If you think the Kansas City Chiefs are familiar with the Cincinnati Bengals by now, imagine how wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster feels.
This Sunday’s AFC championship will be Smith-Schuster’s tenth meeting with the Bengals, his first eight in his years with the Pittsburgh Steelers. There are some memorable moments between him and Cincinnati.
None of those games lived up to this Sunday’s stake: a chance to play in the Super Bowl. Smith-Schuster has never made it that far in the postseason, but this opportunity was something he probably envisioned when he signed with the Chiefs this offseason.
He didn’t try to hide his excitement during Wednesday’s press conference, especially when asked about the Chiefs’ offensive game plan.
“It’s fire, it’s fire,” Smith-Schuster said between chuckles. “I’m Andy Reid, I’m Patrick Mahomes, that’s nice.”
The offensive game plans for Cincinnati were successful, especially early in the contests. The Chiefs had a second half lead in every game, but failed to maintain it every time.
It’s an admirable trait of Cincinnati, one that the Chiefs are now fully aware of.
“They’re just a physical team,” recalled Smith-Schuster. “They just physically play from start to finish, for all four quarters. I saw him play them in Cincinnati; it felt like a playoff game. This is what I expect to see here.
That physicality can be felt by individual players. Slot cornerback Mike Hilton can pack a punch with hits from him, while linebackers Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt appear to be everywhere at once. The unit is one of the best tackle groups in the NFL.
This places a lot of responsibility on the Chiefs’ skill position players to get past the aggressive defense.
“The biggest challenge for us is going out there and doing shows,” said Smith-Schuster. “We have to run our own shows. When the ball is thrown to you, make your plays, convert on third down.
“This is very important for all of us: to be on the same page, to be able to read the coverage, to know when to stop, when to keep racing. This is the most important thing for us, because this defense is really good. They are physical up front; they change and move around a lot. For us, we have to be on the same page with Patrick Mahomes.
Mahomes fell victim to the Bengals’ defensive success, most notably in last year’s AFC championship, when the Chiefs’ offense failed to score a touchdown in the second half, despite approaching the four-yard line.
Part of what trips Mahomes up is the mishmash that the Bengals’ defensive play calling seems to draw from. Mahomes also held a press conference Wednesday and spoke to the Cincinnati team that gave him the fits.
“It’s very specific to the game plan, it’s never the same,” reflects Mahomes. “It could be the same look, but different coverage. That’s what a lot of great defensive coordinators do: they’re able to coach their team and do a variety of things, but they’re still solid… then they have great players, who are extremely coachable and do their job to the best of their ability. capacity”.
The run game is one of the most consistent parts of the Chiefs offense in this series. In each of the last three matchups, running backs for the Chiefs have totaled over 100 yards, averaging at least 5.3 yards per carry.
It wasn’t as big a part of last week’s Divisional Round win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, not until it was meant to be.
“We absolutely have to run the ball, that’s huge for us,” Smith-Schuster stressed. “When (Chiefs backup quarterback) Chad [Henne] has arrived, that was our big emphasis: to be able to start the running game just to be able to throw the ball deep. It goes hand in hand, when you run and pass the ball.
If the Chiefs are to avoid a disaster similar to last year’s AFC Championship, they will need big contributions from players who weren’t a part of it, like Smith-Schuster. The receiver has many memorable moments against the Bengals, but none compare to a great game against them when it matters most.