At last, Patrick Mahomes found a receiver downfield and heaved up a throw, a sight often resulting in explosive plays for the Chiefs and consequences for opposing defenses.
Instead, Cincinnati safety Jessie Bates III deflected the pass intended for star wide receiver Tyreek Hill. Fellow safety Vonn Bell picked it off. The Bengals, who have Super Bowl odds of +165, were well on their way to a championship appearance.
Kansas City, equipped with a talent-laden offense, seemed to be on its way to a title berth. But Cincinnati’s defense, sparked by clever second-half adjustments, was in the way.
The Bengals have no All-Pro defenders. And yet they’re a win away from taking their first Lombardi Trophy.
The Bengals, led by defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, have coalesced harmoniously to become a unit that has been opportunistic. In the playoffs, forced turnovers in critical moments have led to victories against some of the NFL’s finest.
“They have mastered this takeaway thing these last couple of weeks,” head coach Zac Taylor said. “It has really enabled us to play the type of game we want to play and get to the Super Bowl like we did.”
The Bengals’ defense is 19th by total DVOA. On pass plays they’re 24th and on the ground they’re 13th.
They’re graded 15th overall by Pro Football Focus and aren’t above 21st in run defense, tackling or pass rushing. They are 10th, though, in pass coverage. No Cincinnati defender is in the top 50 in the league.
And yet they’ve done exactly what they’ve needed to arrive at the Super Bowl.
“It’s everybody,” Rams linebacker Von Miller said. “It might be a D-tackle here or a cornerback here. It might be a linebacker here, it might be a [Sam] Hubbard coming through with a rush, it might be Trey Hendrickson. It’s somebody else on each and every play. That whole team is really stepping up to the challenge.”
"It's important you have a quarterback who's truly himself in this league and does what he wants to do… It's my job to get him the ball back." – Trey Hendrickson on playing with Joe Burrow.
— NFL (@NFL) February 7, 2022
The Bengals Rely on Talent up Front
The Bengals are strong up front. Hendrickson was fifth in the NFL during the regular season and postseason with 14 and 2.5 sacks, respectively. Hubbard had 7.5 during the regular season and is tied for second with three sacks in the playoffs.
Bengals defensive line coach Marion Hobby lauded Hendrickson for his precision in his approach.
“He’s an intense football player. He’s intense in the meeting room,” Hobby said. “He’s intense on the field. Then on game day, he just tries to take it up to another level.”
Cincinnati’s pass rush with its defensive linemen alone was a key component to its win over Kansas City. The Bengals surrendered only three points after intermission, and that was in part because of their second-half adjustments.
They rushed fewer players at Mahomes. While this often provided him more time to throw, he struggled to diagnose coverages and identify weaknesses. The Bengals also devised ways to contain him to the pocket, preventing him from making the spectacular plays he’s known for on the run.
Down three points, the Chiefs were 4 yards away from the end zone. But Hubbard’s back-to-back sacks, even after Mahomes had ample chances to throw, forced Kansas City to settle for a field goal.
“We were being disciplined in our rush lanes, and it paid off,” Hubbard said. “We were rushing three at times and were able to sack him. It was a collective effort of everyone just relentlessly pursuing him.”
The Bengals Forcing Turnovers
The Bengals have less-than-stellar talent at linebacker and in the secondary. Their best-rated player by PFF at their position is Bell, who’s 18th.
But they’ve capitalized on key opportunities to secure turnovers. Against the Chiefs, they forced two after halftime.
“We never quit, we never quit fighting and we never back down from the challenge,” Bell said following the AFC Championship. “We just played our brand of football.”
"That's what we do." 🗣️
— NFL Films (@NFLFilms) February 1, 2022
In the AFC Divisional Round, the Bengals forced the No. 1-seeded Titans to cough the ball up three times. That included an interception on the first play from scrimmage by Bates, leading to a Bengals field goal.
It set the tone early, as Tennessee never led. Then with the game tied late in the fourth quarter, Ryan Tannehill tossed another pick, this one to Logan Wilson.
The Bengals have a 7-2 turnover margin advantage in the playoffs.
“It is something that we have stressed for so long now,” Taylor said. “You never know when it is going to start paying off. They have come in bunches for us. Our guys have just done a great job, players and coaches, stressing the turnovers. When you are playing great teams like we are in this stretch, you have to have more possessions than they do.”
Rams head coach Sean McVay emphasized the need to minimize mistakes. Whenever they do arise, the Bengals have proven they will take advantage.
Whatever adjustments the Rams make, McVay noted they’ll need to have some answers.
“We have a resilient group of guys,” Bell said. “We’re made for this moment.”