First and foremost, you have to stop Derrick Henry.
We’ll delve more deeply into that shortly, but let’s first set the stage as the Chiefs (3-3) face another AFC powerhouse, the Tennessee Titans (4-2), at Nissan Field in Nashville at noon on Sunday.
Kansas City holds a 30-24 edge in this all-time series, including a 3-1 record in the postseason. The teams are tied 2-2 in games played in Nashville, including the Titans’ 35-32 win in Week 10 of 2019.
The last time the Chiefs and Titans met? The 2019 AFC Championship Game at Arrowhead Stadium, in which the Chiefs overcame a 10-point deficit en route to a 35-24 victory and ticket to Super Bowl LIV.
But games against the Titans have been anything but easy of late. Before the AFC Championship Game, the Titans had won four straight against KC, including in the 2017 AFC Wild Card Game.
Truth be told, Tennessee has had Chiefs coach Andy Reid’s number for years. The Titans are 8-2, including playoffs, against Big Red. That counts his time spent in Philadelphia as well as KC. Reid’s two wins were during 2013 season and in that 2019 AFC Championship Game.
Can the Chiefs find good fortune this time around? Let’s look at some ways they can make it happen.
STOP THE KING
As goes Henry, so go the Titans. So we’ll spend a good bit of time talking about him here.
A familiar and big-bodied running back, he enters this weekend’s game with a league-leading 783 yards and 10 touchdowns. He’s coming off an impressive three-TD performance against Buffalo.
What Henry is capable of doing after initial contact with a defender is surreal. His already soaring and still-climbing rushing total includes an incredible 587 yards after contact.
To put that figure in perspective, Cleveland running back Nick Chubb ranks second in the league with 523 rushing yards. So even Henry’s yards after contact alone still lead the league in rushing. The Chiefs, meanwhile, rank 27th against the run, allowing 133.2 yards per game.
This is no small task for a defensive unit that has had issues tackling all season. So how do the Chiefs hope to slow down Henry? A little swarming action is on the menu.
“All 11 guys to the ball, of course, and just making sure up front that he doesn’t get to the second level,” defensive lineman Tershawn Wharton said. “Because when you watch him, as he builds up the speed, that’s when he really gets dangerous at that second level.”
Accordingly, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said the Chiefs have been practicing with a certain understanding.
“They understand that (Henry) is the guy that makes it go,” Spagnuolo said. “This has got to be the main focus: population to the football. I can go through all the little things about teaching tackling, but I think our guys get it.”
To reinforce his point, Spagnuolo said he had his defensive players tackle during practice specifically with Henry in mind.
“We spent some time yesterday in individual where that’s all they did,” he said. “And even then, I still don’t think you’re going to get the real feel for what it’s going to be like when you get the first hit.”
THERE’S MORE THAN NO. 22
Henry commands the stage, but the Titans aren’t short of wide receiver weapons for quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
Pro Bowler A.J. Brown and two-time All-Pro Julio Jones, whom the Titans acquired in a trade with the Atlanta Falcons during the offseason, can also put stress on a defense.
“They built their team right in doing that,” Spagnuolo said. “They gave Tannehill some targets that he can go to.
“Listen, our guys on the line of scrimmage — I’m talking about our press-corners and nickels — have got to do a good job. But one of the things I think would be really key ... was their receivers are good run-blockers, for obvious reasons.”
The Chiefs enter the weekend allowing 277.3 passing yards per game — 25th-worst in the league — but they could catch a break here. Brown didn’t practice Wednesday or Thursday because of an illness, while Jones was limited Thursday with a hamstring injury.
If either or both play Sunday, the Chiefs can’t allow the Titans’ 27th-ranked passing offense, which averages just 220.5 yards per game, to lull them to sleep after Henry rips off a few big runs.
We say this each week, but it continues to be a problem for the Chiefs.
Since Week 2, they’ve surrendered 14 turnovers, including eight picks thrown by Patrick Mahomes. While a few of those were intercepted off deflected passes, 14 giveaways is straight-up alarming.
Kansas City enters the weekend ranked a dismal 31st in turnover margin, and their three losses have been fueled by untimely fumbles or interceptions. They had three turnovers at Washington and still won 31-13, but that’s no recipe for success against the Titans, who are one of the better teams in the AFC.
EXPLOIT TITAN SECONDARY
If a shootout develops Sunday, advantage Chiefs.
With Mahomes under center, they boast the second-best offense in the league. They’re averaging 433.5 yards per game, 308.5 through the air. They also rank fifth in points per game (30.8).
The Titans’ defense, meanwhile, has issues. Tennessee allows 276.3 passing yards per game, 24th in the league, and 26.8 points per game, also ranked 24th.
Henry might (and probably will) get his yards on the ground against a less-than-average Chiefs run defense, but Kansas City should be able to light up the scoreboard thanks to their fast-break offense. Jumping out to an early lead wouldn’t hurt, either.
Given the Titans’ defensive shortcomings in coverage, Mahomes, wide receiver Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce should plan for a busy Sunday afternoon. That is, if the Chiefs can take care of the ball.