We are over two months, sixty days and seven games removed from the Kansas City Chiefs’ last loss. It happened to be against the Tennessee Titans, who are now on their way to Arrowhead Stadium to face the Chiefs in the AFC championship. In that game, the Chiefs had the lead deep into the second half — but ended up squandering it on the final Titans possession to lose the game by three points.
It was Patrick Mahomes’ first game back from his dislocated kneecap, Cameron Erving was still playing left tackle and the Chiefs were thin along the defensive line; Chris Jones had to play defensive end most of the game.
It was also the last time the Chiefs defense allowed more than 24 points to another team; the Houston Texans scored more than that last Sunday, but one of their touchdowns was on special teams.
While the Chiefs had some bad luck at the end of the Week 10 loss, one of the most prominent reasons they failed was their inability finish drives — something I wrote about in the week following the game.
The Chiefs had seven trips to our expanded red zone and came away with only two touchdowns, four field goals and a turnover on downs after a mis-timed snap on a field goal attempt. The touchdown efficiency was an abysmal 29% — and the Chiefs lost the game by just three points.
But this Chiefs team is not the same one the Titans beat in Week 10. Using that game as a barometer would be a mistake for either side.
Last Sunday against the Texans, the Chiefs went inside the Texans 30-yard line eight times — scoring seven touchdowns. Taking that red zone success (and confidence) into the Titans game — turning long drives into touchdowns instead of field goals — will be of paramount importance.
So let’s take a look at the Titans defense — what they do well, what they do poorly and how the Chiefs can find success in the red zone.
In the playoffs, the Titans defensive line has been one of their strongest position groups. They use multiple defensive fronts — but for the most part, they use a 3-4 alignment.
Among the down linemen, Jurrell Casey is best of the group — and the most well-known. Casey brings the majority of the Titans’ interior pressure — and is a quality run defender. DaQuan Jones and Jeffery Simmons join Casey on the defensive line. While they are not pass rushers of Casey’s caliber, they are strong, stout run defenders who do also a good job reducing the space in which quarterbacks can work.
The reduced pocket space is important, because the Titans’ pass rush really kicks off when outside linebackers Harold Landry and Kamalei Correa can use their speed up the arc. Neither are great run defenders, but bring ample athleticism to stretch out a lot of outside runs.
Inside linebacker Rashaan Evans has been electric in the postseason, with big hits stuffing the run and some good work as a quarterback spy — but he’s not the best coverage linebacker around. The rest of the inside linebackers are rotational. Evans is joined most often by Wesley Woodyard or David Long, both of whom are better as run defenders than coverage players. Jayon Brown is their best coverage linebacker. Out with a shoulder injury in the Divisional round, he has been practicing this week — which bears monitoring.
Earlier this season, the Titans secondary suffered a pretty significant hit when Malcolm Butler was injured — but they have rebounded well. Led by deep safety Kevin Byard, the group does a great job playing in multiple coverage shells designed to fit their opponents.
Byard, his running mate Kenny Vaccaro and Logan Ryan — one of the most underrated cornerbacks in the league — are flexible players who are good in zone or man coverage; they can hold their own in some one-on-one situations.
The secondary’s weaknesses are in cornerback Adoree’ Jackson, nickel corner Tramaine Brock and extra safeties Dane Cruikshank and Amani Hooker. Despite being relatively fast, all are susceptible to being beaten — especially with speed on vertical routes.
Beating man coverage
The Titans mix up their coverages — but in the playoffs, they have been challenging offenses by playing tight man coverage early in games. The Chiefs can’t become fixated on beating man coverage — the Titans will mix in match and zone, too — but they will often challenge the Chiefs with Man Free (Cover 1) alignments.
Not limited to just the RZ, the Titans used a lot of Man Free while walling off the Ravens' TEs.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) January 17, 2020
- Ravens try to dial up man beating crossing routes
- Titans DBs stay in the hip on the crossers
- Ball is a little high as the hole/spy def is able to alter the passing lane pic.twitter.com/CoEtLE0a17
This is a very basic Man Free play — but one that sparked the Titans’ defeat of the Baltimore Ravens.
We see man coverage on every receiver, along with one deep safety and one underneath zone defender — who is also spying Lamar Jackson. The defensive backs are challenging the receivers early in their routes.
For the Ravens, the problem is simple: with the heavy tight end usage, their receivers don’t have the ability to beat physical coverage from more athletic players. That said, there is an open receiver on a man-beating route against the deep over. The ball simply sails a little and the tight end can’t bring it in — which leads to the interception.
If the Chiefs’ pass protection can hold up, there should be plenty of one-on-one matchups they can win — whether challenging Jackson or Ryan deep on nine routes or the cross-field vertical routes the Chiefs love to call.
Beating man coverage in the red zone
According to ESPN’s Matt Bowen, the Titans use more man coverage in the red zone than most other teams, ranking fifth in Man Free (Cover 1) and second in Zero Man (Cover 0). When the Chiefs get deep into Titans territory, they’ll have to deal with man coverage on a shrunken field.
The Titans coverage shells are varied and they've done a good job adjust them for the opponent but in the RZ they are one of the most man heavy teams in the NFL.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) January 17, 2020
- Shrunk field allows extra defenders to help MoF and spy
- All routes - besides the top - play into DB's leverage pic.twitter.com/sQ7jvtMGB6
On this play — after a deep dime from Jackson against man coverage to get inside the 5-yard line — the Ravens run into a defensive wall.
With the shrunken field, both free defenders settle in near the line of scrimmage, walling off the middle of the field to both sides. The Titans supplement this by having the slot defenders play hard outside leverage, forcing receivers into their help coverage; they’re willing to let their defensive backs play physically while chasing receivers. On the outside, they openly give up the back corners — and even the end line — of the end zone, daring the Ravens to test them there.
In the red zone, the Chiefs’ biggest concern will be that what they do in the is exactly what the Titans plan against; the Chiefs use a lot of mesh concepts, trying to get someone loose on a shallow crosser or a sneak into the middle of the end zone. What they don’t do very often is challenge the outside on fades or back-shoulder throws.
Against the Texans, the Chiefs had a lot of success by rolling Mahomes out, which created a running threat and shortened some of the tight throws he had to make. Against the Titans, that may continue in order to escape the Titans’ help coverage — but it’s a high-risk, high-reward move; there’s not a lot of film. The Chiefs also like to sneak players from the back side of the play behind zone defenders along the end line — which on longer-developing plays, could find some success.
Capped off by a great play at the LoS, the Chiefs end this RZ push with a TD against Cover 0— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) November 12, 2019
- Alignment over trips and movement over Kelce hint at man
- LBs and Safeties leaning
- Mahomes makes the call at the LoS
- Know traffic or help for Hill
- Mahomes anticipation thow pic.twitter.com/peDxfhA5Jk
Here we see that in the first meeting of the teams, the Chiefs did see some man coverage — and beat it — in the red zone. Facing Zero Man, the Chiefs use Tyreek Hill’s speed to threaten the opposite pylon — and a great Mahomes throw nets a touchdown.
The bottom line
This game looks a rematch of the Titans three-point victory from earlier this year. But in reality, neither team is playing at the same level — or even in the same style.
One of the biggest things to keep an eye on is how the Chiefs handle the Titans’ man-to-man coverage. The Chiefs ran the Texans silly when they played Man Free, but the Titans defense is better — especially in the secondary. They will certainly make it harder for the Chiefs — but as long as the pass protection holds up, the team should be able to find a way to move the ball.
The real test will come when the Chiefs hit the red zone — and the Titans continue their tight man coverage. Will the Chiefs be able to manufacture some some open receivers on their shallow crossing routes, scoring touchdowns rather than field goals? Will they be able to continue the red zone success they had against the Texans?
As long as the Chiefs are putting up points — forcing the Titans to match them — they should be able to bring home a victory.