Tennessee Titans preparing to etch another “Wild” memory in Arrowhead
The Tennessee Titans defense can cook up the perfect recipe to eliminate the Kansas City Chiefs and advance to the divisional round.
The Tennessee Titans’ comeback victory at Arrowhead Stadium against the playoff-bound Kansas City Chiefs last season was epic. Ryan Succop’s second-chance, game-winning boot against his former team is etched in Titans history, complete with a “Mike Keith” gospel echo providing the soundtrack of the moment.
The win kept the Titans’ playoff hopes alive for another week. The following week, the Titans would lose both Marcus Mariota and their chance at postseason play.
Fast forward one season later, the Titans are eager to make another historic moment at the expense of Kansas City, for the second time in two years.
However, the gravity of this impending moment far outweighs the last.
New Year, New Faces
The 2017 Titans will look to generate a better performance against the Chiefs than last year. The 2016 Titans gave up 14 first quarter points and had mental errors cost them points early. Despite trailing by 10 at the half, Tennessee was able to overcome the deficit. Dick LeBeau’s defense kept the Chiefs out of the end zone and the offense’s 12 fourth quarter points helped secure a thrilling two-point victory that is tattooed in the minds of Titans faithful.
A lot changes in a year.
Both teams made some roster changes, whether it be through free agency or the draft. The Chiefs hit a home run (at least it appears so) by drafting RB Kareem Hunt. The 86th overall selection has had a tremendous impact on the offensive attack, despite having some down weeks. Without question, Hunt will be a point of focus in LeBeau’s preparation for wild card weekend.
The Titans also have a rookie that has made progress throughout the year. Adoree’ Jackson has logged snaps in all three phases.
Despite some struggles early on, Jackson is evolving into a solid cornerstone of the defense. Jackson was two snaps shy of leading the league in total snaps. As a rookie, he was the only player to log at least double digits in all three categories.
Jackson will record plenty of snaps on defense this Saturday. In fact, he may not ever come off the field. He will receive a handful on snaps on special teams. Whether or not he makes a cameo on the offensive side of the ball is unknown. In playoff football, teams pull out all the stops, so there is always a chance. Especially with the amount of offensive trickery/misdirection the Titans love to employ.
Titans Defensive Tactics
Reduce Hunt’s Offensive Impact
Kansas City is 3-6 in games Hunt is kept out of the end zone. The Chiefs are 7-0 in games where Hunt found pay dirt.
Hunt’s production on the ground enabled the Chiefs to finish the season as a top 10 team running the football. Kansas City ranks ninth in both rush yards and rush yards per game this season. The Titans must solidify their reputation as run stoppers. Tennessee ranks fourth in rush yards allowed (1,420) and has given up the fewest number of rush touchdowns all season (five).
Hunt leads all running back in rush yards (1,327). He tied for first in 20+ yard gains (12) and is tied for second in 40+ yard gains (three). Hunt is third in total yards from scrimmage, behind only Los Angeles’ Todd Gurley and Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell.
Fortunately for the Titans, they’ve faced both Gurley and Bell this season. Both contests resulted in losses. Tennessee held Bell to just 43 yards on the ground, 57 as a receiver and did not allow Bell into the end zone.
Gurley was the only running back to put up over 100 yards on the ground against the Titans this season. Tennessee was one of six teams that were unable to keep Gurley from doing damage on the ground.
For Gurley, he didn’t only do damage on the ground. In fact, Gurley had over 100 yards receiving, a large chunk coming from his 80-yard scamper on a screen pass. He single-handedly led the Rams to victory, as he has done many times this season.
As with any blitz-happy team, there are going to be moments where an offense capitalizes. That was the case with Rams head coach Sean McVay. He called the screen at the perfect moment, and the Titans were caught slipping. If that 80-yard score doesn’t happen, there is a good chance the Titans finish the season as division champions.
Experience facing both Bell and Gurley will pay huge dividends this weekend. The Titans know what they must do (Bell) and what they have to avoid (Gurley) in order to keep their season alive. If Tennessee can minimize Hunt’s usage and effectiveness on offense, they will be in good shape to ensure the next task.
Provoking Smith to Throw
Relentless disruption against QB Alex Smith is critical. However, it’s tricky. The Titans need Smith to have a high volume number of throws, preferably upwards of 33 attempts. The Chiefs are 5-6 when Smith is forced to try to win with his arm.
Smith is the proverbial game manager. The Titans run defense has to be firing on all cylinders. If Tennessee can keep Hunt‘s carries under 18, the statistics suggest it’s nearly a guaranteed loss. Kansas City has only managed one win when Hunt had fewer than 18 touches, which came in week 17. Hunt had one carry, but that one carry resulted in six points.
For Smith, he’s feeling a natural pressure with the Chiefs selecting Patrick Mahomes with their first round selection in 2017. In fact, it is safe to say the odds of him playing next season in a Kansas City uniform are dependent on the outcome of Saturday’s game.
Mahomes has all the tools to be the Chiefs’ guy next season. He showed flashes of what he can bring to the team during the preseason and last week against the Denver Broncos defense. Another year of tutelage under Reid combined with an offseason to learn the system will benefit the rookie heading into his sophomore season.
If Kansas City feels they’ve plateaued with Smith following a poor performance resulting in a first round playoff elimination, cutting ties with the veteran signal caller may not be as difficult as some might believe.
Tennessee has proven over the last few weeks that getting to the quarterback is attainable. The Titans pass rush must be violent enough to alter Smith’s launch point. Jurrell Casey, Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo have to keep the heat on Smith. A few solid shots could affect Smith’s confidence.
Driving Smith to the ground will help throw him off his game. However, when Smith is able to buy time with his legs, Tennessee’s defensive backs and linebacker corps must keep his favorite targets smothered and undergoing suffocating defensive pressure.
Keep Away from Hill, Kelce
The Titans must prevent Tyreek Hill from having a big day. He can be a factor on offense or in the return game. Hill’s punt return touchdown against the Houston Texans in Week 5 helped secure an eight-point victory in a high-scoring affair over a Deshaun Watson-led Houston squad.
Last season, Tennessee did not allow Hill to catch a single pass, but the Titans did allow Hill to record a 68-yard rushing touchdown on his only carry. This season, the Chiefs are 3-3 when Hill makes a big play for a score.
Travis Kelce is Smith’s favorite target. He leads the team in receptions (83) and receiving touchdowns (eight). It makes sense, as Kelce was drafted by the Chiefs in 2013, the same year Smith joined the team. The two have chemistry and have built a rapport over the past five seasons.
Statistically, Kelce may be the best tight end in the league this season. Among tight ends, he ranks first in receptions (83), second in yards (1,038), second in yards per game (69.2), tied for second in touchdown receptions (eight), first in 20+ yard receptions (19) and second in first down receptions (55).
Had Kelce been active last week, he could have surpassed his career marks.However, being well rested heading into the postseason was paramount for a lot of Andy Reid’s key playmakers.
Peaking in Playoffs
The ebb and flow of the Titans offense has been evident throughout the regular season. Thus far, the team has yet to play to their maximum abilities for four quarters of football. The playoffs are the perfect time to start.
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In Kansas City’s case, some may say the Chiefs peaked too early. The red-hot Chiefs began to cool midway through the season. After starting the season 5-0 with a season opening victory over the perennial Super Bowl favorite New England Patriots, the Chiefs would lose six of their next seven games and nearly played their way out of the postseason.
Reid was able to right the ship and their four-game win streak to end the season helped the Chiefs win the wild west.
The Titans haven’t peaked. They’ve had both winning streaks and losing streaks. Tennessee strung together four-consecutive wins midseason. Towards the end of the season, the Titans had three-consecutive losses due to collapsing late in games in what was initially considered the easiest quarter of their schedule.
Tennessee prevented a four-game skid by defeating the AFC South champion Jacksonville Jaguars to secure their spot in the playoffs and the sweep of their division foe. Mariota’s season-defining stiff arm went viral and he and Jacksonville’s Barry Church will be linked in Titans history.
Mariota will have to employ some of the same “music city magic” on the road. He can put his worst statistical regular season behind him and aim to build his playoff resume.
Henry was critical of his performance last week. He will have to be productive on the ground to open up the offense.
Henry and Mariota need to channel their “inner Heisman”, as both are key to the Titans offense producing points.
Offensively, it’s crystal clear that both Mariota and Henry will have to find avenues to run through on Saturday. Designed or not, Mariota must run. Henry must hit the hole with force. Instead of banking on the home run lane being open, he needs to gain the 3-4 yards the defense will allow.
Saturday cannot come soon enough. The somewhat banged up Titans face the rested and restored Chiefs. Tennessee finished 3-4 on the road this season.
The path to Minnesota won’t be easy, but the Titans must become “Road Warriors” if they hope to make some noise and avoid a first round exit.