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Titans Vs Chiefs

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Breaking Down Titans vs. Chiefs

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).

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