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Saturday, March 25, 2023

Five reasons why Chiefs’ defense burned Joe Burrow in AFC championship game

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Joe Burrow was close to leading the Bengals to a second consecutive AFC championship game victory in Kansas City. The Chiefs’ defense made sure he wouldn’t get to the finish line this time.

Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offense turned in a gritty performance, fighting through injuries in the hosts’ 23-20 win. Mahomes rushing for a first down — and drawing a penalty for a late hit — to set up a tiebreaking field goal in the waning seconds will go down as the winning play. 

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In reality, the Chiefs holding Burrow in check all night was the key to the result. Steve Spagnuolo schemed up a great game plan and his players, both seasoned and young, executed it well.

Burrow (26-of-41 passing, 270 yards, one TD, two INTs, 30 yards rushing) made his share of clutch passes and runs. But in the end, he was very inefficient (6.6 yards per attempt, 70.2 passer rating).

Here’s how the Chiefs ended up finally frustrating Burrow after going 0-3 in the first three meetings against him:

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1. Setting the tone early with pressure

Frank Clark came off the edge to drop Burrow for a 9-yard sack to end the Bengals’ opening drive. Clark, linebacker Willie Gay and defensive tackle Chris Jones got to Burrow for two more sacks on the next possession, which also yielded no points. Rookie end George Karlaftis made it four sacks in Burrow’s first nine dropbacks on the Bengals’ third drive. Cincinnati managed a field goal on that series.

The Bengals found ways to shore up their pass protection after that, but they had to adjust their personnel with backs and tight ends giving their offensive linemen more help. That limited how many receivers they could have run routes and Burrow had to make quicker decisions with the ball.

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The Chiefs had the second-most sacks in the regular season with 55, behind only the Eagles, their opponent in Super Bowl 57. They needed Jones to make a difference after he failed to do much in the first three meetings. He got to Burrow for a second time to end the Bengals’ final possession of the game.

2. Dominating the Bengals’ interior offensive line

It was a rough night for the trio of left guard Cordell Volson, center Ted Karras and right guard Max Scharping. As well as the Bengals’ blockers held up last week vs. the Bills, they were blown up by Jones and others. The line was also plagued by penalties after being beaten, mostly inside. The Chiefs pushed the Bengals into their least comfortable state of pass protection while also making Cincinnati one-dimensional on offense.

3. Taking the away the run

The Chiefs were ninth in the NFL in run defense in the regular season, allowing 109.3 yards per game. They were vulnerable at times against better blocking units, but for the most part they were sound in containing and tackling.

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The Bengals helped out by not making Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine focal points of the game plan. Burrow did make a few designed runs and Perine did score on the ground, but in the end, the Bengals gained just 41 yards on 13 non-Burrow attempts. Stopping the run on early downs and drawing holding penalties on runs allowed the Chiefs to put Burrow in troublesome third-and-long situations.

4. Staying physical and aggressive in coverage

The Chiefs have relied a lot on four rookies in their secondary: cornerbacks Trent McDuffie, Jaylen Watson and Joshua Williams and safety Bryan Cook. They needed to support starting safeties Justin Reid and Juan Thornhill even more after top corner L’Jarius Sneed was injured early.

The Chiefs like to push the envelope in getting after receivers in coverage. They managed to make plays on the ball and slowed down Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins, requiring both to make tough catches on perfect throws from Burrow.

5. Double-teaming and containing Ja’Marr Chase

The Chiefs did their best to take away Chase on the downfield shots that Burrow likes to take. Chase did come through with a fourth-down catch in double coverage to set up the Bengals’ game-tying TD in the fourth quarter, but beyond that 35-yard gain, he was limited to short passes and only 40 yards on his five other receptions. Higgins fought hard for his six catches and 83 yards over 11 targets.

The Chiefs were OK with giving Burrow the middle of the field, especially after slot receiver Tyler Boyd had to leave the game with an injury. With Cincinnati needing extra pass blocking help, there was fewer options in short and intermediate passing games when passing away from Chase or Higgins.

Credit Spagnuolo and the Chiefs for a sound level-by-level approach. One personnel strength led to another, and that had an effect on Burrow. including two interceptions on third-and-3 passes.

Without every bit of that effort, the Chiefs wouldn’t be heading to their third Super Bowl in four years with Mahomes.

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