We’re not even at the halfway point of the 2021 season, and the Kansas City Chiefs (3-3) have already played every team considered to be a top contender in the AFC this season. The one team they’re missing will be the opponent in Week 7: the Tennessee Titans (4-2).
The Chiefs enter the road game as a five-point favorite, per DraftKings Sportsbook. Tennessee enters with momentum: they just took down the Buffalo Bills in Week 6, barely edging them out with a fourth-down stop in the final seconds. Now, they’ll look to dig the hole the Chiefs have fallen into even deeper with another big upset in the conference.
I have five things to watch in what should be an exciting game:
1. Lessening the blow of Derrick Henry
Since an ugly loss in Week 1, the Titans are 4-2 — and running back Derrick Henry has been on a historic tear: 725 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns in that five-game span. He leads the league in those categories, plus runs of 15 or more yards per PFF.
The Chiefs likely won’t be the team to slow down his incredible start to the season — but that doesn’t automatically doom them to lose this game.
The defense will allow its fair share of chunk runs — but if they can string a couple of successful plays together on first and second down on a given series, they can prevent Henry from being a viable option on third-and-long.
Tennessee wants to stay ahead of the sticks: they’re 19th in third-down conversion percentage, and quarterback Ryan Tannehill has thrown four interceptions on third down with a 58.6% completion percentage.
Along with the offense holding up their end of the deal against a vulnerable Tennessee defense, a stop or two on third-and-long could be the deciding factor.
2. Chiefs airing it out
For the second time in as many weeks, the Chiefs will face an exploitable secondary against which the entire group of receivers can succeed.
The Titans have allowed the sixth-highest yards per attempt rate in the league this season, and a lot of that was with second-year starting cornerback Kristian Fulton; he is now on IR. First-round rookie Caleb Farley was beginning to step up before suffering a long-term injury in Week 6.
Their cornerback group is depleted, which has been a recipe for success for the entire corps of Chiefs wide receivers. The secondary options have had their best games against injured secondaries like the Baltimore Ravens or the Washington Football Team.
Plus, wide receiver Josh Gordon will have another week of learning under his belt and on a trajectory to increase his snaps from the 11 he had in Week 6. Could this be Gordon’s breakout game?
3. Covering A.J. Brown and Julio Jones
A.J. Brown and Julio Jones might be the most physically imposing duo of wide receivers in the NFL. They both are built to take on hits and break tackles while also being athletic enough to create separation on routes and make plays in the open field.
This season, Jones has been the deep threat, averaging 17.5 yards per reception; he has two contested catches on passes thrown 20 or more yards downfield.
Brown finds holes in the intermediate level of the defense, seeing 40% of his targets coming on passes thrown 10-19 yards downfield. Tennessee will use play-action passes to move linebackers and open up those windows for Brown on in-breaking routes.
The Chiefs could use the length of cornerback Charvarius Ward in this matchup if he can return from injury. Cornerback Rashad Fenton has played well in a physical and aggressive manner but doesn’t have the same length as Ward or cornerback L’Jarius Sneed. That said, Fenton should be trusted to hold his own just as much as Ward right now.
4. New-look offensive line
We saw the starting offensive line go through their first lineup change of the year and pass the test. The group didn’t get a perfect score — quarterback Patrick Mahomes was sacked a season-high three times — but right tackle Mike Remmers played well in substitution for Lucas Niang with a hamstring injury. This week, the team has implied that Remmers will be the starter going forward.
Remmers had a solid 2020 season as the team’s primary right tackle, and now he’ll have the chance to prove he’s the best short-term option if the Chiefs want to win a Super Bowl this year. For what Remmers lacks in size when compared to Niang, he has veteran savvy and experienced communication skills to help the rest of the young linemen with him; offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy detailed the benefits in that respect on Thursday.
Remmers and left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. will be challenged by edge rusher Harold Landry, who is currently tied for the third-most sacks in the NFL (6.5). The interior linemen will be tasked with slowing down defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons — who has the fourth-most pressures among NFL defensive tackles this season.
5. Linebackers without Anthony Hitchens
Early in the game against Washington, starting linebacker Anthony Hitchens came up in pain after a hard collision. Now, Hitchens has missed two practices this week with a tricep injury.
When Hitchens went out, linebackers Ben Niemann, Nick Bolton, and Willie Gay were asked to step up in that order. Niemann played 73% of the defensive snaps, Bolton played 66%, and Gay only saw 31% of the possible snaps.
Niemann will likely be tasked with being the MIKE linebacker and relaying in play calls to the rest of the defense — but that is in base formations, where Bolton and Gay would play the outside linebacker positions. In Nickel packages with only two linebackers, the duo on the field needs to be Bolton and Gay.
Tennessee may keep them in base formations based on their own offensive personnel decisions — but if they do get in Nickel, the Chiefs need the hard-hitting, downhill ability of Bolton and Gay; it’s something that Niemann doesn’t possess. Derrick Henry isn’t getting tackled by a stationary defender; he needs to be met with strong, forward momentum.
It would be a mistake to rely on Niemann when they don’t have to against this rushing attack.