Gameplan with Terez Paylor: Playoff Edition, Titans at Chiefs
Here’s The Star’s weekly game preview detailing the key players and matchups for the KC Chiefs’ AFC Wild Card Game against the Tennessee Titans, 9-7, at 3:35 p.m. Saturday at Arrowhead Stadium. The game will air on ESPN and ABC (Ch. 9).
Head coach: Mike Mularkey (34-46) is in his second year as the Titans’ head coach and eighth as an NFL head coach. Mularkey, 56, is a former tight end at Florida who was drafted in the ninth round by the 49ers in 1983 and ended up playing nine years with the Vikings and Steelers. When Mularkey retired, he spent two years as the offensive and defensive line coach for Concordia University (1993-94) before becoming the Buccaneers’ tight ends coach in 1994. He joined the Steelers in the same capacity in 1996 and was promoted to offensive coordinator in 2001, where he fared well enough to become the Bills’ head coach in 2004. After a two-year stint in which he went 14-18, Mularkey resigned due to a disagreement with the front office about the direction of the franchise. Mularkey then joined the Dolphins as offensive coordinator in 2006, served in the same role with the Falcons from 2008 to 2011 and spent a year as the Jaguars’ head coach (2012) before joining the Titans as their tight ends coach in 2014. He was promoted to assistant head coach in 2015 and eventually head coach the same year, when Ken Whisenhunt was relieved of his duties. Mularkey, who is 20-21 as the Titans’ head coach, has an old-school approach: He believes in pairing a physical, run-heavy offense with a stout, run-stopping defense.
Offense: Terry Robiske, 63, is in his second year as the Titans’ offensive coordinator. A former running back at Louisiana State, Robiske was an eighth-round pick of the Raiders in 1977. He spent five years with the Raiders and Dolphins before joining the Raiders’ coaching staff as a special teams assistant in 1982. He also coached the running backs and tight ends before he was promoted to offensive coordinator in 1989. He later joining Washington as a receivers coach in 1994 and was promoted to passing game coordinator in 1999. After a brief stint as Washington’s interim head coach the next year, he joined the Browns in 2001 and served in multiple roles, including receivers coach and offensive coordinator. Stints with the Dolphins (2007) and Falcons (2008-2015) as a receivers coach followed. In 2016, he was hired by Mularkey for his current position.
Offensive stats: Tennessee ranks 23rd in total offense (314.0 yards per game), 29th in passing offense (199.4 ypg) and 15th in rushing offense (114.6 ypg). Tennessee is passing the ball 54.5 percent of the time (27th in the league) and has surrendered 35 sacks, tied for the 13th fewest in the league. They use play-action 21 percent of the time, which is tied for the 11th most in the league (according to Football Outsiders) and average 9.6 yards per play, which is the second-highest in the league.
Defense: Dick LeBeau, 80, is a legendary defensive coordinator who is known for creating the zone blitz and is in his third year running the Titans’ defense. A former halfback and cornerback at Ohio State, LeBeau — who was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010 — was drafted in the fifth round in 1959 by the Browns but ended up playing 14 seasons with the Lions. When his playing career came to a close, LeBeau became the Eagles’ special teams coach in 1973, then the Packers’ defensive backs coach in 1976. He served in the same role with the Bengals in 1980 before he was promoted to defensive coordinator in 1984. In 1992, he joined the Steelers as a defensive backs coach following the firing of Bengals coach Sam Wyche. He was promoted to defensive coordinator in 1995 and remained there until 2000, when he was hired as the Bengals’ head coach. After going 12-33 in three seasons, he spent a year as the Bills’ head coach before rejoining the Steelers as defensive coordinator in 2004. He spent 11 years that capacity before he re-signed and joined the Titans as an assistant head coach. He was named defensive coordinator in January 2016.
Defensive stats: Tennessee runs a 3-4 defense that ranks 13th in the league in total defense (328.0 yards per game), 25th in pass defense (239.2 ypg) and fifth in sacks (43). Their pressure rate of 33.6 percent ranks seventh in the league, according to Football Outsiders. The Titans’ run defense ranks fourth in the league (88.8 ypg) and is also tied for third with nine forced fumbles. Using play-action against a blitz-happy team like this is futile, which explains why opponents have only used it 17 percent of time, tied for the second-least in the NFL (according to Football Outsiders). These guys tackle, too; their broken-tackle percentage (9.0 percent) is tied for the fifth-lowest in the league.
Special teams: Steve Hoffman, 59, is in his second year as the Titans’ special teams coach. Hoffman, a former quarterback/running back/receiver/kicker and punter at Dickinson College, punted for the Washington Federals of the USFL in 1983. He was an assistant special teams coach at the University of Miami from 1985-87 before joining the Cowboys as a special teams coach with offensive and defensive quality-control duties in 1989. He remained in that role until 2004, when he took a year off from full-time coaching. He joined the Falcons as an assistant special teams coach in 2006, a position he also held in Miami from 2007 to 2008, until he became the Chiefs’ special teams coach under Todd Haley from 2009-11. He then coached the Raiders’ special teams in 2012 before he was hired to be the Titans’ assistant special teams coordinator in 2013. In 2016, Mularkey promoted him to his current position.
Special teams stats: Titans kicker Ryan Succop, the former Chief, has made 35 of 42 field-goal attempts, and his 83 percent conversion rate is tied for 18th in the league. Punter Brett Kern is a Pro Bowler who has dropped 28 of his 75 punts inside the 20, tied for 15th in the league. The Titans rank 13th in kickoff returns (22.1 yards per return) and 16th in punt returns (8.5 ypr). They also rank 27th in kick-return coverage (23.4 ypr) and 15th in punt-return coverage (7.0 ypr).
Four keys to a Chiefs victory
1. Alex has to let it rip
Specifically, through the air. Now, that’s not to say the Chiefs shouldn’t try to run the ball against the Titans’ fourth-ranked run defense; they should. And let’s not forget, the last time these two teams met (a 19-17 Titans win in December 2016), the Chiefs had some success running the counter, including a 68-yard touchdown run by Tyreek Hill. But the Titans are uniquely dedicated to stopping the run, so much so they’ve allowed the fewest runs over 20 yards (three) in the NFL. So opponents have wisely opted to target a cornerback group that hasn’t consistently made teams pay for doing so. The Titans have yielded 231 first downs through the air, 20 more than the next-closest team, but they don’t give up many big plays. That means quarterback Alex Smith is going to have to beat the Titans through the air, and in small, patient chunks. A big reason the Chiefs lost six of seven games in the middle of the season was their inability to do just that, as teams played lots of zone and forced them to go the length of the field (which they couldn’t consistently do). If the Chiefs struggle in this area Saturday, the Titans could easily win this game, which could very well spell the end of Smith’s tenure in Kansas City. The protection will also need to be on point, as the Titans like to bring pressure from everywhere on third down.
2. Load up against the run
The Titans’ 18 rushing scores are tied with Dallas and Jacksonville for the second-most in the league. Meanwhile, their total 157 first downs through the air is tied for fourth-fewest in the league. They don’t generate many explosive plays that way and Titans quarterbacks have accounted for a 77.1 passer rating, the lowest in the league. That said, what the Titans will try to do Saturday — pound the rock — will come as absolutely no so surprise to anyone. “They’ve got a great mindset to run the ball, which comes from Coach Mularkey,” defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “He’s grew up in that system in Pittsburgh as a player. It’s pretty obvious what they want to do to you and how they want to do it.” The last time these teams met, the Titans relentlessly attacked rookie inside linebacker D.J. Alexander, who was benched the next week. The Chiefs have upgraded their inside linebackers since then, and Reggie Ragland and veteran Derrick Johnson have developed into a solid run-stopping duo. Still, they and the rest of the Chiefs’ front seven will absolutely have their hands full with a big, physical offense that loves to go two tights and run the ball between the tackles. The Chiefs might be wise to sneak an extra defender in the box and make quarterback Marcus Mariota, who has more interceptions than touchdowns this year, prove he can beat them through the air.
3. Wrap up and stay disciplined
The Titans’ play-action game is deadly. They use it 21 percent of the time, which is about the middle of the pack. But they’re averaging 9.6 yards per play with it, which is the second-best mark in the league. Mariota’s athleticism is a boon, too, as he’s rushed for 312 yards and five touchdowns this season. That said, the Chiefs’ linebackers and defensive backs will need to stay disciplined in coverage and carry out their assignments. This could be difficult to do, however, if they don’t wrap up as a unit when the Titans actually do run the ball. Tennessee’s skill players have forced a missed tackle on 12 percent of their offensive snaps, the fifth-most in the league, so the Chiefs’ first- and second-level defenders better buckle their chinstraps. Titans star running back DeMarco Murray is banged up, which is a lucky break, but his backup, Derrick Henry, is 6 foot 3 and 247 pounds and has actually broken more tackles (45) than Murray has this season (40) on 36 fewer touches. The best way to handle Henry is to create penetration along the defensive line and prevent him from getting a head of steam. Despite his size, Henry runs a 4.54 40-yard dash and can run away from defenses once he breaks into the clear, as he did a week ago on a 66-yard screen that went for a touchdown. This leads him to dance around more than he should, but he’ll be ticked off and motivated to play well following a 51-yard performance against Jacksonville in Week 17 that he dubbed as “soft.” “He’s a big man and he breaks a lot of tackles,” Sutton said. “He’s a really good football player.”
4. Be mentally tough
The Titans aspire to play football the way teams used to 20 years ago. They only average 60.9 plays per game, the fourth-fewest in the league, but they want to punish you on every snap. That said, there is danger here, especially if the Chiefs beat themselves. The way the Chiefs can avoid that is by being mentally tough in multiple areas. That means not beating themselves with penalties, because Tennessee — which has been flagged the second-fewest times in the league this season — certainly won’t. That means not pouting or getting frustrated on defense when Tennessee converts a third-down run (which it almost certainly will do). And that means remaining positive on offense when the Titans’ defensive coordinator dials up frustrating zone blitzes that take away the deep pass and force Smith to win with a seemingly never-ending string of quick passes and hot reads. In short, if the Chiefs get down on themselves in any way and start thinking “Oh no, not again,” the seemingly overmatched Titans will have a pathway to victory.
Four Titans to watch
No. 8, QB Marcus Mariota, 6-4, 222, 24 years old, 6-4, 222
Ranked No. 50 on the NFL’s top-100 list for 2017. Team captain. Completed 281 of 453 passes (62.0 percent) for 3,232 yards, 13 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Has fumbled twice and owns a 79.3 passer rating. Has rushed 60 times for 312 yards and five touchdowns. Intelligent player with a nice combination of size, athleticism and arm talent. Has taken a step back this year, statistically, following a breakout 2016 campaign in which he threw 26 touchdowns and only nine interceptions and posted a 95.6 passer rating. Has been battling an assortment of injuries, including to his hamstring, ankle and knee, that have generally affected his athleticism and overall accuracy. But he started to look more like himself in the Titans’ win over Jacksonville last week. Has struggled to connect on deep-to-intermediate balls to his left. “This guy, I think, is kind of an underrated quarterback because everybody gets caught up in his athleticism, which is off the charts,” Sutton said.
No. 82, TE Delanie Walker, 33 years old, 6-2, 248, 12th season
Played at Central Missouri. Ranked No. 75 on the NFL’s top-100 list for 2017. Team captain. Caught 65 passes for 800 yards and seven touchdowns last season, when he was named to the Pro Bowl for the second straight year. Followed that up by catching 74 passes for 807 yards and three touchdowns this season. Mariota’s security blanket. Functions as an “H-back” or “move” tight end and occasionally attaches to the line of scrimmage as an inline tight end. Is not overly explosive but consistently wins thanks to his crafty route-running and ability to change gears. Poses a problem on third down and possesses the ball skills and focus to make contested catches. Gives the Titans a solid run-blocker from the slot, matching their run-first identity. Will also split out wide at times. Can overwhelm defensive backs when he meets them at the point of attack. Has actually gotten better with age.
No. 99, DT Jurrell Casey, 28 years old, 6-1, 305, seventh season
Ranked No. 86 on the NFL’s top-100 list for 2017. Team captain. Earned his third straight Pro Bowl nod this season by recording 60 tackles, six sacks and a team-high 19 quarterback hits. Gap shooter with good quickness and power who has been a consistent pass-rush threat the last five years. Sometimes rushes from a stand-up position. Explodes off the snap and can be very disruptive vs. the run or pass. Can be moved a bit on the double but has an assortment of pass-rush moves that guards must always be prepared for. Has a swim move. Plays hard. “He likes to get after the quarterback, and he has a lot of good moves on the inside,” offensive coordinator Matt Nagy said. “So our guys on the interior will have to be focused on that. But he’s a good player, a Pro Bowl player that plays hard, whose motor is always running. You’ve got to know where he’s at.”
No. 31, S Kevin Byard, 24 years old, 5-11, 212, second season
Former third-round pick in 2016 who is building off a rookie season in which he recorded 58 tackles and four pass deflections. Recorded 87 tackles, 16 pass deflections and an NFL-high eight interceptions. Has also deflected 16 passes and recovered two fumbles. Reigning AFC defensive player of the week for his two-interception effort against Jacksonville. Regularly plays the deep third of the field in the mold of Seattle’s Earl Thomas III and has impressive range; his ability to do this allows the Titans to load the box and stop the run. Solid tackler who has developed into a complete player. Plays his tail off, needs to be accounted for and should’ve made the Pro Bowl. Playmaker. “He always around the ball,” Nagy said. “He looks like he’s a player that really understands their system. ... He’s a ballhawk.”
Projected Chiefs two-deep depth chart
KEY: Bold=Player to Watch, C=Captain, PB=2016 Pro Bowl, AP=2016 All-Pro, Q=Questionable
No., Name, Ht., Wt., Years
11 Alex Smith, 6-4, 220, 13 | 15 Patrick Mahomes, 6-3, 230, R
27 Kareem Hunt (PB), 5-11, 208, R | 35 Charcandrick West, 5-10, 205, 4
42 Anthony Sherman, 5-10, 242, 7
12 Albert Wilson (Q, hamstring), 5-9, 200, 4 | 14 Demarcus Robinson, 6-1, 203, 2
10 Tyreek Hill (PB), 5-10, 185, 2 | 80 Jehu Chesson, 6-3, 203, R
14 Demarcus Robinson, 6-1, 203, 2 | 80 Jehu Chesson, 6-3, 203, R
87 Travis Kelce (PB), 6-5, 260, 5 | 84 Demetrius Harris, 6-7, 230, 4
72 Eric Fisher, 6-7, 315, 5 | 75 Cameron Erving, 6-5, 313, 3
70 Bryan Witzmann, 6-7, 320, 3 | 79 Parker Ehinger, 6-6, 310, 2
73 Zach Fulton, 6-5, 316, 4 | 65 Jordan Devey, 6-6, 320, 4
76 Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, 6-5, 321, 4 | 79 Parker Ehinger, 6-6, 310, 2
71 Mitchell Schwartz, 6-5, 320, 6 | 75 Cameron Erving, 6-5, 313, 3
95 Chris Jones, 6-6, 310, 2 | 99 Rakeem Nunez-Roches (D, ankle), 6-2, 307, 3
96 Bennie Logan, 6-2, 315, 5 | 74 Justin Hamilton, 6-2, 315, 1
97 Allen Bailey, 6-3, 288, 7 | 94 Jarvis Jenkins (Q, knee), 6-4, 300, 7
50 Justin Houston, 6-3, 258, 7 | 92 Tanoh Kpassagnon, 6-7, 280, R
56 Derrick Johnson, 6-3, 242, 13 | 57 Kevin Pierre-Louis, 6-0, 230, 4
59 Reggie Ragland, 6-2, 252, 1 | 48 Terrance Smith, 6-2, 235, 2
51 Frank Zombo, 6-3, 254, 8 | 91 Tamba Hali (Q, knees), 6-3, 275, 12
22 Marcus Peters, 6-0, 197, 3 | 39 Terrance Mitchell, 5-11, 190, 4
38 Ron Parker, 6-0, 206, 7 | 34 Leon McQuay, 6-2, 185, R
49 Daniel Sorensen, 6-2, 208, 4 | 21 Eric Murray, 5-11, 199, 2
24 Darrelle Revis, 5-11, 198, 11 | 25 Kenneth Acker, 6-0, 195, 4
20 Steven Nelson, 5-11, 194, 3 | 24 Darrelle Revis, 5-11, 198, 11
7 Harrison Butker, 6-4, 205, R
2 Dustin Colquitt, 6-3, 210, 13
26 C.J. Spiller, 5-11, 200, 8
10 Tyreek Hill (PB), 5-10, 185, 2
41 James Winchester, 6-3, 240, 3
Projected Titans two-deep depth chart
KEY: Bold=Player to Watch, C=Captain, PB=2016 Pro Bowl, AP=2016 All-Pro, Q=Questionable, *=See “additional notes” section below for more info on player
No., Name, Ht., Wt., Years
**8 Marcus Mariota (C), 6-4, 222, 3** | 16 Matt Cassel, 6-4, 228, 13
22 Derrick Henry, 6-3, 247, 2 | 32 David Fluellen, 5-11, 224, 1
*18 Rishard Matthews, 6-0, 217, 6 | 13 Taywan Taylor, 5-11, 203, R
*84 Corey Davis, 6-3, 209, R | 87 Eric Decker, 6-3, 214, 8
87 Eric Decker, 6-3, 214, 8
**82 Delanie Walker (C), 6-2, 248, 12** | 81 Jonnu Smith, 6-3, 248, R
*77 Taylor Lewan (PB), 6-7, 309, 4 | 71 Dennis Kelly, 6-8, 321, 6
67 Quinton Spain (Q, back), 6-4, 330, 3 | 61 Corey Levin, 6-4, 306, R
60 Ben Jones, 6-3, 308, 6 | 62 Brian Schwenke, 6-3, 318, 5
64 Josh Kline, 6-3, 300, 5 | 61 Corey Levin, 6-4, 306, R
78 Jack Conklin, 6-6, 308, 2 | 71 Dennis Kelly, 6-8, 321, 6
94 Austin Johnson, 6-4, 314, 2 | 95 David King, 6-4, 281, 2
96 Sylvester Williams, 6-2, 313, 5
**99 Jurrell Casey (C, PB), 6-1, 305, 7** | 97 Karl Klug, 6-3, 278, 7
*91 Derrick Morgan, 6-4, 261, 8 | 92 Kevin Dodd, 6-5, 277, 2
*59 Wesley Woodyard (C), 6-0, 233, 10 | 55 Jayon Brown, 6-0, 226, R
*54 Avery Williamson, 6-1, 246, 4 | 50 Nate Palmer, 6-2, 248, 5
*98 Brian Orakpo (C), 6-4, 257, 9 | 93 Erik Walden, 6-2, 250, 10
*25 Adoree’ Jackson, 5-11, 185, R | 33 Tye Smith, 6-0, 195, 2
*37 Johnathan Cyprien, 6-0, 223, 5 | 21 Da’Norris Searcy, 5-11, 207, 7
**31 Kevin Byard, 5-11, 212, 2** | 35 Curtis Riley, 6-0, 190, 3
33 Tye Smith, 6-0, 195, 2
26 Logan Ryan, 5-11, 195, 5 | 23 Brice McCain, 5-9, 190, 9
4 Ryan Succop, 6-2, 218, 9
6 Brett Kern (PB), 6-2, 214, 10
*25 Adoree’ Jackson, 5-11, 185, R
*25 Adoree’ Jackson, 5-11, 185, R
48 Beau Brinkley, 6-4, 260, 6
Additional scouting notes on the Titans
▪ When running back DeMarco Murray is healthy, he is a terrific back. A straight-line, downhill runner with power and speed, Murray — who is No. 33 on the NFL’s top-100 list — is a perfect fit for the Titans’ power scheme. Murray, however, is out due to a three-degree MCL tear suffered in Week 16.
▪ Receiver Rishard Matthews is the Titans’ best option on the outside. He’s a solid route runner and a consistent target, though his run-blocking leaves a little to be desired.
▪ This offense will jump to another level if Corey Davis, the fifth overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, manages to live up to expectations. He’s been banged up some this year and hasn’t caught a touchdown in 11 NFL games.
▪ Left tackle Taylor Lewan is outstanding. Ranked No. 72 on the NFL’s top-100 list, he’s a massive man with good athleticism and strength for his size. Expect the Titans to run behind him a ton, which means Frank Zombo needs to be ready to set the edge.
▪ Outside linebacker Derrick Morgan is a solid football player. He overwhelmingly pass-rushes from the left side and consistently poses problems for slow-footed tackles. He stands out as a pass rusher, where he’s good at converting speed to power.
▪ Outside linebacker Brian Orakpo is underrated. Ranked No. 78 on the NFL’s top-100 list, he has consistently been one of the league’s better pass rushers for years. He’s been better against the run this year than Morgan has been, so if the Chiefs are going to get any runs going to the outside, they might not want to try his side too often.
▪ Inside linebackers Avery Williamson and Wesley Woodyard fly around all over the place. They’re responsible for a lot, including stopping the run and corralling the short passing game. Both are having really nice seasons and are as good of a run-stopping inside-linebacking tandem the Chiefs will see. Woodyard, by the way, has been named a captain every year during his entire 10-year career.
▪ Cornerback Adoree’ Jackson is showing why he made my 2017 All-Juice Team before the draft. Jackson is a wonderful player who gives you some explosive return ability, too. He might be their best option to handle Tyreek Hill. He’s a willing tackler, but he’s not a big guy.
▪ Safety Johnathan Cyprien is a hard-hitter, but teams have had some success throwing his way in coverage. It will be interesting to see if the Chiefs find a way to get tight end Travis Kelce matched up with him in favorable situations.
Prediction: Chiefs 20-17
Welcome to playoff football. I expect this to be a tough, physical game that will ultimately be decided by which team makes the fewest mistakes. A big reason for that is because of the way the Titans play under coach Mike Mularkey. There are other playoff teams that would give the Chiefs less trouble than the Titans will, but you guys know my philosophy to picking playoff winners — always pick the team with the best coach-quarterback combination. This week, it’s the Chiefs. And I expect them to make enough plays on offense — and shut down the Titans’ running game enough — to win and force a potentially redemptive showdown against either Pittsburgh or New England, the two teams that knocked the Chiefs out of the playoffs the last two years.