Keys to the game: Bengals-Chiefs
How do you slow down Ja'Marr Chase?
Steve Spagnuolo must be having nightmares thinking about playing Cincinnati for the fourth time in two seasons. The Bengals were enough trouble in 2021 when they were a talented team with a schematically split identity. This season, with all the sliders tweaked (shout out to my fellow nerds on OperationSports.com) just right? That’s a tall task.
The Optimized Bengals
Zac Taylor and the Bengals’ brain trust gave this offense a mini makeover early in the 2022 season. Last season, it felt like Taylor played a “one for you, one for me” game with Burrow – oscillating between Taylor’s wide-zone-and-boot roots and the LSU offense brought over by Burrow. “Siloed” became the en-vogue description for the Cincy’s offense.
Put on last season’s AFC Championship Game and you’ll see exactly what I mean. On what felt like every first down, the Bengals would go under center, use some sort of fly motion, and (usually) hand it off or occasionally go play action off of their run actions. On second and third downs, they’d get into the gun and let Burrow do his thing.
The run game wasn’t working (it doesn’t help when you have plays where three guys work to a backside tackle on counter while leaving the frontside inside backer free to fill the hole), and the play action “payoffs” were anything but – as Cincinnati averaged an unfathomable -0.50 EPA/play action dropback. It was the non-play action dropback game where the Bengals diced the Chiefs.
Just looking at some macro numbers from 2021 to 2022 highlights how recalibration took an offense that already went to the Super Bowl to a whole new level. Including the playoffs, the 2021 Bengals were only in shotgun on 46 percent of neutral first downs – good for the 14th-highest rate in the NFL. In 2022, that spiked to 80 percent, bringing them to fourth highest. And, unsurprisingly given the nature of being in gun rather than under center, the Bengals went from 16th in neutral first down pass rate in 2021 to first in 2022.
These tweaks and philosophical adjustments have had a profound effect on the Bengals’ overall efficiency. In 2021, they ranked 13th, averaging 0.025 EPA/play. In 2022, they’ve more than doubled that average to 0.062 EPA/play, making them the fourth most efficient offense in the league. Here’s the fun part: Cincinnati has almost identical EPA/play splits from under center and shotgun when comparing 2021 to 2022. But their overall efficiency has gone through the roof largely because they’re in shotgun way more.
Taylor tossed out the 2018 Sean McVay stuff and swung all the way into what his quarterback excels at – being a spread, quick game, decision-making savant.
What’s Spags supposed to do now that the Bengals know exactly who they’re supposed to be? Although the Bengals “only” scored 27 points against the Chiefs in Week 13 this season, their efficiency numbers were fantastic – including an absurd 0.67 EPA/dropback.
Whatever Spagnuolo does, it probably starts with Ja’Marr Chase. Unfortunately for the Chiefs, nothing that Spagnuolo has thrown at the proverbial wall in their matchups has stuck.
Can Chase Be Stopped?
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