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Bengals-Chiefs AFC Championship Game: Will Kansas City’s Defense Enough For Cincinnati?

The Kansas City Chiefs defense is under additional pressure now as the other side of the ball could potentially be restricted by quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ injured ankle.

They felt it Saturday against the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC Divisional round when they had to defend an early lead without knowing if Mahomes would return. The unit held, made enough stops, and managed enough turnovers to claim a win at the end of the contest.

It worked against Jacksonville, but was the performance an encouraging sign going forward against the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC Championship? I wanted to take a closer look at the game to find this answer:

Strategic Blitz

Against Jacksonville quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the Chiefs sent an additional pass rusher to 10 dropbacks. In these situations, Lawerence completed five of his 10 pass attempts for just 46 total yards and threw two passes that the Chiefs defense was able to intercept.

The first of those throws was dropped on the opening drive — but it was still a great setup from defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to almost force the turnover. The Chiefs send a blitz from each edge of the pass protection hoping to disrupt Lawrence’s lane to the quick pass that hits the blitz. Linebacker Willie Gay does just that, forcing Lawrence to pump and pocket Fake.

As Lawrence backs up, his original target is obscured by defenseman Mike Danna – who dove into zone coverage to take away short passes. With pressure on Lawrence, he tries a narrow window; Linebacker Nick Bolton had a great beat and could have caught it.

The key part of this Blitz is the miscommunication it causes for offensive linemen. Gay gets off the edge as the left tackle follows defensive end Frank Clark on an inside move. Danna’s fall in cover 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 from the second half of the game. The Chiefs threaten another attack from the edge with Gay. Lawrence adapts this time, appearing to send the right side of his offensive line to pick off both Gay and defensive end Carlos Dunlap.

That message never gets through to the center, which as a result should pick up defensive tackle Khalen Saunders. Instead, Saunders is untouched, forcing a bad throw.

Pre-snap fairing

At that late-game blitz, there’s another pass protection miscommunication caused by the Chiefs’ blitz. However, it could be the pre-snap cover camouflage that allows interception.

Before the game, the Chiefs sport a man-coverage look with a safety over the top. After the snap, the back-end players fall into zone coverage with two safeties overhead – while two defenders blitz from the right edge. Lawrence needs to get rid of the ball quickly and praises a jump ball, believing he has man coverage. Instead, cornerback Jaylen Watson makes a zone turn — putting him in the perfect position to undercut and intercept the pass.

While the disguise worked in this game, it didn’t earlier in the game. Near the goal line, the Chiefs want to make Gay a blitz — but they hide it by making him look like he’s in man-marking with the running back. Gay flashes on the snap and it’s defensive end, George Karlaftis, who needs to catch up from the backfield.

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

run defense

Between running backs Travis Etienne and JaMycal Hasty, the Jaguars rushed for 98 yards in 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 the blocks and get their arms behind their backs far enough to bring him down. It allowed for three runs that got into the third level of defense.

The line of defense does not avoid mistakes here; The linebackers are often placed in awkward positions because the front doesn’t hold up well enough. However, Bolton has the talent to make some of those games and will need to do it next week.

The final result

The strategic blitzing worked against Lawrence in his first playoff game on the road, but Spagnuolo will have to be careful against Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow. Compared to Lawrence, Burrow is on a different level of timing and knows how to beat it.

However, the cloaked pre-snap coverage we’ve seen many times against Jacksonville is one way to make life harder for Burrow, even if it’s not paired with a Blitz. Of course, forcing Burrow to process more than usual after the snap can slow his rhythm, 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 needs to get off the blocks better than they did against Jacksonville and in Week 13 against the Bengals. If he and the rest of the second-tier defenders can lock in ball carriers faster, it will force more third downs and put the Bengals in less error-prone situations.

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