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:
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 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.”
Wide receiver Tyreek Hill 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. He is joined by the similarly speedy Demarcus Robinson and burner Mecole Hardman to give the Chiefs a lethal trio who can beat anyone vertically, and all three are used liberally in motion by Reid along with red zone threat Byron Pringle and veteran Josh Gordon.
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. Kelce set a record for receiving yards by a tight end with 1,416 in 2020 and was his usual elite self in 2021.
Last season the Chiefs invested at running back by selecting Clyde Edwards-Helaire from LSU in the first round, significantly upgrading a position that previously relied on veterans Damien Williams and former Eagle and Buffalo Bill LeSean McCoy. Edwards-Helaire and backups Darrell Williams and Jerick McKinnon are adept at hurting teams not just on the ground (mostly via run-pass options) but through the air as well, especially on screen passes.
Edwards-Helaire 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 three-time Pro Bowler Orlando Brown Jr., former All-Pro Joe Thuney, second-year tackle Lucas Niang and rookies Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith. Veterans Mike Remmers, Nick Allegretti and Andrew Wylie – all starters in Super Bowl LV – have been relegated to bench duties, while Austin Blythe provides experienced depth after coming over from the Rams.
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 has gone on though, Mahomes has settled down. His mechanics have improved 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.
Kansas City has won six straight home playoff games and averaged 38.3 points per outing in that stretch.
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 in Philadelphia, 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 is 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 are valuable to the Chiefs – so valuable to the point where he is mainly used as the team’s middle hole defender in Cover Two zone and not a linebacker.
Opposite Mathieu is a duo of versatile playmakers in Juan Thornhill and Daniel Sorenson (who “Spags” likes to use in man coverage against tight ends). The Chiefs’ other defensive backs are veterans Mike Hughes, Charvarius Ward, L’Jarius Sneed, Rashad Fenton and DeAndre Baker, and they will be on the field a lot on Sunday – as evidenced by Kansas City using dime formations on 35 percent of their plays last season, the third-highest figure in the NFL behind the Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers.
The Chiefs’ defensive line is the most talented part of this unit. Pro Bowler Chris Jones may be the most unsung defensive lineman in the league and is the linchpin of this unit thanks to his combination of burst and hand usage off the line of scrimmage. Former Seahawk Frank Clark boasts elite quickness as well as former Pro Bowler Melvin Ingram, and Derrick Nnadi and Jarran Reed (who uses good power and leverage) are the team’s other starters in their front four. At linebacker Kansas City employs former Dallas Cowboy Anthony Hitchens and Ben Niemann (Niemann is usually the second-level defender in their sub-packages and will blitz from that alignment, especially on second down).
Unlike their elite offensive counterparts, the results from this unit over the last three 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. However they were tied for 12th in interceptions and since Week Five Kansas City’s improved play has helped them win 10 of their last 11 games including playoffs.
Given how often Cincinnati attacks matchups outside the numbers, will “Spags” increase his usage of coverages with two high safeties to provide help over the top? This bears watching.
BENGALS’ OFFENSE A BREAKOUT UNIT IN 2021
The Cincinnati Bengals’ head honcho is former Rams quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor. Taylor employs a version of his former boss Sean McVay’s offensive system, which relies on smaller, quicker linemen who can work in unison and push defenders horizontally on outside zone stretch plays, while leaving cutback lanes for running backs. Countless tailbacks have had success in it, and most of the runs are executed out of “11” personnel (one tight end, one back). The idea behind this is to spread defenses out and create more room to run against nickel and dime defenses.
Passing-wise, the Bengals are aligned with the West Coast offense’s principles. A ball-control passing game that can eat up clock while stretching teams horizontally rather than vertically, this version of the system features mobile quarterbacks who can move within the pocket, especially on bootlegs, rollouts and play-action. It also will have its skill players line up anywhere on the line of scrimmage to try and get defenses to declare their coverages, and aligns wide receivers close to the offensive line to give them more space to operate and to block on running plays. Their passing game makes excellent use of intertwining route combinations, especially ones involving posts, crossing patterns and flood concepts with pass options at the deep, short and intermediate levels.
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 high sense of rhythm and timing for a young quarterback and is consistently accurate. He’s also aggressive attacking one on one matchups outside the numbers and has excellent movement within the pocket – allowing him to become the first quarterback ever to be selected first overall in the NFL Draft and start in a conference championship game within two years.
Those movement skills have come in handy within his first two seasons in the NFL as Burrow has operated behind one of the league’s worst offensive lines. Despite the left side of their line being serviceable (and held down by Jonah Williams and Quinton Spain), Trey Hopkins, Hakeem Andeniji and Isaiah Prince have not – thus putting Burrow under duress, taking a lot of sacks and sometimes anticipating pressure when there isn’t, which has led to hurried throws and interceptions.
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 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.
Burrow also has plenty of weapons at his disposal in the passing game. Rookie Ja’Marr Chase, his former college teammate at LSU, finished the season 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 comeback routes and shifty slot receiver Tyler Boyd is a nifty option on short routes. C.J. Uzomah is their tight end.
CINCINNATI’S DEFENSE IS OVERLOOKED
Cincinnati’s defense is mainly zone-based (especially with two high safeties, such as Cover Two, Four and Six) and coordinator Lou Anarumo is their play-caller. Although they do have some chess pieces to work with – as evidenced by being the fifth-best run defense in the NFL and tied for 11th in sacks – they don’t quite have enough talent on this side of the ball, resulting in being in the middle of the pack or near the bottom in many other categories.
Free agent pickup Trey Hendrickson, formerly of the New Orleans Saints, has lived up to his big contract with a career-high 14 sacks and his cohorts on the Bengals’ defensive line include Sam Hubbard, D.J. Reader and Larry Ogunjobi. 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 and they’ve had success with it. 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, Trae Waynes, Tre Flowers (who they love to match up against tight ends with) and Vernon Hagreaves III. 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 and Vonn Bell.
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