The Houston Texans can be rightfully confident when they visit Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday, having overcome a 17-3 deficit to upset the Kansas City Chiefs 31-24 in October.
FILE PHOTO: Dec 29, 2019; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) looks to pass during the game against the Los Angeles Chargers at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
But much has changed on both sides, and the Texans only narrowly reached the divisional round after surviving Buffalo at home in overtime last week.
They’ll face a healthier Chiefs squad this time around, though they could reproduce some effective tactics.
1. What’s changed, what Houston can replicate
The Chiefs’ offense is much healthier now than back in Week 6, starting with its triggerman. Patrick Mahomes aggravated an ankle injury in that game and struggled to the finish, but he’s clearly healthy now.
Likewise, Tyreek Hill entered with a shoulder issue and played just 28 snaps, though he still managed five grabs for 80 yards and two touchdowns. Sammy Watkins and left tackle Eric Fisher also sat out. On defense, stalwart defensive tackle Chris Jones and linebacker Anthony Hitchens were out.
The Texans weren’t fully healthy either, as wideout Kenny Stills and cornerback Jonathan Joseph were out. Bradley Roby left early with a hamstring issue, and Houston hadn’t yet acquired cornerbacks Gareon Conley and Vernon Hargreaves.
Despite Hill’s stat line, Roby handled him very well in man coverage, as he often did while with Denver. In direct coverage, Roby limited Hill to one catch for 8 yards on six targets, notching two pass breakups. He was not involved in either touchdown, one of which was a “free play” third-and-21 jump ball that Hill somehow stole from safety Justin Reid.
Expect Texans coordinator Romeo Crennel to lean on man coverage and put Roby on Hill (with some help, of course) again. That likely would leave Travis Kelce on Reid, who shared those duties with Tashaun Gipson (now on IR) in the first meeting and held up OK.
2. Can Watson solve Spagnuolo’s defense?
We noted last week that Deshaun Watson has played a bit loose of late. Despite his magical overtime escape to set up the winning field goal, the trend continued against the Bills.
Watson didn’t read the field clearly for the most part. He was primarily responsible for five or six of Buffalo’s seven sacks. A similar performance probably won’t be enough in Kansas City, especially with coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s defense playing at a very high level.
We discussed Spagnuolo’s complexity in our Week 13 preview, and he’s only ramped up the volume. He’s not shy about early-down blitzes, whether with linebackers or safety Tyrann Mathieu off the edge. Spagnuolo’s third-down disguise package is also growing, with several variations of zones that feature a safety in a robber-like position while also keeping other defenders’ eyes on the ball.
Spagnuolo could scale back somewhat with safety Juan Thornhill out, but Mathieu’s versatility — he can basically play anywhere — should keep plenty of options on the table. Either way, Watson should expect more surprises than in Week 6.
The best way to pick on Kansas City’s defense might be the linebackers, as Anthony Hitchens, Damien Wilson and passing-downs specialist Ben Niemann are all exploitable in coverage. Duke Johnson had one touchdown (vs. Wilson) and nearly another in Week 6, but he could be featured more after garnering just four targets.
3. How complex will Titans be vs. Jackson?
One of the toughest things about facing Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens’ offense is maintaining assignments against a litany of personnel packages, formations, shifts and motions.
Presnap shifts and motions — especially jet motion during the snap — bring corresponding changes in run gaps, but they also affect coverage assignments. Play-action only complicates matters: Imagine jet motion changing both your run fit and coverage assignment mid-snap, then having to process a fake handoff (or two) before diagnosing pass and trying to scurry back to your new coverage assignment.
Given it’s difficult to play man coverage vs. Jackson’s rushing ability, the Ravens face a lot of vanilla zones. But vanilla zones are not the Tennessee Titans’ identity.
Head coach Mike Vrabel and defensive coordinator Dean Pees play many traditional Cover-2 and Cover-3 zones, but often via disguise and rotation. Tennessee might send slot corner Logan Ryan as a fourth rusher and drop edge rusher Harold Landry into a hook/curl zone, with several other players rotating post-snap to properly balance the coverage.
Playing that way against Baltimore will require plenty of on-the-fly adjustments, a challenge even for a veteran group. Will Vrabel and Pees trust their players to execute those disguises and rotations properly?
4. Vikings must have a better answer for Kittle
The Minnesota Vikings and San Francisco 49ers’ last meeting, a 24-16 Vikings home win in the 2018 season opener, served as George Kittle’s breakout game.
The then-second-year tight end had five grabs for 90 yards despite leaving a ton of meat on the bone. One was Kittle’s fault — he dropped a wide-open bomb on a leak concept that would have gained 40-plus yards — but Jimmy Garoppolo also failed to see him or missed the throw on three potential touchdowns. Kittle gave linebacker Eric Kendricks trouble and even beat All-Pro safety Harrison Smith a few times.
He’ll surely draw more attention Saturday in Santa Clara, Calif, but the Vikings are a bit more exploitable in coverage than before. Kendricks is outstanding in coverage, but Kittle is a tough matchup for any linebacker, and Smith has slipped ever so slightly from his peak. Kittle could give Minnesota’s cornerbacks trouble, too.
Keep an eye on the Vikings’ approach in the slot. With nickel corner Mackenzie Alexander out last week in New Orleans, Minnesota played third safety Andrew Sendejo in that spot, an odd fit for a physical safety.
Sendejo held up OK, but with Alexander out again, Kyle Shanahan could play with more three-WR packages than normal to target him. Because the 49ers’ weapons play all over the formation, Shanahan could get Kittle, Emmanuel Sanders and Deebo Samuel facing Sendejo at different times.
5. Spotlight on Jones vs. Seahawks
Despite a five-game winning streak, the Green Bay Packers’ offense was inconsistent down the stretch, averaging 20.1 points over the final eight games and failing to score more than 23 points in the final four. That might not cut it vs. the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday.
The Packers’ most consistent weapon is running back Aaron Jones, whose volume expanded over the final two weeks with Jamaal Williams injured. While Williams is expected back this week, Jones should remain the focal point, as Matt LaFleur continues to build around his ground game.
Jones excels in zone run schemes, but he’ll have his work cut out for him against linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright. Expect LaFleur to use plenty of split zone — with a fullback or tight end crossing the formation behind the line to cut the backside edge defender — while incorporating jet and orbit motion to keep Wagner and Wright thinking.
Jones will also be critical as a receiver, both short and deep. The Seahawks’ style of zone coverage tends to provide underneath cushion, giving Jones opportunities on screens and checkdowns. LaFleur also likes to use him vertically — both out of the backfield and from a slot or wide alignment — in concepts that break down zone coverage.
—By David DeChant (@DavidDeChant), Field Level Media