Why the KC Chiefs called a blitz on third and 27, and how the Bengals exploited it

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For all of the conversation on the late-game decisions that confronted the Chiefs in their loss in Cincinnati — should they have just let the Bengals score? — a play that preceded that sequence affected the outcome the most.

Third and 27.

With 3:19 left in a tie game, the Bengals snapped the football from the Chiefs’ 41-yard line, 27 yards shy of the first-down marker.

And in a down-and-distance in which defenses often opt for a conservative call, the Chiefs brought the house.

An all-out blitz.

Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow spotted it immediately, lofted the ball down the sideline to Ja’Marr Chase (a connection that had already proven quite fruitful) and it went for 30 yards and a first down. The Chiefs would not see the football again.

That play increased the Bengals’ chances of winning by 24.1%, per Edj Sports, the fifth-most impactful snap across all Week 17 games in the NFL.

And it left a valid question: Why would the Chiefs call a zero blitz, leaving cornerback Charvarius Ward one-on-one with a wide receiver who had torched the Chiefs secondary all afternoon?

“Hindsight is 20-20, right?” defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said Wednesday in response to that question. “The thinking was we were addressing that play as a third-and-6. At the 41-yard line, any additional yardage there is going to make it a field goal for them. It’s a tie ball game. Don’t want to give up a field goal.

“So the idea was to get an incomplete pass. Again, hindsight is 20-20, but I think all the guys are comfortable we’re trying to get them to punt the ball on fourth-and-27.”

The Chiefs went for broke. They wanted to hold the Bengals to zero, not three. Yes, they could have played a prevent defense and been content to allow the Bengals to gain some chunk yardage and line up for a go-ahead field goal. In that scenario, a Patrick Mahomes-led offense would have had three minutes (and two timeouts) to drive for a game-tying field goal.

Instead, the Chiefs got aggressive.

Rather, they stayed aggressive.

As part of its midseason turnaround, the defense has pressured quarterbacks at an increasingly high rate. That’s often required bringing extra bodies. The Chiefs blitz on 28.4% of downs, according to Pro Football Reference, the eighth most often in the NFL. It’s part of what they do — and do successfully, by the way. They are second in the league in hurrying the quarterback, on 12.9% of their dropbacks.

Burrow, though, seemed to anticipate the Chiefs blitz on third and 27, as uncommon as it might be on third downs with a mile to gain. As it turns out, neither team wanted to accept the most likely fate of a field goal — the Chiefs blitz attempted to keep the Bengals out of field goal range, and the Bengals anticipated needing to get a first down to win the game.

The Chiefs wanted zero. The Bengals wanted seven.

“We knew we were going to have to score a touchdown,” Burrow said. “You guys know the guy on the other sideline. We were going to have to punch that ball in.”

And so as soon as he recognized Chiefs were bringing seven rushers, Burrow looked to his one-on-one matchup and his best weapon — a matchup, by the way, that Chase had won all day long.

“The defensive back was pressing me all game and trying to slow me down at the line of scrimmage,” Chase told reporters after the game. “My official release was supposed to be inside, but I took the outside release to make things a little faster. I was able to separate and make the catch.”

It made for a fitting ending to a trying afternoon for the Chiefs secondary. The back end of the defense has played well above average over the second half of the season.

Not on Sunday. Burrow completed five passes of at least 30 yards— four of them to Chase.

“It’s tough duty being an NFL defensive back,” Spagnuolo said. “It has to function as one unit. It didn’t operate quite as good this last game. Listen, I trust these guys. I can see it in the last two practices that we’ve had.

“They take a lot of pride. They’re determined to fix it. And hopefully this next game, which is on us really quick, we’re able to do that.”