Playoffs have an expected quality about them – efficiency within team’s best units will come to fruition. Every intense moment on the field is extrapolated by the lights, camera, and history of the moment. Hence, persistent protection and perfection of where teams have functionally excelled is paramount. The Kansas City Chiefs, fortunately, are a team committed and convicted of their most prominent functions; a major juxtaposition to their wild card opponent, the Tennessee Titans.
During the speed of the playoffs, the Chiefs will need to tighten down their loose ends to beat the Titans. Implication: dominating at the line of scrimmage with power from Kareem Hunt and lighting the exterior of the field with Tyreek Hill’s speed. Defensively, that implication may take a bit of aggressive luck to force turnovers. However, ‘luck’ can be turned into function with precise utilization of the entire defensive personnel. The Kansas City Chiefs wild card scheme must be mistake free, speak to a systemic attack, and hard hitting to beat the Titans.
Kansas City Chiefs Wild Card Scheme Breakdown – Tightening the Loose Ends
Hitting Efficiently Hard
The Chiefs modus operandi of success, the run game, is also what the Titans slow down the best on defense. A front composed of Avery Williamson, Wesley Woodyard, and defensive tackle Jurrell Casey have dominated offensive lines. As a group, the Titans have limited opposing running backs to 3.6 yards per carry and 29 explosive runs (third in the NFL).
Functionally, that goal has been attained due to the pure aggression the Titans utilize at the point of attack. This evolves from the mastermind of legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. He uses his entire staff to align in a 3-4 scheme, taking advantage of weaknesses and evolving each week. The zone blitz is central to LeBeau’s aggression, a scheme which confuses quarterbacks, uses multiple sets, and throws blitzes from multiple zones of the field.
The best way to think of the Titans defense is Casey as the anchor, and the four-linebacker set working off the anchor swallowing the middle. Woodyard and Williamson usually set up as a dual inside linebacker set which manipulates interior runs. Both linebackers are extremely principled, do not miss assignments, and launch into gaps with poignant timing.
There is an exquisite flow and beauty to the way the Titans run defense works. At times, they will have five players on the line of scrimmage, hence, negating varied motion and sweep runs due to outside alignment. Extra tight ends will be covered by either Brian Orakpo or Derrick Morgan, the two outside linebackers, and quickly pushed down into the line of scrimmage, creating a scrum.
The Chiefs key then is to block creatively efficient. Hunt has taken a majority of his runs in the middle of the line of scrimmage, directly into the zone the Titans typically block. There must be variation in the Chiefs attack early, hoping to find a hole through the 3-4 front. Orakpo and Morgan are both incredibly athletic, which implicates the motion sweeps from shotgun will be ineffective.
Dedication to the run, pulling guards, and working for four yards per carry will be how the Chiefs can open their passing game. Again, that line has been written before, but against the Titans, the run to set up the pass is a central tenant of success. The Titans have another luxury with Jonathan Cyprien and Kevin Byard floating at safety – unless the defense is especially spread out, the back end carefully observes and foresees where offenses are running.
Running through the middle, however, will eventually get one of the linebackers on the edge to forego tight end integrity. Between two tight end sets with Travis Kelce and Demetrius Harris, the Chiefs can add flow of strength in the run or call play action and leak Kelce or Harris out on dig routes. If a linebacker splits up, and one of the floating safeties start to rush toward the interior of the field, that puts a bigger, stronger tight end on smaller cornerback in zone coverage.
Hence, the onus for Alex Smith is to create and split empty zones. That can be done with the aforementioned play action, tight end conundrum, but also with Hill. On the outside, the Titans have done an exquisite job at stopping explosive pass plays, but Adoree’ Jackson is a young cornerback, Logan Ryan is hurt, and LeShaun Sims is a longer cornerback who relies on assistance.
The Titans blitz works in accordance with their zone scheme. Akin to the Chiefs own defensive set, the cornerbacks play zone, meet their receivers in the middle of the route, and then push around receivers while the offense is focused on stopping interior and exterior pressure. Casey folds the offensive line from the inside out, providing ample room for Orakpo and Morgan to attack from the edge. If the Chiefs offensive tackles fail to hold the edge, and force tight ends or Hunt to stay in and assist blocking, they are dead.
However, if the offensive line holds strong, Hill is simply too athletic on his route tree for the Titans to stop him. While missing another dynamic receiver could hurt the Chiefs in this game, Albert Wilson should be in order for several key under route receptions. Furthermore, the empty zone on the short sides of the field will be perfect for swing routes out of the backfield to expose.
C.J. Spiller was signed this week, and serves as an excellent swing pass receiver from the backfield. Spiller could easily serve as a key target, or key decoy route to draw a safety away from cover two deep, allowing Kelce more time on a deep interior route.
Pressure From the Inside Out
The Titans offense is a combination of base sets, boring expectations, and a lack of communication. This game is more about which team will operate their game plan with more finesse. To summarize the Chiefs goals, they involve Jarvis Jenkins and Chris Jones taking away the middle of the line of scrimmage from the Titans and folding Marcus Mariota from the inside out.
The Titans offensive line often opts to assist one another in detailed chip blocks. Most defensive lines will be thrown off by one quick hit from the Titans interior. Yet, if Jenkins and Jones can assert pressure, and force the Titans to focus those chip blocks on the inside, then Justin Houston and Tamba Hali can use their veteran prose and beat younger, less experienced outside tackles. The focus on the offensive line is removing help from one another and causing discomfort.
Brian Schwenke is a fantastic veteran center who has saved the Titans multiple times this season. He dictates and directs protection from inside pressure, which has allowed Mariota to succeed. Yet, when the Titans do face pressure, Mariota fails to audible and is dictated by the defensive scheme.
The ideal Titans system was focused on the running game and passing game coming out of respective sets and simply overwhelming teams. However, this disavows any transition to more creativity. When the Titans use two tight end sets, or run formations, they run. When they align in pass sets, they pass. The formations are bland and predictable, exactly why Mariota has 13 touchdowns to 15 interceptions on the year.
The run game was set upon DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry rotating through to create a complementary two-back system. Murray can power on counter runs with pulling guards, but has additional finesse and pop. Henry in his second year was still learning, but options to be a pounding back while slowly coming to power on short, flat passes.
However, the Titans running game has been anything but successful. Murray appears lost at times as teams can predictably follow the pulling guard and stop counters. While Murray is now out for the wild card game, Henry will take the entire load, but can be forced to fall prey to predictable sets. While two-tight end sets add additional blocking on the outside, the Titans rarely run outside, and thus force everything through the middle. Reggie Ragland and Derrick Johnson have a straight up role in this game, but also must follow their selective guards to spot the hole and play proper fit-to-run.
If the run game is kept to unsustainable gains, then the bend, do not break model will be fundamental to the success on Saturday. The Titans pass game panders particularly toward defenses which play aggressive, zone-pressure schemes such as the Chiefs do.
The Titans spent their off-season attempting to run more flexible routes in their tree. Hence, they signed Eric Decker and Rishard Matthews to be contrasting slant and deep targets respectively. Even rookie Taywan Taylor was supposed to be a functional deep threat.
The Titans actual passing offense has been a dud of non-ideal function, opting for some of the shortest routes in the NFL; routes the zone-pressure scheme is particularly excellent at negating. Matthews is the only functional deep target, while Decker has spent time as a status quo check-down. Corey Davis, although now healthy, has been a shell of his draft hyperbole. As a group, Decker, Davis, and Matthews share a 59 percent catch rate.
While a 59 percent catch rate is particularly egregious, the Chiefs cornerbacks still need to play, less they get embarrassed by a sudden series of explosive passes to Davis. The standard Mariota passes fall right into zone defense, often stopping at the point of tackle. The exterior routes from Davis and Taylor, although defective, paint a more poignant threat if Marcus Peters or Darrelle Revis let their zone slip early. Daniel Sorensen will be responsible for floating over into the extra third and ensuring the 59-catch rate only lowers.
The safeties have even more responsibility to catch the Titans best receiver, tight end Delanie Walker. The empty zone of safeties is an equal target for Walker, especially on exterior routes just beyond the first down target. Hence, Sorensen will need to play with Eric Berry type speed and tackle securely to make sure Walker’s routes are another experimental failure.
Summarizing the Plan of Attack
The Chiefs offense starts with how they function best: running the ball with Hunt. Although the Titans have one of the NFL’s best run defenses with an agile scheme on all sectors, pulling guards and creating quick holes for four to five yard gains can compile success. Once play action and Hill’s speed open deeper routes, Smith can begin to launch the few, but beautiful deep passes which kill the Titans spirit.
Defensively, folding the pocket on Mariota from the inside out will make sure one of the blandest offenses stays bland. With Murray out and Henry as the sole running back, the Chiefs will be able to poke a game plan reliant on one running back instead of a two-headed monster. From there, the outside corners need to play responsible zone floats to keep the Titans routes short, sweet, and frustratingly defunct.