A Super Bowl matchup between the Los Angeles Rams and Cincinnati Bengals is not what anyone imagined entering the season, but here we are. The Rams made major moves through the offseason and regular season to build a roster ready to win a championship. The Bengals had a slower build, though a flurry of mid-tier free agents brought in this offseason was a Bengals equivalent to the Rams’ all-in moves.
On the way to a 27-24 overtime win against the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game, the Bengals made a few adjustments on each side of the ball that helped erase a 21-10 halftime deficit.
The Bengals Stopped Patrick Mahomes
Early in the AFC Championship Game, the Chiefs looked like they were ready to put on a performance that rivaled what the Buffalo Bills did to the New England Patriots in the opening round of the playoffs. Kansas City scored a touchdown on their first three drives. They averaged 0.62 EPA per play and 5.34 EPA per drive on those possessions, per TruMedia. Even on the fourth drive, one that brought the Chiefs down to the end of the first half looked poised for a touchdown before a poor decision to throw a pass to the flat as time was expiring was stopped short of the end zone.
In that first half, the Bengals played the Chiefs the way a ton of defenses have attempted to defeat that offense, with a two-high shell. As was the case against the Buffalo Bills in the Divisional Rounds, Mahomes was patient. 66.7% of his pass attempts in the first half went between 1-10 air yards, per TruMedia. The Chiefs found holes in the defense and allowed players to run after the catch. Mahomes completed 85.7% of his passes for 10.5 yards per attempt and 0.49 EPA per dropback.
Patience was a big key in the Chiefs figuring out how to manufacture offense as defenses sold out to stop big plays. With those two-high loos, and especially without the blitz, Mahomes was able to sit back and take what the defense was giving. Against a four-man rush in the first half, Mahomes went 11-of-12 for 132 yards and three touchdowns — 0.80 EPA per dropback. The Bengals weren’t getting home often, just a 23.1% pressure rate per PFF, and the pressure didn’t make much of a difference when it got there. Overall, they got pressure on just 18.2% of Mahomes’s first half dropbacks.
Instead of getting desperate and trying to bring more pressure, which has been a mistake against Mahomes, the Bengals completely backed off. In the second half and overtime, the Bengals leaned even harder into testing Mahomes’s patience by rushing three on 12 of Mahomes’s 24 dropbacks.
When the Bengals went super conservative with a three-man rush in the first half, Mahomes went 4-of-5 for 57 yards. But on those second half plays, Mahomes went 3-of-8 for 15 yards with four sacks for -0.99 EPA per dropback.
Cincinnati dared Kansas City to stay patient with just a three-man rush, but dropping eight in coverage behind it wasn’t just a conservative, safe zone. The Bengals used the fourth rusher as a spy on Mahomes for many plays, knowing the quarterback is willing to take off and run should the middle of the field completely open up.
Overall, the Bengals had 18 snaps with a three-man rush, the most for any team in the 2021 season. The New York Giants were the only other team with a game over 10 during the regular season (12), which also came against the Chiefs.
The Bengals also played man coverage on 50% of those plays with a three-man rush in the second half and overtime. Those plays allowed just one catch for two yards, along with two sacks and the overtime interception.
Pushing those extra resources into coverage forced Mahomes to be even more patient than he had been previously and the spy left little room to scramble. 80% of Mahomes’s dropbacks against a three-man rush in the second half and overtime went over three seconds.
Those plays with so many players in coverage disrupted the timing of what Mahomes wanted to do. Even on plays where there could have been a quick throw, Mahomes appeared to second-guess and hold the ball too long. With Kansas City at the CIncinnati 9-yard line down three with 39 seconds left after a sack, the Bengals sent a three-man rush. With the end zone flooded, Mahomes scrambled and as he struggled to find a place to throw, Sam Hubbard, playing the spy, rushed in and brought down the quarterback, which forced a field goal attempt to tie the game.
On the back end, the Bengals played sound coverage, whether it was in man or zone. The overtime interception was part of that three-man rush attack, but had more to do with how well the secondary played. The Chiefs came out in a 3×1 set with Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, and Demarcus Robinson on the trips side. Hill was the No. 2 in the alignment. Hill ran a deep crosser the Chiefs have used so often. He was first carried by slot corner Mike Hilton before he was passed off to the deep safeties. Vonn Bell ran underneath and Jessie Bates came over the top from the opposite side of the field to tip the ball that Bell intercepted.
Joe Burrow’s Protection
Cincinnati’s offensive line did not have a good game. Joe Burrow was under pressure on 40.5% of his dropbacks per PFF, but only took one sack. Per ESPN. the Bengals only had a 45% Pass Block Win Rate on the day. The Chiefs were able to create pressure without blitzing, sending an extra rusher on just 16.7% of Burrow’s dropbacks.
Typically, the Bengals trust Burrow to sit in empty with a five-man protection to get the ball out quickly as a way to throw against pressure. But after Burrow was blown up sitting in empty last week against the Tennessee Titans, the Bengals kept additional players in to pass protect. Burrow was only in empty on 7.1% of his dropbacks against the Chiefs, his second-lowest rate in a game this season.
Burrow’s other two games with an empty rate below 10% came when the Bengals expected a heavy blitz. In Week 1 against the Minnesota Vikings, Burrow was in empty on just 9.7% of his dropbacks as the Vikings blitzed 41.9% of the time. In Week 7 against the Baltimore Ravens, Burrow was in empty for 5.3% of his dropbacks as the Ravens sent an extra rusher 36.8% of the time.
A lack of empty started in the first half with just 10.5% of Burrow’s dropbacks, but it dropped even more in the second half and overtime for just 4.3%.
With the Chiefs getting pressure and doubling Ja’Marr Chase, Burrow had to throw short often. The extra protection gave Burrow the time to get the ball out as pressure came down. Later in the game, the Bengals also used this to create some plays down the field.
On a first-and-10 for the Bengals’ first offensive play of the third quarter, Cincinnati came out under center in 12 personnel with Chase and Tee Higgins to the left of the formation. Off a play fake, the Bengals kept both tight ends in to block. It was only a two-man route, but both of those players went down the field to take advantage of Kansas City’s zone coverage. Safety Tyrann Mathieu had to make a choice between Chase and Higgins and there was no way he could choose correctly. Higgins was open for a 44-yard gain.
Then there were also plays when Burrow took over and made plays against pressure, like on the 22-yard play to Chase in the third quarter. The Chiefs had a pressure look and brought a slot blitz. Two defenders immediately broke through, but Burrow escaped and found Chase down the sideline.
There have been moments when Burrow and the Bengals have worked in six- and seven-man protections to manufacture offense. That might be necessary for the Super Bowl against a defensive line that features Aaron Donald and Von Miller. But we still have time to get there. For now, the Bengals used a flip in tendencies and adjusted to how they want to play in order to spark a massive comeback against the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game and a trip to the Super Bowl.