The Tennessee Titans are probably one of the last teams you’d want to face just one week after you lose your best inside linebacker.
In an increasingly pass-happy league, the Titans run the ball at a 48-percent clip – the second highest rate in football. They do it well, too, as they’re averaging 4.7 yards per attempt and 144 yards per game, each the third-best in football, with two bell-cow backs (229-pound DeMarco Murray and 247-pound Derrick Henry) and a big, physical offensive line anchored by arguably the best young tackle combination in the NFL.
And while it was the Chiefs’ inconsistent offense that ultimately got them beat in a dispiriting 19-17 loss to Tennessee on Sunday, the fact their 28th-ranked, Derrick Johnson-less run defense gave up 148 yards on 29 carries (5.1 yards per carry) is hardly comforting, especially with the playoffs looming, and copycat teams likely lurking around the corner.
“I would say they were fundamental things that let us down there,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “We had a good chunk of yardage where, I would say, we contributed to our demise.”
No kidding. The Chiefs were plagued Sunday by misalignments where they were outnumbered in the box on running plays, which is a deathknell for a defense. The Chiefs’ coaches counted this happening 11 times Sunday, costing them 88 yards.
Now some of that surely was caused by the nature of the Titans’ offense, which features some exotic formations (with plenty of tight ends) and a healthy amount of presnap motion. But Sutton is unwilling to tolerate that excuse.
“Some of that falls on our plate, which ultimately falls on us as coaches,” Sutton said. “You’ve got to get that done.”
The Chiefs’ gap discipline — the bedrock of run defense — was also spotty, as players failed to diagnose and attack quickly enough, which gave the Titans plenty of creases to run through.
“We didn’t play techniques as well as we could have or should have,” Sutton said. “We didn’t fit, from a linebacker standpoint, as quick and as fast as we need to.”
Starting inside linebacker Ramik Wilson, who finished with seven tackles, agreed and added they also need to work on wrapping up.
“That’s going to come with more experience,” Wilson said.
That effort will start with himself, as Wilson serves as the Chiefs’ defensive “green-dot” player (the one with the radio to his coaches in his helmet) now that star inside linebacker Derrick Johnson is out for the season with a left Achilles injury. Wilson was productive as a starter prior to Johnson’s injury — his 57 combined tackles rank fifth on the team despite the fact he sat the first five games of the season — and as the “Mike” inside linebacker, is charged with directing traffic and calling out plays. He’s putting the onus on himself to help get things fixed.
“We’ve got to stand up — I think we’re starting to jell together,” Wilson said.
While Wilson is often called to take on blocks and be stout, Johnson’s replacement — second-year pro D.J. Alexander — is allowed to run and hit a little bit more as the “Will” or weakside inside linebacker. The Titans were not shy about attacking him early (prior to Sunday’s game, in which he played 41 defensive snaps, he’d played only six on defense all year) and he finished with four tackles. He was also targeted in coverage four times, according to Pro Football Focus, and surrendered completions on each for a total of 37 yards.
Sutton’s message to his young linebacker, who is blessed with good athleticism but is still honing his instincts: Keep getting better.
“They don’t give you a kind of discount here because this is your first start — you’ve got to play like a starting player does,” Sutton said, drawing upon the Chiefs’ “next-man-up’ philosophy. “You’re responsible to do that and we’re responsible to get you coached so you can do that.”
Alexander is taking that part seriously too. Teammates have seen him breaking down film copiously this week, which will be crucial since he could again be called on to play a role Sunday, despite the team’s recent decision to use its sole “return-to-play” designation of the season on fellow inside linebacker Justin March-Lillard.
March-Lillard, who started the first five games of the season in Wilson’s current position next to Johnson but was placed on injured reserve in mid-October with a broken bone in his hand, has practiced the last few days and is eligible to be activated Sunday. He cautioned, however, that it’s unclear when March-Lillard will be ready to be added to the 53-man roster.
“We don’t know where Justin is yet,” Sutton said Thursday. “That’s a long ways off yet. Still have to see how he does in practice. We’ve just got to wait and see what happens.”
So in the meantime, the focus is on helping Alexander, a fifth-round pick a year ago, get comfortable.
“There’s more to it than eyes,” Sutton said. “You’ve got to know what you’re doing, how to do it, and do it fast. You’ve got to go, that’s the whole game. There’s not a lot of time to be thinking. You’ve got to respond to the stimulus in front of you and whatever that is, you’ve got to go do it and you’ve got to do it quickly and now. That’s a big part of it.”
Somebody like Johnson, who possesses terrific instincts, would be helpful to Alexander and his backup, rookie Terrance Smith (a special teams contributor since mid-October). And after Johnson’s season-ending Achilles injury, Chiefs head coach Andy Reid noted that he’d like to see Johnson try to help his young replacements. But Johnson is still in the early part of his rehab and his manueverability has been limited, which means it will be solely on Sutton and the coaching staff to help the unit back on track against the run.
“It’s nothing that’s not fixable,” Sutton said. “But you’ve got to be able to demonstrate you can do it.”
The good news for the Chiefs is that they won’t have to face the Titans’ type of offense on Sunday. The Denver Broncos’ 27th-ranked rushing attack is more traditional in the sense that it’s a classic, zone-running attack predicated on stretches and tosses, and while there’s a chance the Broncos could try to copy the Titans’ tight-end heavy game-plan, Denver’s top two tight ends – Virgil Green and A.J. Derby – have each missed two practices this week with concussions. That would complicate the effort to run the ball in the similar manner, even if Green and Derby do play Sunday.
Regardless, the Chiefs — who surrendered 124 yards on 38 carries, an average of 3.3 yards per carry, to the Broncos in their thrilling 30-27 win on Nov. 27 — are working diligently to make sure Sunday’s game isn’t a repeat of the loss to the Titans.
“We’ve played Denver before,” Wilson said. “We know what they’re about.”