The Titans path to the AFC Championship Game has been anything but straight.
We all know how the regular season story goes — 2-4 start, 7-3 finish, the emergence of Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry, and A.J. Brown as top end players at their respective positions — but the playoff trail has been just as interesting.
Tennessee knocked off the NFL’s best defense in the wildcard round and followed that up by beating the NFL’s best offense in the divisional round. Things won’t get any easier this weekend as the team takes it’s road show to Kansas City to take on reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes and the dynamic Chiefs.
The most interesting thing about this Titans team has been their ability to win games in a variety of ways. The last two weeks have featured lights out efforts from the Tennessee defense combined with a red hot rushing attack that bullied two of the NFL’s best defenses, but that’s not necessarily how the Titans built their 7-3 playoff push at the end of the regular season.
Yes, Derrick Henry was fantastic while winning the rushing title, but the Titans also boasted a dynamic play action passing game that balanced the offense and made Tennessee the league’s most explosive offense. No team completed passes of 15 or more yards more often than the Titans, who hit a big completion on 14% of all dropbacks. No team hit more 50-plus yard touchdown passes than Tennessee’s five during Ryan Tannehill’s tenure as starting quarterback.
For all the talk this week about how the Titans can possibly keep up with the Chiefs offense, it’s actually Tennessee who entered the playoffs with the hotter offense. Since the quarterback change in Week 7, the Titans averaged 30.4 points per game — only the Ravens and Saints averaged more in that time frame — while the Chiefs checked in at 27.9.
Tennessee also finished the regular season by putting up 30 or more points in five of their last seven games of the year, including two 40 point efforts. The Chiefs topped 30 in just three of their last seven, still very good, but not quite as strong as the Titans closing kick.
While the Titans offense has been better than the narrative heading into this game suggests, the Chiefs defense has also not been given enough credit. After a bumpy start to the year, Kansas City closed as the league’s stingiest team, allowing just 69 points total over the final six weeks of the regular season. The second toughest team to score on over that stretch? Baltimore, who allowed 93 points.
There are plenty of false narratives being spread about both of these teams based on reputation, but you won’t find that here. Instead, let’s take a look at a few of the matchups that the Titans will need to win if they want to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LIV.
Taylor Lewan vs Frank Clark
Frank Clark dominated for the Chiefs in their divisional round win over the Texans, tallying 3 sacks against Deshaun Watson in the game. With 8 regular season sacks, Clark is pretty clearly Kansas City’s biggest threat as a pass rusher outside of Chris Jones. If Jones can’t go — or even if he’s limited with the calf injury he’s been nursing the past couple weeks — Clark instantly becomes the focal point for the Titans offensive line when Ryan Tannehill drops back to pass.
Clark lines up over the left tackle for approximately 70% of his snaps so expect to see plenty of battles between him and the Titans best offensive lineman, Taylor Lewan. When the Titans and Chiefs last met, Lewan was at a low point. He committed three egregious penalties that hurt the team in that game, following a pair of terrible penalties that single-handedly killed a drive the previous week against the Panthers.
However, Lewan has turned the corner since that game and is now playing at his usual elite level as both a run blocker and a pass protector.
Taylor Lewan: 1.9% pressure rate since Week 12— PFF (@PFF) January 16, 2020
Lowest among OTs pic.twitter.com/yjob4Qmcrb
He’s also largely cut out the penalties, committing just three fouls — one hold, one false start, and one ineligible downfield — in the eight games since the Titans-Chiefs matchup in Week 10.
Lewan versus Clark will be a very important matchup for the Titans to win both in the run game and when Tennessee drops back to pass.
Jurrell Casey vs Andrew Wylie & Laurent Duvernay-Tardif
The Chiefs left guard spot is a little bit up in the air with regular starter Andrew Wylie coming back from injury while veteran backup Stefen Wisniewski has performed well in his absence. I would suspect that Wylie will get the start if he’s cleared, but it wouldn’t shock me if Wisniewski is the guy either. Both players are better pass protectors than run blockers so I’m not sure it makes a huge difference which player starts here, but Wisniewski has arguably been better than Wylie since stepping into the lineup.
Duvernay-Tardif has seemingly regressed since signing a big money long term extension before the 2017 season. He’s PFF’s 56th ranked guard over the course of the season and he’s allowed the most pressures (20) of any current member of the Chiefs starting offensive line group.
The Titans were without the services of four time Pro Bowler Jurrell Casey in their first matchup with Kansas City. His presence — particularly in his current form with four sacks in his last four games — could be a big difference maker for the Titans if he can win some of his battles with Wylie and/or Duvernay-Tardif. Casey seems to have taken his play to another level lately and his ability to create interior pressure could be a big problem for the Chiefs.
Jeffery Simmons and DaQuan Jones are also playing at a high level on the interior of the Titans front too, though neither of them are as disruptive in the pass rush as Casey is. I would expect Tennessee to have a decided advantage at the line of scrimmage.
Adoree’ Jackson vs Tyreek Hill
During the Titans first matchup Hill was a menace, putting together his best game of the 2019 season with 11 catches for 157 yards and a touchdown on a whopping 19 targets. While Jackson was Hill’s primary defender in that game, he certainly wasn’t responsible for all of that production. PFF credited Adoree’ with allowing 7 catches for 73 yards on 12 targets in that game. A per target average of 6.1 yards is a rate you’ll take 10 times out of 10 against the Chiefs.
Tennessee has rarely shadowed with their corners under Dean Pees, but when they have asked Jackson to follow specific receivers this season, he’s been quite effective:
- Jackson vs Hill on 53.3% of routes in Week 10: 4 catches on 8 targets for 60 yards
- Jackson vs Chark on 81.1% of routes in Week 12: 3 catches on 4 targets for 28 yards
- Jackson vs Brown on 73.1% of routes in divisional round: 3 catches on 5 targets for 64 yards
It’s worth noting that all those instances occurred after the injury to Malcolm Butler in Week 9 and they were all matchups with guys that ran sub-4.35.
Despite Logan Ryan’s all around excellence, Jackson is pretty clearly the Titans best pure cover man. He’s been the team’s least targeted corner and has allowed the 12th fewest yards per cover snap in the entire NFL among 78 qualifying corners per PFF. Opposing quarterbacks are completing just 59.3% of their passing into Jackson’s coverage this year for a passer rating of just 85.3.
He’s played some of his best football in the last two weeks after returning from a foot injury that cost him the final four games of the regular season. In the playoffs, Jackson has been targeted 13 times, allowing just 5 catches for 88 yards. He leads all playoff participants with 5 passes broken up during the 2019 postseason, meaning that he’s gotten his hands on as many passes as the receivers he’s covering have during the past two games.
I would fully expect Jackson to have the task of shadowing Hill in this game as well, probably even more frequently than he did back in Week 10. The speedy Chiefs receiver has surprisingly failed to top 72 receiving yards in any game since his explosion in Nashville in Week 10. Jackson will be trying to keep it that way.
Ryan Tannehill vs Tyrann Mathieu
Ryan Tannehill has made his mark on this postseason despite not putting up prolific passing stats in the Titans first two wins. Regardless of whether Tannehill puts up huge yardage numbers, the NFL’s top rated regular season passer will have a big influence on the outcome of this game.
Tannehill’s “matchup” in this game is really talented Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu. The Honey Badger will line up all over the field for Steve Spagnuolo’s defense. He’ll pop up in the slot, back deep, or up close to the line of scrimmage as a box safety.
He’s most dangerous when he’s put in a robber role and allowed to read the quarterback’s eyes and follow them to the ball. Mathieu’s four interceptions and 12 passes defended both lead the Chiefs defense and he’s been the key part of a pass defense that has shut down opposing quarterbacks over the last six games of the season.
Since the matchup with the Titans in Week 10, the Chiefs held opposing quarterbacks to just 56.5% completion rate (3rd lowest in the league), 5 passing touchdowns (tied for fewest in the league), and 10 interceptions (tied for most in the league). That combines for a passer rating allowed of just 63.5, the lowest number in the NFL over that stretch.
As hot as Mathieu and the Chiefs pass defense was, Ryan Tannehill and the Titans passing attack was equally productive. Tennessee completed 69.1% of their passes and threw 14 touchdown passes against just 2 interceptions from Week 11 through Week 17 for a league leading passer rating of 128.9 and a ridiculous 9.2 net yards per pass attempt (passing yards minus sack yards, divided by dropbacks).
Despite the excellent run of play from Kansas City’s pass defense, this still represents a step down in competition for the Titans passing attack compared to the last two weeks. The Patriots and Ravens ranked 1st and 4th, respectively, in Football Outsiders pass defense DVOA while the Chiefs check in at “just” 6th. KC doesn’t boast the Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, Marcus Peters, Marlon Humphrey level shutdown corners that A.J. Brown and Corey Davis have seen the last couple games.
How the Chiefs choose to defend the Titans will be interesting. The Patriots decided to take the play action passing game and A.J. Brown away while daring the Titans to stick with Derrick Henry. The Ravens stacked the box and blitzed like crazy, but Tennessee got up so quickly that passing against an opportunistic secondary made no sense with a running back getting over 6 yards per carry. If the Chiefs take the approach that the Ravens did, I’d expect a much bigger game from Tannehill in Kansas City.
Kevin Byard vs Travis Kelce
Despite the flash of Tyreek Hill, Kelce is still the Chiefs leading pass catcher. The five time Pro Bowl tight end had another stellar year in 2019, putting up 1,229 yards and 5 touchdowns. Against the Titans he had an efficient day, turning 7 targets into 7 catches for 75 yards and a touchdown and Kelce is coming off his best game of the season as he torched the Texans for 10 catches, 134 yards, and 3 touchdowns in the Chiefs (hilarious) 51-31 beatdown of Houston.
Drawing the tall task of covering Kelce on most snaps is likely to be Titans star safety Kevin Byard. The fourth year pro is having another excellent season. Byard comfortably leads the NFL in interceptions since 2017 with 18, including his latest pick that started the avalanche of turnovers from Lamar Jackson last Saturday.
I don’t expect this to be a down-in-down-out shadow type assignment — Dean Pees is sure to mix up his coverage looks against Patrick Mahomes to try and keep him from getting comfortable — but when it comes to critical third downs and red zone opportunities, my guess is Byard gets the call against Kelce.
When he’s not tracking the big tight end, the Titans could really use some turnovers by one of the best turnover creators in the game. In addition to all the sudden change and field position benefits of turnovers, getting Mahomes off the field without having to stop him on three straight plays is a huge win if Tennessee can take the ball away a few times.
Greg Joseph vs Mecole Hardman
Special teams has been a thorn in the Titans side for most of this season with the notable exception of All-Pro punter Brett Kern. The Chiefs, on the other hand, have had outstanding work in the game’s third phase despite some of the miscues that led to their loss in Nashville in Week 10.
The Titans have struggled on kickoff coverage — largely a function of their inability at times to get touchbacks from their rotating cast of kickers — as well as both return units. The Chiefs are a team that can make you pay dearly if you put the ball in the hands of their ultra-dangerous return specialist, rookie receiver Mecole Hardman.
Big Hardman returns have sparked important scoring drives in each of the Chiefs past two games. After going 0 for 5 on forcing touchbacks on kickoffs in his Titans debut against the Saints, Greg Joseph has gotten touchbacks on 7 of his last 11 kicks. That will be a tough rate to maintain in what is expected to be below freezing temperatures in Kansas City on Sunday, but every kick that doesn’t land in Hardman’s arms is a win for the Titans.
If the Titans end up trying their first field goal attempt since Week 15, it would be nice if he could hit that as well.
Derrick Henry vs Chiefs Run Defense
What is left to be said about King Henry and this Titans offensive line?
The rushing title winner has rushed for 1,273 yards and 11 touchdowns in the past 8 games. That sample alone is more than any other rusher not named Nick Chubb, Christian McCaffrey, or Ezekiel Elliott put up during the entire 2019 regular season.
Henry already has the 7th most rushing yards in a single postseason in NFL history and he’s just 233 yards shy of John Riggins record set in 1982. I say “just” because the way Henry’s going, he might get there by the end of this game on Sunday.
For all the success of the Chiefs pass defense in 2019, their run defense has been a major issue, ranking 29th in Football Outsiders run defense DVOA and yards per attempt allowed (4.9). Defensive tackles Mike Pennel and Derrick Nnadi are stout run defenders in the middle of that defense, but as we’ve learned last week, big interior run stuffers aren’t really a big deterrent to this Titans rushing attack.
There are a couple reasons for that. One is the fact that Rodger Saffold, Ben Jones, and Nate Davis have been mauling on the interior of the offensive line since the first matchup with Kansas City. The other reason is that the outside zone run that the Titans do most of their damage with is effective at neutralizing those types of interior run defenders by making them run side to side instead of firing off the ball and trying to generate push.
The Chiefs don’t have the personnel to stuff the run without committing extra players to the box. Especially not against an offensive line that is clicking like Tennessee’s is right now. So the question will become whether they want to let Henry get his and just hope they can string together a couple stops to force a third down or if they want to leave cornerbacks Bashaud Breeland and Charvarius Ward on and island against A.J. Brown and Corey Davis and the Titans play action passing game.
Expect the Titans to stay patient with Henry, even if they fall behind. There has been plenty of commentary about Kansas City “getting up early and taking Henry out of the game” this week. It’s not going to be that simple. Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith has shown all season that he’s not afraid to stick with a balanced approach even in the rare occasions when his team has found itself down multiple scores.
Down 29-20 in the fourth quarter against the Chiefs, Smith orchestrated a touchdown drive that featured seven Henry runs and just three dropbacks (two of which became Tannehill scrambles). Down 17-0 to start the second half against Carolina, the Titans dialed up a touchdown drive featuring seven Henry runs and one Tannehill scramble. Down 17-7 in the third quarter against the Colts, Henry rushed four times against five Tannehill dropbacks. Down 31-21 in the fourth quarter against the Saints, the Titans ran practice squad back Dalyn Dawkins four straight times to open a scoring drive before turning Tannehill loose with a pair of passes that took them into the end zone.
Hell, the Titans are the team that ran an entire two minute scoring drive against the Patriots before halftime where Henry rushed five times and caught a screen pass with the only other snap being an incomplete pass by Tannehill. Scaring the Titans out of their balanced approach is going to take a lot more than a couple early scores. This is a very patient Tennessee coaching staff who believes in their approach and will stick to it.
With the weather expected to be well below freezing for the entirety of this game, Chiefs defenders are going to be asked to tackle the human meat freezer that wears 22 for the Titans a lot in this game. Whether they can stop him with any sort of consistency might decide who advances to balmy Miami for Super Bowl LIV.