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The Conference Championship Games Will Be Won and Lost in the Trenches

The NFL playoffs have been defined by superstar quarterbacks. That’s why a defensive line that can disrupt opposing passers is so important.

Getty Images/AP/Ringer illustration

Conjecture surrounding this postseason has (rightfully) focused on the quarterbacks. The divisional round highlighted how QB play frequently runs parallel to team success in the winter, and the margins for error at such a pivotal position are very thin. But the guys who’ve been doing their best at disrupting opposing signal-callers deserve mention, too. So let’s talk about the defenses and what the players in the trenches can do to keep these touted quarterbacks from playing their best this weekend.

Both conference championship contests stand to be won and lost at the line of scrimmage. Excluding the Chiefs, the three other conference finalists each had their divisional-round games heavily influenced by the play of their defensive lines; Los Angeles’s Von Miller and Aaron Donald, Cincinnati’s D.J. Reader, and San Francisco’s Arik Armstead and Nick Bosa were all crucial to their respective team’s victories. Repeating such dominance could be key to these teams making it to the Super Bowl.

But having success as a defensive line in the championship round will be difficult. The four remaining starting quarterbacks in the playoffs were the NFL’s highest-rated quarterbacks in EPA per play against the blitz this season. All four also rank among the top 12 passers in EPA per play when not blitzed, too. A combination of individual talent, scheme, and supporting cast have enabled so much success for each one.

Blitz at your own risk—or don’t. Getting home with four rushers will make the difference this weekend.

One fun thing about this playoff round is that both contests are rematches. (I’m not sure I’d consider it fun having to block/rush against the same players again after already doing it for one game. That sounds exhausting and annoying, but I’m not an NFL lineman.) Considering previous meetings and accounting for last week’s performances, let’s look into how the trenches can help determine who will advance to the Super Bowl.

Bengals at Chiefs

Cincinnati advanced to its first AFC title game since 1989 in large part because of the dominance of Reader, the talented defensive tackle who recorded six total tackles, two tackles for loss, and one quarterback hit to lead the Bengals over the Titans.

As’s Mike Santagata explained Tuesday, Reader’s presence undoubtedly affected Tennessee in both phases on offense. He consistently stymied the Titans run game:

And never allowed Ryan Tannehill to get comfortable passing from the pocket:

What’s perhaps most impressive about Reader’s performance is that he dominated the game from the interior without lineman Larry Ogunjobi available. The Titans offense never got going despite getting Derrick Henry back on the field, which is a credit to Cincinnati defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, who got creative and pressed the right buttons. But a rematch with the Chiefs poses a tougher challenge.

Patrick Mahomes is very good against the blitz, and the Chiefs offensive line is one of the best in the NFL (second in ESPN’s pass-block win rate, third in run-block win rate). Defenses have found better success dropping extra bodies in coverage instead. The Bengals luckily feature a strong edge in Trey Hendrickson (three pressures in the Week 17 meeting) and Sam Hubbard, but they will have to step up with Ogunjobi (team-high four pressures in Week 17) out for the rematch. The Bengals pass rush didn’t generate any sacks in the first meeting, but did affect Mahomes on a few throws, forcing him to rush some passes that probably should have been intercepted. Cincinnati will have to cash in on such opportunities if they come around this weekend.

On the flip side, the Chiefs defensive line should get a number of chances to affect Burrow. The Bengals have one of the NFL’s worst pass-blocking offensive lines. Burrow was sacked nine times last week against the Titans, with interior lineman Jeffery Simmons recording three alone. That’s an enticing development for Kansas City’s Chris Jones, who racked up two sacks (three pressures) in the Week 17 meeting.

The issue for the Chiefs is that, even if he’s taking a beating, Burrow will continue firing. And he trusts his star receivers, Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd, and will quickly distribute the football to them—especially Chase—once he identifies single coverage. Chase burned the Chiefs secondary on 72- and 69-yard touchdowns, racking up significant yards after the catch. Burrow’s feel within the pocket and ability to maneuver away from pressure is impressive, but it wouldn’t be surprising if he relies on rapid decisions Sunday. Burrow tied for the league’s second-quickest time to throw (2.41 seconds) in Week 17. A quick trigger once again could mitigate Kansas City’s pass rush.

Pro Football Focus’s Conor McQuiston broke down how the left side of the Bengals offensive line has held up during the past few weeks, but the right side continues to be exposed. That’s an issue, as Jones lines up on the right side of the line on 60 percent of his snaps. However, McQuiston reached the conclusion that Cincinnati’s offensive line primarily struggles when defenses change where they are rushing from post-snap. On that end, Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo would be responsible for changing pressure schemes near the line of scrimmage more often than usual. But more frequent blitzes could leave the Bengals receivers in isolated coverages that Burrow will feel comfortable attacking.

49ers at Rams

Sunday marks the third meeting between the Rams and 49ers this season. While San Francisco isn’t favored, Kyle Shanahan’s 6-0 record against Sean McVay’s Rams through the past three seasons is plenty of reason for the Niners to have confidence. The way San Francisco dispatched the Cowboys and Packers in back-to-back weeks since last facing the Rams should also be encouraging.

PFF’s Seth Galina recently wrote about how despite having major question marks at cornerback, the Niners defense has thrived thanks in large part to the work of defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans. His unit is playing cohesively within the back seven, and a key to that is how the front four has had great success affecting opposing passers. Last week, Armstead and Bosa recorded two sacks and three pressures each, spurring a rough outing from Green Bay’s offensive line:

The Rams boast one of the league’s top pass-blocking offensive lines (first in ESPN’s PBWR), but in the latest meeting between the two teams, it didn’t matter. Armstead generated 2.5 sacks and defensive lineman D.J. Jones chipped in one, while Bosa and Arden Key were credited with a half sack each. The Rams will have their hands full trying to deal with the havoc that the Niners front can generate, especially when it’s working in concert with the defense’s back seven.

Los Angeles needs a strong performance from Matthew Stafford behind center. Stafford generated the most EPA per play when blitzed this season, but the Niners have blitzed him only 10 times in two games. Across two games, Stafford has completed 64.4 percent of his passes for 481 yards, four touchdowns, and four picks. He’s averaging just 6.6 yards per attempt and 5.2 adjusted yards per attempt. His matchups against the Niners are some of the few blemishes on a starry debut Rams season for Stafford. San Francisco managed to keep the ball out of Stafford’s hands in the first matchup and capitalized on a pair of his miscues. In the second meeting, the Niners generated 16 pressures and five sacks.

Luckily for L.A., the Rams defense has played well during the postseason, and that’s started with their defensive line. Donald and Miller have been dominant, and the latter put together a vintage performance last week against the Buccaneers:

It’s worth noting that the caliber of opponent will significantly increase this week—Trent Williams (who is dealing with an ankle injury but appears determined to play) is much, much more formidable than Tampa Bay’s backup left tackle. But that doesn’t mean that Miller can’t be impactful. (He recorded a sack and had two pressures in Week 18.) He’s on his best and most significant stretch as a Ram, playing some of his best ball in years and making it clear why he’s a future Hall of Famer. But Sunday will require his best stuff yet.

The Niners will lean on their wide zone running game to mitigate the impact of the Rams defensive linemen. San Francisco will do its best to force L.A.’s second- and third-level defenders to wrap up and make tackles. The Rams have a defense that’s made to match up with the NFL’s high-flying, pass-heavy offenses, but have yet to solve Shanahan’s motion-happy, run-reliant scheme. Whether the Rams figure out an answer to that or not will prove to be the difference Sunday.