ball is snapped…. (they) aim to isolate specific defenders – often linebackers – present them with run/pass assignment conflicts and also get defenders flowing one way as the ball goes another.”
For years Kansas City employed wide receiver Tyreek Hill, who is perhaps the league’s fastest player and can line up anywhere – out wide, in the backfield and in the slot, where he is especially dangerous on post routes out of trips formations. Following a trade to the Miami Dolphins, Reid and general manager Brett Veach decided to replace him by committee. The similarly speedy Marquez Valdes-Scantling, burner Mecole Hardman and rookie Skyy Moore give the Chiefs a trio who can beat anyone vertically and all three are used liberally in motion by Reid along with John “JuJu” Smith-Schuster, who excels on short and intermediate routes.
Travis Kelce, one of the best talents at his position, is versatile and can align in different ways in the formation (especially as the lone receiver on the backside in bunch – otherwise known as the boundary ‘X’ receiver). Perhaps the most athletic tight end in football, he can beat most defensive backs and linebackers on many different routes, especially on corners, sticks and crossers and is excellent at creating yards after the catch. Kelce set a record for receiving yards by a tight end with 1,416 in 2020 and continues to remain his usual elite self. Backups Noah Grey and Jody Fortson’s roles have expanded this year as Kansas City has experimented more with formations featuring multiple tight ends.
In 2020 the Chiefs invested at running back by selecting Clyde Edwards-Helaire from LSU in the first round, hoping to upgrade a position that previously relied on veterans Damien Williams and former Eagle and Bill LeSean McCoy. Edwards-Helaire, however, has been injured and ineffective – leading to Isiah Pacheco taking over. Pacheco and Jerick McKinnon are adept at hurting teams not just on the ground but through the air as well, especially on screen passes, and McKinnon has turned into an effective red zone weapon.
Those backs and Mahomes operate behind an offensive line that has undergone many changes since 2020. Injuries and underperformance, especially in the Super Bowl against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, saw the Chiefs say goodbye to names like Eric Fisher, Mitchell Schwartz, Austin Reiter and Kelechi Osemele and hello to new faces like four-time Pro Bowler Orlando Brown Jr., All-Pro Joe Thuney, Creed Humphrey, Trey Smith and Andrew Wylie.
The widespread comparisons of Mahomes to Brett Favre aren’t unfounded, as the former possesses most of the latter’s attributes – a cannon for an arm, an uncanny ability to extend plays and good mobility and intelligence, plus a willingness to fit passes into tight windows. Early in the 2021 season Mahomes was still feeling the effects of a deteriorated front-five as he showed too much unnecessary movement both in and outside the pocket (due to anticipating pressure that wasn’t there), sloppy footwork and not playing within the timing and structure of Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy’s attack. He also wasn’t taking what defenses were giving him coverage-wise and was forcing plays down the field that didn’t need to be.
As the year went on, Mahomes settled down. His mechanics have improved – especially by holding the ball higher so he can throw quicker and fixing his lower body base – and his coaches have incorporated more short and intermediate concepts like “smash” and “flood” – resulting in him being more decisive and his offense becoming more rhythm-based and less vertical.
As usual the Chiefs’ offense has been lethal, ending 2022 first in total yards, points scored and passing, but just 20th in rushing. They are in their ninth AFC/AFL title game overall (and their fifth straight) and are trying to reach the Super Bowl for a fifth time and for the third time in four years.
KANSAS CITY’S DEFENSE ON THE REBOUND
From 2013 through 2018 the Chiefs’ defense was conducted by Bob Sutton, a former longtime assistant with the New York Jets. During the first three seasons Sutton applied his scheme in Kansas City the Chiefs had an upper-echelon unit, but between 2016-18 it took a nosedive – bottoming out in ’18 by finishing the regular season in the bottom-half of the league in nearly every statistical category.
Reid promptly replaced Sutton with one of his old assistants from Philadelphia in Steve Spagnuolo. “Spags”, a former head coach with the Rams and Super Bowl-winning defensive coordinator with the New York Giants, implemented a 4-3 system characterized by cleverly disguised five-man overload blitzes and coverages involving mainly Cover One, Two, Zero and two-deep man with press technique by the cornerbacks and the safeties rotating before the snap.
The biggest key to Kansas City’s defense used to be former Arizona Cardinal and Houston Texan Tyrann Mathieu. Mathieu is one of the most versatile back-end defenders in football, as evidenced by his many snaps at slot cornerback, box safety, nickel/dime linebacker, free safety and outside cornerback. His athleticism and intelligence were valuable to the Chiefs – so valuable to the point where he was mainly used as the team’s middle hole defender in Cover Two zone and not a linebacker. But Mathieu left in free agency for the New Orleans Saints along with fellow safety Daniel Sorenson, and in their place now are ex-Texan Justin Reid and Juan Thornhill.
The Chiefs also underwent a makeover at cornerback. Veterans Mike Hughes, Charvarius Ward, Rashad Fenton and DeAndre Baker are gone and L’Jarius Sneed is now joined by youngsters Trent McDuffie, Joshua Williams, Bryan Cook and Jaylen Watson. This group is used by Spagnuolo in dime packages with Sneed and Watson on the outside and Cook blitzing from the slot.
The Chiefs’ defensive line is the most talented part of this unit. All-Pro Chris Jones may be the most unsung defensive lineman in the league and is the linchpin of this group thanks to his combination of burst and hand usage off the line of scrimmage. Former Seahawk Frank Clark boasts elite quickness as well and Derrick Nnadi, Carlos Dunlap, Mike Danna and rookie George Karlaftis are the team’s other contributors in their front four. At linebacker Kansas City employs Nick Bolton – who is usually their best second-level defender in subpackages – Willie Gay and Leo Chenal.
Unlike their elite offensive counterparts, the results from Spags’ defense over the last few years have been uneven. After a two-year stretch which saw Kansas City finish the 2019 regular season eighth in the NFL against the pass and racking up 45 sacks (11th-best among all defenses) and a 2020 campaign that ended with the Chiefs ranked 14th against the pass and tied for second in the NFL in interceptions, Spagnuolo’s defense saw a downturn in 2021 – ending the year 27th against the pass, 21st against the run and fourth-last in sacks.
This year Kansas City has seen a rebound on this side of the ball. Although 18th against the pass, 16th in points given up and tied for 20th in turnovers, they improved in total yards allowed (11th), rushing yards surrendered (eighth) and was second in sacks.