On October 13th, 2019, Maroon Five’s Memories was the number one song on Itunes. The Joker filled movie theaters with nu-metal neckbeards, the insane and twisted, and perfectly normal reasonable people who like to go to the cinema. And we, in these holes and corners, were preparing for and enjoying the football game marked with a bloody red blob on our National Park calendars.
Eric Fisher, Chris Jones, Anthony Hitchens, Sammy Watkins, and Andrew Wylie were inactive for Kansas City. Patrick Mahomes was murder movie hobbled with an ailing knee and ankle, only made worse by an in-game Benardrick McKinney hit. Kenny Stills and Johnathan Joseph were inactive for Houston. Tytus Howard left to the locker room with a knee injury midgame. The Texans controlled the clock with Carlos Hyde, and a new, never seen before, zone read pass option play that toyed with Kansas City’s linebackers. The Chiefs had two turnovers, including a Patrick Mahomes heave into the endzone when he expected a penalty flag. Will Fuller dropped multiple touchdown passes. And at the end of it, Houston won a one possession game 31-24 proving they have the quarterback and the individual talent to hang with the AFC’s elite.
That was nearly three months ago. Now, from back over there, to way over here, here we are again. Texans. Chiefs. This time the winner hosts the Titans in the AFC Championship, a place the Texans have never been before, and a place the Chiefs are looking to return to after last year’s shivering overtime loss. That’s what each team is playing for. The same game just meaning so much more.
1. SPEED SPEED SPEED
The biggest mismatch in this game is the Chiefs’ passing offense against the Texans’ pass defense. Kansas City has a pass offense DVOA of 43.7% (2nd), averaged 7.5 net yards an attempt (2nd), and have thrown 30 touchdowns this year (5th). Opposing this maelstrom of back foot outside the structure passes, vertical safety splitting routes, and efficient pick and pop passing is a Texans’ pass defense with a DVOA of 19.5% (26th), is allowing 6.9 net yards an attempt (25th), and 33 passing touchdowns (27th). Great pass offense takes on bad pass defense is at the center of this game.
Even great pass defenses are stuck pulling out the last threads of hair attached to their mushy skull. The Chiefs can do so many things with a quarterback that can make every throw imaginable, and the ones no one has ever made before. At its heart though, the Chiefs’ passing attack is about its speed. Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, Mecole Hardman, and Damien Williams are all 4.45 minimum players, and Travis Kelce ran a 4.65 back in his day. They use this speed in a variety of ways to attack defenses.
Snow has fallen in Kansas City and the Chiefs have trips right and a single receiver left. The single receiver is Travis Kelce. The Chiefs place Hill as the #3 receiver in the slot. He runs a vertical route up the seam to occupy each safety. In cover four, the deep middle safety is stuck turning and running with him, leaving Kelce in a one v. one matchup. He’s matched up against cornerback Isaac Yiadom and is able to draw a defensive pass interference penalty.
Head coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy are incredible at calling route combinations to create easy throws for Patrick Mahomes to make. The central theme to every great offense is easy yards. The Chiefs create theirs by using Hill in a wide variety of ways.
This time the Chiefs send the back into the flat to occupy the flat defender, Hill’s deep corner (#3) draws two defenders, the #2 receiver is running a drag that curls back to the quarterback that’s covered by the cross defender, and Demarcus Robinson runs the comeback and sits in an acre of dandruff covered grass. Wide open. From there it’s time to break tackles and put all that speed to use after the catch.
Hill is always indirectly affecting a pass defense. Cornerback and safety combos are stuck bracketing and running with him in unison to stave off the crushing deep touchdowns.
Hill is the #3 receiver in a trips left formation. This time he runs a quick comeback that pulls the strong safety. This leaves Hardman running a post against a deep middle safety. He can make the tackle, but can’t play the ball, thanks to the attention Hill draws before the snap.
Denver is playing cover two. Hill runs a corner and each safety lurches on him like skin eating fishes on a great purple whale shark. Kelce runs a comeback and sits patiently for an easy reception.
Of course Hill isn’t just a decoy. This season he has 58 catches on 89 targets for 860 yards and 14.8 yards a catch. He’s ninth in DVOA. 26 of these targets are classified as deep. Seven of his receptions have gained 39 yards or more. As a deep receiver, Hill can run past jams in man coverage, split deep safeties, and break through zone defenses intending to stop these routes by running through each defender’s jurisdiction to catch touchdown passes.
The Broncos are in cover 3. Hill runs a post-corner that takes him from the right third into the deep middle. The left corner passes. The safety chases to the center. Hill cuts back to the pylon and slips right behind the cornerback.
This all takes place off play action. The ball is perfect. See ya.
Houston has a great deep pass defense. In spite of all their short defense struggles, especially against short middle crossing routes, Houston has defended the deep pass well. They’re fourth in deep pass defense DVOA. Tashaun Gipson sat in the deep middle and picked daisies to limit these throws. Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel loves to play off-man coverage.
Gibson is on injured reserve now. Against Buffalo, the Texans started off with Justin Reid deep, then moved him into the robber role once it became clear Josh Allen wasn’t going to attack the deep middle, Devin Singletary and short passes became a problem, and then rotated Mike Adams and Jahleel Addae as their deep middle safeties.
At a minimum, Houston will probably keep Reid deep, and then roll with Adams or Addae (if healthy) ten to fifteen yards past the line of scrimmage. This maybe too burdensome though. Romeo Crennel maybe forced to play two safeties deep, or play Dime, replacing Benardrick McKinney with a safety, opening up the Chiefs run game against light boxes.
They’ll give up easy runs to Damien Williams if they do this though. Kansas City has an inconsistent and mediocre rushing attack, but when it finds occasional success, it usually does because it’s running against light boxes. This trade off is worth limiting Kansas City’s deep passing game.
It doesn’t matter the scheme. Zone or man. Cover four or press jam. It’s all about cornerback talent when playing the Chiefs. Teams like New England, and Baltimore, with a secondary flooded with talent, have given them struggles by having the horses to run with theirs, and then changing things up from there. The Texans don’t have this luxury.
Every man matchup is a nightmare for Houston. Bradley Roby against Hill. Vernon Hargreaves against Lawrence. Gareon Conley against Hardman or Watkins. Lonnie Johnson Jr. against Kelce. The Texans don’t have a man option where they’ll have an upper hand. If they play any man coverage the pass rush has to make an impact to save the day. Against zone, Kansas City will use Hill’s speed, pinpoint defenders, force them to make decisions, and throw from there.
Every incompletion is going to be vital for Houston. Every third down the Chiefs face is going to be a monumental opportunity. No matter the down and distance Houston will be at a disadvantage though. Kansas City has the best third down offense in football and convert 47.6% of the time. Houston’s defense is 31st, with a third down conversion rate of 48.5%.
The Chiefs are aggressive no matter the down and distance. 3rd and 18 isn’t an impossibility. It’s a challenge. In a slot left formation, Hill is the #2 in the slot. In a sticks defense, the free safety, shaded towards Hill, plays 25 yards off the line of scrimmage before the snap. Hill breaks the neck off his vertical at the first down marker and converts easily.
The Texans will try everything they can to limit the Chiefs’ passing attack. Crennel will run inverted coverages, he’ll play a variety of zone coverages, he’ll play man match coverages with deep receivers bracketed, and hope cornerbacks playing underneath breaking routes can make a play on the ball. Last time these two teams played the Chiefs had two three and outs. These were acts completed by premonitions and higher power. It’s impossible to even imagine a world where Houston is able to somewhat. contain the Chiefs passing attack.
2. REDZONE BLEMISHES
The Kansas City Chiefs offense has dropped off from an offensive DVOA of 34.2%, averaging 6.8 yards a play, and scoring 35.3 points a game to an offensive DVOA of 22.7%, averaging 6.2 yards a play, and scoring 28.2 points a game. They weren’t an all-time great offense this season. They were just a top three one.
The main reason is simple regression. Mahomes has seen his touchdown rate drop from 8.6% to 5.4%. Quarterbacks with touchdown rates over 8% tend to see an enormous drop the following year. Deshaun Watson suffered the same fate during his sophomore season. The big reason for this is the Chiefs’ redzone offense has suffered. Kansas City’s redzone touchdown rate is 54% (20th). Last season it was 71.8% (2nd).
Redzone touchdown rate is one of those statistics that tends to thrash wildly year to year, just like it has for the Chiefs. There are football reasons behind this. The main reason is their run blocking against base defenses is crappy. Their offensive line struggles to move the first level and even sniff the second level. This is vital for any team’s success in the redzone.
The Chiefs are running outside zone left with fullback Anthony Sherman (#42) picking up Khalil Mack (#52) once Kelce (#87) leaves for the alley defender. Center Austin Reiter (#62) is supposed to turn the nose tackle so right guard Laurent-Duvernay Tardif (#76) can overtake the block and then head to the second level. Instead he sticks, allowing Kevin Pierre-Louis (#57) to shoot through and tackle Damien Williams (#26) for a loss.
Messy. Putrid. Disoriented. Obscene. Pick any negative adjective you want and it will describe the Chiefs’ run offense against base defenses.
This is a common theme for the Chiefs’ rushing game. It’s inconsistent and mediocre ranking 20th in yards per attempt, and 14th in DVOA.
It has seen a boost since Stefen Wisniewski has taken over the left guard position. He’s a bit of a brute. He can move the first level even though he waddles from one bathroom to the other to grab another roll of toilet paper at the second level.
It’s also improved since Williams has returned from injury. He’s a dynamic back who can break tackles, no matter how many blocks are missed, and create something from nothing. He had an 84 yard stretch zone touchdown against the Chargers in week 17.
Kansas City has a redzone passing offense of -15.9%, which is 26th. Without the run game able to get much going, they’re stuck throwing in constrained spaces. Kelce is the only real go up and get it redzone threat they have. Everyone else wins with speed and space. For Kansas City to score touchdowns, instead of kicking field goals, it requires unique and creative route combinations and perfect timing to pull it off.
This is important for Houston’s underdog dreams. As long as the Chiefs don’t try and ESTABLISH THE RUN against a sturdy Texans’ run defense, they won’t have any problems moving the ball against Houston. Every down and every distance is a possibility for a big play. There isn’t a matchup or coverage that favors Houston’s secondary. Kansas City won’t face any demons from their own one yard line up to Houston’s ten yard line.
The way the Texans can limit the Chiefs defense is in the redzone. If their deep pass defense holds up like it has all season and prevents the Chiefs from scoring their 22nd offensive touchdown over 20 yards, and they can turn enough redzone trips into field goals, they could make this a 31 point output from Kansas City instead of 42 point one. And then, from there, the Texans’ offense would need to do the opposite. There’s one dilemma though. Houston’s defense has a redzone touchdown rate of 71.4%, which of course, is last. There’s always something.
3. PASS RUSHING
Houston’s pass rush this season was mediocre with J.J. Watt and fell apart without him. The worst thing that could happen happened. After an offseason where they traded Jadeveon Clowney and failed to add interior rushing talent in free agency, this was expected if something happened to Watt. Whitney Mercilus’s rushes are only successful when there’s an interior rush allowing his long looping rushes to intersect with his route. D.J. Reader’s wiggle has dissipated. Charles Omenihu isn’t an edge rusher, but a pink lung bullrusher. And Jacob Martin has a chop-rip-phew that can create an occasional big play, but he doesn’t have the inside move and strength to deal with pass blockers once they get their hands on him.
These troubles evaporated some last week with Watt back in the lineup. He had one sack after beating right tackle Cody Ford with a nice rip that forced a redzone field goal.
Houston started the game by playing Watt only on obvious passing downs, and changed their tune once it became apparent Watt had the endurance and the ability to play every snap. With Watt morphing from a third down edge rusher, to an every down player, the Texans’ defense improved in the second half.
One of the surprising things from last week’s game was how often Houston used him as interior rusher. The Texans have staved off using him in these ways. It brings additional bruises and cracks ribs from the punches of extra blockers. But it creates a quicker path to the quarterback, and opens up rushes for those around him.
Typically the Texans try and get Watt the easiest matchup available to him. Last week it was Cody Ford. This week it’s the interior of the Chiefs’ offensive line. From left guard Wisniewski to right guard Duveraney-Tardif, the Texans have a matchup advantage with Watt on the interior. Swims, quick slants across faces, rips, spins, any lateral movement can attack these three. On third downs the Texans need to lineup Watt inside to create a pass rush.
This isn’t to say their tackles are unbeatable. They are. They’re just better than what they have on the inside. Eric Fisher is back at left tackle replacing the awful Cam Irving. The Chiefs are lucky no one died under his care. Fisher, like right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, has problems against power rushes. Edge rushers can jam them with an arm to create space for their exit, or stab them through the heart to take them into a quarterback. They’re fine players, but great defenders can create an edge rush against them.
The problem with edge rushing is Mahomes is unbelievable outside the pocket. He can dodge defenders, escape, and make incredible plays outside the structure of the offense. He can deal with interior rushes too though. He has the pure arm strength to throw falling backwards and complete arm only throws. And if the scramble drill doesn’t work out, he can always rush for first downs and touchdowns.
On a play to play basis, the only chance Houston has to limit the Chiefs’ passing offense is to create a pass rush with Watt winning interior battles and using him as a battering ram to create open paths for free rushers. What the Texans can’t expect to do is blitz to beat the Chiefs.
Mahomes is adept at reading a defense after the snap and getting the ball out. He’s a great pick and pop passer. Here he reacts to each linebacker dropping back to the left to fill the space left vacated by the blitz, and hits the quick comeback to Kelce for 13.
Additionally, the Texans aren’t in a place where they can play cover zero and leave their cornerbacks on an island against the speed of Kansas City’s receivers. This is death. All I see our skulls and bones, a box filled with dead rats, a purple sunken face, and all I can smell our the cakes cooking in the charnel house. This isn’t Josh Allen. Blitzing will create easy throws. It will create instant big plays for the Chiefs. The previous sentence is something the Texans can’t allow if they’re going to compete in this game.
4. LIKE PRINCES, THERE ARE TWO OPTIONS
Houston has two offensive paths for this game. They can play ball control. They can ESTABLISH THE RUN, control the time of possession, focus on picking up first downs, minimize incompletions, and attack the Chiefs’ linebackers. They can do all the things they did in their first matchup. Or they can have their vertical passing attack lead their offense and try to play shootout from the very beginning. Each has their pitfalls.
The hindrance to their first strategy is the key play to their previous gameplan doesn’t work anymore. Houston utilized a zone read pass option to attack the Chiefs’ linebackers. Read the defensive end at the mesh point. If he sits, Deshaun Watson hands it off. If he chases, Watson keeps. Then read the flowing linebacker. If he chases Watson or the tight end, dump it off to to the tight end once he escapes into the flat. If he plays the tight end, Watson keeps and runs for the first. Over and over again Houston picked up first downs just like this.
This play doesn’t work anymore. Ends are slowing the tight end down as he escapes into the flat. Linebackers are playing the tight end and Watson at the same time. Defenses like Baltimore would send two defenders into the flat to play both offensive players.
The Chiefs have been working to stop option plays like this. Their offense ran the same play against the Bears in week 16. Their front seven is focused on filling every gap. Frank Clark is healthy again and can play the back and the quarterback on the same snap. Their defense is prepared for it. Their defensive backs and linebackers are on high alert and will quickly loop outside to play the quarterback.
If the Texans want to run option plays they have to expand on it. They can’t expect to do the same things that worked three months ago to work again in this game.
A ball control offense will need to focus on running gap scheme plays and inside zone plays. These plays get their offensive linemen to the second level. Darren Fells and their secondary blockers struggle their. Trap and power with Fells leading the way doesn’t work. If they do run these plays in this fashion they should use Cullen Gillaspia. It signals run, but at least you have someone who can make a semblance of a second level block.
The Chiefs’ run defense is awful this year. It isn’t the worst in the league like it was the previous two seasons. It’s now 30th. Congratulations, Kansas City! Their run defense is fine at the first level. Chris Jones (#95), Frank Clark (#55), Khalen Saunders (#99), Derrick Nnadi (#91), and Mike Pennel (#64) are all alright run defenders. If the Chiefs’ run defense is playing well you’ll hear these names incessantly.
The second level problems still remain. Reggie Ragland, Anthony Hitchens, Damien Wilson, and Ben Nienmann are all easy to block. They stick. None of them can dodge blocks, or stand up offensive linemen and play the ball. If they are in on unsuccessful run plays it’s because of what’s happening in front of them.
To make up for it, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo plays to the down and situation well. First and ten will see a linebacker on the line of scrimmage, or the defensive line slanting in one direction and counteracted by linebackers flowing the opposite way. Houston has to do more than run the ball up the middle on first and ten over and over again to have a consistent rushing attack.
The Texans also played DeAndre Hopkins in the slot. Seven of his nine receptions went for first downs. Slants against off man coverage. Barbaric handfighting to create space. It was all on display.
The Chiefs don’t have a true slot corner. They do a variety of things. Tyrann Mathieu, Kendall Fuller, Bashaud Breeland will all play in this spot. Kansas City will even have their safety play the slot if this receiver runs out into the flat. They roll their coverages. They mix things up pre and post snap.
This is a perfect example. The left cornerback comes on a blitz. The coverage rolls this direction. Mathieu rolls from strong safety to cornerback. The free safety plays deep middle. Philip Rivers throws at the blitz and Mathieu plays the ball.
Houston won’t get a consistent feel if they leave Hopkins in the slot. It also limits his value. In this role he’s less efficient. He’s at his best as a sideline receiver. The Texans might have learned this last week. As a slot receiver, Hopkins repeatedly ran routes into the teeth of Buffalo’s zone coverage. He didn’t have an impact on the game until he moved back out wide.
Also, like every week, getting Duke Johnson more touches, in the passing game especially, will create an enormous matchup against the Chiefs’ linebackers.
The biggest thing holding Houston back from playing like this is their defense and their own slow starts. They didn’t score until the end of the third quarter last week. They’ve been tied or trailed at halftime in ten of the seventeen games they’ve played. They’re 28th in first quarter offense DVOA. Against Kansas City, they won’t be in a position to play ball control if they’re trailing, and unless they score early and often, they’ll be doing exactly that.
If they play aggressive from the beginning, they’ll be attacking the best part of the Chiefs’ defense. Mathieu has had an enormous impact. In Houston, he played mostly single high. It was a turtle in a crab’s armor. Kansas City has done a better job playing him closer to the ball. He blitzes from the safety and corner position, cleans up the run game, plays the robber in cover one, plays man coverage as a slot corner. He does it all.
The Chiefs’ corners are fine. Charvarius Ward is their best one. He’s not a true number one lockdown corner. He’s better playing the sideline in a zone turn then playing pure man. He’s good at short fades into the endzone, but can get beat off the line. This isn’t someone who can lock down Hopkins.
Breeland and Fuller are competent, but again, they aren’t the type of players who can lock down Will Fuller and Kenny Stills. Kansas City primarily plays man. They’ll be placing their corners in a tough spot in this game by doing so.
Their biggest quesiton comes at the safety position. Juan Thornhill is out. He was their center fielder, and a very good mop and bucket in the run game. The Chiefs will use Armani Watts in his place. Folk hero Drew Sorensen will take the field when they play their three safety sets. This may not be a top deep pass defense on par with Houston’s anymore though. The Texans could hit deep passes because of the injury to Thornhill, even if the coverage isn’t blown.
Houston’s passing game takes a while to get going. Last week they ran a lot of isolation routes against zone coverage. No one open. Buffalo was sitting on their route combinations. The blitz terrorized Houston from there.
The Chiefs play a 4-3. They blitz sometimes. When they do it’s usually from their secondary. They love to dial up cornerback blitzes to create pressure. The Texans have wailed against blitzes all season, and against cornerback blitzes for years now.
Watson can rush out of the pocket and bail too early once the blitz gets going and things become chaotic. He’ll press. He’ll try and create on his outside the structure. Sometimes it leads to magic. Sometimes it exacerbates issues.
Kansas City’s four man rush has been ok, but hasn’t lived to preseason hopes. The Texans should be able to block their individual rushes fairly well. Chris Clark against Frank Clark is a concern. Clark has a great chop-rip. He’s been much better since recovering from a pinched nerve and gaining back full muscle movement in his arms. He’s a windmill. The target of Don Quixote’s rage. A full range of movement is vital to his play.
Jones is a top tier bullrusher and swimmer and will give anyone on Houston’s interior problems.
How they maneuver their rushers away from Laremy Tunsil will be crucial for their four man rush.
Houston will probably play the ball control route, bail on it once they fall behind, and try and claw back with a vertical passing attack afterwards. They have the talent to move the ball against Kansas City through the air. It’s just going to be up to when and how they do it.
5. LET’S GET WILD
The Texans are 9-3 in one possession games this season. They’ve won their last six one possession games in a row. The main reason for this is Deshaun Watson. He’s made numerous spectacular and tremendous plays. The unbelievable has now become routine. For Houston to win, let alone stay in this game, they’ll need Watson to add to his playlist of miraculous moments. I wonder what he will come up with this time.
I wonder what wild shit Deshaun Watson is going to pull off today pic.twitter.com/aH0hvLkY2S— Matt Weston (@Mbw987) January 12, 2020
6. IT’S ALL SUNLIGHT ANYWAYS
Then the occlusions begin. The mountain and the forest are sublime, the valley soil raises richer crops. The perfect gift is no longer a single house but a house, or a mind, divided. Man finds he has two halves to his existence—leisure and occupation—and from these separate considerations he now looks upon the world. In leisure he remembers the radiance; in labor he looks for results.