Reminder: Each week, I’ll watch the five most recent games our opponent has played, in order to get a feel for their strengths/weaknesses, tendencies, and how well they’ve been playing leading up to their game against the Titans. I’ll break my findings down into four sections: When the Titans Run, When the Titans Pass, When the Opponents Run, and When the Opponents Pass. I’ll also list 4 players (2 offense, 2 defense) from each team who I believe could swing the final outcome based on their play.
The 2017 Kansas City Chiefs came perilously close to squandering their 5-0 record (to start the year). They went 1-6 in their subsequent seven games, before pulling themselves together and finishing on a four-game winning streak. In actuality, the final game during their mid-season slump, a 31-38 loss to the Jets, was the point of reawakening for an offense that was becoming more 2017-Titan-esque by the week. Not coincidentally, that was also the game in which HC Andy Reid handed over play-calling duties to OC Matt Nagy.
Since that shift, the Chiefs have essentially purified what they try to accomplish on offense. They’ve gotten back to featuring their stars and putting them in advantageous positions to do what they do best. In particular, TE Travis Kelce and WR Tyreek Hill—who deserves little respect off the field, given his history of domestic abuse—bend coverage schemes to their will.
On the other side of the ball, no such reawakening has occurred for KC. The 2017 Chiefs’ defense remains pale in comparison to their staunch standard of the last decade. While Eric Berry’s season-ending injury, which he suffered week one against the Patriots, surely has played a part in that decline, their entire secondary has not performed at near the level NFL fans have become accustomed to.
We saw last year that the Titans’ current scheme and roster can compete with and win against the Chiefs in Arrowhead Stadium while it’s cold outside. The Titans’ defense, the team’s saving grace this season, will be challenged in this match-up. It remains to be seen whether the Titans’ offense can exorcise its demons for the new year and in time for a potential playoffs run. Marcus Mariota, Derrick Henry, and the interior OL and receivers will need to have success in order to keep this game within reach.
Note: Because the Chiefs rested some of their normal starters during week 17, including QB Alex Smith, I elected to omit their game against the Broncos from my watchlist. Instead, I included their week 12 match-up against the Bills.
When the Titans Run
Statistics will tell you that the Chiefs’ run defense stinks this year. They place 29th in total rushing yards allowed, and Football Outsiders has them ranked 26th in Adjusted Line Yards. I’m going to tell you that those numbers don’t accurately reflect, in my opinion, their front seven’s play up front. By no means is KC great at stopping opposing rushing attacks, but they aren’t as bad as the numbers suggest. In their last three meaningful games (meaning not counting week 17), the Chiefs have “given up” their 2nd, 4th, and 1st lowest per game rushing totals of the season—they’re improving rather than declining.
DL Chris Jones is a big boy and possesses a nasty streak which can overwhelm offensive lineman; he’s got the potential to be a future star. PFF has him graded at 83.2 against the run this season. MLB Reggie Ragland, who was acquired via trade from the Bills just before the regular season began, has also performed admirably against the run, graded at 84.6 on the year. Finally, long-tenured vet Justin Houston (EDGE/OLB) is still formidable as well, and capable of holding up against a player of Derrick Henry’s size. PFF grades him 88.0 in run defense for 2017.
Outside of those three, KC’s front seven is tough but not incredibly athletic. If the Titans’ blocking scheme targets Jones, Ragland, and Houston, and the interior OL can match the Chiefs’ remaining defensive linemen in terms of brute physicality, Henry should be able to find plenty of room to work. Based on their up and down performances this season, however, it’s impossible to predict whether the interior OL and outside-tackle blockers will be able to effectively carry out their assignments. I can truly see this aspect of the match-up going either way, but I expect it to go one direction fairly drastically—the Titans will either have one of their best rushing games of the season or fizzle repeatedly.
Marcus Mariota’s perceived health (by the staff and trainers) will also play a role in which way things swing for the Titans. The Titans’ read option could absolutely dismantle the Chiefs, based on their lack of athleticism, if Mariota, Henry, and the Titans’ blockers are given the opportunity to run those calls and can beat to the same drum during them.
When the Titans Pass
One series of stats that stood out to me while compiling my findings: over the course of the 2017 regular season, opposing offenses passed the ball against the Chiefs’ defense 570 times (in contrast with 443 runs, a 56.2% pass rate), tied for 5th most league-wide. On those pass attempts, KC’s pass defense held opposing quarterbacks to the 2nd-lowest completion percentage, 57.0(%). Based on that dichotomy (high number of pass attempts vs. low completion percentage), one would expect the Chiefs to rank roughly in the middle in terms of passing yards allowed. Instead, they ranked 4th-worst, with 3952 (yards) allowed. So, while offenses passed frequently against KC, they didn’t complete a high percentage of their throws. They did, however, gain yardage at a significant clip when they were able to throw completions; the Chiefs ranked 2nd-worst in yards per completion with 12.7.
Marcus Peters continues to be an enigmatic, elite pass defender. He could be considered “The Most Interesting Cornerback in the NFL”—he doesn’t always apply himself, but when he does he prefers to ball out. Johnny-on-the-spot, the football seems to magically find its way into his hands, evidenced by 5 interceptions and 2 fumble recoveries. Opposite Peters, the Chiefs have experimented with a post-retirement Darrelle Revis for the latter portion of the season. His “island” is in grave danger of sinking into a proverbial ocean (Thanks, global warming!). Chiefs’ mainstay Derrick Johnson remains a competent coverage linebacker (86.3 pass coverage grade according to PFF), despite falling off a cliff in run support (43.5).
In my opinion, for this game, Mike Mularkey and Terry Robiskie must have faith in Marcus Mariota being able to read safety coverage down the field. Instead of giving him only one deep and one intermediate read per play, they should attempt to, at times, spread the defense thin with multiple deep routes and intermediate “check-downs”. Taywan Taylor should receive more snaps than he has per game so far, even if he only serves as a decoy the majority of the time. This could also finally be the game we see Mariota and Corey Davis connect on a long bomb. If the Titans’ scheme properly, they have more than enough vertical weapons to break KC’s pass coverage.
When the Chiefs Run
Rookie HB Kareem Hunt was bordering on becoming a household name earlier in the season, exploding onto the NFL and fantasy football scenes. During the Chief’s mid-season slump, however, his numbers began to decline, and the common perception is that he started touching the ball less. While there were weeks during the slump in which he seemed to take a backseat in terms of offensive priority, there were also games in which he received approximately the same amount of carries and targets as he had in his “breakout” games. Defenses had caught up to how Andy Reid was featuring Hunt via play calling.
Since OC Matt Nagy began handling play calling, Hunt has achieved a relative resurgence, though he’s not wrecking defenses in quite the same manner as he was early on. Nagy has opted for a more “college-style” running attack, taking advantage of QB Alex Smith’s threat as a runner, in order to make life easier on Hunt. The Chiefs operate primarily out of shotgun, utilizing mostly inside zones (with varying levels of handoff delay), as well as read-options and full-blown pitch options between Smith and Hunt.
I’ve seen enough positives from the Titans’ run defense this year to feel confident that they can contain Hunt on normal inside/outside zones and draws. The Titans run defense has not been heavily tested by the read-option (or pitch option), so I don’t have a ton of bearing on how they will perform against it. Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan will be huge factors in run support this week. Luckily, Tennessee’s primary corners, Logan Ryan and Adoree Jackson, have proven deft at bringing down ballcarriers when called upon. Wesley Woodyard, Avery Williamson, Kevin Byard, and Johnathan Cyprien will be playing broader full-field roles than they’ve typically been assigned, but I believe each of them possesses the athleticism to succeed, as long as they’re mentally well-prepared.
When the Chiefs Pass
The other change Matt Nagy made to the Chiefs’ offense involved cutting out the “BS” in the passing game. With a triumvirate of Hunt, Travis Kelce, and Tyreek Hill at his disposal, there is very little reason for him to worry about spreading the ball around; their skill sets complement each other beautifully.
Hill is the “third” that provides room for the other two to work unmolested by heavy coverage. He can (and must) take the top off of any defense. Adoree Jackson and Kevin Byard will need to Vulcan mind meld while dapping prior to the start of the game. Alex Smith’s deep ball this year has been a thing of beauty, and Hill, who entered the league as a raw prospect, is growing into a talented receiver at the catch point, including while near the sideline.
With respect to our own Delanie Walker, Travis Kelce displays the best combination of athleticism, skill, and availability (sorry, Gronk) amongst elite NFL TEs. With Hill pressing safeties deep downfield, Kelce can abuse linebackers with speed and nickel cornerbacks with size. He also possesses a wicked vertical and can make jaw-dropping catches in traffic. Jayon Brown will likely match-up with Kelce a lot, so this game will provide at least the first in a series of “final exams” for the rookie. No matter who guards him, Kelce will get his, so as the saying goes: “... (the Titans) can only hope to contain him.”
Kareem Hunt “brings up the rear”, in a sense, occupying the coverage void in the flats left by defenses’ focus on Hill and Kelce. Though 2017 Alex Smith will certainly go long if given an opportunity, everyone knows he loves himself some check-down. If the Titans sell out to stop the other threats, Hunt will run wild after the catch.
Smith himself serves as another threat in the passing game due to his mobility. If a defense can cover the aforementioned three on a given play, Smith will gladly take off if he can find an escape route.
As you can see, the Titans’ defense is in for a long day as long as the Chiefs keep doing what they’ve been doing since Matt Nagy received his “promotion”. The fate of this match-up is likely to come down to how well Alex Smith throws the ball. If the Titans can force pressure on him in the pocket, or get him running laterally, he may revert to poor accuracy or timidness. I expect Brian Orakpo, Derrick Morgan, and Erik Walden to have sack opportunities against KC’s OL, but they must seal the deal—Smith isn’t Russell Wilson, but he’s not as far off as you might think. I’m actually kind of excited to see what Dick LeBeau draws up, as Pittsburgh (running a version of his defense) has had success against Smith in the past.
8 Players to Watch
QB Marcus Mariota, HB Derrick Henry, EDGE/OLB Brian Orakpo, CB Adoree Jackson
TE Travis Kelce, WR Tyreek Hill, DL Chris Jones, CB Marcus Peters