Tougher Than You Think

I will admit that, at the time, it didn’t really seem like the season hung in the balance for the Kansas City Chiefs and the Tennessee Titans. There was still 8:58 left in the third period in what was – at that moment – a four-point game (KC leading 21-17).

As the Houston Texans had done the week before, Tennessee had opened up an early lead on the Chiefs. They carried a 17-7 lead till there were about 5 minutes left in the first half. But, as they had done the week before, the Chiefs re-took the lead on a highlight-reel 27-yard touchdown scamper from quarterback Patrick Mahomes (channeling his inner Lamar Jackson).

But, even against the frustration of blowing a ten-point first half lead, Tennessee had largely achieved the thing that they needed to achieve in the first half. They had stayed close enough to continue to run the ball.

Tennessee’s conquest of Baltimore in the Divisional Round was rather typical of the way their offense goes about its business. The NFL’s third-leading running team went into the locker room at halftime of that game having rushed for a modest 68 yards – 56 by the NFL’s leading rusher Derrick Henry. In the second half alone, Tennessee tacked on 149 rushing yards on 24 carries – 139 of the yards and 19 of the carries coming from Henry. It was that dominant second-half running game that had propelled the Titans from a 2-4 start all the way to the AFC Championship Game. With Kansas City getting the ball first, they would need to get an early stop so they could put the ball back in Henry’s hands.

There were some tense moments, as KC controlled the ball for the first 3:59 of the second half, picking up three first downs along the way. But the stop finally came when Mahomes third-and-10 pass bounced off the shoulder of receiver Tyreek Hill.

Now the Titans were on the move. They had answered with one first down, and now as they broke the huddle on their own 41 they had second down and one to keep the drive going. Henry, at this point, was going to get one, maybe two – maybe even three cracks at picking up this one measly yard.

Perception v Reality

When one thinks of the Kansas City Chiefs, one thinks of a high-scoring aerial circus – of Mahomes easily flipping football from every conceivable arm angle – of Hill burning through defenses at almost supersonic speeds. You think of the only team ever to score 51 points in a game – and lose.

Your first thoughts of the Chiefs probably won’t be of their running game. They only finished twenty-third in the league on the ground. Defensively, they finished seventeenth overall and twenty-sixth against the run, so you probably wouldn’t think of the defense first.

The perception is that the Chiefs are new-age flash and dash, with more speed and finesse than any defense can match up too. Most fans, though, wouldn’t perceive the Kansas City Chiefs as a tough team – a team capable of slogging it out in the trenches with a team like the Titans. That was the advantage Tennessee thought it had.

It is presumptuous to say that if had picked up that yard that the Titans would have won the game. There were still a myriad of different things that could have happened. But one thing that would have happened would have been more Derrick Henry runs, resulting in more time on the field for the Chief defense, and more time for the Chief offense on the sideline on a frigid afternoon in Missouri. Gaining that yard would certainly have been a large step in the right direction for the Titans.

But, of course, they didn’t get it.

A six-year, journeyman defensive tackle named Mike Pennel – who had played in only 14% of the Chiefs defensive snaps all year – penetrated through right guard Nate Davis to meet Henry head on at the same time that Frank Clark – rushing unblocked from the other side of the formation – caught Derrick from behind.

Pennel made the play again on third-and-inches, but it didn’t matter. Clark drew a holding call on Dennis Kelly, and the drive would end one play later after a Ryan Tannehill scramble came up short.

Even as Tennessee punted the ball away, it didn’t feel like the end of the world. It was a missed opportunity, but there was still enough time to believe that Henry and the running game would still be a factor. But, now, the Chiefs would get the ball, and the defense would need to come up with another stop to keep this a one-score game.

As it would turn out, Henry would never take another hand off. Given the ball back, Kansas City would proceed to take control of this game in the most un-expected of ways. They ran the ball right down the Titans’ throats.

Over the next amazing 7 minutes and 8 seconds, the Chiefs plowed 73 yards on 13 soul-draining plays – 10 of them runs. None of these were long-gainers. The longest run of the drive was an 11-yard scramble from Mahomes. It was all three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust kind of stuff.

Along the way, the team not perceived as especially tough converted first downs running the ball on third-and-one, third-and-two, second-and-three, and second-and-goal from the three, where Damien Williams slashed through for the touchdown that altered the rest of the game.

When Tennessee got the ball back, the third quarter was over. There was only 14:50 left in their season, and they were now down by eleven points. Whether they over-reacted to the situation is an argument that can be made. The result, though, was that Tennessee retired their dominant second half running attack and spent the rest of the game throwing.

Called on to carry the offense, Tannehill didn’t do poorly. Ryan was 9 of 12 in that fourth quarter for 81 yards and a touchdown – a 120.49 rating. It wasn’t enough to keep Kansas City from advancing to Super Bowl LIV, though, as the Chiefs held on to a 35-24 victory (gamebook) (summary).

The believe it or not number that emerged from this contest comes from the opposing running attacks. Eight times the Chiefs ran the ball in short yardage situations: three times on second-and-three; twice on second-and-two; once on second-and-one; once on third-and-two; and once on third-and-one. They converted the first down on every single one of those plays. In contrast, the Titans had four such opportunities: a first-and-two; a second-and-threes; a second-and-one; and officially one third-and-one. Tennessee converted just one of those.

Titan’s coach, Mike Vrabel, will be less than pleased with those numbers. And he’ll be even less jolly when he reviews the game tape. Here are a couple of mysteries that will likely keep him awake at night for the next several months.

Can’t Anyone Tackle Mahomes?

In the signature moment of the AFC Championship Game, Mahomes took the snap from center with 23 seconds left in the first half. His team was still trailing, 17-14, but Kansas City had reached the Tennessee 27 in position to at least tie the game by intermission.

With the Titan’s in man coverage, and Kansas City running three vertical routes and one deep cross, an enormous void opened up between the line of scrimmage and the closest of the down-field defenders. When tackle Eric Fisher rode linebacker Harold Landry well to the outside of the pocket, a lane opened up before Patrick that led directly into that void. With no one open downfield, Mahomes pulled the ball down and skirted through the opening.

And that is when the fun began.

Rushing from the other side of the formation, linebacker Derick Roberson would have the first shot at Patrick. But running straight across the line of scrimmage, Roberson had a poor angle and was only able to make a desperation grasp at Mahomes’ ankles at about the 32-yard line.

The man with the angle was linebacker Rashaan Evans – who had been assigned to spy on Mahomes.  Rashaan ran toward him on a trajectory that would have him dropping the KC quarterback for about a three-yard loss. But the moment before impact, Patrick gave him just a little juke – an ever so subtle feint as though he were going to turn his run up-field. It was just enough to get Evans to stop his feet ever so briefly. It was all Mahomes needed. Evans ended up lunging for Patrick’s hips. But he came up empty as he tumbled into the Kansas City sideline.

Now it was a foot race to the goal line. Nose tackle DaQuan Jones tried to establish an angle that would allow him to catch Patrick, but Mahomes outran his angle. And then there were just two to beat. At about the six-yard line, cornerback Tramaine Brock stood directly in Mahomes’ path, with safety Amani Hooker on the dead-run from centerfield, arriving at that part of the six-yard line about the same time that Mahomes did.

If he had it to do over again, Tramaine would probably not station himself so close to the sideline. Had he presented Mahomes with an opening down the sideline, he could probably have pushed him out of bounds. As it was, his position caused Patrick to turn to the inside as he tried to split the narrow opening between the two defenders. He didn’t actually make it, as Brock and Hooker converged on him. But Brock lost all his leverage as Patrick turned away from him, and, in a move that won’t gain him any votes for great tackles of the first 100 years of the NFL, Tramaine reached out as Mahomes passed him and grabbed Pat by the back of his jersey.

With a firm grip of the top part of the “5” on Patrick’s back, Brock tried to pull Mahomes away from the goal line. All he succeeded in doing, though, was spinning Patrick away from the onrushing Amani Hooker, who went tumbling harmlessly to the sideline. The final moments of this electrifying run featured Brock’s futile attempt to rip the ball out of Mahomes grasp as Pat worked his way free of Tramaine and fell over the goal line just seconds before Jones re-appeared.

It was a head-shaking moment for the Titans, to be sure. But this could be written off as one of those things that sometimes happens during the course of a game. Even more haunting might be the other question that will linger after this loss.

Can’t Anybody Block Clark?

In the days before the game, much was made of the return of Frank Clark to the Kansas City defensive line. I was less than convinced that he would be a positive addition. Don’t get me wrong, Clark is a top pass-rushing end. But those guys are almost always liabilities in the running game. I’m afraid I rather expected Tennessee to exploit that weakness. The Titans, I think, felt the same because they did test him several times. But they never beat him.

With 8:35 left in the first quarter, the Titans ran their stretch play to the right side. But Clark denied Henry the corner as he stopped tackle Jack Conklin in his tracks. Derrick was forced to turn the play back toward the middle, where he was held for a two-yard gain.

On the next play, Tennessee tried the exact same thing, with a very similar result. Clark threw Conklin out of the way, while linebacker Damien Wilson exploded past center Ben Jones. Henry managed just one yard on that run.

They tried him for a final time on their first scrimmage play of the second half. This time they moved tight end MyCole Pruitt over to Frank’s side to help secure the edge. But even with the double-team, Clark didn’t yield the corner, and Henry turned the play back inside again for a gain of three yards.

While there is no telling what might have happened had Tennessee continued to run the ball, it is evident that for the time that they did, that Kansas City was extremely disciplined in denying Derrick Henry the edges. Derrick carried the ball 19 times, clearing the left end just once (for 13 yards) and the right end just once (for 5 yards). In all other carries he was funneled back inside by a Kansas City run defense more tough and tenacious than many would have expected.

Trying to Solve the KC Passing Game

With the running attack not achieving the same proficiency that it did against Baltimore, the Titans also found that their pass defense wasn’t as effective against Mahomes and his crew. Without an obvious weakness to attack, Tennessee was left with the same dubious options that everyone has against the Chiefs – cover their receivers or sack their quarterback.

For their part, the Titans mixed their coverages, playing slightly more zone (21 snaps) than they did man coverages (16 snaps). The results were mostly predictable. The zone defenses did well enough preventing the big passing plays. Pat averaged just 10.38 yards per completion, with no touchdown passes against the Tennessee zones. But he was able to move the chains at an alarming rate, as he completed 76.19% of his passes against that zone (16 for 21). Knowing that the Tennessee linebackers would chip on the receivers going deep before dropping into their zones, Mahomes and his outlet receivers – mostly running back Damien Williams – took repeated advantage of the opening in the short zones. All of Williams’ 5 receptions came against zone coverages.

When they switched to man defenses, the easy, short passes mostly disappeared. Of the 16 snaps in man coverages, Mahomes was sacked twice and completed just 7 of his 14 throws. But the 7 completions went for 128 yards and 3 touchdowns.

The best moments that Tennessee had on pass defense were those moments when the coverage would hold long enough for the Titans to mount enough pressure to force Mahomes to throw the ball early – or throw it away entirely. This was something they managed to do with some frequency. Of Patrick’s 37 drop-backs, he faced significant pressure 15 times (41%). He was just 4 of 13 on those attempts, with the two sacks.

Pass pressure is something that San Francisco does very well, and they will view those plays with special interest.

They should be put on warning, though. The team they are about to face is not only very fast and very skilled. They are also considerably tougher than they appear.

Andy Reid

I haven’t yet made a prediction for the Super Bowl. I will want to spend a little time reviewing the 49er-Packer game before I do that. But I do have a sentimental root in Kansas City’s head coach Andy Reid.

Andrew Walter Reid has been a head coach in this league continuously since 1999, coaching 336 regular season games and 28 playoff games. He has coached long enough and well enough to have established a record as the winningest coach all time that has never won a championship.

There is a reason for this. Andy is a fabulous coach, but for the first 19 years of his career he never had that quarterback that had that super-hero gear that you almost always need if your team is going to climb the mountain.

He has had some good and some very good quarterbacks play for him: Doug Pederson, Donovan McNabb, Michael Vick and Alex Smith. But none of them were special.

To this point, all the evidence suggests that the guy under center for Andy now is as special as it gets. This would be an excellent opportunity for Reid to get the Super Bowl monkey off of his back.

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