Fresh off a bye week, the Kansas City Chiefs are hosting the Tennessee Titans at Arrowhead Stadium for Sunday Night Football. The Chiefs entered the weekend as 12-point favorites, per DraftKings SportsBook.
The Chiefs’ first game after a bye week always leads to one thing: statistics about head coach Andy Reid’s record in these situations. Reid has a 20-3 record in the regular season following a bye week, with a 12-1 record at home in those scenarios. With quarterback Patrick Mahomes as his starter, he is 4-0.
Yet, the Chiefs have failed to beat the Titans in a regular season game on four-consecutive attempts. The last time Kansas City topped Tennessee outside of the postseason was in Reid’s first year as Chiefs head coach.
Something will have to give in this battle of AFC division leaders. I have five things to watch:
1. Staying ahead of the sticks
Despite decent statistics, Tennesee’s defense has proven exploitable by an explosive offense. The Buffalo Bills scored 41 points on the unit, and Tennessee hasn’t faced anywhere near that caliber of offense since the Week 2 loss.
The unit’s strength is their pass rush — proven by how well the defense performs on pass downs. They lead the NFL in conversion rate allowed on third down, using a talented four-man rush to make things difficult in obvious passing situations.
Even though the quarterbacks they’ve faced are more susceptible to pressure than Patrick Mahomes, it’s still essential to keep Tennessee out of their comfort zone. That’s why the Chiefs need to stay ahead of the sticks — avoiding obvious pass downs with negative plays on first or second down.
That can be done with a healthy amount of early-down passes, but it’s also important for any run to earn as many yards as possible. It’s why I believe rookie running back Isiah Pacheco should get the chance to have his most significant impact on a game yet.
2. Containing Derrick Henry
It’s no secret what the Titans will want to do when they have the ball — and it will be an even bigger feature of the offense if starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill is not able to play; he is questionable and deemed a game-time decision by the team.
Running back Derrick Henry will be toting the rock early, often, and for the length of the game. That sounds like bad news for the Chiefs’ run defense, who have been gashed by opposing rushing attacks the last three weeks. For the season, the team is ranked last in ESPN’s team run-stop win rate metric.
However, Tennessee’s lack of receiving threats should lead to the Kansas City defense primarily focused on stopping Henry. It’s what the Chiefs’ plan was last season when they held Henry to 86 rushing yards on 29 carries; his longest rush was 11 yards. Linebacker Nick Bolton had 15 tackles, including four for a loss.
The Tennessee passing attack made the Chiefs’ effort against Henry irrelevant in the 27-3 loss, but I don’t believe the Titans have the talent in the pass game this year to overcome a similarly below-average performance from Henry.
3. The depths of the receiving room
We’ve seen tight end Travis Kelce, wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling establish themselves as the top three pass catchers of the Chiefs’ receivers.
After them, it’s more of a grab bag. Yes, wide receiver Mecole Hardman is the third receiver by snap counts and statistics — but a lot of that comes from the defined gadget role he has carved out in this offense. Rookie wide receiver Skyy Moore has eaten into the true wide receiver snaps more and more; in fact, Moore has nine targets past the line of scrimmage in the past four games, while Hardman has eight.
Then, the Chiefs threw 2021 first-round pick Kadarius Toney into the mix when they traded for him last week. It’s a crowded room, but Toney is expected to play — per Coach Reid on Friday. He mentioned they “have a few things installed for him.”
Another way to look at the Toney trade: he may see punt return duties, as special teams coordinator Dave Toub shared this week. Could this relieve Moore of his responsibilities there, allowing him to be more available for offense? We’ll see if that bears out on Sunday.
4. Reliance on rookies
With defensive end Frank Clark suspended for two games, first-round pick George Karlaftis will be asked to play an even bigger role than he already was; he is the current snaps leader among Chiefs defensive ends, but has only earned half of a sack and one tackle for loss this year.
Plus, rookie cornerback Trent McDuffie is expected to be back in the lineup — which is coupled with the departure of veteran cornerback Rashad Fenton. Three of the Chiefs’ top four cornerbacks are now first-year players.
Considering those things, this Sunday may be the most important game of the season for each of this year’s first-round picks.
5. The offensive line answering their latest challenge
On Thursday, Titans defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons appeared on Sirius XM NFL Radio’s Movin’ The Chains — expressing that he is “confident” the Titans’ front four can “go out there and dominate” the Chiefs’ offensive line.
It’s very similar to the pre-game message that Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ edge rusher Shaq Barrett had before the Chiefs’ 41-23 beatdown in Week 4. It was probably the best game of the season for Kansas City’s starting five up front.
The whole line was challenged — but specifically the interior. Center Creed Humphrey, right guard Trey Smith, and left guard Joe Thuney will have their hands full with Simmons, who has 5.5 sacks this season as an inside rusher. The Titans will also rush defensive end Denico Autry from the inside on pass downs; he has five sacks himself.