The Cincinnati Bengals are one win away from back-to-back AFC Championships and another trip to the Super Bowl. The Bengals will go on the road Sunday to face the Kansas City Chiefs in a rematch of last year's AFC title tilt.
The Enquirer checked in with some high school football coaches of Bengals and Chiefs players who grew up around Cincinnati, plus one other local football coach with NFL ties. Their gridiron expertise and ties to the players give them credentials to analyze what fellow Cincinnati Bengals' fans can expect when the team visits Arrowhead Stadium this weekend.
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Cincinnati Bengals DE Sam Hubbard's high school coach John Rodenberg
Indian Hill head football coach John Rodenberg coached Bengals' defensive end Sam Hubbard at Moeller, winning back-to-back state championships in 2012-2013. Rodenberg saw a glimpse of Hubbard's days as a safety in the first round of the playoffs, when he returned a fumble 98 yards for the game-winning touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens.
"I saw it fall into his (Hubbard's) hands and saw him race downfield," Rodenberg said. "It's like, 'wow,' because you know the kid. I heard Mike Tirico's 'Cincinnati Kid' comment and that's just so true. It's like a moment made in magic."
Rodenberg believes Hubbard and the rest of the Bengals' defensive line will be the key on Sunday. Cincinnati has had success against the Chiefs with just three-man pass rushes and now they'll face a quarterback in Pat Mahomes who is dealing with a high ankle sprain which could limit his ability to extend plays with his legs.
"If they can get by with Hendrickson, Reader and Hubbard, they'll stick to that. Mahomes, he's not gonna be 100%. That's gonna be a mobility issue that puts him as a drop-back passer," Rodenberg said. "When you rush a drop-back passer, things are definitely in your favor. I think with the mobility issue, they can get after him."
OT Jackson Carman's high school coach Jason Krause of Fairfield
The Bengals' banged-up offensive line turned in a memorable performance in the team's 27-10 win over the Buffalo Bills last week. One standout was Jackson Carman, who was making his first professional start at left tackle. Carman and company allowed just one sack and paved the way for 172 rushing yards in a dominant effort.
Fairfield head coach Jason Krause, who coached Carman in high school, was not surprised by the showing.
"It was very validating for us, the people who know what he's capable of," said Krause, a Browns fan who is now pulling for the Bengals. "With him (Carman) being there, I'm becoming a Bengals fan and a Jackson Carman fan, for sure."
Cincinnati has won three consecutive close games against the Chiefs, including last year's AFC title game. What does that do to the game plan, knowing the Chiefs are going to attempt to take away what worked in the previous matchups?
"The things that did work against them, they're figuring out how to defend," Krause said. "You gotta look at the week prior and see what things they're doing differently than the first time you saw them."
Bengals head coach Zac Taylor claimed this week he'd cover every inch of the internet to find things to motivate his team. Krause is no stranger to this method.
"We always look for bulletin board material. I have taken articles, copied them and posted them in every locker of the locker room," Krause explained. "I think there's a little piece of that in all of us coaches, in terms of finding a competitive advantage."
Kansas City Chiefs' Byran Cook's high school coach Arvie Crouch
Crouch, now with the Hamilton High School Big Blue of the Greater Miami Conference, was head coach at Mt. Healthy while Bryan Cook played for the Owls.
Cook is in his rookie season with the Kansas City Chiefs after they drafted him in the second round of the 2022 NFL Draft out of Cincinnati. Cook was a big part of the defense on UC's 2021 team that made the College Football Playoff semifinals, totaling 93 tackles and earning first-team all-conference honors.
Cook has primarily played special teams this year for Kansas City but does play some defense in red-zone packages. Cook has 33 tackles this season, 22 solo, with one sack. He has two passes defended.
"He’s one of the best kids I've ever coached as far as being a great human being and one heck of an athlete," Crouch said. "All his hard work has paid off and his work ethic is second to none. I’m really proud of him. He is one of the guys who built Mt. Healthy into a winner."
Crouch is a Bengals fan and will be rooting for the orange and black first, but he will also be happy if Cook gets to play in the Super Bowl.
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He will be looking for Cook to make a key play when he gets his chance, and Crouch said Cook will be ready if Joe Burrow throws his way.
"He’s a role player right now, and he does a great job at what he’s asked to do," Crouch said. "They have a great staff and he knows what he’s doing. He’s disciplined, hard-working and that’s the type of guy they want."
Cook was lightly recruited out of high school, signing with Howard University before eventually transferring to UC and going on a unique path to the NFL.
"He was a late bloomer," Crouch said. "He took advantage of his opportunities. I told (one NFL scout) what a great human being he was. They talked to other people. Someone called me and said 'Is anyone going to say anything bad about this guy?' He’s not one to worry about unless you’re playing against him."
Former Bengals player Bruce Kozerski, Holy Cross head football coach
Though he did coach Derrick Barnes of the Detroit Lions, Kozerski hasn't coached any players on the Bengals' or Chiefs' rosters. However, he was an offensive lineman for Cincinnati from 1984 to 1995 and was part of the second Bengals team to go to the Super Bowl. Staying true to his roots as a player, Kozerski believes the game will be won at the line of scrimmage.
"Win the trenches. If all the substitutes can handle all the pass rushers, that makes it even harder to stop the Bengals' fleet of receivers." Kozerski said.
He is speaking about Carman, Max Scharping and Hakeem Adeniji, who are filling in for injured starters Jonah Williams, Alex Cappa and La'el Collins. Including last Sunday's win over Buffalo, the three reserves have just five starts between them this season but were a key cog in a win over Buffalo that saw Joe Burrow pass for 242 yards and Joe Mixon run for 105 yards.
On the flip side, Kozerski said there are several things the Bengals can do defensively to control the game. The defensive game plan starts with Patrick Mahomes, who suffered a high-ankle sprain in the Chiefs' win against Jacksonville.
"They need to get pressure on him and see how mobile he is, and see what directions he runs where he has limited mobility," Kozerski said.
When Mahomes returned in the second half of last Sunday's game, the majority of his passes came from inside the pocket. Forcing him out of the pocket, Kozerski said, could impact his accuracy to receivers like former University of Cincinnati tight end Travis Kelce.
Cincinnati has won each of its three prior meetings with Kansas City by three points. The Bengals enter Sunday's contest on a 10-game winning streak, while the Chiefs have won seven straight. Taking all these factors into mind, Kozerski predicts a seven-point Bengals win.
"The confidence level of both teams is extremely high," Kozerski said.