Self-inflicted, Part 3: The Chiefs' execution and tactical errors cost them vs Cincinnati
For most of the season Kansas City has been the only team to stop Kansas City. And Sunday, those execution errors resurfaced along with some failure of in-game strategy.
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One of the frustrating aspects of the Chiefs’ loss to the Bengals is that I’m not sure we learned anything new about them as a team.
We already knew that the Chiefs have a very good offense. We already knew that the defense can be over-reliant on blitzing. We already knew that Spagnuolo can be set in his ways and tends to do his thing (we covered that ad nauseum earlier this week. At least I was nauseous), and we also know he’s overall done a good job as the Chiefs’ DC. We already knew that the Chiefs have good cornerbacks, but not ones who should be left on an island against elite competition.
(we also knew that bad refereeing can be a major factor in a game, but I swear I’m not going to go into that today other than to point out how much win probability Cincinnati gained from calls. That’s it, I’m done!)
And really, we already knew about one of the things I’m going to talk about today; The Chiefs’ offense has the ability to move the ball at will and look completely unstoppable… until it stops itself. I wrote about this multiple times this season, following the first Chargers game (where turnovers were the primary culprit), after the Chiefs narrowly beat the Packers (execution killers at crucial times), and after their victory over the Cowboys.
That said, with the playoffs looming, that issue is one the Chiefs are going to need to at least partly resolve if they want to make a deep run this season. The AFC is loaded with talented teams that have proven they can beat Kansas City. And their loss to Cincinnati is demonstrative that if you shoot yourself in the foot enough times, you can bleed to death against a good team no matter how talented you are.
One of the questions I’ve been asked a lot over the last several days is “why didn’t the Chiefs score more than 3 points in the 2nd half?” While I think it’s a bit unfair to ask the offense to do more than score 31 points total, it’s at least worth noting why they didn’t put up even more. And, of course, there were problems on the defensive side of the ball that have to be discussed. Which leads us to the 2 issues that Kansas City will need to look at as the “real” season begins.
How failures of execution could sabotage an offense that overall moves the ball at a borderline-historic rate and a defense that has become quite good as the year has progressed.
How in-game strategic decisions at least appeared to demonstrate a lack of “quick on your feet” analysis of the best and worst case scenarios in crucial moments.
Talking about these points isn’t meant to belabor the issue of a tough loss, or hammer a group of players and coaching staff that are overall excellent. It’s to point at a pair of issues that, if not fixed, could well be culprits behind an earlier playoff exit than the Chiefs would like.
Let’s start with execution, or lack thereof, in key moments.
To trace back where the game started to tilt from “this could get ugly fast” to a legitimate game. The Chiefs had dominated the first quarter to the tune of a 14-0 lead with two and a half minutes remaining, and had stopped Cincinnati’s offense in (it sounds crazy now) dominant fashion while moving the ball well. The game was dangling on the precipice of a blowout. Then this happened.
Look, I don’t like talking about this any more than you do, but this is important stuff. A great deal of ire has been directed at defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo (including by me, because it’s accurate) for his failure to adjust to JaMarr Chase’s dominance. That said, this initial play was not a breakdown of scheme. It was a massive failure of execution that turned a bad play into a backbreaker.
It should be noted that this occurred on 2nd and 7, and it appears that there was a bit of miscommunication that resulted in an open zone for Chase to exploit for the catch (both underneath defenders failed to get depth while Mathieu stayed well over the top). That’s a bummer, but it happens, and the Chiefs should have lived to fight another down. However, a (tragic) comedy of errors led to that not being the case. Look at where everyone is aligned when Chase catches the ball and turns to run up the field
Chase is a wildly gifted player, but there’s no reason this should have turned into a touchdown. Bolton is caught over-pursuing and gets beaten by a very nifty cutback by Chase. From all appearances, Ward (coming from the other side of the field) and Mathieu believed that Bolton would make the hit or slow him down, and Bolton ends up serving as a blocker on Mathieu. However, had Ward ran through this play rather than slowing up, he likely makes the tackle at the 45-yard-line or so.
In the meantime, Juan Thornhill takes a very poor angle towards the sideline and suddenly, Chase has nothing but daylight in front of him and it’s a sprinting contest. Once it reached that point, it was over. This wasn’t a design failure, it was a failure of basic execution in running plays out and taking proper angles.
It’s important to start with that play, because it’s where the game began to turn and also demonstrative of the problems the Chiefs had tackling throughout the day. I’ll only show one more, but the issues were constant.
On the Bengals’ second scoring drive, they faced 2nd and 6 from the Chiefs’ 43-yard-line. Spagnuolo dialed up pressure that fooled Burrow (they were actually getting home quite a bit on blitzes in the first half, before Burrow adopted the “throw it up to Chase the second they blitz” strategy, which proved wildly effective). But they couldn’t close.
Fenton isn’t able to bring Burrow down, and when he escapes Frank Clark isn’t able to stop him short of the initial line of scrimmage despite a clear shot. Rather than losing yards and facing 3rd and long, the Bengals had a manageable 3rd and short.
Missed tackles were an absolute plague on the Chiefs early in the season, and one they had largely eliminated over the last several months. One of the ways they over-achieved as a defense was by never giving up “free” yards. That stopped Sunday, and they paid for it.
Failures of execution weren’t one-sided, either. The offense had opportunities to put more points on the board and lost several promising drives because of the sort of execution failures that were problematic against Green Bay and Dallas, and it ultimately cost them (though, again, the offense should not be considered the primary culprit in a game where they put up 31 points). The first came at the end of the 1st half, with the Chiefs still leading 28-17.
With 18 seconds and a pair of timeouts remaining, Mahomes escaped pressure and took a shot WAY down the field, where Tyreek Hill was 1x1.
One could argue that Hill got away with a push-off here (though the referees seemed to be, ahem, not inclined to call OPI on Sunday), but this throw is almost bizarre in the level of difficulty to even get the ball close. Mahomes is standing on his own 22-yard-line when he releases, and the ball comes down to Hill at the Bengals’ 16-yard-line. That’s 62 yards in the air even if one doesn’t account for the fact that he threw it from outside the numbers to outside the opposing hash. It’s an absurd, unreal through.
And Hill drops it.
Sure, the defender slaps the ball away. But as replays showed, that occurred because Hill allowed the ball to bounce off his his shoulder and into his hands in a precarious position, leaving it open to being smacked away. Had Hill held onto the ball the Chiefs would’ve had time for one shot to the end zone (with about 7-8 seconds left), with a nearly guaranteed 3 points even if they couldn’t punch it in. In a game that was decided in its waning moments, those points mattered a great deal.
And unfortunately, the errors in execution weren’t limited to that play. On the Chiefs’ first offensive drive of the 2nd half, they were moving the ball and faced 2nd and 9 on their own 44-yard-line when Mahomes did his thing again… to no avail. This time the culprit was KC’s other star, Travis Kelce.
Kelce is, in my opinion, the greatest receiving tight end to ever play the game. At the same time, this drop was a killer on a play in which Mahomes went metahuman. It also came a a very crucial moment in the game, as the Bengals had drawn to within a single score.
A catch here gives the Chiefs a new set of downs in Cincinnati territory and moves them close to scoring range. Instead, they went to 3rd and 9, where they were unable to convert, and gave the ball back.
So we’ve now seen some crucial downs where the Chiefs, through their own miscues, could have done more to put the game away. Such mistakes happen, of course, but the 2021 season has seen far too many of those moments from an offense that has otherwise been very difficult to stop. In order for them to beat the heightened competition of the postseason, the offense will need to minimalize self-inflicted wounds.
And then, we have tactical miscues. This last section may be the most maddening for some. It certainly is for me.
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The defense picked up a wildly important stop on the next Bengals drive following Kelce’s drop, and the Chiefs had a chance to seize control of the game once again. They were able to move the ball, but eventually (through a series of plays we don’t need to really get into here, nor the calls that should or should not have been made) found themselves facing 4th and 6 from the Bengals’ 45-yard-line. Reid elected to punt the ball away, trying to gain a field position advantage.
This was a decision that is probably the correct one much of the time (I have no idea what the numbers say). But in THIS game against THIS opponent with the results they were seeing THAT day, it was a terrible mistake, and one that perhaps didn’t reflect the ability to run through best-worst case scenarios quickly to weight the pros and cons of each choice. Let’s look at this through the lens of potential outcomes (outside of weird results like a big TD play or a turnover) if the Chiefs go for it:
Go for it bad- The Chiefs fail to convert and give the ball back to the Bengals on their own 40-to-45-yard-line.
Go for it good- The Chiefs convert and are now close to field goal range (or in it), as well as maintaining control of possession in a one-score game late in the 3rd quarter.
Here’s where the ability to consider outcomes quickly should come into play. By punting the ball, the Chiefs KNOW they are giving the ball back to Cincinnati’s offense. Whereas by going for it, they have a chance (let’s be pessimistic and say 25%) of keeping the ball. That’s step one.
Of course, the counter to that is field position. By punting, the Chiefs bought themselves 31 yards of field position by sending the Bengals back to their 14-yard-line. That’s not insignificant, certainly, but the question I would ask is whether or not 31 yards at that position of the field is significant enough to warrant giving up possession, the most valuable thing you have.
It should be noted that the major issue facing the Chiefs’ defense Sunday (in case you’re a “trust the defense” argument type of person) was big plays. Generally speaking, they were either stopping the Bengals OR giving up huge plays. In other words, it was something of a zero sum game in which field position becomes much less important. That has to account for decision making in that situation, as well as how the game has been officiated. And sure enough, due to a PI call and a big play, the Bengals had made up that field position and a whole lot more within 4 plays.
This isn’t "Monday morning quarterbacking” (for starters, it’s Tuesday). This decision was bad when it was made.
Making decisions has to involve what has occurred in a specific game. And in a game where big plays are the problem, field position becomes much less important, especially when the Bengals already would be getting the ball out of field goal range (and were trailing by 4 points, it should be noted). One could argue that “faith in the defense” would be to get a stop AFTER trying to keep the ball with the offense. In other words, give both sides of the ball the opportunity to help win the game, rather than hoping only one can do so.
The second tactical error came at the end of the game. The Chiefs have admitted that after the Bengals gained a first down with under 50 seconds remaining that their plan was to let Cincinnati score.
That said, it made no sense for Cincinnati to score at that point. Kansas City had utilized all its timeouts, and so the clock was MUCH more crucial than the difference between 3 and 7 points. The only move for the Bengals at that point was to kneel and kick a field goal.
The Chiefs would have been far wiser to accept what fate had handed them after Mixon converted 3rd and 1 (yes, there was a false start, but we’re not talking about the refs dangit) at the two-minute warning.
At this point, the Chiefs still had a pair of timeouts, and so the Bengals COULDN’T just kneel it out and take a field goal like they could later on. The reason for that is doing so would set them back multiple yards and not kill enough of the clock, and they would have been in a position to kick the field goal by necessity (in all likelihood) due to not being on the “1 foot line.”
Because of that, the Bengals had to run actual plays. Had Kansas City simply pulled Burrow into the end zone on first down, they would have had the ball down a TD with 2 timeouts and 2 minutes to go. Is there any Bengals fan in the universe who would have been comfortable there?
Of course, without the comedy of penalties at the end the Chiefs could have gotten the ball back down 3 with approximately 50 seconds or so remaining. However, by choosing to not let the Bengals score initially Kansas City made that their BEST case scenario while leaving open several other worse scenarios (like the one that occurred). By allowing them to score, you choose a “bad” result, but guarantee you won’t have the worst result. (I bolded that to sum up the logic here)
These decisions are made on the fly, and it’s likely that some of you will disagree (which demonstrates just how hard these decisions are). However, what both the 4th down and the “let them score” decisions have in common is that Reid had the opportunity to purposefully pick his options and knowingly avoid the worst outcomes (giving up a possession for nothing if they score and the clock bleeding all the way out, respectively). Instead, he went with conventional wisdom both times and essentially allowed the results to choose him rather than the other way around.
There’s an expression that there are 2 types of people; Those to whom life happens, and those who happen to life. Reid will need to learn to be the latter and to more swiftly parse through options available and choose the result that mitigates risk of the worst option and allows you to control the result more (think in terms of going for it in the divisional round against the Browns, where he did just that).
Execution and tactical errors. In a game where the margin between winning and losing is so thin (which will likely be true in the playoffs), the Chiefs have to show they can do the things necessary to help themselves win. Then, at the very least, they’ll be able to say honestly “we did all we could.”