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Film review: Success against Titans running game suggests Chiefs could slow the 49ers

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In the AFC championship, the Chiefs stuffed the Titans running game with alignment and great individual play.

AFC Championship - Tennessee Titans v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

The Kansas City Chiefs are heading to the Super Bowl in Miami after dispatching the Tennessee Titans in the AFC championship last Sunday.

Before the game, the narrative was about whether the Chiefs could stop Tennessee’s running game. As it turned out, they could. And there a lot of similarities between the Titans the San Francisco 49ers — the Chiefs’ opponent in the Super Bowl.

Both offenses rely on their running game — operating behind dominant run-blocking offensive lines — and use that to set up play-action passes that are easy for their quarterbacks to complete.

Both teams prefer to use heavier 21 personnel — two running backs and one tight end — and run a lot of outside zone plays. There are differences in how they execute outside zone, but as it pertains to the 49ers, there is still plenty to glean from the Chiefs’ performance against the Titans.

So let’s go down to the AP Laboratory, fire up the ovens, get out the beakers and see what the Chiefs whipped up to stop the Titans run game.

AFC Championship - Tennessee Titans v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Outside zone

The Titans predominantly run an outside zone scheme that occasionally mixes in gap-blocking elements. It fits Derrick Henry’s running style, because it allows him to put his foot in the ground once, making a decisive cut before before he gets downhill.

The Titans are good at it, too. Their offensive line had been dominant in the first two games of the playoffs, controlling the line of scrimmage and easily getting blockers up to the second level

Here’s what basic outside zone looks like:

Quite simply, the back side end man on the line of scrimmage — in this case, the defensive end on the weak side — is unblocked while the offensive line slides to the strong side, blocking at an angle. The goal is for every blocker to get their hips around the nearest defender to the play side, sealing them off.

The beauty of outside zone is that it accounts for the possibility defenders could win their matchups. If a blocker can’t make their reach block, the running back is coached to cut back inside — while the blocker drives their defender towards the sideline.

The Titans don’t typically set the aiming point of their outside zone wide of the tight end — labeled as Y in this diagram — because Henry isn’t a very fast running back. Instead — as represented by the dashed lines here — they usually aim outside (or even inside) the offensive tackle’s hip; they focus on giving Henry a chance at an early vertical cut.

Alignment

The Chiefs’ defensive dominance against the Tennessee running game began with alignment.

Against the run, there is always a debate over whether an over or under shift in the defensive line is best. Against the Titans, the Chiefs mostly chose to use an under shift, moving the nose tackle to the strength of the formation — and the 3-technique to the back side.

This did two things. First, it covered up center Ben Jones, forcing him to reach to the nose tackle while working to the strong side. Second, it stressed players climbing to the back side of the play because the uncovered blocker is the tackle.

On this play, Derrick Nnadi is aligned as a 1-technique (lined up in the gap off the center’s shoulder) which forces the center to slide over to block him — rather than simply climbing to the second level. Making Jones deal with a nose tackle — and forcing an offensive guard to be the climbing player — takes the Titans out of their preferred blocking assignments.

On the back side, Mike Pennel is lined up as a 3-technique. From that position, slanting into the guard keeps him from climbing to the second level; the guard either has to take the 3-technique — allowing the back side tackle to climb to the second level — or has to spend extra time passing off the defensive tackle, which still slows down the climb. This allows the weak side linebacker to shift over the top to fill any emerging cutback lanes.

Out of this simple alignment, the Chiefs take the Titans out of their comfort zone, changing their blocking assignments from the get-go. Then they add an extra wrinkle: a tight defensive end split with a scraping linebacker over the top.

Tanoh Kpassagnon lines up inside the offensive tackle as a 4i-technique. Again, this reduces the blocker’s ability to climb to the second level. Anthony Hitchens’ immediate scrape into the C gap allows him to slip by a stumbling left tackle, forcing Henry to stop his feet.

Here is a a balanced Titans formation that the Chiefs counter with more of an over front — considering the wide side of the field the as the strong side — but the Titans still run into the open B gap.

With the center occupied, both guards get free climbs to the second level; both make contact with linebackers. But the Chiefs win this rep elsewhere.

Frank Clark holds contain — reducing the B gap — while Reggie Ragland fills against the fullback by getting his helmet across his body. Now the running lane has been reduced by two Chiefs players.

With the right guard climbing immediately — rather than helping the center by chipping the nose tackle — the center is in a hard spot. Xavier Williams is able to take advantage of the center’s lean on the reach block while Ragland and Clark reduce the initial hole.

Given the rest of the game, this play was an interesting defensive call.

Facing 21 personnel, Damien Wilson is flexed outside the box in an over alignment. The center gets a free climb and ends up pushing Hitchens well out of the play, while Nnadi is too far inside and is pushed well beyond the cutback lane. Chris Jones is aligned as a 3-technique to the play side and immediately loses leverage.

So on an a whiteboard, this play should have worked out well for the Titans — but the Chiefs got some great execution from their players.

Terrell Suggs holds the edge very well, widening the Titan’s aiming point and rendering the fullback useless. Reggie Ragland has a quick trigger into the hole, forcing Henry to question his read and look for the long cutback.

In theory, that lane should be there — considering how far Nnadi is being driven across the formation and how the right tackle is sticking to the back side defensive end. While Damien Wilson is flashing in from outside the box, that’s a difficult play to make.

But Chris Jones simply isn’t where Henry expects him to be. Jones’ exceptional power and lateral agility allow him to slip behind the guard and stop the cutback. If he fights over — or even through — the guard to keep his gap, he likely isn’t in position to make this stop. Jones owes Ragland a dinner for forcing the cut.

Personnel

So we see there were times the defensive alignment didn’t always net a win — but the Chiefs were still able to find a way to succeed.

On this play, Chiefs use their under shift — but this time, it’s against the weak side.

Again running into the closed B gap, this is another free second-level climb for the center and back side tackle. With Wilson sugaring the A gap, the center’s climb is even shorter — but the linebacker’s speed does make getting outside leverage outside more difficult. Still, the Titan have a hat on every hat — and players free to seal off the chase players.

But then Wilson and Clark step in.

Wilson beats the reach block by the center and immediately replaces Henry’s aiming point on the tackle’s inside hip. With his outside arm free — and his hips tilted upfield — Clark not only holds contain, he also drives the tackle back into the gap to reduce the running lane.

The play is drawn up perfectly — and is called at the right time — but better execution by the defense ruin it.

There’s not much to break down here. We simply see dominating play from the three players who made the biggest impacts against the Titans: Clark, Ragland and Pennel.

The trio made plenty of plays from the advantageous positions into which Steve Spanguolo and Brendan Daly placed them — but they also turned disadvantageous positions into big plays.

The bottom line

After last year’s Super Bowl, there was lots of talk about how the New England Patriots completely shut it down the Los Angeles Rams’ running game. They read into tendencies and set their 3-technqiues away from where the Rams were likely to run — usually the strong side — which really squeezed down the running lanes available to them.

This was essentially the same approach the Chiefs used to win leverage with their run fits against the Titans. In addition, the Chiefs got huge performances from Clark, Pennel and Reggie Ragland that helped save some plays in which their positioning wasn’t ideal. It was a fantastic performance from a Chiefs defense that had regularly struggled against outside zone schemes.

Can they continue to do this against the 49ers?

The 49ers outside zone scheme is a little different, with a lot more window dressing and more speed from their running backs. This allows them to move their aiming points more to the outside, rather gearing up for inside cutbacks.

We’ll definitely address all of that in the upcoming week. But while the 49ers scheme has more wrinkles, many of the base principles are the same. Based on its performance against the Titans, there should be hope that the Chiefs can slow down the 49ers’ running game, too.