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How the Chiefs defense beats the Titans offense

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The Nerd Squad breaks down the Titans offense — and a concept we might see Sunday afternoon.

Kansas City Chiefs v Tennessee TItans Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

With a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, the Kansas City Chiefs face off in their biggest game of the season against the Tennessee Titans.

No pressure, right?

When the Chiefs faced the Titans in Week 10, Derrick Henry pummeled the Chiefs run defense for over 8 yards per carry, totaling 188 yards and scoring two touchdowns. Ryan Tannehill was efficient passing the ball, going 13 for 19 for 181 yards and two touchdowns of his own. At the end of the game — after a fourth-down stop — the Chiefs fumbled away a golden opportunity, and Tennessee scored with 29 seconds left to take the lead.

Since then, the defense has looked significantly better — and the Chiefs haven’t lost a game. The Titans offense has also looked good — now coming off road playoff wins against the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens.

So we’ll dig into the Titans’ changes in 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 help punch their ticket to the Super Bowl.

The personnel

Divisional Round - Tennessee Titans v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The last time these two teams played, the Titans were missing wide receiver Corey Davis. Davis started the season hot with quarterback Marcus Mariota — but since Ryan Tannehill took over, he hasn’t seen the same target volume.

When I wrote about the Titans before the previous matchup. I mentioned that the offensive line was still struggling to come together. Since then, the Titans have developed into major earth-movers up front. Two very good defensive lines — those of Baltimore and New England — were routinely blown off the line, creating all kinds of space for Henry to run behind.

The rest of the personnel is the same — with largely the same production. Henry has been fantastic this year, and seems to keep getting stronger throughout the playoffs. Tannehill still doesn’t throw the ball often, but lives on his play-action passing. Rookie A.J. Brown has really come on in the latter half of the year — and gets the major targets that Tannehill throws.

The offensive concept: Outside zone with play-action bootleg

The Titans are a very good zone running team. They lean heavily on their offensive line — which provide excellent run blocking — and Henry’s good vision to put him untouched into the second level. When Tennessee calls outside zone plays, they like to leave the back side defensive end unblocked to get numbers out in front of the play.

Typically, this would lead to an easy gap assignment: have the unblocked defensive end attack the cutback lane — also known as the bend in outside zone terminology.

However, the Titans will attach a quarterback bootleg to these runs. This will freeze the defensive end, preventing him from easily attacking the cutback lane. Chiefs fans may remember that Henry’s long touchdown run in Week 10 came from one of these runs with bootleg action.

The reason that defensive ends don’t repeatedly crash on the cutback lane against Tennessee is how often they run play action from it.

On this snap, the play action freezes the linebackers, allowing for immediate separation by the tight end on a drag route. Since the defensive end crashes, Tannehill is able to get free on the bootleg, allowing the drag to easily come open in front of him for a 15-yard gain. While most may think of the explosive touchdowns Tennessee gets from play-action, these are the drive-extending passes that allow them to milk the clock.

When this occurs, it’s a bit of a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation. The Chiefs could implement a scrape exchange between the defensive end and a linebacker, attacking the bootleg while the end takes the cutback lane. Unfortunately, that takes a pursuit linebacker out of the run fit for when the outside zone’s bounce or bang gaps are open.

Or the Chiefs could ask their defensive ends to make the correct read through the offensive line. If the end identifies a climbing offensive lineman — in the Tennessee scheme, this is typically the closest guard — he can crash on the cutback lane, having properly identified a running play. If the offensive linemen take horizontal steps, the Titans are typically passing the ball — and the end can attack the quarterback.

Luckily for the Chiefs, Frank Clark and Terrell Suggs are both quick-processing defensive ends. At the end of the year, we’ve seen these two have blow up several plays in the backfield through quick identification — and triggering off the blocking scheme. It’s a tougher ask than it is for some opponents. But if the Chiefs want to take away the play-action and the cutback lane, they may have to rely on the mental processing of their veteran ends.

The bottom line

Many Chiefs fans see the Titans as the worst possible matchup for Chiefs defense. The Chiefs have a porous run defense — and right now, there’s nobody better at running the ball than Derrick Henry. The Titans can — and likely will — try to play ball control in order to keep Patrick Mahomes on the sidelines.

There are others — specifically, the leaders of the Chiefs defense — who relish the opportunity to prove they’ve grown since Week 10. Where strong Patriots and Ravens defenses failed, the Chiefs defense wants to step up and make a statement. The Week 10 matchup had many calling them “soft” and saying that they “can’t be trusted in the playoffs.”

What better way to completely flip the narrative than to come out and stop the monster that started it?

Henry is too good of a running back to not rack up some yardage and find the end zone. Where the Chiefs can’t let him kill them is with long, exhausting drives. Anthony Hitchens talked this week about hitting Henry in the thighs, trying to “kill the engine.” If the Chiefs can bring Henry down for minimal gains on first down, the Titans will turn to the passing game in a hurry.

If you’re the Chiefs defense, you want the ball in Tannehill’s hands. He struggles to stay composed under blitz conditions, throwing some wild passes that the Chiefs can pick off. He’s also taken 31 sacks in his 11 games, setting up some opportunities for the Chiefs pass rush to force longer downs and distances. Tannehill hasn’t thrown the ball much in the playoffs, choosing to tee off with play-action passing while the game is close. If the Chiefs get up big, Tannehill can’t lean on play action any more, which make life easier on the defense.

Early on, I expect a tight game on this side of the ball. When defending play action, the Chiefs need to stay disciplined on the back end — and the defensive front has to do their job, to limiting big gains from Henry. In recent history, the Titans haven’t sustained long drives well — they allowed Baltimore to run 97 plays this past week — due to some short fields and quick punts. If the Chiefs defense can replicate that performance — and the Chiefs offense takes care of the ball — one would guess that the Chiefs can keep this one at arm’s length for most of the day.