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2015 NFL Playoff Preview: Texans-Chiefs Wild Card Preview

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Matt Weston of Battle Red Blog writes the only preview you'll need to read for Saturday's Texans-Chiefs game.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

In their first meeting back in Week One, the Chiefs won by taking advantage of Brian Hoyer's redzone turnovers, using their team speed and screen passes to run past Houston's slower defenders, and having Travis Kelce run rampant in the middle of the field.

This happened seventeen weeks ago. Back then, both the Texans and Chiefs were preparing to play each other. This week, they're doing it all over again, but with grander rewards and greater implications than merely trying to start the season off right. One team will see their 2015 season come to an end, and the other will move on to play either Denver or New England in the Divisional Round.

Are Either of These Teams Good?

Kansas City and Houston have had strange seasons. The Chiefs lost five in a row after beating Houston, and then won ten in a row after that. The Texans were bloated and floating as fish nibbled on their green peeling skin at 2-5. Then the coaching staff made various scheme and personnel changes that turned the defense from 23rd in DVOA to 8th.

Unlike Houston, Kansas City didn't make any major personnel or scheme changes. Sean Smith came back after missing the first three games with a DUI suspension. Eric Berry and Dontari Poe played better as the season progressed. However, one could even make the argument they got worse after losing Jamaal Charles for the season. The team that was 1-5 is nearly identical to the one that is now 11-5.

The Chiefs played better during their winning streak, but external factors and turnover luck were the main reason why they went from 1-5 to 11-5. In their five game losing streak, the Chiefs had a turnover differential of -2 (five takeaways, seven giveaways), lost all four of their one possession games, and four of their losses came against playoff teams: Denver, Green Bay, Cincinnati, and Minnesota. Their opponent's average DVOA during this string of losses was 11.04%, which is the level of a top ten team. Every week, this was their opponent, and every week they lost to them.

After this stretch, the schedule became easier and Kansas City's luck improved. In their ten game winning streak, their turnover differential was +16 (23 takeaways, 7 giveaways), they won all four of their one possession games, and they played just two playoff teams. Those teams were the Pittsburgh Steelers with Landry Jones at quarterback, and Peyton Manning in his final game before he missed time due to injuries. The average DVOA of their opponent was -1.28%.

The main reason for this change, aside from the schedule, was Alex Smith's play. During the losing streak, he threw 3 interceptions, was sacked 21 times, and had only 104 rushing yards. In the next ten games, he threw just 4 interceptions, took only 22 sacks, and ran for 420 yards while gaining 8.75 yards a carry. Instead of forcing throws, Smith went through his reads quicker and started scrambling when nothing was open right away. This took the pressure off an offensive line that's been through ten different lineup combinations and filled a little bit of the void left after Charles went down.

These paragraphs may point towards the idea that Kansas City beat up on bad teams and went on a run. This isn't the case. The Chiefs are a team that went from unlucky to luckier, but they were a good team throughout the entire season. The results were just wonky. The Chiefs finished fifth in DVOA (25.6%), sixth in offensive DVOA (11.7%), first in rushing DVOA (14.0%), sixth in defensive DVOA (-11.4%), and seventh in special teams DVOA (2.4%). So yes, Kansas City is a good football team.

The Texans are a good football team when they're able to control the game and play their style of football. The Texans need to run the ball a lot. Win the turnover battle. Get out to a lead. Rush the passer. Set up easy throws for Brian Hoyer. Hold the opponent to less than 20 points. And a sentence I've written at least ten times this year, win with their quarterback, but not because of him. When the defense is shredding offenses, and they can play their style, they can win games with Brandon Weeden at quarterback. When they don't, games against New England and Buffalo happen.

In the Bill O'Brien era, the Texans have unusual splits in wins compared to losses. In wins, Houston scores an average of 25.05 points a game and gives up an average of 11.6 points. The most points they've allowed and still won was 21 to Tennessee last season in a 45-21 win. In losses, Houston scores 18.57 points. This is comparable to the 25.05 they score in wins. However, in losses Houston gives up 29.28 points a game. This is three more possessions than they allow in wins. The Texans' success completely depends on whether or not they can hold their opponent to a figure their "just do enough offense" can surpass.

For Houston to win this playoff game, they need to play conservative football, completely control the game, and the defense that is eighth in DVOA needs to hold Kansas City to 20 points or less.

Alex Smith is a Point Guard.

It's impossible to not admire what the Chiefs do. Most teams in the NFL try to force their players into a system rather than mold their system to their strengths. The Chiefs understand this better than most teams. They know their strengths: Smith's quick release and short game accuracy, plus overall team speed.

Kansas City's offense is based around getting their skill players in space. Smith mostly operates out of three step drops and gets the ball out quickly to receivers running curls, flats, comebacks, drags, outs, slants, and screen passes. Because of this, I think of Alex Smith more of a point guard than a quarterback. He's trying to find players cutting across the middle part of the field and not turn the ball over. He's a distributor more than a thrower.

Additionally, because of their quick passes, this masks issues the Chiefs have with their pass protection. Their scheme mitigates an opponent's pass rush by default. It's impossible to get to the quarterback when there's only a two second window. Every member of the Chiefs' offensive line has issues when matched up individually against pass rushers, but it's a non-issue for Kansas City most of the time.

Heading into this game a lot is made of the impact J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus, and Jadeveon Clowney will have on the Chiefs' passing game. As it should be, because of the all-world ability these three players have and the lack of talent on the Kansas City offensive line. But as mentioned earlier, it's going to be difficult to disrupt Alex Smith if the ball jumps out of his hand. For the Texans to terrorize Smith, Houston will need to get a lead and force Kansas City into taking deeper drops and throwing longer passes.

This play against the Bills is a perfect example of the Chiefs' passing offense. They're in an off-set I formation, and their receivers are balanced. Their fullback and running back are running out to the flat. Jeremy Maclin is running a comeback route, and Albert Smith is running a post. When Smith gets the snap, he quickly goes through his reads and hits Maclin instantly. There's just not enough time for the pass rush to have an impact.

Smith PG

QUick pass

The key to the play is how far the corner is playing off of Maclin. He's giving him seven yards before the snap. He's inviting the quick pass and allowing the Chiefs' passing game to do what their best at--getting the ball to their skill players in space.

Opponents have to play tight press coverage to stop these throws. There may be the off chance that Maclin runs a fade and beats you deep, but it's a rare occurrence. Playing tight coverage is a risk you must take. The splits between Alex Smith's short and deep passes prove this.

Short Pass Attempts:

Cmp Att Cmp% Yards Tds Ints Y/A
280 (16th) 398 (15th) 70.4% (13th) 2,756 (12th) 18 (T-13th) 5 (T-15th) 6.9 (6th)

Deep Pass Attempts:

Cmp Att Cmp% Yards Tds Ints Y/A
26 (T-25th) 61 (29th) 42.6% (13th) 725 (26th) 2 (T-31st) 2 (T-31st) 11.9 (17th)

If Smith does throw the ball deep, it's going to Maclin. Of Smith's 61 deep passes, 26 have gone Maclin's way. Of these throws, Maclin has caught 13 of them for 402 yards and 2 touchdowns. Most of these routes are fades where Maclin just runs past the cornerback. However, Smith rarely hits these throws in stride. He usually underthrows his deep pass attempts, like he does on this play.

Smith fade to MAC

Maclin deep

Now because of all the short throws and quick reads the Chiefs' utilize, defenses can bait them into interceptions. Zone coverage, especially hook zones, where the slot corner or outside linebacker drop back, are great ways to jump these same curl and slant routes they throw incessantly.

Here the Raiders are running Cover 3. Smith is trying to throw the deep dig route to the right side of the field. Smith sees the cornerback drop back but doesn't pick up the linebacker underneath. Smith throws an interception as a result.

Smith INT Bait

Maclin Deep

Smith has thrown just five interceptions this year. But when I watched him play, there were multiple times where teams baited him into throwing passes like this, only for the ball to bounce off the defender's hands. I have a hunch that when the charting numbers come out, Smith will be near the top in dropped interceptions. Houston will need to turn these opportunities into interceptions instead of defended passes.

The last underrated aspect regarding Alex Smith is his ability has a runner. His personal rushing DYAR is 86 (5th), his DVOA is 11.6% (17th) and he's added 21.2 points with his feet, according to QBR.  Houston is going to have to make a decision. Are they going to want to try and rush Clowney and Mercilus?  Are they going to double cover Travis Kelce?  Or are they going to spy Smith?  If they pick the first two options, Smith could have an enormous impact on the ground tomorrow.

The Texans have four defensive backs in Andre Hal, Johnathan Joseph, Kareem Jackson, and Kevin Johnson who can play tight man coverage and break on the ball. The key is if Romeo Crennel uses them this way. One of the changes in this defense that came with benching Rahim Moore for Hal was they started playing tighter coverage. Yet at times, Houston still backs off and plays conservatively, like what they did against New England.

If the Texans come out playing seven yards off the line of scrimmage, this game is over. If they do this, they will be playing into Kansas City's strength and handing over space for Kansas City's skill players to wreak havoc in. Houston has the personnel to stop the Chiefs' offense. Their secondary matches up well against the Chiefs' passing game, and so does their front seven in the run game.  But they have to put their players in the correct aggressive positions to trap Alex Smith and the rest of this offense.

When Houston has the Ball...

When the Texans were 2-5, their run pass ratio was 192:341. From that point on, this figure flipped to 282:314. Most of this was the result of them controlling games instead of being down early and having Brian Hoyer or Ryan Mallett vomit passes across the field in garbage time. Yet Houston's ability to run the ball is the heart of this offense.

The run game has improved dramatically since they put together the offensive line they envisioned in August. With Duane Brown, Xavier Su'a-Filo, Ben Jones, and Derek Newton playing together, their yards per carry went from 3.27 to 3.97.

As a unit, they're a physical group that moves the first level of the line of scrimmage really well. The offensive line controls the first level, no matter the opponent, and moves opponents vertically to create holes. The problem they have is getting to the second level and getting a hat on a hat. Moving the first level is important for the first four yards of a carry; the second level is detrimental for everything after that.

Kansas City runs a 3-4 defense, with Dontari Poe at nose tackle, and the defensive ends playing 3 techniques. Derrick Johnson will play inside linebacker on the strong side of the formation, Josh Mauga the weak side, and their outside linebackers will play on the end blocker's outside shoulder.

KC Front 7

Their defensive line composed of Dontari Poe, Jaye Howard, Mike DeVito, and Allen Bailey, are all stout first level defenders who take on double teams really well. They aren't quick, they don't shed well, and as a result, they don't make many plays on the ball.

They do open up plays for Derrick Johnson, though. Johnson tore his Achilles in the first game of the season last year. He's been a monster since returning this season. He has 113 tackles, 4 sacks, 6 passes defended, and 2 interceptions. As seen below, he reacts to plays quickly, he sidesteps guards with ease, and even if he's blocked, he can still bring down the ball carrier.

Derrick Johnson

Houston should be able to move the first level. The problem is going to be Johnson. They have issues blocking linebackers, and Johnson is one of the best in the game. He's going to have like 23 tackles in this one.

The Texans' passing game is throw the ball to DeAndre Hopkins, and then throw the ball to DeAndre Hopkins, and if he isn't open, throw the ball to DeAndre Hopkins.

Hopkins' Stats:

Targets Catches Catch % Yards Tds DYAR
192 (3rd) 111 (3rd) 57.8% 1,522 (3rd) 11 (T-6th) 268 (13th)

Hopkins is going to be going up against Sean Smith and Marcus Peters. Both are physical corners who play tight coverage. Smith is a little bit bigger and more physical, but Peters is better because of how he breaks on the ball and his ability to mirror. These two are great, but they aren't perfect.

Hopkins should be able to get open like how Sammy Watkins did earlier in the year, but the windows will be minuscule.

Watkins

This is where Hoyer comes in. A huge question is going to be if Hoyer can make these throws through smaller windows and if he can hit Hopkins when he gets open deep.

Hoyer tries to just get the ball in the area. This lazy, get-it-close approach won't fly against better cornerbacks like the ones Kansas City employs. Additionally, Hoyer lacks arm strength and misses deep passes. He underthrows open receivers. This is an issue on its own, but even more so with Eric Berry circling around back there.

Smith, Peters, and Berry are great, but the Chiefs have one major hole in their secondary. They lost their nickel corner.  This has resulted in them moving Ron Parker from safety to the slot in nickel and dime packages. He's a great tackler, but he has problems in man coverage.

The Bengals put 36 on KC.  Green Bay put 38 on KC. Their game plans focused entirely on attacking Parker in the slot. Houston lacks a consistent slot receiver with Cecil Shorts III having hamstring issues. It would be interesting if they try to use Hopkins inside some to take advantage of this. Whatever they do, it's a matchup opportunity Houston can't really miss out on.

The other aspect to the passing game is the pass rush. Kansas City finished fourth in adjusted sack rate at 7.7%. On the edge, they have two incredible pass rushers in Tamba Hali and Justin Houston. With Houston and Hali in the game, the Chiefs run a vanilla defense. It's a lot of tight man coverage where they don't blitz. In passing situations, they'll play nickel and have these two attack the quarterback as stand-up defensive ends.

KC Nickle

Both are edge rushers, but play differently. Hali is stronger and tries to plow through linemen. He loves to bullrush, relentlessly tries to win inside, and attacks the inside gap. Houston is all about the edge rush and uses inside moves as a counter.

This is an interesting matchup for the Texans' tackles. With Duane Brown out with a torn quad, Chris Clark will be replacing him. Clark is a quicker player who lacks strength. He has issues with inside and power moves. Derek Newton gets by on his strength to make up for his poor feet. He'll cross them over, he doesn't have the most technically sound pass set, and he will cheat some to get to the point of contact faster. Like Hali and Houston, each one has different skills.

The interesting part for KC is that Hali usually rushes against left tackles and Houston will take on right tackles. This is a perfect matchup advantage for KC. It puts their two best pass rushers against players who are weak at what they're best at.

Injuries are the obstacle in the way of this matchup advantage. Justin Houston, the team's leader in sacks with 7.5, is expected to play Saturday after missing the last five weeks with a knee injury. Hali played last week after missing time with a thumb injury.

If Hali and Houston have trouble suiting up or are just flat out rusty, the Chiefs will react by using more dime packages and will have to manufacture a pass rush. Their plain scheme of playing tight coverage and having their outside linebackers win around the edge will become exotic. They'll blitz safeties, they'll overload sides of the line of scrimmage, they'll run stunts, they'll run loops. They'll do things they don't have to do when Houston and Hali are healthy.

The other effect on Kansas City's pass rush is how well they cover. Their secondary can create sacks when the quarterback sits back and waits, and waits, and waits for someone to get open. This leads to five second sacks, where the offensive line can only block for so long.

No one open KC

It's going to be another game where Houston's offense is going to struggle. The Texans will have trouble running the ball and getting to the second level against Derrick Johnson. Brian Hoyer is going to be forced to make tight throws against Smith and Peters. The tackles are at a disadvantage going up against outside linebackers who are great at what the tackles struggle with. Houston can put up their average seventeen points against the Chiefs, but anything more than that is unrealistic wishful thinking.

Overlooked, but Significant.

There are many fun matchups occurring in this game. Both these teams are close in talent. There's not a lot separating these two, and each plays a more conservative style of football. Because of this, Saturday's game may be determined by other things like turnovers and field position.

Kansas City's average drive starts at their own 31 yard line. This is the best mark in the league. The reason why they start with great field position is because of turnovers. The Chiefs started 21 drives after a turnover; on average, these drives take place at the opponent's 47. After they get the ball this way, they score 67% of the time, which is 14th in the league.

Their opponent's average drive starts at their own 24, which is second behind Seattle. This is because they have the best punting unit in the NFL. According to Football Outsiders, Kansas City has gained 16.2 points on punts this season.

The Texans are 32nd in special teams again. They've lost 15.1 points on punts, 8.1 on punt returns, and 2.6 on kick returns. If Kansas City can keep chipping and win the field position battle, it will have an enormous impact on both of these conservative offenses.

Prediction...

Houston has a slower defense that can be attacked with screen passes. The Texans' front seven should demolish the Chiefs' offensive line. Derrick Johnson may shut down the Texans' run game entirely on his own. If the Texans play tight coverage, they can turn errant Alex Smith passes into interceptions. Houston doesn't have anyone that can cover Travis Kelce by himself. If Hali and Houston are healthy, Clark and Newton will have trouble. There are opportunities here for each team to exploit.

Both teams are very similar in talent level, so I don't think this game is going to come down to a singular matchup. Houston is able to dominate bad teams with their style of play, but not above average ones like Kansas City. Instead, I feel like this game depends on whoever wins the turnover battle, field position, and who gets a lead first. Alex Smith is less turnover prone than Hoyer is. The Chiefs have a better special teams unit. And as a result, I think these two factors will lead to some short drives that Kansas City turns into points, puts Houston at a disadvantage, and forces Brian Hoyer to have a greater responsibility, which equals doom for Houston.

Kansas City wins, 27-17.

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