3TFO: Chiefs @ Titans, Week 5
With a 4-0 record, the Kansas City Chiefs have already matched or surpassed their win totals from four of the last six seasons. The Chiefs’ defense has been one of the best in the league and ranks third with 12 takeaways. On the offensive side, Andy Reid and Alex Smith have found an effective balance between run and pass.
The Chiefs face a Tennessee Titans team that finds itself tied atop the division standings. Jake Locker has started to take steps forward while Alterraun Verner and Jurrell Casey are well on their way to breakout seasons. Turnovers have been key for both teams’ hot starts, as they are tied for the league lead in turnover differential. However, with Locker now out for the foreseeable future, can the Titans continue their winning ways? Here are three key matchups in this week’s game.
Ryan Fitzpatrick Against the Chiefs’ Pass Defense
Jake Locker had been quietly putting together a good start to the season, earning the sixth-highest grade (+7.6) among quarterbacks. He is one of two starting quarterbacks that has yet to throw an interception, and the only one who has not turned the ball over in the first four weeks. Unfortunately for Locker and the Titans, it appears his injuries will force him to miss at least the next few games. Stepping in for him will be former Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick who went 3-for-8 with a touchdown pass while finishing last week’s game against the Jets. He threw away one pass and had another dropped by Kendall Wright, but a couple of passes were off-target. The Bills did not always surround Fitzpatrick with the best supporting cast, but he had too many turnovers regardless. Over the last three seasons he has had more turnovers than starts. While taking over for Locker, he needs to find a balance between not being too conservative and still taking care of the football. Otherwise, the Chiefs’ defense will take advantage, often.
Kansas City is our top-ranked defense in pass rush and coverage. Tamba Hali leads the league with 31 total pressures and his 16.9 Pass Rushing Productivity is best for 3-4 outside linebackers. Not far behind him is Justin Houston, whose 13.6 PRP ranks fourth. Most impressive about the Chiefs’ pass rush is their ability to create pressure without sending extra defenders, pressuring quarterbacks 48.7% of their dropbacks while rushing four defenders. This effectiveness has given the Chiefs freedom to drop more players into coverage, rushing five or more defenders just 27.3% of opponents’ dropbacks. It has also allowed them to field five or more defensive backs on 69.5% of plays this season.
Among those defensive backs are Eric Berry (+4.9), Quintin Demps (+4.3) and Kendrick Lewis (+3.4), who all rank in the top-ten in coverage among safeties. The trio combines for five passes defended and two interceptions while each average less than 0.40 yards allowed per coverage snap. At the corner position, quarterbacks have a 41.7 QB Rating when targeting Sean Smith, who has been a positive addition for the secondary. Brandon Flowers’s status is in question for Sunday’s game again, but rookie Marcus Cooper allowed just one reception for nine yards and had two passes defended on six targets last week while filling in for Flowers. The biggest weak-spot has been the other veteran addition, Dunta Robinson. Robinson has one of the worst coverage grades in the league despite missing one game. Of the 13 passes thrown at him in the last two weeks, he has allowed 10 to be completed for 187 yards and a touchdown.
Since his 2,000-yard campaign, Chris Johnson has averaged 1,220 rushing yards the last three seasons and is on pace for about the same this year. Known as one of the most explosive players in the league, Johnson has failed to live up to that standard thus far. Thirty-one running backs have had longer runs than Johnson’s longest run of 23 yards and he has not forced a missed tackle since week one. His 25th-ranked 3.3 yards per carry is less than Adrian Peterson’s 3.5 yards after contact.
Johnson could use some better help up front though—specifically, from center Robert Turner and right tackle David Stewart. Turner’s run blocking ranks 31st out of 33 centers and Stewart is 25th out of 34 right tackles to start at least two games. That said, Andy Levitre and Michael Roos both rank in the top five at their positions while the Titans rank sixth in run blocking as a team.
Because the Chiefs are playing so much nickel and dime personnel, Johnson should have an opportunity to make an impact against their run defense. Opposing offenses are averaging a near-league-high 5.3 yards per attempt against the Chiefs. When in nickel or dime personnel, though, they are averaging 7.4 yards per attempt. The Chiefs have allowed four runs longer than Johnson’s longest carry of the season as well. All will not be easy though because the defense has just nine missed tackles against the run and inside linebackers Akeem Jordan and Derrick Johnson lead the team with nine and ten run stops respectively. Chris Johnson needs to have an effective day to relieve some of the pressure that will be on Fitzpatrick.
Chiefs’ Passing Game
Andy Reid has utilized Jamaal Charles as most expected, giving him an average of 26 touches per game. Charles leads the league in targets and receptions for running backs. He is also second in combined rushing and receiving yards—behind only LeSean McCoy—and on pace for over 2,000 total yards. The Titans have allowed 20 of 25 passes to be completed to running backs this season, and two of the incompletions were because the passes were dropped.
Alex Smith has been fairly conservative this season, evidenced by his average depth of target at 6.2 yards downfield—lower than all other quarterbacks besides Blaine Gabbert. He has completed 67.9% of his passes under ten yards but only 51.6% of passes ten or more yards downfield. Tennessee needs to contain Charles and force Smith to throw to other receivers and take shots down the field, preferably at Alterraun Verner, who has been one of the most impressive cornerbacks this season. Quarterbacks have a 12.9 QB rating when throwing his direction, easily the lowest in the league. Forcing mistakes and turnovers is easier said than done, but the Titans have made the most of their opportunities so far this season.
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