Tre Flowers is one of eight Bengals defenders who took at least one turn guarding Chiefs generational tight end Travis Kelce last season in holding him to 120 yards in two games, according to Pro Football Focus, and all are back for Sunday's AFC title game re-match (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) at Paycor Stadium.
That's defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo's thing. Mix it up.
In the past, the 6-3 Flowers, regarded as the tallest cornerback in the league, has been Anarumo's designated tight end stopper and he had a route against Kelce in each game that set the tone for those touchdown-less second halves in both the AFC North clincher here and the AFC championship game in Kansas City four weeks later.
"Good eyes. Good technique. Good finish," Flowers said of the plays that each came in the defense's first series of the second half.
In the Jan. 2 game, the Bengals had just cut the lead to 28-24 on their third play of the half and with the Chiefs at their own 44 on second-and-nine, quarterback Patrick Mahomes got out of the pocket and had Kelce for a first down over the middle. But Flowers dove in and battled him to the ground, knocking the ball out to set up an unsuccessful third-and-nine.
In the title game, the Chiefs came out of the locker room after a tough last 1:05 of the first half. They still led, 21-10, but had watched the Bengals end the half with running back Samaje Perine's 41-yard catch-and-run TD and Bengals cornerback Eli Apple's stoning of wide receiver Tyreek Hill on the goal line as time ran out.
Then on third-and-four from the Chiefs 37 on the fifth play of the second half, Mahomes picked up a rolling shot gun snap, but couldn't cause his usual mayhem. Kelce got behind Flowers but with Flowers' frame, Mahomes launched it high and Kelce couldn't come down with it.
"The thing he does best?" Flowers repeated. "Get open. He's a Hall-of-Famer in my opinion. Mahomes is going to find him. He can make any throw and Kelce can make any catch."
So how do you stop him?
"Try your hardest," Flowers said. "Fight all the way through the ball."
The reasons six different Bengals covered Kelce in KC is in the second half Anarumo did a lot of dropping eight men in coverage with just three rushing. According to Next Gen Stats, the Bengals did that on 10 of 22 drop-backs after doing it just five of 21 times in the first half. In the second half, Mahomes was sacked twice against three or fewer rushers after being only sacked three times on three-man rushes from the opener through halftime of the AFC Championship. And he was just three of eight passing for 13 yards.
Anarumo set a trend and Mahomes has responded. Mahomes leads the NFL with 68 passes against three or fewer rushers this season and has a scalding passer rating of 125.7 with six touchdowns and a pick with a 76.5 completion percentage. Which is one of the reasons why Anarumo said earlier this week that this game is going to be different.
And that gets back to mixing it up. But look for Flowers to be in the mix.
INJURY UPDATE: After working inside Wednesday, the Bengals went outside Thursday, where wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase (hip) and running back Joe Mixon (concussion) were again limited. Nose tackle DJ Reader (ankle) didn't practice for personal reasons.
Wide receivers coach Troy Walters says it doesn't look like Chase has missed much.
"You can't tell he's been out for four weeks, that's for sure," Walters said. "He's had a good week. We'll see what happens."
HURST ON KELCE: When it comes to Kelce, Bengals tight end Hayden Hurst has enormous respect and has picked up tips from him on how to get open at Tight End U, an offseason confab for NFL tight ends started by Kelce, George Kittle and Greg Olsen.
"It doesn't matter who's on him. He gets open. You saw what he did to Jalen Ramsey," said Hurst of the Rams cornerback beaten for a 39-yard touchdown. "Travis is a freak, man. His releases, his understanding of coverages. Leverage. He's hard to cover. You line him up inside, he knows how to take advantage of it. You line him up head up, he knows how to take advantage of it. He's seen it all … He'll probably go down as the best ever … You can't mimic what Travis does, the way he gets open."
NUMBERS GAME: The Bengals had a fairly muted reaction to Chiefs safety Justin Reid's curious remarks on Wednesday in which he appeared to say he was going to shut down torrid Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins.
But Reid apparently had his uniform jerseys and names mixed up and thought he was talking about tight end Tyler Higbee. That was a mistake, too, because Higbee plays for the Rams. So it sounded like Reid was making a show of not knowing that the Bengals tight end he planned to shut down is Hurst. Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow knows Hurst's No. 88 well enough that Hurst is on pace to tie the Bengals club record for most catches by a tight end in a season.
"Definitely the first guy who's going to attempt to cover me that said something about me or to me or to whoever he thought he was talking about," Hurst said before Thursday's practice. "I don't care really care … You can pick anybody in this locker room and I feel like I'm the last person you probably want to talk (crap) about because I have a long memory."
Nose tackle D.J. Reader remembered he was Reid's former teammate in Houston and fired off a tweet ("Gotta know your personnel better to be making promises") and wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase got a few in. But other than that it was more like strong safety Vonn Bell.
"I've got bigger fish to fry. I got (No.) 15 coming town," Bell said of Mahomes.
The Bengals have been through all this. New Chiefs wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster knows that. Bell (along with a healthy Joe Burrow, a big 2021 draft and a re-stocked defense) helped change everything two years ago on a Monday night in December when Smith-Schuster came in with the Steelers, did his pregame act on the home logo at midfield and Bell proceeded to knock him into next week to cause a turnover in the Bengals' 10-point win and they haven't looked back. They're 22-13 since.
And then there was this:
Last week, South Carolina's Hurst bet Clemson's Higgins on last Saturday's game and Hurst ("I had a hunch,") asked his parents to overnight his college jersey from Jacksonville. When South Carolina won, Higgins had to wear it in the locker room. Which could really confuse Reid.