J.J. Watt, star pass rushers should rule the Chiefs-Texans matchup
The first playoff game on wildcard weekend is the Kansas City Chiefs at the Houston Texans. This matchup is how both of these teams started the 2015 season, and for one of the teams it will also be how they end the season.
Here are the three in-game matchups to watch that will determine which teams advances to the divisional round:
1. J.J. Watt vs. Justin Houston
No two pass rushers came into the season with better 2014 seasons than these two, and they continued to excel in 2015. Watt had a PFF Rating of 95.4 which was second-best among interior defenders, while Justin Houston at 92.9 was the second-best for edge defenders. In the first matchup both players had huge games, with a combined three sacks, one hit, nine hurries, and 11 stops. They will be facing the same offensive linemen they faced in the first matchup, so there is every reason to believe both players are in store for big games.
The door is open for more pass rushers to shine in this one as well. Chiefs ROLB Tamba Hali had 58 pressures when rushing from the right in 2015 which was the most for 3-4 outside linebackers. He had his lowest-graded game of the season in Week 1 while he went up against LT Duane Brown most snaps. Brown suffered a season-ending injury this past weekend and was replaced by Chris Clark. Brown allowed a pressure one in every 20 pass blocks, and Clark allows a pressure one in every 16. Hali on the other hand gets pressure on one in every seven pass rushes so Clark will likely allow pressure even more frequently than usual in this game.
Since the first matchup, Whitney Mercilus has stepped up his pass rush game. After Mercilus had just two sacks, two hits and eight hurries over the first seven weeks, he had ten sacks, four hits and 31 hurries over the last nine.
When Brian Hoyer is under pressure, he is accurate on just 51.3 percent of his passes, and Alex Smith isn’t much better at 55.8 percent. Both are among the bottom five for quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs under pressure. These star pass rushers will rule the day, which should keep this a low scoring game.
2. DeAndre Hopkins vs. Chiefs secondary
This year Hopkins emerged as one of the best wide receivers in the NFL. His PFF Rating of 91.5 which was fourth-best for receivers with at least 300 pass snaps on the year. He started the season strong with a nine catch, 98 yard and two touchdown performance against the Chiefs. Over half of those yards came against Jamell Fleming who stopped seeing significant playing time after Week 2.
Hopkins spends 85 percent of his snaps as an outside receiver rather than in the slot, and the Chiefs have not used a cornerback to track a wide receiver all year, so Hopkins will be lining up against Marcus Peters or Sean Smith every snap. Both cornerbacks have been high risk high reward cornerbacks especially recently.
Since Week 12, Sean Smith has allowed a low 53.8 percent catch rate, but has allowed four touchdowns which is tied for fourth most among cornerbacks over that time. Since Week 10, Marcus Peters has allowed just a 39.4 percent catch rate which is the lowest rate in the league, but has seven penalties which is tied with Brandon Browner for the second most over that time. On the year, Peters has 44 plays with a grade of +1 or better which is the most among cornerbacks, but also 25 plays with a grade of -1 or worse which is tied for fourth most among cornerbacks.
If the Chiefs cornerbacks continue playing how they have recently, Hopkins could be in for a rough day. However they have given up the big plays, and with these two teams being defensive minded, that could be all the Texans need.
3. Travis Kelce vs. Texans coverage
In Week 1, a big reason the Chiefs put up the 26 points they did was an excellent start of the season by Travis Kelce. He caught all six passes thrown his way for 106 yards and two touchdowns. It ended up being his only 100 yard game of the season, and he only had three touchdowns over his next 15 games.
In recent weeks, Kelce has not been as productive in this offense. Over the first seven weeks of the season, his 489 receiving yards was third most for tight ends, and his 2.05 yards per route run was seventh best. From Week 8 on, his 386 receiving yards was just 13th most, and his 1.60 yards per route run have been 15th best.
Since that first game, rookie linebacker Benardrick McKinney has taken over one of the inside linebacker roles. His pass stop percentage of 6.6 percent is second best among linebackers just behind Wesley Woodyard and just ahead of Luke Kuechly. Safety Rahim Moore who allowed over half of the Week 1 yards to Kelce has also been benched since that game in favor of Andre Hal. Hal has four interceptions and four passes defended which are both among the top ten for safeties.
All signs point to the Texans being able to stop Travis Kelce this time around, which means the Chiefs will need to find a new way to put up points on the Texans in order to win.