1:00 PM EST, CBS – Line: Chiefs -4.5, Over/Under: 57.5
The stars are on display in Nashville this afternoon, as the Kansas City Chiefs look to get themselves out of neutral on the road against the Tennessee Titans, who look to cushion their comfortable lead within the AFC South. In a season that has already seen some rather wild developments, arguably the most surprising has been the persistent struggles of the Chiefs (3-3, 3rd in AFC West), who have dominated the AFC over the course of the last three seasons, winning a pair of conference championships along with a Lombardi trophy in 2019, the franchise’s first since 1969. However, for those who believed that Kansas City would once again steamroll through the conference, 2021 has played out very differently thus far as this team is simply struggling to ascend over .500. So what in the hell is going on at Arrowhead, you ask? Well, the issue is two-pronged: despite being as prolific as ever, the Offense has been the most turnover-prone in the National Football League, while the Defense has regressed to the point that it’s become a liability once again. Indeed, (All-Pro Quarterback) Patrick Mahomes & Co have had no problems whatsoever driving the football downfield, averaging a stellar 30.8 points per game (5th Overall) on 439.5 total yards (2nd Overall), including 314.5 through the air (2nd Overall) on 7.3 net yards per attempt (7th Overall), along with another 125.0 on the ground (10th Overall) on 4.9 yards per carry (7th Overall), all the while converting an efficient 60.3% of their attempts on third down (1st Overall) and 70.8% within the red zone (6th Overall). The problem is that they could do so much more if they weren’t so intent on shooting themselves in the foot over and over again, for no team in the NFL has been more self-destructive in this regard, committing a staggering FOURTEEN turnovers throughout the first six games. In addition to losing a league-worst six fumbles, Mahomes (69.0%, 1,887 YDS, 7.35 NY/A, 18 TD, 8 INT, 70.6 QBR) has uncharacteristically thrown EIGHT interceptions at this point, seven of which have come in the last four games. To put this in perspective, the 2018 MVP had thrown eleven picks in the two previous seasons combined (29 games) and finds himself three away from that total after only six outings. The common train of thought is that the 26-year old isn’t entirely comfortable behind a completely reconstructed Offensive Line, which features new starters at every position; (Head Coach) Andy Reid and (General Manager) Brett Veach were none to pleased with the performance of this position group during their embarrassing 31-9 defeat in Super Bowl LV, in which Mahomes was sacked three times and left running for his life on a plethora of other plays. There is also the reality that that loss served as the blueprint for how to defend him, with teams all across the NFL copying that game plan: drop extra defenders into coverage and whatever you do, don’t blitz him. This is likely where the interceptions have come into play, for he has been so accustomed to launching the football downfield, that it simply doesn’t feel natural to be dinking, dunking, and taking what the Defense gives him. Sure, Reid had dinked and dunked for years prior to Mahomes’ ascension, but as this Offense is presently constructed that approach plays against type. It also doesn’t help that many of their playmakers have been spending far more time on the trainer’s table than they’d prefer, with a host of weapons such as (All-Pros) Tyreek Hill (46 REC, 592 YDS, 12.9 Y/R, 5 TD) and Travis Kelce (38 ERC, 468 YDS, 12.3 Y/R, 4 TD) limited throughout the week with quadriceps and neck maladies, while (Offensive Linemen) Joe Thuney (hand) and Trey Smith (ankle) are in the same boat with ailments of their own. Last weekend’s 31-13 victory over the Washington Football Team served as a microcosm of what has ailed them; Kansas City trailed 13-10 until late in the third quarter on the strength of turning it over on three of their first seven drives of the afternoon, only to take control of the affair with twenty-one unanswered points over the final nineteen minutes of action. In the end, they held significant advantages in a slew of categories including total yards (499-276), passing yards (390-182), first downs (29-15), third down (64.7%-50.0%), and time of possession (33:53), only for it to be nearly all for naught due to their own mistakes. With all that said, while there is plenty of optimism that this supremely-talented unit will indeed figure it out, the same can not be said about the Defense, which has been nothing short of abysmal. One of the biggest reasons that the Chiefs were able to advance to the past two Super Bowls was due to the rapid improvement of the Defense led by (Defensive Coordinator) Steve Spagnuolo. In his first year with the club, Spagnuolo’s charges ranked seventh in points allowed (19.3), seventeenth in total defense (349.6), and tenth in takeaways (23). Despite the influences of the pandemic those figures proved sustainable into 2020, with Kansas City finishing tenth in points yielded (22.6) sixteenth in total defense (358.3), and once again tenth in takeaways (22). However, the train of thought coming into 2021 was that with a full and proper offseason to continue building on the foundation that had been laid, they would emerge stronger than ever. While there’s still plenty of time to turn it around, their performance thus far has left A LOT to be desired as they rank twenty-eighth overall in points (29.3) and total yards (410.5) allowed, with just six takeaways to their name (19th Overall). Injuries have certainly played a role in their regression, with the few playmakers that can be found on this side of the football, such as (Defensive Linemen) Chris Jones (7 TKL, 3 TFL, 4 QBH, 2.0 SK) and Frank Clark (5 TKL, 1 TFL, 2 QBH) along with (Pro-Bowl Safety) Tyrann Mathieu (25 TKL, 1 TFL, 2 INT, 4 PD, 1 TD), each missing a number of contests. The other factor has been that given the Offense’s penchant for turning the ball over, this unit hasn’t had the luxury of playing with a lead nearly as often as they’ve been accustomed to, thus minimizing the opportunities afforded to them to get creative with Spagnuolo’s pressure packages. Essentially, with Mahomes & Co doing their thing, this Defense was frequently playing with a 7-0 lead right off the bat, and that just hasn’t been the case this season. Needless to say, this does not bode well for today’s affair with the Titans, particularly in the case (2020 Rushing Champion) Derrick Henry (more on him shortly), who always presents a herculean challenge for whatever Defense he’s facing. Though they didn’t cross paths last year, the Chiefs and Henry squared off twice in 2019, with the latter rushing for 188 yards and a pair of scores in a 35-32 victory at Nissan Stadium before being bottled up with sixty-nine yards in the AFC Championship Game later that season, a 35-24 triumph for Kansas City.
Meanwhile, if the Titans (4-2, 1st in AFC South) could ever get healthy you would have to wonder just how dangerous they could become. Simply put, few teams have been as ravaged by injuries through the early stages of 2021 than Tennessee has, who coming into this afternoon’s showdown with Kansas City has a whopping FIFTEEN players on Injured Reserve with another dozen names listed on this week’s injury report. (Tackles) Taylor Lewan (concussion) and Roger Saffold (shoulder) have missed time, while (All-Pro Receiver) Julio Jones (15 REC, 263 YDS, 17.5 Y/R, 0 TD) and fellow Wideout, A.J. Brown (17 REC, 221 YDS, 13.0 Y/R, 1 TD), finally returned to the gridiron last Monday after missing a couple of weeks with respective hamstring strains. And then there is the Defense, which has been without a pair of young Cornerbacks in (Rookie) Caleb Farley (4 TKL,1 PD) and (Sophomore) Kristian Fulton (16 TKL, 1 INT, 6 PD), while three-fourths of their Linebacking Corps, including (top acquisition) Bud Dupree (4 TKL, 2 QBH, 1 PD), have been in and out of the lineup with a variety of ailments. Needless to say, their depth is being tested like never before, but somehow they’ve managed to string together back-to-back victories, including an impressive 34-31 upset of surging Buffalo last Monday night. This one was as entertaining as they come, folks, as the affair featured eight lead changes as the hosts rallied back time and time again, though the most notable play of the night came on the defensive side of the football where (third-year Tackle) Jeffery Simmons (21 TKL, 4 TFL, 6 QBH, 2.5 SK, 2 PD) stopped (All-Pro Quarterback) Josh Allen on 4th & 1 from the 3-yard line, toppling the Bills on primetime for a second consecutive season. Though they started slowly, (Head Coach) Mike Vrabel’s charges settled into a rhythm come the second quarter, scoring on each of their remaining meaningful possessions, led by the aforementioned Henry (162 CAR, 783 YDS, 4.8 Y/A, 10 TD), who quite frankly was at his very best. The 27-year old got the home side going with a seismic, 76-yard jaunt up the middle of the opposing Defense into the end zone, en route to amassing a total of 143 rushing yards and three scores on just twenty carries. With that performance, the two-time reigning rushing champion pushed his explosive start to 783 yards and ten touchdowns, becoming just the third player in NFL history to eclipse 750 rushing yards and ten scores through the first six games, joining the likes of (Hall of Famers) Eric Dickerson and Jim Brown. Indeed, if (new Offensive Coordinator) Todd Downing can get all of these pieces to gel then the Titans should have one of the most dynamic attacks in the NFL, particularly when you consider all of the play-action and bootlegs that can be utilized on the strength of Henry’s presence alone. However, this unit is still very much a work in progress, particularly from a passing perspective. Despite ranking third overall in rushing offense (164.2), Tennessee has mustered just 245.5 passing yards (27th Overall) on 5.9 net yards per attempt (26th Overall), along with an underwhelming 38.8% on third down (20th Overall) and 61.5% within the red zone (18th Overall). With six games in the books, the requisite chemistry between Jones and his new Quarterback, Ryan Tannehill (63.4%, 1,467 YDS, 5.93 NY/A, 6 TD, 4 INT, 57.2 QBR), has yet to properly develop, while the 33-year old signal-caller has yet to find a rhythm with Downing; Tannehill has seen significant regression across the board in a slew of categories including completion percentage (63.4%), yards per attempt (7.3), net yards per attempt (5.93), touchdown percentage (3.0%), interception percentage (2.0%), sack percentage (9.0%), and QBR (57.2), while his completed air yards per completion (6.2) is over a full yard less than it was a year ago (7.3). Granted, he’s rarely been afforded the luxury of a clean pocket, suffering a league-high TWENTY sacks already, which is four fewer than he absorbed in all of last season and at this rate could see him reach the highs that he set from his earlier days with the Miami Dolphins in which he was dropped for a loss on 248 occasions in eighty-eight games, the most during that span. With that said, this unit still ranks eighth in points (27.7) and eleventh in total yards (409.7), so it’s not like their starving on that side of the football. The Defense though, is a different story altogether, with Vrabel having shaken things up following last year’s dreadful performance. In 2020 the Titans ranked twenty-fourth in points allowed (27.4) and twenty-eighth in total defense (398.2), along with dead-last on third down (51.9%) and thirtieth in the red zone (69.2%), thanks in large part to an anemic pass-rush that managed a scant nineteen sacks (30th Overall) parlaying to the worst sack percentage in the NFL (2.9%). While sacks don’t necessarily tell the whole story, Vrabel (who served as primary play-caller) blitzed on a middling 28.7% of their snaps (17th Overall) and couldn’t get any heat on opposing Quarterbacks with a meager pressure percentage of 17.6% (31st Overall). Now with overhauled personnel at the disposal of (new Defensive Coordinator) Shane Bowen, Tennessee has improved greatly in some areas, particularly against the run (107.7 Y/G) and on third down (40.5%) and in the red zone (56.0%), but still not enough in others, especially against the pass where they rank twenty-fourth in both passing yards allowed (276.3) and net yards per attempt (7.3). Again, it comes back to the pass-rush, which has shown marginal growth with thirteen sacks (18th Overall) and a pressure percentage of 25.5% (13th Overall) despite blitzing less (24.3%). (Outside Linebacker) Harold Landry (36 TKL, 7 TFL, 12 QBH, 6.5 SK) has been the bell-cow of this unit with six sacks and a dozen hits of the Quarterback, and as the aforementioned Dupree (39.5 career sacks) continues to get healthy following a torn ACL suffered towards the end of the previous campaign, the rush should only become more effective. In the end, this team is far from a finished product on either side of the football, but potential will only buy you so much time in the NFL, even if you’re in a division in which the other three teams have managed to put together an uninspiring 4-14 record (.222)