Welcome to Conference Championship Weekend. Here at 300 Level Media, we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming playoff games and teams, and what each squad might do to emerge victorious.
This season’s AFC Championship Game will take place at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City as the Chiefs will host the Tennessee Titans. Here’s what to watch for:
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 Andrew 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 unsung 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.
In the matchup between these two teams in Week 10, the Titans had much success using different formations and shifts in order to outnumber the Chiefs’ defense at the line of scrimmage and open more holes for Henry to run to the edge. Conversely, Kansas City struggled with their gap integrity and left a lot of cutback lanes open for Henry to exploit. Will the Chiefs try to address this by dropping Mathieu into the box to give them an extra run defender?
THERE IS A DECIDEDLY PATRIOT FLAVOR IN “SMASHVILLE”
Second-year Titans coach Mike Vrabel and defensive coordinator Dean Pees go back to their time in New England, where Vrabel played for Bill Belichick’s former defensive shot-caller as a starting linebacker. The difference between Pees and Belichick, however, is that the former likes to blitz a bit more than the latter.
With stalwarts like Jurrell Casey, Rashaan Evans, Jayon Brown, Harold Landry, Wesley Woodyard and rookie Jeffery Simmons at his disposal, Pees can afford to turn his pass rushers loose while knowing he has the defensive backs to hold up in man and zone coverage long enough for his front-seven to get to quarterbacks. Cornerbacks Logan Ryan and Adoree’ Jackson are good and safeties Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccaro are versatile, especially Byard. Byard can patrol centerfield as a single-high safety, drop down into the box to stop the run, cover tight ends and blitz. Tennessee is missing veterans Malcolm Butler and Cameron Wake, who are both on injured reserve due to various ailments.
This is the second week in a row in which the Titans will undertake a huge test defensively. Instead of facing a multifaceted running game in Baltimore, Tennessee will take on a multifaceted passing game, and they will need to make changes in order to stop it. Back in Week 10, Mahomes completed 36 passes for 446 yards (both season-high numbers) and the Titans utilized a lot of dime personnel and zone blitzes with cornerbacks rushing from the boundary. Mahomes exploited those tendencies along with dissecting Tennessee’s favored tactic of using man coverage in the red zone – where they have struggled mightily this season. Will Vrabel and Pees change things up or will they keep doing what they’ve been doing all year long?
THE MCVAY/SHANAHAN OFFENSE STILL RESIDES IN TENNESSEE
Vrabel’s offensive coordinator is Arthur Smith, who last season served as tight ends coach while Matt LaFleur- now the head coach in Green Bay – was the Titans’ play-caller. Prior to his time in the Music City, LaFleur ran Sean McVay’s offense for the Los Angeles Rams. McVay and LaFleur go back even further than that too, with both spending time working for Mike Shanahan in Washington and for his pupils – Gary Kubiak in Houston and Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta.
Like his former colleagues, Smith has used a playbook that emphasizes a running game built around zone-blocking (especially to the outside on “stretch” plays) and passes that are created off the threat of run-action. It’s a West Coast-style of offense that can create a lot of big plays down the field from craftily designed routes that work off one another, and the skill position players often line up in reduced splits to the line of scrimmage to become both extra blockers on runs and to have more room to run routes on the field.
Marcus Mariota, their beleaguered fifth-year quarterback, had a rough start to the season. Having taken a lot of sacks early on, Mariota was inconsistent and operated with sloppy mechanics (which had been the case for most of his career). Eventually he was benched for backup and former Dolphins starter Ryan Tannehill, who promptly responded with career-highs in completion percentage (70.3 percent), yards-per-attempt (9.6), touchdown to interception ratio (22 to 6) and quarterback rating (117.5).
Tannehill has some good weapons to work with. Even though he lacks great speed and quickness, running back Derrick Henry has been productive on the ground because of an abundance of power and strength in his game. Scatback Dion Lewis is a threat in the passing game, and rookie standout A.J. Brown, former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Adam Humphries, talented but enigmatic Corey Davis, Kalif Raymond and Tajae Sharpe make up Tennessee’s wide receivers. 14-year veteran tight end Delanie Walker is out for the season due to an ankle injury and has been replaced in the lineup by Jonnu Smith.
Tennessee’s offensive line is made up of three-time Pro Bowler Taylor Lewan, former Ram Rodger Saffold, Ben Jones, Nate Davis and former first-round pick Jack Conklin.