The NFL is built on balances and counterbalances. When you see a shift or revolution in one area, there’s typically a counter-shift that happens on the other side. This seesaw of offensive and defensive schematics makes the NFL such an intriguing sport. Coaches are constantly forced to evolve their ideas or schemes — otherwise, they tend to run stale over time.
With the Kansas City Chiefs being the pinnacle of offensive success in the NFL over the last five years, coaches have been brought into NFL buildings with one goal in mind: stopping Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes.
Sean McDermott, Vic Fangio and Brandon Staley all come to mind as coaches who were quite literally brought in to stop the Chiefs' offense. And yet, the team that seems to give the Chiefs the most problems is...Mike Vrabel’s Tennessee Titans?
The Titans are nowhere close to the most talented defense the Chiefs have faced over the past few years, yet they seem to give the Chiefs the most problems, particularly in the last two years. So how do Vrabel and defensive coordinator Shane Bowen design a game plan to attack the Chiefs?
A lot of their game plan is attacking the Chiefs exactly where they’re weakest. Let’s discuss Vrabel’s strategy to stifle the Chiefs' offense:
Inability to run the ball
On 12 carries, the Chiefs’ running backs generated a grand total of 14 yards.
Yes, the Titans are an elite run defense (first in success rate), but that’s an embarrassing amount of yards from the running backs. It didn’t matter which back got the carry, it was going for nothing.
Look, I'm not an RB, there's so much going on, but man I really feel Pacheco had that open B in split zone. LB scrapes over top, which leaves wide open B, he's clearly reading that guy but then decides to bounce? Again I'm not in that position but there was a hole and he bounces pic.twitter.com/YS8LXcsdzW— Nate Christensen (@natech32) November 8, 2022
All the running backs are currently having vision problems, but none are dealing with that more than Isiah Pacheco. Pacheco struggles with trying to make agile movements since he lacks the flexibility and twitch to make quick cuts. Even with those issues, Pacheco’s greatest flaw is his vision.
The Chiefs are running a split zone here, and it’s blocked well. With Noah Gray sifting (moving across the line of scrimmage), the MIKE linebacker is forced to run with that in the flat. That leaves the frontside B-gap wide open, and Pacheco aims his eyes there. For some reason, however, he abandons that read and decides to bounce the run, when the frontside gap is literally wide open.
Pacheco doesn’t have the burst or agility to make anything work when he’s trying to bounce anything outside, but if his vision is poor on these interior runs, it’s going to be hard for him to succeed as a runner.
His vision can improve, but it’s been his biggest problem this year.
It wasn't all the RBs, to be fair. I'd actually say it was pretty 50-50. Trey and Creed didn't have strong run games, especially Trey— Nate Christensen (@natech32) November 8, 2022
Late shift puts Simmons at 2i, that's a tough block especially vs someone who's somehow as strong/stronger than Trey. Tough angle to block pic.twitter.com/zlLinu0GKg
Now, in fairness to the running backs, the offensive line wasn’t helping much.
Titans defensive tackle Jeffrey Simmons was blowing up most run plays the Chiefs want, but this play also speaks to their coaching. Kelce’s late insert into the formation causes the Titans to shift their front, and the Titans read this play well. The Chiefs mainly only run G-H counter, zone insert or split zone with Kelce inserted to block, so Simmons aligns as a “2i” — or on the guard’s inside shoulder — which makes that zone block incredibly hard to block.
Combine that with Simmons’s strength, and he blows up this run play.
This play shows the preparation that Vrabel teams have for this offense. They have such a good beat on what Kansas City wants to do, it seems like they know all its plays. That stood out in the run game, where the Chiefs had the box advantage all night, but Tennessee blew up every run.
Defending staple concepts
Yes these turn into successful plays but it's a good microcosm of how well-coached Vrabel teams are. Anytime KC went UC, they were completely ready for the rollout, no real threat of run helps but they were in perfect spots almost every time pic.twitter.com/yui9nRcMOP— Nate Christensen (@natech32) November 8, 2022
Kansas City — like any team — has staple concepts it loves to run in its offense. For the Chiefs, a lot of their passing concepts in short yardage come from under center and involve some sort of rollout action. Most of the time, these plays are well-designed and work, but the Titans were ready for every single rollout.
These plays end up successful for the offense, but the coverage is perfect. Not having to bite on the run helps, but it speaks to how well the Titans read out plays that make nothing open. Mahomes making miracle plays helps, but these plays are good microcosms of how prepared Vrabel teams are. They don’t allow the Chiefs to hit any of their staple concepts, which forces them to play left-handed.
Again, the Titans just aren't fooled by anything. I like the double-motion jet pass design, but with the Titans playing in quarters, they're ready to fly and rally. It helps they didn't seem to miss any tackles but it speaks to preparation and discipline pic.twitter.com/99irkDzqAa— Nate Christensen (@natech32) November 8, 2022
Kansas City wasn’t using as many designed motions as it usually does, but when it did, the motions didn’t work.
I like the design of this play — using a double jet motion to get wide receiver Mecole Hardman a lead block in space. The Titans aren’t fooled at all, however, and by playing quarters, they have safeties ready to fly downhill and rally to the ball.
This play explains two things about Vrabel's defenses: they’re disciplined and don’t miss tackles. The entire defense knew exactly what was coming here, and they didn’t miss tackles all night. When you have that combination on defense, it’s going to be hard to generate any explosive runs.
Changing coverage looks
Here's a 90 second compilation of the Titans playing like 9 different coverages. I guarantee I missed some but the amount of variety they played all night was insane. Consistently changing their calls, KC had no rhythm on what coverage was going to be called pic.twitter.com/OYjzqdbDcd— Nate Christensen (@natech32) November 8, 2022
The most impressive part about Vrabel’s game plan was how often the Titans mixed their coverages against the Chiefs. I didn’t chart the coverages, but there had to be at least 10 different coverages played at least once against the Chiefs.
The Titans blitzed, played Cover 1 free and robber (two separate coverages), Tampa 2, Cover 2, Cover 3 Buzz Weak, Cover 3 Poach, Cover 3, and Quarters in this game at some point.
It wasn’t just the amount of coverages ran, but also how often they changed it. On almost every snap, the Titans were switching their coverages. Not every coverage worked, but the Chiefs couldn’t develop any rhythm in their passing game.
When you have no idea what coverage will be presented every snap, it’s hard to get into any staple passing concepts. The Titans blanketed everything in man coverage but also did a great job in zone coverage to rob the middle of the field, leaving no openings for Mahomes to hit. The Titans deserve a ton of credit for consistently keeping the Chiefs' passing game off balance while not allowing the Chiefs to hit any staple plays vs. certain coverages.
Tennessee’s pass rush
Could probably compile a dozen clips but TEN has the best rush plan against Mahomes of any opponent— Nate Christensen (@natech32) November 8, 2022
- One DE gets up arc to not let Mahomes scramble back of pocket
- Crush pocket on interior, not let Mahomes maneuver gaps
- Late stunt to not let him run up middle pic.twitter.com/xqlIh67n7C
The thing the Titans do best against the Chiefs is how they rush the passer. This was a theme in last year’s game, as well — the Titans’ plan to rush Mahomes has consistently hurt the Chiefs.
It’s nothing too out of the ordinary. The Titans just rush in unison so well. One defensive end rushes up the arc, which means Mahomes can’t back out and make plays out of the pocket. The rest of the defensive line crushes the pocket, but they like to design a late stunt for the other defensive end to loop into the middle of the protection. That way, if Mahomes decides to step up into open space, there’s a rusher right in his face.
As good as Mahomes is at navigating pressure, there are tendencies to how he reads pressure. When you send late stunts to him through the middle, he does tend to struggle to navigate that space. Vrabel consistently takes advantage of that, and when you combine that with how well their defensive linemen rush with power, they’re able to get sacks on Mahomes.
The bottom line
While Vrabel doesn’t have the defensive pedigree that Fangio, Staley or McDermott has, I don’t think there’s a better coach that stops the Chiefs' offense in the NFL.
Every year, he comes in with a great game plan to stop the Chiefs. He knows all the tendencies and will prepare his team to take away every single easy option the offense wants to run. They might not be the most talented defense, but they’re definitely the best prepared when they face the Chiefs.
On top of that, his defenses are the most disciplined and physical units in the league. The Titans won’t let you dictate the tone in any way, especially on their defensive line. They rush in unison to perfection while also dominating any run play.
It’s not just their front, though. Their coverage variety and discipline are perfect. I watched every play multiple times, and I maybe found one or two coverage busts all night out of 78 dropbacks. They knew everything that was coming at them for four quarters and ran almost every coverage to perfection.
Vrabel may not do it in the flashiest way, but his defenses are going to make it hard on you. You won’t get to play in rhythm and dictate the tone. He’s going to dictate those every time, and you better be ready to deal with it. The Chiefs pulled out the win on the back of Mahomes in the fourth quarter, but it wasn’t due to a lack of execution from the Titans.
The Chiefs don’t want to see that defense again this season.