Any Given Sunday
The weekend's biggest upset goes under the Football Outsiders lens.

Any Given Sunday: Titans Over Chiefs

Any Given Sunday: Titans Over Chiefs
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Rivers McCown

If you are visiting this website, there's a good chance you have a handle on what the Kansas City Chiefs are about. Alex Smith is a decent enough quarterback who checks down so often that we named a stat after him. Andy Reid is a likeable head coach who likes to use the length of the field on offense, and who has some, uh, interesting foibles in clock management.

Kansas City opened scoring in this game with a 68-yard touchdown run by young receiver Tyreek Hill, an electric player who they then decided to target exactly three times despite how he helped them build up their standing in the playoff race.

But the story isn't a misused player, it's that the Chiefs are having problems setting up down-and-distance situations for Smith to thrive in. With Jamaal Charles done, and injuries on the offensive line, it's actually hard for this team to run the ball now. They averaged just 3.6 yards per carry against a Titans unit that came into the game ranked 13th in run defense DVOA. Smith's contributions in the running game have kept this unit looking decent statistically (insert comment about "scrappy," "gritty," and/or "undervalued athleticism" here), but problems arise when they're asked to run the ball right up the gut. I don't put this on Spencer Ware, who I consider a good back. The offensive line just struggles to generate push at times. Such as, say, fourth-and-goal at the 1.

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Kansas City has very defined splits in their Adjusted Line Yards. On left end and right end runs, they are in the top 10 in the league. Runs at left tackle, up the middle, and at right tackle? 18th, 25th, and 26th respectively. Hill's big play was a sweep to the outside, naturally.

I have read some narratives about rookie guard Parker Ehinger, who went on IR after Week 8. Without Ehinger, the unit has been bad. The problem is the unit was already bad. By DVOA, Kansas City's rushing offense has been above average three times in 14 games. And because Smith relies on good rushing to keep defenses honest, without it, the Chiefs have produced bad offense:

Chiefs Results with -20% rushing DVOA or worse
Week Rush DVOA Pass DVOA Points scored
2 -23.4% -37.7% 12
3 -52.9% 24.8% 24
4 -64.0% -10.5% 14
8 -44.1% 20.0% 19
9 -20.2% -16.3% 20
14 -26.7% 8.0% 13
Average -38.6% -1.8% 17

Some of those games could have gone much worse if not for an opportunistic defense. Eric Berry bailed the Chiefs out against Carolina in Week 9. Blake Bortles and Ryan Fitzpatrick kept their offenses from ever mounting threats in Weeks 3 and 8, respectively.

But the trend to pick up is pretty simple: if Kansas City doesn't run well, they also aren't able to exploit Smith's strengths, which caps their ceiling as an offense.

So, great touchdown design to Hill and all, this game was lost when Kansas City tried to win in the trenches against the Titans and couldn't. They got out-bullied by Mike Mularkey.

By the DVOA

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TEN 23.9% -15.2% 9.4% 48.4%
KC -25.9% -2.2% -1.8% -25.5%
TEN 20.3% -16.0% 9.4% 45.7%
KC -24.4% 8.2% -1.8% -34.5%

By DVOA, the Titans were much better than the Chiefs. This isn't surprising when you consider that A) all of Kansas City's non-Hill points came on short fields, and B) despite the big play, the Titans still outgained the Chiefs on yards per play 6.2 to 5.6.

For what it's worth, we don't count the two-point conversion attempt in these numbers.

Tennessee's Comeback Touchdown Drive

The Titans already proved they could move the ball on the Chiefs early in the game, when they had a nice 69-yard drive ruined by a Rishard Matthews fumble after a completed catch. They followed that up with a long touchdown drive on Derrick Henry runs and a redemption Matthews flea-flicker catch of a slightly underthrown ball.

The problem had been that they just couldn't stop turning it over. Marcus Mariota also was intercepted, and lost a fumble. But after Smith threw a pick into the end zone (a staple of this column!), the Titans were gifted a 10-point deficit with 21 minutes to play.

Mariota had another up-and-down game, as he did last week against Denver, but came up huge on Tennessee's final touchdown drive. While it wasn't a huge hole to dig out of, the Titans did need some key third-down conversions out of shotgun, and Mariota was able to deliver. First was this third-and-5 to tight end Delanie Walker:

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Then after a defensive pass interference got the Titans closer, and a shovel pass went nowhere, Mariota was operating from third-and-10 at the Kansas City 35 and hooked up with Walker again:

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That's a tough ball, very low to the ground, and had just enough mustard.

Mariota's best throw of the drive came when he had to come up with something on fourth-and-5. He floated a ball perfectly to DeMarco Murray's back shoulder, giving him a great path to catch it.

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The Titans are a dramatically more interesting team than the other AFC South contenders to football heads. I chalk this up to a few things: 1) Everybody is sick of the Colts wasting their opportunities to put a good team around Andrew Luck and T.Y. Hilton, 2) Nobody wants to watch another overmatched Texans quarterback get slaughtered on Wild Card Weekend, 3) Tennessee's throwback style of offense is fun to watch.

I have always kind of brushed off the idea that Tennessee could actually do damage in the playoffs if they made it there, but I would be lying if I said this performance by Mariota didn't have me a little more intrigued. He has clearly improved his game since the first month of the season.


3 comments, Last at 21 Dec 2016, 7:00pm

1 Re: Any Given Sunday: Titans Over Chiefs

I want chiefs at texans wild card game again said nobody.

Relsly hoping for cheisf at titans first round or even Raiders st Texans or titnan. Just no chiefs at Texans please