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Bengals Chiefs AFC Championship Game: Marquez Valdes-Scantling saves Kansas City’s pass attack

There was nothing pretty about the way the Kansas City Chiefs offense eliminated the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC championship. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes was forced to overcome numerous injuries among his regular wide receivers as the team worked its way to a 23-20 win.

Tight end Travis Kelce was listed as a questionable for the game after dealing with weekend back spasms, while wide receiver Justin Watson was inactive with illness. Then during the game, wide receivers Kadarius Toney, Juju Smith-Schuster and Mecole Hardman were all forced out with injuries.

Late in the contest, Marquez Valdes-Scantling ranked himself as the only healthy wideout in the Chiefs’ main foursome – and the offense used him as such. He produced 116 receiving yards while catching six of his eight goals, one of them a third-quarter touchdown that gave the Chiefs a crucial 20-13 lead.

Let’s take a closer look at how Valdes-Scantling earned each part of his first trip to a Super Bowl:

Leveraging high security

With so many Kansas City skill position players unavailable, it seemed the Bengals trusted their back end enough to play heavier fronts. This gave them an edge in the running game. Chiefs running backs carried the ball 15 times for just 27 yards — and Cincinnati charging the box was a big reason why.

To move that eighth defender closer to the line of scrimmage, the Bengals had to play with only one safety over the top. This is a situation where Valdes-Scantling can feast. With the seams and deep sideline more open, he can use his vertical run ability (and his length) to get in position for block completions.

MVS had a big game Sunday night in part because the Bengals were comfortable playing from 1 up to get more players closer to the LOS

This is a 2 person course, brilliant concept with a quick fake toss to give 15 plenty of time. A string from the opposite hash, very good adjustment of MVS pic.twitter.com/Cr7uVM92QY

— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 31, 2023

Here, the Chiefs fuel the Bengals’ box-load by faking a run in peak pass protection, sending only two pass-catchers on immediate routes. Tackling man coverage with over-the-top safety, Valdes-Scantling executes a corner route, pulling away from safety horizontally and away from his defender vertically.

His man defender puts himself at a decent disadvantage, forcing Mahomes to overlap pass right between defenders. He gets that part down, but the positioning is on the inside—which is where Valdes-Scantling’s excellent ball-tracking skills (and long arms) come into play. He fits a throw behind him, securing a 29-yard gain that set up Kansas City’s first touchdown.

Cincy went on to cover 1 man, giving MVS these opportunities on the sideline

One of the strengths of his game is running through physical cover on a deep course without losing any speed. He easily fights through Hilton’s outside leverage to gain a huge hold here pic.twitter.com/EV4acPaWI6

— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 31, 2023

Later in the game, Valdes-Scantling is tasked with disrupting a deep crackling course as he faces man cover and only safety depth. He sells the inside vertical to displace safety, then walks back to the sideline, appearing to break through slot cornerback Mike Hilton’s coverage so he doesn’t miss the timing of his passing pattern. That separation is enough to complete the pass and get a first down.

This step also needs to be layered. There’s just enough air underneath it to clear the trailing defender’s head and Valdes-Scantling makes another big adjustment in a tight window.

Role versatility

The team had many roles to fill, so Valdes-Scantling found himself shouldering more than his usual responsibilities.

When MVS wasn’t making a big play on the field, he was filling in the orbital motion man and maximizing yards gained on a check here. 25 yards pic.twitter.com/wsWFeHsCIX

— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 31, 2023

Here, he’s in an unusual orbital motion out of the backfield, eventually ending up as a checkdown option under deeper runs. With nothing open down, Mahomes unloads it on Valdes-Scantling, who uses the early space to gain 25 yards overall. He read the walls well, maximizing the yards gained on the short pass.

Great effort by MVS to get 1st down here. Blitz forces a quick pass, downstairs, knows his position on the pitch. He gets up and just drops his shoulder to pass through 2 defenders

He stands just long enough to stretch for the 1st pic.twitter.com/hURGYDDb77

— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 31, 2023

Here was another big play in which Valdes-Scantling – normally an on-field threat – was forced to make a play on a short pass. Facing third down, Mahomes had to get rid of the ball quickly — and before the sticks — to beat the blitz. Valdes-Scantling got upfield, then dropped his shoulder to break through two defenders, standing long enough to stretch the ball out for a first down.

Open as secondary reading

Even when Valdes-Scantling wasn’t the right path for a game, he was still working to make sure he could make an impact if the opportunity presented itself.

Here’s a simple but good example of MVS keeping available until 15 once the initial readings are taken away

Doesn’t run too high upfield once play stops, keeps ahead of adjacent CB, and hugs sideline enough to get up quickly and get first down pic.twitter.com/kKtRvD6gsS

— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 31, 2023

This is a simple example, but it’s one where a busted pass becomes a first down. The simple sit path of Valdes-Scantling is not aimed at the pace of the game. But instead of panicking—and running to other parts of the field—he hangs in front of the adjacent cornerback, far enough to get up the sideline another six yards. In this game, Valdes-Scantling gives Mahomes a launch window by understanding the best place to stand.

MVS continued to feast on the benefits of a high. Here it does so without being a primary option

Cover man, 15 wants Kelce but Robber S is helping. As he returns to Moore on a shallow crosser, Bates anticipates that pitch too much, leaving MVS wide in the post for a TD pic.twitter.com/zJqAwnWnLT

— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 31, 2023

In this third play in the red zone, Mahomes is likely to prefer to find Kelce. The Bengals get ready by bringing down one of their two safeties to help block the tight end. When Mahomes sees that Kelce isn’t an option, he walks back to center field, where wide receiver Skyy Moore is running.

Anticipating that launch, Jessie Bates, solitary deep safety, attacks Moore’s shallow route. That leaves the end zone wide open for Valdes-Scantling — the third read — to race for the post. The pass protection (and Mahomes himself) barely buy time to get the ball there.

The bottom line

Kansas City’s offense didn’t have it easy during the AFC championship. Whether it was through injury or an inability to pass the ball, the passing game was in a bad place. He really needed someone to step up and make a handful of impactful plays.

This is exactly what Valdes-Scantling did. It was his biggest game with the Chiefs and, with just a few plays, he instantly became an all-time Chiefs player.

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