clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

2019 NFL Conference Championship Round Preview: SIX Things To Watch For

New, comments

Just because the Texans season is over, doesn’t mean the NFL season is.

Green Bay Packers v San Francisco 49er Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

Underneath the Cheesecake Factory’s swirling yellow ceilings, the ugly dim lighting, the waiters and waitresses stuffed into Michelin man puffy white dress shirts and fat red ties, and hot dog shaped menus with swirling font is a Chili’s, or an Applebee’s, or any other salt, lard, and more salt mass produced chain restaurants that, like an epidemic, have transported across this nation’s airports and spread around the entire globe. This place is an affront to God, something we keep moving further and further away from. How can a slice of cake be 2,200 calories? How can a Cesar Salad have 1,800 calories? This isn’t food. What are they hiding in this chicken? These are spaceships of heart attack and death.

On Friday night, I was here at his horrible awful place for my little brothers’ birthday, instead of spending my Friday night the only way I want to, writing SIX things and previewing a Houston Texans football game, smashing keys about the Texans’ needing to throw the ball vertically, or how a bad pass rush can generate pressure, I was eating white bean chili with these despicable little creatures, these testosterone infused goblins who have morphed from our baby boys, into mustaches, body hair, and vascular arms.

Now, the Houston Texans’ season is over and done with. They blew a 24 point lead to the Kansas City Chiefs. Surreal. No matter how many times I type these words it doesn’t make it feel any less unbelievable. Yet, the NFL season isn’t over and done with. Football is still very good even if the Houston Texans aren’t. Just because they’re done doesn’t mean the writing has to stop, or the reading has to stop. Let’s do this again, and we’ll do again in two weeks, because soon, football will actually be over and done with.

HIT IT

1. TITAN UP

The Tennessee Titans have won football games in absurd ways, and unlike anyone has won games before. Is it sustainable? Of course not. It’s going to end one day. No one has any idea when and where this will happen though. It could be today, it could be in two weeks, it could be week three 2020. This is more than unsustainable. This death eating wizardry, Crowley black magic, Heroes of Might and Magic Necromancy. The warlocks are drinking margaritas at the Logan’s Roadhouse, wearing black leather pants and Derrick Henry shirtseys, and screaming bloody drunken TITAN UP in unison with the other patrons.

The vital component to their wins is scoring redzone touchdowns. Since Ryan Tannehill put on on the raccoon skin hat the Titans have a touchdown rate of 79.5%. They’ve scored 31 touchdowns, kicked 1 field goal, turned the ball over 3 times, and 4 drives have ended because of the clock. To put this in perspective, the Chiefs’ all time great offense led the league with a redzone touchdown rate of 76% last season. Tannehill and Tennessee has eclipsed that.

Redzone touchdown rate is one of those high variance stats that change year to year. I don’t know why, I’ve tried to find out why, by looking at the difference in the Titans’ offense from 2018 to 2019, and the best I can come up with is it’s very hard to score touchdowns in the redzone since space is constrained, and teams only have ‘X’ numbers of plays—it’s difficult to come up with creative new ways to score in these situations. For the Titans, 3rd and 12 doesn’t matter. Jonnu Smith can slide a cheek down to score.

Arthur Smith’s creativity knows no bounds. Against Baltimore they scored three touchdowns on all three trips. Two came from a Henry jump touchdown pass and a Tannehill-Henry option. Tannehill kept of course. This is some damn good methmouth right here. This is some of that blue stuff.

Derrick Henry should have popped by now. They keep feeding him and feeding him and feeding him, but wait, there’s no splat. He has 64 carries for 377 yards and is averaging 5.89 yards a carry this postseason. He only gets better throughout the game. 260 pounds of final boss side scrolling power amputates limbs as he stampedes across the line of scrimmage. Tackling him in the first quarter is tough, tackling him in the third quarter is nearly impossible. Henry is averaging 4.3 yards a carry in the first quarter, 5.65 yards a carry in the second, 7.92 in the third, and 4.95 in the fourth since Tannehill took over at quarterback. Tennessee is also second in offensive DVOA in second half, and late and close game situations, because of Henry’s decimating carries.

Tennessee isn’t doing this in some zany way no one has ever seen before. This isn’t Greg Roman’s gap read offense. This is outside and inside zone. The number of tight ends, if a fullback is used, and running it to the weakside is as creative as Tennessee’s run game gets. The methmouth is for the redzone. From the 20 to the 20 its all about vision and outside zone blocking. The Titans’ run blocking has been spectacular, especially along their left side, and Henry’s vision is sharp, and combined with the agility to cut across multiple gaps.

Tannehill has been a vital part of the Titans’ run game. He’s been a great downfield passer. He pushes the ball to the spots of the field left spider webbed and vacant by Marcus Mariota. The boxes can’t be stacked too high to stop Henry. Play action leads to deep center of the field throws where that safety used to be.

The Cannonhill is averaging 9.2 yards an attempt. On deep middle throws he’s 7/13 for 293 yards and has thrown 3 touchdowns to 1 interception. Kalif Raymond caught another one last week against Baltimore right after they stopped the Ravens on 4th and 1.

These are throws are important for this game. The deep middle is the only section of the field the Chiefs’ passing defense has struggled covering. They have a DVOA of 74.2% against these throws. Juan Thornhill is injured and replaced by Armani Watts. Houston didn’t test this section out last week. It’s unknown what Watt’s talents are. The Titans are going to find out.

Play action is vital for the Titans’ offense. Arthur Smith has learned things that so many offensive coordinators have failed to learn. Play action is great. Use it. Use it on 1st and 15, 2nd and 10, it doesn’t matter. Use these attempts to open up your run game. Create lanes for Henry with the pass game. The Titans are leading the league with 10.9 yards per play action pass, and this is including Mariota’s putrid weeks one through six. Henry’s season has been revolutionized by this concept and having a quarterback who can execute it.

On top of all of this, weird things have to happen. The Patriots have to run three plays and pick up zero yards on the Titans’ one yard line. The Ravens have to go 6/6 on 4th and 1 in the regular season and get shut down twice, and shut down 4 times on 4th down. Against the Chiefs in their previous matchup this is exactly what happened. Weird things. Rashaan Evans returned a fumble for a touchdown. Derrick Henry broke a 68 yard touchdown. Tannehill needed four plays to lead a game winning touchdown drive with :23 remaining. Harrison Butker’s game tying attempt was blocked. The Chiefs outgained the Titans 530 yards to 371. It’s about scoring points though, and with Tannehill, the Titans are 9-3.

2. DEAN PEES ON ME

Dean Pees has crafted spectacular game plans the last two weeks. Against New England he used man coverage to cover the Patriots’ crappy wide receiver group, and well crafted third down blitzes to annoy Tom Brady. Against Baltimore he limited the Ravens’ all time great rushing attack by stacking the box, maneuvering his defense around right before and after the snap, and following the motion.

The Titans have a six man box. After Nick Boyle gets set, safety Kenny Vaccaro (#24) walks up, and Logan Ryan (#26) comes from the slot into box. Six becomes eight. They have a defender in every gap. By masking their numbers they took away Lamar Jackson’s ability to count the box, change to an opportunistic passing play, and even if a pass was called, with five defensive backs on the field, they had the horses around to cover it.

This is one of the Ravens’ famous gap read plays. The Titans have the end play Jackson, and the linebacker blitz to play the back off the edge. The important part is Logan Ryan. He follows Willie Snead’s motion from across the formatio, and gets wide and all the way around him to play Jackson. Following the motion is a spark notes guide as a way to limit the Ravens’ rushing attack.

Lamar Jackson was spectacular as a runner and as a passer this season. He isn’t a running back. Kill the memes. He did have problems throwing the ball down the sideline this season though. He completed 20 of his 61 passes (32.8%) to this section of the field for 592 yards and 5 touchdowns to 0 interceptions. His deep passing game was based on the deep middle part of the field. Part of this is the receiving talent around him, and Marquise Brown’s injury, but on his own, it’s the one hole in his game.

The Titans played a wide variety of zone coverages to take away the middle of the field from Jackson, really crashed on the crossing routes, and forced him to throw to the sideline.

Jackson’s throws to the deep left and deep right were misplaced and off. He completed 3 of his 9 attempts for 81 yards.

And when he did throw to the middle of the field, he was throwing through a force field of three to four defenders. The windows were narrow and treacherous. The throws he had feasted on all season had disappeared.

Pees has been a master this postseason. He’ll be looking to carry that on against the Chiefs, who are 7-0 and have outscored their opponents by an average of 17.2 points a game since losing to the Titans. He’ll have to come up with something obscene to limit the Chiefs’ limitless passing attack.

My guess is he’ll play off-man, take away the deep pass, really cover the first down marker, and trust that his defensive backs can come down and make tackles from there. He’ll do everything he can to play for third down, and then, there, hope that Jurrell Casey and Jeffery Simmons can get pressure against the Chiefs’ leaky interior. It will be more complicated than this of course. For I am only a peon, and Deans is a master.

3. THAT OLD THORN

The Chiefs have the upper hand in this game because their passing attack is better and is, at times, unstoppable. Patrick Mahomes turned a 24 point deficit into 6 straight touchdown drives. Even though the Titans have a deep secondary, and a great interior pass rush, they’ll have problems stopping them drive by drive. Tyreek Hill is better than Adoree Jackson. Sammy Watkins can find the holes in the zone. When Mecole Hardman runs it looks like the game is in slow motion. No one has an answer for Travis Kelce. And when all else fails Mahomes can pull of the unbelievable, and the never seen before.

The big problem for Kansas City, in this game, and potentially in the Superbowl, is their run defense is still hideous. In 2017 and 2018 the Chiefs had the worst run defense in the league. This season it was only the 29th worst. Congratulations, Kansas City! They ranked 29th in both yards per carry with 4.9, and run defense DVOA with 4.1%. In their last two matchups, including a playoff loss to Marcus Mariota and his self suck touchdown pass, Henry has ran the ball 46 times for 344 yards, which is, let me see here, 7.48 yards a carry.

They’re going to be in shambles this game as well. Their linebackers are still bad. Reggie Ragland, Damien Wilson, Ben Niemann, you name it, they even miss Anthony Hitchens when he isn’t on the field. Sure, it’s been better since Khalen Saunders and Mike Pennel have been predominant members of their front seven, and the three safety sets have helped, but it still isn’t good.

The Houston Texans have a mediocre run blocking offensive line and run game, but even they were able to pick up five yards easily running any type of play.

This is power left with Zach Fulton pulling (#71) for seven.

This is counter left with Fulton (#71) and Darren Fells (#87) pulling left and clearing out bodies.

This is dart right with Laremy Tunsil (#78) pulling.

The Texans’ are a horrendous outside zone team. This is an easy eight, their longest carry of the game, with the interior split open, and even Chris Clark (#77), scattering up and hitting someone on the second level.

To make up for their lack of run stopping talent the Chiefs will slant and scrape a ton among their front seven. Against gap scheme runs, and confused run blocking offensive lines, like Houston’s, it works well. This is is power right with Max Scharping (#74) pulling. Mike Pennel (#64) slants left, the linebacker scrapes over the top, and Tunsil is unable to get to the second level. There’s an unblocked defender waiting for Carlos Hyde (#23).

The problem for the Chiefs, as seen in the Texans’ outside zone play, is stunts like this don’t work against the outside zone. The Titans’ offensive line trusts their feet. They’ll pass these defenders onto to the man next to them, then scurry to the second level. All of this only opens up lanes for Henry.

The Chiefs will do things like place linebackers in the ‘A’ gap. They’ll load the box. They’ll do everything they can. The Titans will beat them head on though. They’ll even be able to run on them in three and four receiver sets. Kansas City’s only hope is that the league’s best first quarter offense can get to like a 21-0 lead and try and force the Titans to throw the ball by the game’s context. What they can’t do, is overcommit, overrun, and give Henry the cutback. We all know what happened last time.

4. SACK TIME

If a team loses a lot of games over a long enough period of time and keep picking defensive linemen in the first round of the NFL Draft, they’ll eventually have a dominant defensive line. The 49ers drafted Nick Bosa #2 overall in 2019, Solomon Thomas #3 overall in 2017, DeForest Buckner #7 overall in 2016, and Arik Armstead #17 overall in 2015. They hit on Bosa and Buckner right away, and this season, Armstead has finally figured it out. This offseason John Lynch added Kwon Alexander and Dee Ford to this bunch, and now, in 2019, it has culminated into a 49ers front that’s 13th in pressure rate, and 2nd in adjusted sack rate, and most importantly, can get pressure without having to blitz.

Their primary front four, Bosa, Buckner, Ford, and Armstead have combined for 43 sacks, 81 quarterback hits, and 134 quarterback pressures. Last time these two teams played they sacked Aaron Rodgers 5 times and hit him 10 times. They swap from the interior to the exterior. They all can rush from any position. Bosa can play wide ‘9’. Ford can rush over the guard. Buckner and Armstead are both master swimmers along the interior. It’s a vile and wicked front.

The Packers have a great pass blocking offensive line, but they’re better at the tackle position, than on the interior. San Francisco’s defensive line made sure Kirk Cousins didn’t have a chance the previous week by demolishing the interior of the Vikings’ front. They’ll try to do the same against Green Bay.

The Packers had a top ten pass rush last season, that morphed into a top five one this season thanks to the additions of Preston Smith, and Z’Darius Smith. These two have combined for 25.5 sacks, 60 quarterback hits, and 100 pressures.

It’s hard to get pressure on Jimmy Garoppolo though. San Francisco leads the league in pre-snap motion. They move players across the field to diagnose the coverage. Garpppolo gets the ball out quick. He has a rapid release. And sometimes, he doesn’t even drop back. One step and the ball is out.

The 49ers, like the Packers, have better pass blocking on the exterior than the interior, but Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey are easier to attack than David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga. It’s just nearly impossible to cover long enough, and have enough time to get to Jimmy before the ball is out. The Packers should also look to create pressure on the interior. They’ve been using Z.Smith (#55) in a hybrid role, a lot like how Romeo Crennel would use Jadeveon Clowney, to help generate interior pressure. He’ll line up over the center to try and create immediate disruption.

They also have Kenny Clark there too. Clark (#97) has 6 sacks, 7 quarterback hits, and almost as many pressures as Preston Smith with 32. He has the quickness to bend along the interior. He has to dominate the 49ers’ backup center Ben Garland for the Packers to win this game.

Green Bay can get exterior pressure too. The 49ers love to run play action. They use it on 31% of their plays, the second most in the league. When they utilize longer developing plays, and fakes that turn the quarterback’s back to the line of scrimmage, or whenever they block an edge defender with a tight end, the Packers will need to create pressure. Both Smiths have to do everything they can to get Garoppolo in a frenzy on these usual comfortable and clean attempts.

5. THE SAME PROBLEM

The Packers have lost three games this season. They lost to Philadelphia because their redzone offense was atrocious, they lost to the Los Angeles Chargers because their third down offense was hideous, and they lost to San Francisco because they turned the ball over. These things were each specific in these games individually. The one common theme tying them altogether was their run defense was carved and sculpted. Their run defense DVOA was 26.1%, 24.5%, and 29.8%, in these three losses.

Green Bay is coming off a game where they held the Seahawks’ running backs to 15 carries for 39 yards. The line of scrimmage was a wire, and Marshawn Lynch was a rat who moved into hiding up in Maine. One of the keys to the Packers’ run defense was Kenny Clark (#97). They lined him up over center Joey Hunt, and he won this matchup play after play. This is an incredible third down run stop from Clark.

On this Clark run disruption, the Packers are in their base 3-4 with a safety in the box. The Packers will have to be cautious using a front like this against San Francisco though. This will put their linebackers in precarious pass coverage situations.

I’d expect the Packers to use a 5-1-4 more often instead. They’ll turn the 3-4 into a 5-1, two gap the nose tackle, and get a defender in each gap. From there Blake Martinez can play chase and tackle, and the Packers safeties can clean up from there. Both Smiths have to be incredible on the edge to force the 49ers’ running backs to bang and cutback their runs into the interior of the Packers’ front.

And, if they need a big play, they can always place Z’Darius Smith over the center. Garland is the weakness here. Green Bay has to do everything they can to exploit it.

The 49ers rushing attack is inefficient overall. They have a run offense DVOA of -0.5% (13th) and average 4.6 yards an attempt (9th). It’s nearly impossible to be efficient when you run the ball 498 times, the second most in the league. Their run attack is successful though. They trounced the Packers with it in their previous 37-8 win. Green Bay is going to try a variety of different things to try and load the box and hinder it.

6. IS AARON RODGERS ELITE?

By weighted DVOA the Packers are the worst playoff team remaining. Their weighted DVOA if 3.3%, which is 12th. The 49ers have a weighted DVOA of 30.9%, which is 5th. The 49ers have a better football team, nearly every matchup is in their favor, all except for one, the quarterback position.

Rodgers is no longer elite. What statistic do you like to measure a quarterback’s performance? Rodgers is 17th in yards per attempt, 12th in adjusted net yards an attempt, T-8th in touchdowns thrown, 12th in first down conversions, 18th in QBR, 8th in DYAR, and 13th in DVOA. The two things he’s been great at doing are limiting turnovers, he has the league’s lowest interception rate, and is first in ALEX with 4.0, which just means he throws the ball an average of four yards past the first down marker on third down.

Other than that, Rodgers has been alright, in the Packers’ balanced offense. Green Bay’s offense is a lesser version than the one the 49ers run. It’s a lot of outside zone and play action. Matt LaFleur just isn’t as good at Shanahn is. In this metaphor, he’s Wartortle, and Shanahn is Blastoise.

For Green Bay to win, Rodgers needs to be dominant. He needs to exist past the boundaries of his offense. He has to deal with the pass rush, find the balance between aggression and stupidity to create big plays, use his mobility to create plays outside the offense’s structure, and not miss the open throws available to him. He’s done this hundreds of times before. But 2011 was eight years ago.

From a coverage stand point it’s a tough matchup for Rodgers. The 49ers’ linebackers are spectacular in coverage. Fred Warner is on my personal All-Pro team. Alexander is back. And rookie Dre Greenlaw has made big plays in coverage throughout this season. The 49ers are first in DVOA against running backs in the pass game (-53.7%), first against tight ends (-32.4%), and tenth against #1 wide receivers (-8.7%).

These are each of the receivers the Packers love to throw to. They especially love to throw swing routes to Aaron Jones, and will sometimes throw him go routes from the backfield. He’s the Packers second most targeted receiver with 68 targets. Together he and Jamaal Williams have 88 catches on 113 targets for 727 yards and 8 touchdowns.

Jimmy Graham is third on the team with 60 targets. He has 38 catches for 447 yards, but had only 24 DYAR and had a negative DVOA. Rodgers found him in key spots to play keep away last week against Seattle. He’ll be vital to attack the seams of the 49ers’ match cover three defense. Those plays where he high points the ball, but loses it falling to the ground can’t happen this game.

Davante Adams is the star of this receiving group of course. He has 83 catches on 127 targets for 997 yards and 5 touchdowns, despite playing in 13 games this season. Last week he was especially beautiful. He averaged 20 yards a reception, and picked up 160 yards on 8 catches. LaFleur did a great job coming up with play action passing plays to get him open. He did everything from run across the formation to catch passes in the flat at full speed, to scoring touchdowns by faking the rub in a slot left set, and being the only real route on a long developing corner route.

For the Packers to win this game, they need Rodgers to be like the old Rodgers. He’ll have to win vertically. He’ll have to carry the entire offense, and do the things Russell Wilson did to carry the Seahawks against the 49ers. It’s been a long time since this happened. Rodgers will have to rise from very good to elite, and be what he used to be.