Cincinnati Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said he doesn’t remember exactly how the idea came up. But in an October game planning meeting, one of the coaches basically asked, “What about Tre Flowers?”
At the time, Flowers hadn’t played a single snap with the Bengals. The fourth-year cornerback had joined the team as a waiver claim on Oct. 14. Two weeks later, the Bengals prepared to face the Baltimore Ravens and an offense that featured All-Pro tight end Mark Andrews.
Flowers had been successful guarding Andrews when they played against each other in college, so the Bengals coaching staff decided to give him a shot for the Oct. 24 game against the Ravens.
In 14 snaps in that game, Flowers carved out a role for the rest of the season.
“He's kind of like our tight end stopper,” Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton said. “If you really see how we use him against some of the tight ends we play, he's the guy that's matching those guys. And he's been playing well against them. We're excited every time he's on the field because we expect him to make a play.”
On Sunday, when the Bengals face the Chiefs for the conference title, the Bengals will give Flowers as important of a responsibility as he has had this season.
Since the Ravens game, Flowers has been a third down specialist used in one-on-one coverage against some of the best tight ends in the NFL. He has guarded All-Pros like George Kittle of the San Francisco 49ers and rising stars like Noah Fant of the Denver Broncos.
In the first round of the playoffs, Flowers played 21 snaps against a Las Vegas Raiders team that ran their offense through tight end Darren Waller.
Flowers’ best game of the year came in Week 17 against the Kansas City Chiefs and tight end Travis Kelce. Flowers was the Bengals best defender against the seven-time Pro Bowler, and he allowed only seven receiving yards in that game as Kelce had one of his worst performances of the season.
The AFC Championship Game will be a rematch between Flowers and Kelce.
“(Flowers) has done a nice job in that role,” Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said. “You're always trying to mix it up on great tight ends, whether you jam them at the line, or double them or do different things … The more guys can do, the more it helps our defense. Tre's been a great addition now for three quarters of the season."
Flowers has never had this role before this year, and the entire season has been an adjustment for him. Since he was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks in 2018, Flowers had almost always been one of their starting cornerbacks.
Flowers opened the year with that starting role with the Seahawks, but he lost it after Week 3. In a loss to the Minnesota Vikings, Flowers allowed six catches on seven targets. One month later, Flowers was released by the team that drafted him.
“He sits right next to me in the meeting room and you can tell that he cares,” Bengals safety Jessie Bates said. “Tre was a starter for three years at Seattle and he could’ve easily come over here like, ‘Why am I not playing defense?’ But instead he comes in on packages, he does his job and then he goes and plays gunner for the first time ever and makes huge plays in that aspect of controlling the field.”
In Cincinnati, Flowers bought into a role that virtually only includes guarding tight ends and playing special teams. Instead of playing every down, Flowers uses his physical style at the line of scrimmage and his 6-foot-3 frame to hold up against the league’s top tight ends.
Last season, the Bengals defense allowed the third-most receiving yards to tight ends across the entire NFL. This year, Flowers has added stability in his role. His strength at the line of scrimmage allows him to stay on the tight end’s hip, and Flowers doesn’t usually have a size mismatch against the biggest players he faces.
According to Anarumo, Kelce has the unique ability to be “slippery” with his routes and identify the weak points in different defensive coverages. Kelce’s ability to discover open windows down the field plus his standout receiving skills have made him a future Hall of Famer. It's why he had 92 receptions in the regular season for 1,125 yards and nine touchdowns.
It’ll be another difficult test for Flowers, but Flowers did win the first matchup this year between them.
“Tre Flowers (and the Bengals other midseason additions) have jumped right in and fit into what we want here,” Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said. “They bought into the coaching staff, and the leaders have done a great job helping mold them into what we want.”
Clyde Edwards-Helaire new piece to Bengals-K.C. matchup
The Chiefs offense mostly looks the same from the group the Bengals faced in Week 17. The biggest difference will be running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire.
He was injured for the first matchup between the Bengals and the Chiefs, but Edwards-Helaire leads Kansas City’s running backs, averaging 64 total yards per game.
“If you're going to play a light box and play split safety as well, they know that you're a gap short or guy short in the front,” Anarumo said. "So, it puts extra stress on the big guys up front and the linebackers."
Crowd noise at Arrowhead Stadium
The Chiefs are known for having one of the best home field advantages in the NFL, and the Bengals coaching staff is preparing this week for that challenge.
Last week, the Buffalo Bills struggled communicating in the huddle in Kansas City. This week, Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said the offense will specifically work on handling that obstacle.
“Especially in a huge game like this, it'll be as loud as you could ever expect an outdoor stadium to be,” Callahan said. “So we'll be prepared for it. Communication's got to be great. You've got to keep your poise when it gets loud.”