I don’t know if it’s finally being happy again or what, but for the past year I’ve been surprised with the each new chunk of events the calendar provides. Every few weeks I find myself saying, “Damn boy, do I love this time of year.” And you know what, this may actually be my favorite time of the year. The weather sucks. It’s gray and terrible. And everyone up north is having a Donner Party. But January is the time to backpack the desert, write down your aspirations, and take out your rolls and soak up the NFL playoffs. It’s time to cut the brakes. Wildcard bitches.
It’s time to TITAN UP in January for the first time since 2008. It only took a win over Jacksonville to end a three game losing streak against the NFC West for Tennessee to get in. A win that made me yearn for the leather helmet days of football. The Chiefs had a swoon this year as well. They started off 5-0, proceeded to go 1-5, 4 of their losses were one score endeavors, and then finished the season 4-0. The biggest win had them force enough turnovers to take down the Los Angeles Chargers and lock up the AFC West.
Although both teams are entering the postseason in different ways, and Kansas City is the hands down favorite, this game is going to be a close one. It’s going to be close for one simple reason, the Titans can run the football, and the Chiefs can’t stop it.
Compared to last year, the Tennessee offense has been a dump that Seaworld splashes up on you. Overall, they have fallen from 19th to 9th in DVOA, and the biggest reasons why has been Marcus Mariota’s turnovers, and a drop off from 1st to 19th in redzone scoring percentage. They are 20th in passing offense DVOA, but 8th in run offense DVOA.
When running the ball both DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry have been mediocre and have posted similar numbers. Henry is slightly better, and is averaging 4.2 yards a carry, Murray 3.6. Henry has 5 touchdowns, Murray has 6. Henry has a DVOA of -1.4% and a DYAR of 543, Murray is at -5% and finished with 27. Henry has a broken tackle rate of 24.15%, Murray is at 17.9%.
The reason why the Titans’ run offense is top ten in efficiency is because of Mariota. He has a run DVOA of 43.9%, a DYAR of 131, has run for 5 touchdowns, is averaging 5.2 yards a carry, and has broken 8 tackles. His running ability has popped the top off the coffin and brought the Titans back from the dead.
The Titans haven’t run the ball like they did last year when they were rotting defenses teeth with the blue stuff. Part of it is the passing time. Getting that film. Teams know what the Titans are about. Tennessee has added wrinkles to the offense, but they don’t scheme to their opponent. They do things like run head first against the 49ers and Texans, teams with enormous differences between their run and pass defenses.
Kansas City isn’t going to let Mike Mularkey make a bad decision. By default they are the best matchup for the Titans’ offense. They finished last in run defense DVOA at 3.0%. They ranked 31st in second level adjusted line yards at 1.35. If you block the first level you’ll run forever against Kansas City. Their first level is fine, and Chris Jones is the only player you can’t run at, but their linebacker group is slow and easy to escape from.
Murray is going to be out for this game. Henry is going to get every carry. Mariota will keep and run the option periodically. You probably think of Henry as a big bruising between the tackles back. He is 6’3” and 247 pounds. But when running the ball up the middle he is only averaging 2.69 yards a carry. Henry is instead great at bouncing runs outside, especially to the left side towards Taylor Lewan. On left edge runs Henry has gained 303 of his 744 yards, and is averaging 10.82 yards a carry. He’s a home run hitter, and isn’t as barbarous as he should be. He’s a cyclops with thick rimmed glasses.
Henry does run into trouble against fast defenses. The Jaguars were able to swallow him up and stop his outside bouncing. Telvin Smith fried him up like vegan foodtruck avocados.
He won’t face the same troubles against Kansas City though. The Chiefs allow 5.15 adjusted line yards on left edge runs (30th), and when Henry does keep things between the tackles the Chiefs allow 4.57 adjusted line yards (27th).
The Titans are going to run the ball. And they are going to run it a lot. There is a path to them winning this game. It involves 200 rushing yards, keeping plays away from Kansas City’s offense, and minimizing the opportunities Andy Reid has to make adjustments.
On the other end of the field it’s going to be all about the Chiefs’ passing attack. They must attack the Titans’ linebackers, and take advantage of the infatuation Tennessee’s defensive backs have when it comes to handing out yards after the catch. Adoree’ Jackson, Logan Ryan, and Brice McCain, are giving up more than 1.5 yards after the catch. Tennessee‘s defensive DVOA on short passes is 17%, which is the worst mark in the NFL. Kansas City will need to look more like they have in previous years, a basketball team running fast breaks with quick passes and screens.
Kansas City isn’t the short passing team they have been in previous seasons though. They are averaging only 6.1 yards per short pass play, which is 18th. They have thrown 13 touchdowns, which is 24th. Travis Kelce has 86 targets, Tyreek Hill has 76, Kareem Hunt has 60, and Albert Wilson has 54 to the short parts of the field.
The core of the Chiefs’ game plan shouldn’t be doing what they do best, but to set up what they do best. They need to throw quick and short. They’ll have success. And by doing this they’ll be able to get a feel of whatever zone coverages the Titans are running, or get the Titans to press the line of scrimmage. This will set up their deep throws, something they need to do. With Kevin Byard lounging around back there, the Titans have a deep pass defense DVOA of -22.1% (3rd). He’ll be tasked with plucking a Kansas City offense that has a great, but unheralded downfield passing attack.
This season Smith is 47/93 for 1,633 yards, 13 touchdowns to 2 interceptions, and is averaging 17.6 yards an attempt when going deep. The Chiefs love spreading things out in five wide receiver sets to get their best players running deep routes against isolated man coverage. Kelce has 19 catches on 36 attempts for 458 yards and 4 touchdowns. Hill has been absolutely absurd. He has caught 15 passes for 670 yards and has 6 touchdowns. He has 15 catches that have gone greater than 20 yards, and has 5 50+ yard touchdown catches. He can simply out run defensive backs, even the great ones like Casey Heyward.
Although their defense won’t be able to take advantage of Mularkey sticking to his guns, they’ll be able to take advantage of Dick Lebeau, petrified wood personified. LeBeau loves to blitz, and zone blitz. This won’t get to Smith when he’s quick passing, and actually makes it easier for him to throw quick and short. If the Titans have any pass rush it will come from Jurrell Casey, an interior rushing hellion who can get to Smith in time from the ‘3’ technique.
Kansas City will probably win this one. A Hill bomb will put them away. Tennessee doesn’t have an answer to Kelce. Their rush doesn’t match up well v. Kansas City. But the Titans should be able to run all over the Chiefs. Because of this simple fact it should be competitive. Culla and Rinthy Holme are heartbroken after the Titans lose a close one.
Tennessee Titans (+8.5)
Before you start making 28-3 jokes, these aren’t last year’s Falcons. This is a different team. It’s just a worse one. Last season the Falcons finished first in offensive DVOA and 26th in defensive DVOA. It was expected the offense would regress some, and that the defense would need to get better. The problem for Altanta is their offense fell to 9th in DVOA and their defense hopped from 26th to 22nd. That growth hasn’t been enough.
Additionally, their defense is worse than it looks on paper. Atlanta has allowed 315 points, 8th in the NFL. But on a drive by drive basis offenses are running 6.3 plays per drive, and the average drive against them takes 2:57. Both rank last in the NFL. Their saving grace has been their redzone defense. The Falcons are 5th in redzone touchdown rate at 45.86%. A volatile stat that varies year to year, just look at Tennessee’s offense. However, this could save some them against Los Angeles. They scored touchdowns 55% of the time in the redzone this year, and their kicker that went 38/40 on field goals, is out for the year with a herniated disk.
They’re probably going to have a horrible time trying to hold themselves together against the Los Angeles offense though. Despite having a rapid defense filled with defenders that flash to the ball, the Falcons have been shoddy at stopping short passes. This year the Falcons have a defense DVOA of 2.8% (26th) and allows 6.14 yards per play when defending short passes.
That part of the field is Jared Goff’s mainstay. It’s been spectacular how Goff has improved from his rookie year to his second year. He isn’t a spectacular quarterback though. He had a Gabbertian rookie year. His adjusted net yards an attempt was 4.3, his QBR was 22.4, his DYAR was -881, and he had a DVOA of -74.8%. This year these numbers have skyrocketed like John Glenn up to 8.5, 48.4, 1,127, and 24.0%. Goff is a top ten quarterback by all statistical measures .
However, most of his production is the result of easy and open short throws. The Rams’ offense had 2,159 yards after the catch this year (4th). Out of Goff’s 3,804 passing yards, 56.75% were accrued after the catch, and 81.41% of his yards came on completions that traveled less than fifteen yards down the field.
He hasn’t been a bad downfield thrower. He just doesn’t attempt those passes that often. Goff is 36/85 when going deep. He is good at hitting his shots when he takes them. However, the majority and best part of his game is spent throwing short and passing the burden onto his receivers.
The key driver of this short passing offense is the 2017 MVP Todd Gurley. Gurley has caught 63 of his 85 targets and turned them into 753 yards and 5 touchdowns. He’s leading the NFL in yards after the catch with 763. And in the passing game he has a DYAR of 233 (2nd), and a DVOA of 35.4% (6th).
Atlanta is in trouble when covering Gurley. In addition to struggling against short passes, they struggle at covering running backs too. They have a DVOA of 8.9% when stopping running backs. They also aren’t a good tackling team either. This season they were T-23rd in broken tackle rate.
They won’t struggle at stopping Gurley through just the air either. On the ground he is just as much of a menace. He had 1,305 yards on 279 runs this season and 13 touchdowns. He sat out week 17 and lost the rushing title thanks to some sly Andy Reid week 17 managing that allowed Kareem Hunt to win it with a 35 yard touchdown run.
The run blocking has been good this year. Andrew Whitworth has transformed this offensive line. Gurley has been incredible at picking up yards on his own as well, taking what the offensive line gives him and metamorphosing it into so much more. He breaks tackles on 23% of his carries, has a DVOA of 13.8% (4th), and picks up 4.7 yards an attempt. Let’s compare that to their second running back Malcolm Brown. He has a DVOA of -6.7% and picks up 3.9 yards an attempt while running behind the same offensive line. Gurley is a transcendent back.
Adding another sturdy layer to their defense hasn’t helped Atlanta as much as they hoped. They added Dontari Poe to the center of their defense to go along with Grady Jarrett to allow the 120 fps Deion Jones to scamper around to make tackles. On the outside they have the enormous De’Vondre Campbell and all sacks, no pressures, Vic Beasley playing linebacker. This combination of players has been mediocre at stopping the run. They haven’t been good enough for their to be any confidence in them stopping Gurley tonight.
The Falcons aren’t a team known for their defense. They made the playoffs, like how they scorched their way to the Superbowl, through an offense with Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Devonta Freeman, and Tevin Coleman moving the ball up the field.
Atlanta’s offense has been sick this year. Coleman hasn’t been effective. Freeman hasn’t been a top five back. Ryan can’t throw touchdowns, but can throw interceptions. Sanu and Taylor Gabriel aren’t what they were last year.
The best way for Atlanta to move the ball is on the ground. Wade Phillips’s 3-4 defense has historically been much better against the pass then against the run. This season is no different. The Rams are 3rd in pass defense DVOA and 22nd against the run. Their nose tackle Ethan Westbrook is undersized. Alec Ogletree is a playmaker but gets eaten up in the run game some. And Mark Barron is going to be out this week.
The Falcons are still running an offense similar to last year. They are still out here running the outside zone. They still love play action. They have the same skill players. Their offensive line is about the same. They lost Chris Chester to Washington and replaced him with 2016 sixth round pick Wes Schweitzer. Other than that it’s identical.
Despite this, Freeman has dropped off from picking up 4.8 yards a carry to 4.4, and his DVOA went from 6.4% to 1.7%. Coleman’s yards per carry has gone from 4.4 to 4.0, and his DVOA went from 9.7% to -6.9%. The bigger drop in production for Coleman has come in the passing game. Last season he had 421 receiving yards and averaged 13.6 yards a reception. This season he has 299 receiving yards and 11.1 yards a reception. Foreman was about as efficient, but just didn’t have the opportunities.
Along with the Falcons’ rushing attack not being as effective, they are dealing with a major injury tonight. Starting left guard Andy Levitre is out for the year with a torn triceps. The Falcons were best at running the ball toward him and Jake Matthews. They would have been exasperated blocking Aaron Donald as is, but now they have Ben Garland blocking the best defensive player in football.
“Usually when I think of Ben, I think of just a guy who’s loaded with grit,’’ Quinn said. “He came here as an opportunity on the practice squad and we said, ‘We’re going to push you and develop you and challenge you.’ And you see that lit him up in a really good way.’’
He’s going to have to eat some sand and grit his teeth to get through this game. It’s not the worst situation for a backup player to be in. He’s in between the good Matthews, and the excellent Alex Mack. Both players, on paper, should be able to help him out in the pass game, and will be working with him on combo blocks. The problem is Phillips is great at creating one v. one pass rushing opportunities with his best rushers, and even when Donald is doubled, he can split defenders and still pressure the quarterback.
Donald sat out of training camp and missed week one. Sean McVay rested him week 17. Although he missed two games he still had 41 total tackles, forced 5 fumbles, defended 2 passes, made 15 tackles for a loss (T-9th), had 11 sacks (T-11), and was third in the NFL with 52 pass pressures. Both Garland and Schweitzer should be horrified of what they are facing once they step out on the field.
The other problem is that Ryan can’t deal with interior pressure. He doesn’t have the speed to escape, and he doesn’t know how to break tackles in the pocket. He’s thrown 12 interceptions this year. He’s been pressured on 32.7% of his dropbacks. Quick inside pressure is going to lead to him laying down to kill drives, or attempting quick and easily readable slant routes the Rams can jump on.
The interceptions were a big story of this season. Ryan just made some flat out terrible decisions. He was looking through defenders, and locking on Jones and force feeding him.
The Rams’ secondary is fine. They don’t have a lockdown cornerback. Trumaine Johnson is long, but underwhelming. What they specialize at is playing zone coverage and taking advantage of what the pass rush gives them. This season the Rams have 18 interceptions all spread throughout the defense. They defend every type of receiver well. Phillips has gotten the most out of this secondary.
They don’t have a player capable of covering Julio Jones on their own. They’ll do what they can to bracket him, and they’ll always keep one safety deep to help out over the top. It’s going to be up to Steve Sarkisian to get Jones in one v. one coverage as much as possible, and use his presence to open up open routes for their secondary receivers. An incredible Jones game is required for the Falcons to make the upset reality, instead of just hopes and dreams.
The Falcons have the talent to beat the Rams. They finished the season 6-2 after stuttering through the beginning of the season. It’s just a bad matchup for them. They aren’t the offense they were last year, they can’t run the ball as effectively, Ryan’s favorite band is Turnover and loves cutting his fingers off, Donald is going to terrorize them, and they don’t have the defense to stop Todd Gurley.
Los Angeles Rams (-5.5)