Welcome to the 2019 NFL season’s Divisional Round Weekend. Here at 300 Level Media, we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming playoff games and what each team might do to emerge victorious.
The third divisional round game of the 2019 NFL playoffs will take place at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City as the Chiefs will host the Houston Texans. Here’s what you should know:
CHIEFS’ OFFENSE IS EXPLOSIVE
Andy Reid’s version of the West Coast offense has taken many forms over the years. While in Philadelphia, the passing game with quarterbacks Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick became more vertical-based to take advantage of their arm strength, conversely with Kevin Kolb and Alex Smith it was more conservative and horizontal.
Now with reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes under center, it has returned to its downfield version. The system has also incorporated college concepts in recent years, and heavily relies on the design of the play to get people open. According to former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit, “Kansas City’s passing game is unique because it doesn’t depend on wide receivers winning one-on-one battles outside. The scheme relies on route combinations and creating opportunities for tight ends and running backs. This means the throws are more about timing than velocity.
“Reid features presnap motion, misdirection and multi-option reads. Those tactics put a defense on its heels by presenting the illusion of complexity, but they can transition into traditional concepts once the ball is snapped…. (they) aim to isolate specific defenders – often linebackers – present them with run/pass assignment conflicts and also get defenders flowing one way as the ball goes another.”
The widespread comparisons of Mahomes to Brett Favre aren’t unfounded, as the former possesses most of the latter’s attributes – a cannon for an arm, an uncanny ability to extend plays and good mobility and intelligence, plus a willingness to fit passes into tight windows. His weapons in the passing game play to those strengths as well. Wide receiver Tyreek Hill is perhaps the league’s fastest player and can line up anywhere – out wide, in the slot and in the backfield. He is joined by the similarly speedy but injury-prone Sammy Watkins and rookie burner Mecole Hardman to give the Chiefs a lethal trio who can beat anyone deep. Tight end Travis Kelce, one of the best talents at his position, is versatile and can align in different ways in the formation. Athletic and a strong route runner, he can beat most cornerbacks, safeties and linebackers.
Running backs Damien Williams and former Eagle and Bill LeSean McCoy are good receivers out of the backfield, and in McCoy’s case he still has some of the quickness and burst that made him a perennial All-Pro for most of his career, even at 31 years old. They run behind an offensive line that is made up of Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz at the tackle positions, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and Andre Wylie at guard and Austin Reiter at center, and Anthony Sherman is one of football’s better fullbacks.
KANSAS CITY’S DEFENSE IS RED HOT
From 2013 through last year the Chiefs’ defense was conducted by Bob Sutton, a former longtime assistant with the New York Jets. During the first three seasons Sutton applied his scheme in Kansas City, the Chiefs had an upper-echelon unit. However, from 2016-18 it took a nosedive. Last year it bottomed out, finishing the regular season second-last in the NFL in total and passing yards allowed, 24th in points allowed and 27th against the run.
Reid promptly replaced Sutton with one of his former assistants in Philadephia, Steve Spagnuolo. “Spags”, a former head coach with the Rams and Super Bowl-winning defensive coordinator with the New York Giants, implemented a 4-3 system characterized by cleverly disguised five-man blitzes and coverages involving mainly quarters/Cover Four schemes with safeties rotating before the snap. It took about half the season for the Chiefs’ defenders to get used to Spagnuolo’s playbook, but they have played lights-out since Week 11 – allowing just 11.5 points-per-game, notching 10 interceptions and finishing the regular season eighth in the NFL against the pass. They also racked up 45 sacks, 11th-best among all defenses.
A big key to Kansas City’s turnaround has been the importation of former Texans and Cardinals defensive back Tyrann Mathieu. Mathieu is one of the most versatile back-end defenders in football, as evidenced by his 1,080 snaps – 483 at slot cornerback, 315 at box safety and nickel/dime linebacker, 173 at free safety, 82 near the defensive line and 27 at outside cornerback. His athleticism and intelligence has been very valuable for the Chiefs.
Unfortunately for Kansas City, the safety opposite Mathieu, rookie Juan Thornhill, is now out for the season due a torn ACL. He is also a versatile playmaker, and his absence may force Spagnuolo to use Mathieu differently than normal. Daniel Sorenson will take his place, and the Chiefs’ other starting defensive backs are the rising Kendall Fuller, journeyman Bashaud Breeland and Charvarius Ward.
The Chiefs’ defensive line is the most talented part of this unit. Pro Bowler Chris Jones may be the most underrated defensive tackle in the league and has accumulated 24.5 sacks over the last two years thanks to his combination of burst off the line of scrimmage and power. Former Seahawk Frank Clark boats elite quickness, future Hall of Famer Terrell Suggs brings leadership, excellent technique and strength at the point of attack and Derrick Nnadi is an up-and-coming name to watch too.
At linebacker Kansas City employs two former Dallas Cowboys in Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson and are backed up by speedy cover specialist Darron Lee and thumper Reggie Ragland.
TEXANS’ OFFENSE TALENTED AS ANY IN THE NFL
With a large contingent of ex-Patriots coaches littering Houston’s staff – notably head coach Bill O’Brien, defensive coordinator Romeo Crennell and special teams coach Brad Seely – there are bound to be some similarities to their work in New England.
Take their passing game. Typically one in which relies on matchups, option routes and the positioning of opposing defenders, it’s a system that has been proven to work time and again. The biggest beneficiary of the system has been wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who despite not being the fastest wideout in the league, has succeeded with good quickness, body control, route-running ability and excellent hands – akin to Hall of Famer Cris Carter. He’s also versatile, can line up all over the formation and is especially adept at going over the middle.
With the drafting of DeShaun Watson in 2017, O’Brien, rather than force-feeding him to a system that might not play to all his strengths, decided to ease in his quarterback with misdirection concepts taken directly from his old playbook at Clemson. The results have been outstanding so far. O’Brien also likes to spread the field with empty set formations, having dialed up 144 dropbacks for Watson in the regular season out of such looks (the second-highest number in football, according to Erik Turner of The Athletic.) They do this in order to spread out defenses and identify coverages.
One concept that Houston loves to use in their passing game is using post-dig combinations to conflict safeties on deep routes, and they will also use two posts from one side and a deep crossing route on the backside against two deep safeties. Even though Watson doesn’t have the strongest arm, he can execute these well-designed plays with anticipation and accuracy.
Beyond Hopkins, the Texans have some weapons who can do damage in the passing game. Deep threat Kenny Stills and injury-plagued speedster Will Fuller are the other starters at wide receiver and scatback Duke Johnson is one of the NFL’s best at collecting passes out of the backfield. Darren Fells, who tied for the team lead with seven receiving touchdowns, and Jordan Akins are the Texans’ tight ends.
While their passing game has been so-so for most of this year, the Texans’ running game was ninth in the league. A lot of it involves pulling guards, tackles and tight ends, and their zone-read game keeps defenses on edge. Executing these blocks are rookie Max Scharping, Nick Martin, Zach Fulton, Chris Clark (who is in for injured first-round pick Tytus Howard) and Laremy Tunsil. Tunsil is athletic and aside from perhaps Washington’s Trent Williams, might be the league’s best offensive tackle in getting out on the perimeter to block on screens to wide receivers. These starting five block well for back Carlos Hyde, who has revived his career as a power-running threat in between the tackles.
HOUSTON’S DEFENSE NOT QUITE WHAT IT USED TO BE
The Houston Texans, champions of the AFC South for the fourth time in the last five years, are looking to reach the AFC Championship Game for the first time in franchise history. However, not everything is going as well as normal for this organization.
Case in point – their defense. This unit, normally one of the NFL’s better ones, has floundered this year. Ranked just 28th in yards allowed (29th against the pass and 25th against the run), the Texans’ red zone defense has also struggled, allowing touchdowns at a rate of 71 percent. It has faltered due to the absence of numerous players who have helped the team in years past.
J.J. Watt, the only player in league history not named Lawrence Taylor to be named NFL Defensive Player of the Year by the Associated Press three times, is easily the best defensive end to play in a 3-4 scheme since Bruce Smith. But a torn pectoral for Watt sidelined him for eight games, and his not being in the lineup severely compromised his team’s ability to rush the quarterback and stop the run. His return against Buffalo last week was a welcome sight, as he created a lot of pressure on quarterback Josh Allen and caused a lot of problems for the Bills’ offensive line.
Additionally, Houston used to have three extraordinary pass rushers who couldn’t be blocked one-on-one – Watt, linebacker Whitney Mercilus and former first overall pick Jadeveon Clowney. However, Mercilus has had a so-so season and the trade of Clowney during the summer to Seattle stunted the Texans’ usage of Crennel’s fabled “diamond” nickel front to generate tons of pressure in the pocket and stop the run. (For more on this type of defense, read former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit’s 2017 NFL preview at: https://www.si.com/nfl/2017/08/29/houston-texans-defense-new-england-patriots-nfl-preview).
At linebacker, beyond Mercilus Houston employs run stuffer Bernardick McKinney and speedster Zach Cunningham, but their presence and the return of Watt can’t quite make up for the holes in their secondary. A primarily quarters/Cover Four defense (two-deep matchup zones), the defection of Mathieu last spring created a huge hole that veteran Tashaun Gipson attempted to fill, but he is now out for the season due to injury. 35-year old cornerback Jonathan Joseph hasn’t aged well and his lack of speed has hurt, while inconsistent former Denver Bronco Bradley Roby holds down the other starting spot. Former Oakland Raider Gareon Conley and Tampa Bay Buccaneer Vernon Hargreaves are the Texans’ reserves at cornerback, while Justin Reid and Jahleel Addae are the starters at safety.
Crennel and Seely – whose special teams have been traditionally strong – each have had tremendous success while in the NFL. Each coach started their careers in the league more than 30 years ago, and have combined for 16 appearances in conference championship games, 11 Super Bowl appearances and eight Lombardi trophies.
When these two teams faced one another in Week Six, Crennel utilized a lot of man coverage out of nickel and dime personnel and blitzed regularly. This resulted in Mahomes and company responding with screens, especially in the red zone, and having much success with them. Will Crennel try this approach again, or do something completely different? Time will tell.