Adam Chernoff is exceptionally bullish on one team in particular in this weekend’s Championship games!
Another Insights column, another week in the red. At this point, it is about saving face here in the column. Going into the second to last Sunday, the record is 11-17 (-6.96x).
Well, here we go one more time fading the Tennessee Titans.
It worked with the Houston Texans in Week 15 exceptionally well, not so much in the Wild Card and Divisional Round playoff, though. Many of my thoughts and feelings have been shared regarding this team and the performances they have been putting forth on the field, but I think it is worthwhile to summarize everything heading into the AFC Championship.
My biggest gripe with the team is their secondary.
This was the worst secondary coming into the playoffs and is without a question the worst secondary remaining in the playoffs.
This team finished 23rd in passing success rate defense and faced the 9th easiest schedule of opponents. Any time that this team has been forced to step up, they have conceded enormous outputs. Tennessee has played four teams this entire season that rank inside the top 10 for pass efficiency. In those four games, the Titans have conceded 1,338 passing yards for an average of 335 per game and 7.1 yards per pass.
If you look at the performance of the Tennessee defense this season, there is a clear correlation to their best games and the ranking of the pass offense. Against teams ranked in the bottom third for pass efficiency, they conceded an average of just 19 points, a stark contrast to the 27 for the four aforementioned times they stepped up in class.
My second gripe with the team (lately) is the run of “luck” they have been on inside the playoffs.
I think a lot of fingers can be pointed at the two games they won in Foxboro and Baltimore where Ryan Tannehill passed for a combined 160 yards, but there is much more inside the matchups that point to fortuitous bounces at nearly every point. The team was extremely suspect inside the red zone finishing the season ranked 31st allowing 68% of opponent drives inside the red zone to end up in touchdowns.
Against Baltimore and New England, they held both teams to 2/7 combined inside the red zone, another huge improvement at 28% from their 68% during the regular season. There then comes in the question of high leverage situations. In football, these situations refer to third and fourth down in short yardage.
- Against New England, Tennessee got stops on 3rd and 3 from their 18, 3rd and 1 from their 1 and 4th and 2 at midfield.
- Against Baltimore, Tennessee got stops on 4th and 1 at midfield, 1st and 2nd down at their 4 (end of the half), 3rd and 2/4th and 1 at their 18, 4th and 4 at their 16 and an additional 4th down at their 21.
Incredibly, in the two playoff games, Tennessee has conceded success on just one high leverage spot on their side of the field (James White run pushed out at the 7 on the third drive). The other ten high leverage downs on their side of the field have resulted in a stop for Tennessee.
Turnovers have gone a long way in favour of the Titans as well.
Tennessee has forced five turnovers these playoffs, while only conceding one. The three against Baltimore stand out. The interception was tipped off Mark Andrews hands, caught at the TEN 19 and returned to the BAL 45 (resulted in a TD), There was the sack-fumble which set up TEN at the BAL 20 (resulted in a TD) and the Vaccaro pick on the out route at the TEN 24. Whether it be the goal-line stand against NE or any of the three turnovers and four fourth-down stoppages against Baltimore, everything has fell in line for Tennessee.
The previous meeting in Nashville between these two teams is going to draw a lot of attention. Tennessee won the game 35-32 in what looks from the outside like a game where the Titans were able to keep pace and score with Kansas City. But that game was much more of the same. The Titans had a 55-yard fumble return for a TD in addition to getting a stop on 3rd and 2 at their 25, 3rd and 2 at their 24.
Furthermore, in the final 1:27 of the game Tennessee got a botched snap by the KC holder, and blocked another kick to win the game. All of this is insane, and it goes back to the latter part of the season as well. DeShaun Watson threw two interceptions inside the end zone in the Week 15.
Things for the Titans on the other side of the field have been falling in place too.
They have not needed to attempt a field goal in the previous 17 quarters and have only kicked one field goal in their previous ten games. Of their last 44 scoring drives, 43 have been touchdowns. Their red-zone conversion percentage of 78% this season smashes all other previous records in the league.
But then we look at the opponents Tennessee has faced. Dating back to Week 9 (last ten games) of the regular season, only two teams have ranked inside the top 20 for rush efficiency defense, and just three teams have ranked above average for pass efficiency defense. In terms of red zone defense, just four teams of the ten rank league average or better.
All of this to this point probably sounds biased and may be interpreted in the wrong way.
I mean, if you look deep enough into box scores, similar to trends, you can find something positive and negative for both sides.
The point I am trying to get across is that many elements of the game that are random – yet influential – are all going in favour of the Titans, to an extreme.
When we begin to see the market start to move in their favour as it did with the look-ahead compared to the market price, we now see opportunity.
Focusing more on the field, this matchup is extremely challenging – at best – for Tennessee. Their biggest weakness (secondary) matches up against the biggest strength (passing) for Kansas City.
This matchup is going to be determined on 1st and 2nd down.
Kansas City throws the ball on 59% of early downs (7th highest) and will be throwing into a Titans secondary that allows 51% of early down passes to grade successful (24th). Where this becomes problematic for Tennessee is that not only are these non-passing situations and there is some balance in defending early downs that is required, but the Kansas City Chiefs are incredibly good at blocking for Mahomes. On the season the KC OL has allowed just a 4.9% adjusted sack rate which is fourth highest. The Tennessee defensive line is below average in pressure rate, league average in adjusted sack rate and 20th in pass rush win rate.
The blueprint to slow down Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City offense has been laid out by a couple of teams in the past two seasons.
The recipe is to play man coverage and keep Mahomes inside the pocket. This is yet another thing that is working against the Tennessee Titans who play among the highest rate of zone coverage in the NFL. Now, we saw Indianapolis a very similar team schematically completely shift their coverage from heavy zone to nearly pure man. It caught Kansas City off guard and in addition to Mahomes hurting his ankle, the offense as a whole struggled.
However, it is clear that Andy Reid and Eric Bieniemy have adjusted the playbook. In the first meeting against Houston, Crennel and O’Brien shifted their scheme to play heavy man coverage. It worked. They stuck with that concept until late in the 4th quarter against Kansas City last weekend, and, well, we all know what the Chiefs did to that Texans secondary.
For me in handicapping the Titans defense, it is more of a personnel limitation than it is a schematic limitation. In the first meeting, they played a predominantly zone coverage scheme but they have a lack of speed across the field in the secondary. Tyreek Hill had 19 targets in the first game because he outran every defender into soft spots within a zone consistently all game.
The speed advantage is what ultimately lead Kansas City to having success moving the ball in this football game, and in zone or man, I do not see the Titans being able to put a personnel package on the field to assist them in slowing down the Chiefs.
There is also a question of how this unit holds up after being on the field for 90 snaps against Baltimore.
Slowing down Tennessee is going to be difficult for Kansas City as well.
This is a run defense that is improved compared to last season, but still extremely weak at getting stops upfront. Kansas City finished the season ranked 29th in rush success rate defense, and with Derrick Henry, the Titans should be able to get anything they want on the ground. The big question to me is, does it matter? We have seen consecutive historic performances from Henry.
In the first game, New England conceded the run and gave up just 14 points. In the second game against Baltimore, Henry only attributed to drives that accounted for 21 of the 28 points. The three drives Tennessee scored on where Henry was used tallied 35 yards (8 plays), 20 yards (6 plays) and 81 yards (6 plays). The Titans punted six times in both the Patriots and Ravens game, which is more than double the two teams combined. As huge has his yardage outputs have been, both the Ravens and Patriots have got stops when needed.
The big question for me is the impact of Ryan Tannehill.
Surprisingly, I think we have neglected how impactful he was taking over this team, especially down the stretch. Two games against Baltimore and New England with 160 combined yards have painted him in a light of being a poor quarterback. I don’t think that is true.
I don’t believe he is that far above average, but he is the one person that can make a difference in this game.
I think his impact is the single biggest variable.
The reason that I went with Kansas City 1H was that it is essential that they get out to a lead. By getting ahead on the scoreboard, it neutralizes a lot of the things that make the Titans offense so successful. This in turn opens up the Chiefs pass rush to take advantage of the Titans offensive line which ranks dead last in the NFL in adjusted sack rate. The Chiefs held Tannehill to 181 yards in the first meeting, which was his lowest output of the regular season. But the reduced usage for Tannehill was due to the carries Henry had and the limited time Tennessee had the ball.
People may forget, the Chiefs held the ball for nearly 40 minutes in the first matchup and ran 80 plays. This all comes down to the Kansas City secondary ranked 8th in pass success rate defense, holding opponents to 43% on passes this season against the fourth most difficult schedule of opposing passers stepping up.
I like the matchup, I like the number and I like the upside with KC.
- Kansas City Chiefs -7 (1.95). Risking 1.50x
- Kansas City Chiefs 1H -4 (1.95). Risking 0.50x