The Kansas City Chiefs defense is coming off their best performance of the year, beating the well-balanced offense of the Minnesota Vikings. The Tennessee Titans don’t boast the same offensive weapons the Vikings do, so the unit won’t see nearly the same challenge this Sunday. But Tennessee does have an explosive running game that could challenge the Chiefs’ front.
Let’s dig into the Titans personnel — and a concept we may see on Sunday afternoon. Then we’ll discuss how the Chiefs defense can try to slow them down — and continue their streak of good defensive performances.
Ryan Tannehill replaced Marcus Mariota as quarterback the Titans offense three weeks ago. He offers a little more of a downfield element than Mariota does, but since taking over, he also hasn’t taken care of the ball particularly well. His only game without an interception came against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — a game where he threw back-to-back interceptions that were bailed out by defensive penalties.
Running back Derrick Henry is the best healthy offensive weapon the Titans now have at their disposal. While not the most agile runner, he combines good contact balance with power to run through tackles and gain extra yardage. Dion Lewis is the change-of-pace back for Tennessee. He catches the ball well out of the backfield and could be a matchup problem if he ends up against the Chiefs linebackers in coverage.
The Titans wide receiver group may struggle if Corey Davis isn’t available this weekend; he has not practiced this week with a hip injury. Third-year player Tajae Sharpe should get his reps. Sharpe is a vertical threat who is averaging 14.5 yards per reception. Veteran Adam Humphries is a solid possession receiver who sees plenty of underneath targets. Rookie A.J. Brown out of Mississippi has been the primary beneficiary of the change in quarterback. Under Tannehill, he’s seen more targets each game and has shown the ability to be a more consistent deep threat.
The tight end position has seen an uptick in volume since Tannehill took over — even with Delanie Walker injured. Jonnu Smith is a surprisingly quick tight end who can create separation in man coverage — and can also attack the seam in zone. He’s seen more targets and receptions in the last three weeks than the rest of the season combined. Anthony Firkser is a fullback/tight end hybrid — and a good blocker, too. He will leak out on the occasional route to keep the defense honest.
The Titans offensive line is led by left tackle Taylor Lewan. After a rough start to his career, he’s been solid all-around in 2019. The rest of the line is a bit of a mixed bag. Right tackle Jack Conklin is very susceptible to power and is routinely beaten due to his poor footwork and balance. Rodger Saffold was brought in at left guard during the offseason after helping lead the Los Angeles Rams in 2018. He’s been a stable presence next to Lewan. Center Ben Jones is returning from a concussion, while rookie right guard Nate Davis is still learning the speed and power of the NFL game.
The offensive concept: single back power runs
The Titans will run single back power against loaded boxes.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) November 7, 2019
TE motions in as H-back to block strongside LB in the B gap. LG pulls to frontside B and takes out box safety while chipping LB. TE climbs to CB and RB makes the LB miss. Big gain against an 8-man nickel front. pic.twitter.com/TZ0mU4kdLN
The Titans running game is the engine that makes their offense run. Defenses know this and will stack the box — even against spread personnel.
With eight players in the box on this play, Tennessee motions their tight end into formation as an H-back opposite the play side linebacker in the B-gap. Off the snap, the Titans pull their left guard around to the play side B-gap while the right guard seals the 1-technique defender. The tight end gets an initial block on the linebacker before climbing to the third level to block the cornerback. The pulling guard chips the linebacker before climbing to the box safety, while the running back cuts upfield to beat the tackle for a huge gain.
The Titans ask a lot of their running backs; they routinely have to force broken tackles to get their yardage. Plays like this one — chipping the linebacker and asking the back to make him miss — take advantage of Henry and Lewis’ abilities to do just that. Then they can get upfield with blockers to break huge gains. Tennessee doesn’t possess the same sort of grind-it-out running style that the Chiefs have seen this year, opting instead for big plays — while accepting the negative ones.
Quite simply, the Chiefs have to tackle extremely well this week; the Titans will give them opportunities to make plays. While Kansas City has shown improved tackling over the past three weeks, they’ve still missed their fair share. Rallying to the ball and squaring up in the gaps will be especially important, because more often than not, Tennessee will be actively seeking the big play.
The bottom line
After a two-week stretch with bad matchups for the Chiefs defense, Sunday’s game against the Titans finally brings a good one.
Tennessee has some beat-up skill players in a group that was already a little below the league average. There are some key matchups to watch — Brown against the Chiefs cornerbacks and Smith against the linebackers and safeties — but outside of their backfield, the Titans don’t have a real matchup nightmare.
Tennessee also gives up the most sacks in the league; with just three starts, Tannehill has already been sacked 13 times. Over the last three weeks, the Chiefs have been one of the best in the league at bringing pressure. Expect that to continue this week.
Overall, I expect a similar game plan to the Denver Broncos matchup in Week 7. The Chiefs should stack the box with an extra safety, play man coverage on the outside and blitz heavily to keep Tannehill uncomfortable in the pocket. In recent weeks, early-down negative plays have been the key for the Chiefs. There should be some for the taking against the Titans offense.
If this defense is as good as it has been advertised lately, this should be a game they can control. Let’s see if they’re for real.