The Cincinnati Bengals turned some heads this weekend by clinching an AFC North title with a huge win over the Kansas City Chiefs. Of course, in a game with 65 combined points, it is the offense that has gotten the most buzz.
Joe Burrow was electric, throwing for 446 yards, four touchdowns, and no interceptions for the fourth consecutive game. Ja’Marr Chase all but locked up Offensive Rookie of the Year honors by catching 11 passes for 266 yards and three touchdowns. Chase actually had more receiving yards than Patrick Mahomes had passing yards (259).
The offense put up points when it mattered, but how the Bengals’ defense managed to limit the Chiefs’ offensive firepower in the last two quarters is something that needs to be addressed.
There was no secret sauce, no exotic scheme. Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo called an excellent game and his unit executed well on almost every down. There were, of course, a few breakdowns that helped the Chiefs take the lead early in the game, but we’ll talk about that at the end. Let’s start with the good.
The Bengals largely took away Mahomes’ biggest weapons: Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. Kelce was limited to five receptions for 25 yards on seven targets. His biggest play was actually the pass interference call on Jessie Bates that got the ball rolling on their first scoring-drive. Hill was held to six receptions for 40 yards on ten targets. Kelce had a short touchdown reception and Hill’s biggest play, accounting for nearly half of his production, was a 17-yarder. This is not what the Chiefs want to get out of their two best pass-catchers.
They were however able to get some big plays out of guys like Mecole Hardman, Byron Pringle, and Demarcus Robinson. They also were able to run the ball effectively. Still, the Bengals did what good defenses do against top offenses, they took away what they wanted to do. Mainly, pick up big chunks of yards with Kelce and Hill.
The Bengals spent most of their time in zone coverage, but everyone loves talking about matchups, so we’ll start off with how the Bengals dealt with Kelce and Hill when they played man coverage.
Covering tight ends has been a problem for the Bengals defense since long before this coaching staff arrived, so naturally, Kelce was a big worry. The Bengals have done a great job of identifying players who are an excellent fit for their defense and maximizing their talent. The most recent example is Tre Flowers. He did a great job against Kelce.
In this clip, he disrupts Kelce’s release. Kelce gets a step on him, but Flowers keeps on him, playing the ball throw his hands. This was a fantastic play and had Kelce extremely flustered.
Of course, cornerback Chidobe Awuzie was another great addition, and he is playing the best football of his career. He was called on to cover Hill multiple times, and he did a phenomenal job.
Many teams won’t have their top cornerback cover a receiver when he lines up in the slot, but the Bengals didn’t mind doing that with Awuzie. In this clip, Hill lined up as the slot receiver on the top of the screen. Awuzie was all over him as he ran the slot fade.
The Bengals spent the majority of the game in zone defenses. By nature, zone defenses play off on shorter routes in order to cover deeper routes. The Chiefs took these opportunities to get Kelce and Hill the ball, giving them an opportunity to run after the catch. They are normally incredible in these situations, but not in this game. The Bengals’ defense would not allow it.
In this clip, Hill makes the catch underneath, but the defense instantly breaks on him. Hill was directly right in front of linebacker Logan Wilson who ran right at him. Just above Wilson, you’ll notice Markus Bailey coming in to prevent Hill from turning up field in his direction, and below him, you’ll notice Mike Hilton doing the same. This prefect funnel gave Hill nowhere to run.
In this clip, the middle linebacker is being threatened vertically. Carrying this route takes him out of position to make a tackle on Hill’s shorter route, so it now a two-man funnel with Bailey and Hilton.
Hill sees Bailey and instantly cuts back, but Hilton makes an incredibly athletic tackle.
Even if he hadn’t made this play, it wouldn’t have broken for a big gain. If you take your eyes off of the ball and focus on the secondary, you can see that they, along with Wilson, are forming another funnel behind Hilton and Bailey. This is just good defense.
The Bengals have a lot of young, talented linebackers, and that has made it hard for Bailey to get on the field. He has not squandered the opportunities that he has had lately and in this game he was truly unsung hero.
Again, on this play, the Chiefs tried to get the ball to Hill in a position where he could run after the catch. Bailey breaks with excellent burst and tackles Hill almost instantly.
This was a huge play that helped to keep Kansas City out of the end zone on their last drive. We’ll see the play that sealed the deal and forced them to kick the field goal at the end of this article.
Markus Bailey covers Hill then runs through him to stop Mahomes short of the goal line pic.twitter.com/1m1JPxi03L— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) January 4, 2022
The defense wasn’t perfect. Despite the next two outstanding clips, they only had one red zone stop.
In this clip, Hill goes in motion and Bailey runs with him on the wheel. As Mahomes scrambles, Bailey runs through Hill to stop Mahomes short of the goal line. This was an amazing play.
Equally impressive was this stop by Eli Apple. The Chiefs split Kelce out wide and threw him a short pass, thinking that with his massive frame he’d be impossible for Apple to keep out of the end zone. They were wrong.
Apple breaks and lays a big-time hit on Kelce, knocking him to the ground short of the end zone.
Unfortunately, each of these plays only kept the Chiefs from scoring temporarily.
Many of the defense's issues in the first half were self-inflicted. Although they didn’t give up explosive plays to the usual suspects, the Chiefs were still able to generate some big-gainers. Their first two touchdowns came as the result of confusion in the secondary.
This play is one example. Watch Apple at the top of the screen before the ball is snapped. When the motion comes, he is not sure what to do. He is trying to get the coverage from Bates, who signals him something late, but Apple definitely thought he had help inside on this play. He did not, and it hurt. These mistakes happened early, but they must have been cleaned up on the sideline, because you didn’t see them after the 1st quarter.
Nice jump by Hilton... nice D by the WR pic.twitter.com/CTGzs8y23k— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) January 4, 2022
There is one more thing that a good defense does to win football games. They force turnovers. This has been an issue for the Bengals this season.
Mahomes gave them two big opportunities, but they didn’t come up with the interception on either of them. Apple dropped an interception in the 1st half of this game. Then came this play. Hilton jumped the out route, and this play had pick-six written all over it. Unfortunately, the receiver realized this, and was able to play defense and break up the pass.
The defense didn’t get any sacks, but they were able to get pressure on Mahomes and generally kept him in the pocket. The play above is one exception.
When Mahomes scrambles, big plays happen. He extends this play and throws a rocket to Hill. This could have been devastating, but Vonn Bell manages to get there and knock the ball down. This play was just before the half and due to the incompletion, the Chiefs decided to run out the clock.
The Bengals blitzed a few times over the course of the game, but they were mostly zone-blitzes with a five-man pressure and a safe coverage behind it.
The exception came on what would be the Chiefs’ final offensive play. This seven-man pressure forced a quick and inaccurate throw from Mahomes on third down, giving the Bengals their first red zone stop at the most pivotal moment.
By funneling the football and being sure tacklers, Cincinnati’s defense prevented Hill and Kelce from turning short passes into explosive plays. By keeping Mahomes in the pocket, they took away his ability to extend plays and create explosive plays down field.
The defense played very well, but what should really scare NFL offenses is how much room for improvement they still have. They had a few miscues in the first half that were costly. That and the red zone defense needs to be tightened up before a potential playoff rematch with Kansas City. They also must take advantage when they have an opportunity for a turnover. Taking the ball out of Mahomes’ hands and putting it in Burrow’s will be key to winning the next time these two teams meet.