In our weekly Opponent Scout series, I break down the Kansas City Chiefs’ upcoming opponent by examining their strengths, weaknesses and tendencies — and how those things affect the matchup.
Coming out of the bye week, the Chiefs are hosting the Tennessee Titans for an AFC showdown on Sunday Night Football.
Here’s what to know about Tennessee.
This is the fifth season that head coach Mike Vrabel has led the Titans — and the third full season for starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill. The team is riding a five-game winning streak after starting 0-2.
The Titans rank 24th in points scored per game and have gained the league’s fewest total yards this season. Their six touchdown passes are tied for the league’s fewest. Tennessee ranks 24th in third-down conversion rate, but second in red-zone conversion percentage. The offense ranks 22nd in offensive DVOA.
On the other side, Tennessee is ninth in points allowed and 15th in total yards surrendered. No team has a better third-down defense; the Titans only allow a conversion on 25.6% of third-down plays. The defense has forced 11 turnovers, which is the league’s 10th-most. Tennessee comes in at 10th in defensive DVOA.
As it has been for a few seasons, the Titans’ offense is centered around running back Derrick Henry. He has 180 touches — the NFL’s second-highest figure. No other Titans player has more than 27 touches.
To maximize Henry’s running style, the Titans run primarily from under center. 75% of the team’s rush attempts have come from an under-center formation — and 84% of Henry’s individual rushes come from that alignment. This allows Henry to get downhill and gain steam; he’s a freight train of a ball carrier.
Titans are riding Derrick Henry as much as ever. He has 180 touches, and no other Titan has more than 27— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) November 3, 2022
Watching this past week, I thought Henry's change of direction looked better than it has in the past. He's got even more juice? pic.twitter.com/iKf41qQ0fP
This season, I’ve been impressed with Henry’s change of direction skills; he looks as quick as ever moving side-to-side or juking a player in the open field. Adding elusiveness to his freight-train style makes him even more dangerous.
That said, Henry isn’t having his most efficient year — and it’s because Tennessee has not been able to threaten defenses with its passing game. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill — who missed Week 8 with an ankle injury — can only do so much with a wide receiver corps of 30-year-old Robert Woods, Nick Westbrook-Ikhine and rookie Kyle Philips; first-round pick Treylon Burks hasn’t played since Week 2.
When the Titans aren't running down a team's throat with Henry, they're using Dontrell Hilliard as a change of pace -- especially in the pass game— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) November 3, 2022
They want to get him the ball in space. He's 3rd on the team in targets and leads the unit in receiving TDs (3) pic.twitter.com/s5BONPg40P
To compensate, the Titans have leaned on their second running back Dontrell Hilliard in the passing game. He is third on the team in targets and leads the unit in receiving touchdowns with three. Tennessee wants to get him the ball in space — whether it’s on a screen or a downfield route. He will be used on third downs and other passing situations.
Headlining the defense is a front that has been very productive this season. The Titans’ top third-down package will feature edge rushers Bud Dupree and rookie Rashad Weaver, who have combined for seven sacks this season. On the inside, they’ll move edge defender Denico Autry inside to rush alongside defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons; with 10.5 sacks between them, those two lead the team.
The Titans have the NFL's best third-down defense, allowing a conversion on only 25.6% of opportunities— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) November 3, 2022
It's primarily because of how productive their four-man rush is on 3rd downs. Both Jeffrey Simmons and Denico Autry rushing from the inside can be a problem pic.twitter.com/tMwJ3f47Z0
The productive four-man front is a key part of the Titans having the NFL’s best third-down defense. They blitz at a low rate, trusting that their front can get home with stunts and twists to confuse pass protection. But it all centers on Simmons; he is the biggest disruptor of the bunch.
Behind them, linebacker David Long is the primary second-level player. On passing downs, he’ll be used in various ways — typically in coverage, but sometimes in a blitz or as a quarterback spy.
In the secondary, Tennessee is led by All-Pro safety Kevin Byard — but from there, the experience level drops. The Titans have cornerbacks Kristian Fulton and rookie Roger McCreary taking the majority of the cornerback snaps. The third cornerback is former Kansas City player Terrance Mitchell.
Titans back end is headlined by 2x All-Pro safety Kevin Byard, but 3rd-year CB Kristian Fulton has impressed as well— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) November 3, 2022
He's only allowing a catch on 56.3% of targets thrown his way pic.twitter.com/11hyKAbTXX
Fulton — a former second-round pick — is in his third year. He is playing his best football yet. He will stay on the perimeter most of the time — usually on the right side of the defense. This season, he has only allowed a completion rate on 56.3% of the passes thrown his way; quarterbacks are earning only an 87.9 passer rating when targeting him in coverage.
The bottom line
The Titans’ offense is as one-dimensional as it ever has been — but that doesn’t mean the Titans’ running backs can’t have success against the Chiefs’ defense. When Henry is in, all Kansas City defenders will need to be on the attack and aggressive — but if Hilliard is in the backfield, the Chiefs will still need to have eyes on him for receiving opportunities.
When the Chiefs have the ball, they’ll want to stay ahead of the sticks to avoid facing Tennessee’s vaunted four-man rush that has exploited many pass protection schemes this year. But that pressure also makes life easier on the playmakers in the secondary, so Kansas City’s main goal should be to avoid long conversion attempts on third down.