Bengals-Chiefs AFC Championship game: Is Kansas City’s defense enough for Cincinnati?

There is an extra level of pressure on the defense for the Kansas City Chiefs now that the other side of the ball could potentially be limited by the injured ankle of quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

They felt it Saturday against the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC Divisional round, having to defend an early lead without knowing if Mahomes would be returning to the game. The unit held, getting enough stops and creating enough turnovers to end up with a victory by the end of the contest.

It worked against Jacksonville, but was the performance an encouraging sign of things to come against the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC Championship? I wanted to take a closer look at the game to determine that answer:

Strategic blitzing

Against Jacksonville’s quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the Chiefs feel an additional pass rusher on 10 dropbacks. Lawerence completed five of his 10 pass attempts in those situations, totaling only 46 yards and throwing two passes that the Chiefs’ defense had a chance to intercept.

The first of those throws was dropped on the opening drive — but it was still a great setup by defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to nearly force the turnover. The Chiefs send a blitz off each edge of the pass protection, hoping to disrupt Lawrence’s lane to the quick pass that beats the blitz. Linebacker Willie Gay does exactly that, forcing Lawrence to pump fake and move out of the pocket.

By the time Lawrence resets, his initial target is covered up by defensive lineman Mike Danna—who dropped into zone coverage to take away short passes. With pressure coming down on Lawrence, he tries a tight window; linebacker Nick Bolton had a great beat on it and could have intercepted it.

The key part of this blitz is the miscommunication it causes for offensive linemen. Gay comes free off the edge because the left tackle follows defensive end Frank Clark on an inside move. Danna’s drop in coverage allows the left guard to pick up Clark, but the tackle is too late to recover and pick up Gay once that happens.

It was similar to this play from the second half of the game. The Chiefs threaten another blitz off the edge with Gay. This time, Lawrence adjusts and appears to send the right side of his offensive line to pick up both Gay and defensive end Carlos Dunlap.

That message never gets to the center, who should pick up defensive tackle Khalen Saunders as a result. Instead, Saunders comes untouched and forces a bad throw.

Pre-snap disguise

On this blitz late in the game, there is another miscommunication in pass protection caused by the Chiefs’ blitz. However, it might be the disguise of coverage before the snap that allows for the interception.

Prior to the play, the Chiefs show a man-coverage look with one safety over the top. After the snap, the back-end players drop into zone coverage with two safeties overhead — while two defensive backs blitz off the right edge. Needing to get rid of the ball quickly, Lawrence lobs up a jump ball, thinking he has man coverage. Instead, cornerback Jaylen Watson makes a zone turn — which puts him in the perfect position to undercut and intercept the pass.

While the disguise worked on that play, it didn’t earlier in the game. Near the goal line, the Chiefs want to bring Gay on a blitz — but they hide it by making him appear to be in man coverage with the running back. At the snap, Gay blitzes, and it is defensive end George Karlaftis having to pick up out of the backfield.

The problem is that the running back is slot receiver Christian Kirk, who blows past Karlaftis on a wheel route and secures the touchdown. It’s a great call by the Jaguars and a defensive call by the Chiefs that might have to be checked out of in the future if they get a similar offensive look.

run defense

Between running backs Travis Etienne and JaMycal Hasty, the Jaguars got 98 yards on just 14 handoffs; each back had a carry of at least 19 yards.

On those explosive runs, linebacker Nick Bolton and others at his position struggled to get off blocks and get their arms on the back enough to get him to the ground. It allowed for three runs that got into the third level of the defense.

The defensive line doesn’t avoid fault here; many times, the linebackers are put in disadvantageous positions because the front isn’t holding up well enough. That said, Bolton has the talent to make some of these plays and will need to next week.

The bottom line

The strategic blitzing worked against Lawrence in his first road playoff game, but Spagnuolo needs to be careful against Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow. Compared to Lawrence, Burrow is on another level of timing and knowing how to beat it.

That said, the pre-snap disguised coverage that we often saw against Jacksonville is a way to make life harder on Burrow, even if it’s not paired with a blitz. Forcing Burrow to process more after the snap than usual can naturally slow his rhythm down, and it could make him hesitate enough to help the pass rush get home.

That needs to be paired with more aggressive, attacking linebackers. Bolton has to get off blocks better than he did against Jacksonville and in Week 13 against the Bengals. If he and the rest of the second-level defenders can corral ball carriers quicker, he will force more third downs and put the Bengals in situations with less margin for error.

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