Four lessons the Chiefs have learned in their 3 previous losses to Bengals


KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Think of it this way: The Chiefs don’t want to be swept.

Yes, they have lost the past three meetings against the Cincinnati Bengals, the most significant occurring in the AFC Championship Game a year ago, a game in which the Chiefs blew an 18-point lead.

Once again, the two teams will meet Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium in the conference’s title game, the victor this time advancing to Super Bowl LVII. Ahead of the much-anticipated showdown, which will feature superstar quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Joe Burrow, the Chiefs have asked themselves one all-important question that can serve them well in building — and perhaps modifying — their upcoming game plan: What did we learn from the three previous losses?

“We know they’re talented in all three phases,” coach Andy Reid said Monday of the Bengals. “It’s (mostly) the same guys playing against each other. I’m sure both teams will have adjustments that they make, and both teams will play hard. We’ll just see how it goes.”

The three previous games between these teams do provide plenty of storylines and trends that help explain why the outcome of each meeting was the same: a three-point win for the Bengals in a comeback effort. (Seriously, all three games were three-point wins for the Bengals after a comeback.) In all three games, the Chiefs had a win probability above 75 percent entering the fourth quarter, according to Kevin Cole, who studies analytical data in his newsletter, Unexpected Points. The Bengals also protected Burrow well for most of the second half in each victory. And one statistic that is a strong indicator of determining the final result between equally talented teams — turnovers — has favored the Bengals in the past two games.

“They’ve executed at a higher level in the critical situations,” Mahomes said of the Bengals after the Week 13 matchup between the new rivals. “If you’re going to beat a good team, you’ve got to execute throughout the entire game.”

So, how can the Chiefs show improvement in Sunday’s game to increase their chances of winning? The four factors below will tell the story.

Tackling will be paramount

One of the most basic ways for a defense to be successful, in any game, is to tackle the ball carrier as soon as possible — or when a defender has a clear angle to limit the yardage gained.

The Chiefs’ defense, however, has yet to have a game against the Bengals in which its tackling was consistent. Instead, the Bengals have often won the one-on-one matchup downfield or on the perimeter. A good example of this was the Bengals’ opening drive in last month’s game, in which backup running back Samaje Perine, who played in place of the injured Joe Mixon, broke tackles against linebacker Nick Bolton and safety Justin Reid to gain additional yards. The Bengals ended the drive with a 4-yard touchdown run by Burrow.

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Including the regular season and the divisional-round victory last week, the Chiefs’ defense has averaged 13.5 snaps, according to TruMedia and Pro Football Focus, in which the first defender who made contact with the ball carrier didn’t make the tackle. In each of the past two games against the Bengals, the Chiefs have had 25 such plays.

“We have to be a little bit better (at) tackling,” Bolton said after last month’s loss to Cincinnati. “I feel like we didn’t tackle very well. We can start (improving) there. Perine had a hell of a game. He’s a shorter back (listed at 5 feet 11), and he was able to use that to his advantage.”

Burrow’s first touchdown pass also featured missed tackles, as rookie cornerback Joshua Williams and safety Juan Thornhill failed to bring down receiver Tee Higgins on his 12-yard touchdown reception.

Late in the fourth quarter, the Chiefs had four defenders on the perimeter against superstar receiver Ja’Marr Chase, who caught a bubble screen pass with Higgins and receiver Tyler Boyd as his blockers in front of him. Even though Chase caught the ball behind the line of scrimmage, he was still able to evade Thornhill’s diving tackle attempt to gain 5 yards on a critical third-and-5 play with less than three minutes remaining.

Chase has gained a league-high 109 yards after the catch over expected — the difference between actual yards and expected yards on an individual play — against man coverage this season, including the playoffs, according to Next Gen Stats. In the three matchups against the Chiefs, Chase has recorded nine receptions on 13 targets for 138 yards and a touchdown versus man coverage, including 45 yards after the catch over expected.

If the Chiefs are better at limiting the Bengals to minimal gains, then the offense, led by Mahomes, should have more than just a season-low eight possessions, which is what occurred in the last meeting.

Expect just about anything from Lou Anarumo

Anarumo, the Bengals’ defensive coordinator, has built a strong reputation for being one of the best at mid-game adjustments when it comes to play calling to better counterattack opposing offenses. Consistent with that, Anarumo has not been afraid to change his game plan when facing Mahomes a second and third time.

“He’s done a great job,” Reid said of Anarumo. “He puts his guys in position to make plays. He has a variety of different coverages and fronts that he works with. His players understand him. Zones are tight. They do a good job of man-to-man (coverage), so (it’s a) well-rounded scheme that he has.”

Mahomes was almost flawless in the first half of the AFC Championship Game last year, completing 18 passes on 21 attempts for 220 passing yards and three touchdowns, with zero turnovers. But after halftime, he had one of the worst 30-minute stretches of his career. One reason was that the Bengals used an additional defender in coverage (rather than as a pass rusher), which meant Mahomes had to be more careful throwing to certain spots. The additional time Mahomes spent before throwing the ball served to disrupt the Chiefs’ rhythm. With eight defenders back in coverage — which is how the Bengals defended 45 percent of the Chiefs’ second-half passing plays, according to Next Gen Stats — Mahomes completed just seven of his 13 attempts for 59 passing yards. He also threw an interception and was sacked twice.

But in the December meeting, Anarumo called just five plays in which the Bengals had eight defenders in coverage. Mahomes completed just 1 of his 4 passes for 6 yards against that scheme and was sacked on his final dropback. The Bengals also played more man coverage than zone on the Chiefs’ third-down plays.

Sunday’s game could feature more blitzing from Anarumo, who has used cornerback Mike Hilton to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Perhaps the one aspect Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy can anticipate from Anarumo is that the Bengals will be willing to change their strategy if the Chiefs have success early.

“I’m sure they’ll have something (new) that they do,” Reid said. “But I’m not going to chase a bunch of different things. We should have things covered in our protections no matter what.”

The Chiefs must pressure Burrow — and they cannot whiff

The Bengals could enter Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday with three offensive linemen who were not expected to start at their positions when the season began.

Hakeem Adeniji will be at right tackle in place of La’el Collins, who tore his ACL on Christmas Eve. Max Scharping could be at right guard after Alex Cappa suffered an ankle injury in the regular-season finale against the Baltimore Ravens. And against the Buffalo Bills in the divisional round, Jackson Carman started at left tackle for the first time this season in place of Jonah Williams, who suffered a left knee injury in the Bengals’ wild-card win over the Ravens. That said, in the Bengals’ victory over the Bills, their offensive line dominated the trenches.

The Chiefs will have to accomplish what the Bills couldn’t: pressure, hit and sack Burrow.

The problem? The Chiefs’ defensive line, led by superstar defensive tackle Chris Jones and defensive end Frank Clark, have struggled to generate pressure and rattle Burrow. In the last meeting, the Chiefs recorded just three quarterback hits, and the one sack they recorded was on a play in which Burrow gave himself up to ensure the game reached the two-minute warning.

“I thought that quarterback beat us with his brain, with his arm and with his feet,” defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said of Burrow in December. “I told the guys that. The brain part is on me. The arm and feet is on all of us. He made it really tough.”

Sunday’s game will be Jones’ chance for redemption. The Chiefs’ collapse in the AFC title game last year included Jones missing two possible sacks on Burrow. Early in the fourth quarter, Jones was able to get his hands on the Bengals quarterback, but Burrow deftly escaped him twice before scrambling for a first down. After his diving attempt to tackle Burrow was unsuccessful, Jones stayed down, his face mask buried in the turf. The would-be sack would’ve been Jones’ first playoff sack in 12 career postseason games.

“Last year stuck with me,” Jones said. “It was the driving force for this offseason.”

In the regular season, Jones was the league’s best interior pass rusher, collecting 15 1/2 sacks and 29 quarterback hits, both numbers tying career highs. The Chiefs likely will need Jones to win one-on-one matchups, whether it’s against Scharping or Adeniji, to create a negative play from Burrow.

Including the playoffs, Burrow has the second-fastest time to throw in the league at 2.4 seconds. The Chiefs have not been effective against quarterbacks who unleash the ball quickly, ranking 21st in EPA per dropback when an opposing quarterback threw the ball in 2.5 seconds or less. The Chiefs were also 20th in success rate, at 50.5 percent, in those situations.

The Chiefs believe they will have to adjust their pass-rush techniques, especially when trying to bring Burrow to turf, after seeing firsthand how elusive he was in the previous games.

“He’s unconventional in terms of scrambling,” Bolton said of Burrow. “He moves up in the pocket and shrinks himself down to take away some of the area to tackle him.”

The O-line needs to be excellent (especially LT Orlando Brown Jr.)

Throughout this week, Reid and Bieniemy will see what type of plays they can include in their game plan based on the participation level and mobility of Mahomes, who sustained a right high ankle sprain in Saturday’s win against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Mahomes, arguably the league’s most-talented quarterback, plans on starting Sunday’s game, although his scrambling and improvisational skills could be hindered by the injury.

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The lineman with the biggest spotlight on him will be star left tackle Orlando Brown, the five-year veteran who is responsible for protecting Mahomes’ blind side.

The previous meeting against the Bengals included Brown’s worst snap of the season. In the fourth quarter, on a third-and-3 from the Bengals’ 33-yard line, Mahomes was forced to scramble and extend the play after defensive end Joseph Ossai beat Brown in less than two seconds to generate pressure. Then Brown watched Ossai, using second effort to continue his rush, record a pivotal sack by clipping Mahomes’ left foot with his left arm.

Against the Jaguars, Reid and Bieniemy adjusted their play calls by having Mahomes operate mostly from the shotgun. Mahomes was also supported well by his offensive linemen: Brown, star left guard Joe Thuney, star center Creed Humphrey, right guard Trey Smith and right tackle Andrew Wylie. In the second half, Mahomes was hit just once by the Jaguars, a play in which Mahomes stepped up in the pocket and delivered a jump pass to receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling for a 6-yard touchdown.

The Chiefs’ offensive line might have to be just as effective against the Bengals to allow Mahomes to find his rhythm and succeed.

(Photo of Tee Higgins: Andy Lyons / Getty Images)




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