NASHVILLE – The Titans face the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday at Nissan Stadium.
Here's a look at six things to watch:
It's impossible not to watch Titans running back Derrick Henry, right? I mean the guy has taken over games all season, with five straight 100-yard performances and now with 783 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. The Titans figure to ride Henry, who is averaging 130.5 yards per game, once again against a Kansas City defense that's ranked 27th in the NFL rushing defense, allowing 133.2 yards per game, and 5.15 yards per carry. The Chiefs did a decent job slowing down Henry the last time these two teams met, holding him to 69 yards on 19 carries in the AFC Championship Game at the end of the 2019 season. But this is a different Chiefs team, and this is an improved King Henry.
Air Attack, and Protection
With the Chiefs stacking the box to slow down Henry, the Titans should have opportunities to throw the football. To make it work, the Titans will need to protect quarterback Ryan Tannehill like they did against the Bills, when the team didn't allow a sack after surrendering 20 in the first five games. Because of injuries, some questions remain about who Tannehill will be throwing the ball to on Sunday. The best case scenario is receiver Julio Jones is able to play alongside A.J. Brown, and the Titans have their top twosome in place, along with others. The Chiefs have some talented players on defense, including safety Tyrann Matthieu, who leads K.C. with two INTs. But the Chiefs are giving up 277.3 passing yards per game, so the opportunity to be successful through the air is there.
Contain Patrick Mahomes
Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes is fun to watch on Sundays – unless you're playing against him. The strong-armed, elusive QB can make throws all over the field, and he keeps plays alive with his escapability. The Titans won't be able to stop Mahomes, who has thrown for 1,887 yards and 18 touchdowns this season. Forcing him into mistakes, and sacking him to put the Chiefs into long down-and-distance situations, however, would go a long way on Sunday. Mahomes has been sacked 10 times and he's thrown eight interceptions in six games, and that's part of the reason the Chiefs are a minus-6 (6/14) in the takeaway/giveaway category. It would be nice to keep this going.
Red Zone Success
As mentioned previously, stopping the Chiefs isn't a realistic option. The Chiefs are ranked 2nd in the NFL in total offense, averaging 433.5 yards and 30.8 points per game. In addition to Mahomes, they have one of the game's most exciting players in receiver Tyreek Hill, and one of the game's best tight ends in Travis Kelce. But facing a good offense is nothing new to the Titans, who faced the high-flying Bills just a few days ago. One of the keys to Tennessee's defensive success in that game hinged on the team's ability to get stops in the red zone. The Titans held the Bills to field goals early, and they got a big defensive stand late. They'll need more of the same on Sunday against a Chiefs offense that's ranked 1st in the NFL in third down pct (60.8).
The Titans have taken a hit here. Cornerbacks Kristian Fulton and Caleb Farley both went on Injured Reserve within the past week, which has forced the Titans to do some reshuffling. While Jackrabbit Jenkins, Chris Jackson and Elijah Molden will be in the mix, other options are now on the table, from recently signed Greg Mabin to Breon Borders to a pair of practice squad candidates – Chris Jones and Briean Boddy-Calhoun. A combination of those players will join safeties Kevin Byard and Amani Hooker, along with Dane Cruikshank. While the Titans would love these guys to create turnovers, what's also important is the group's ability to keep the Chiefs from making explosive plays downfield. This is a mammoth test for the Titans secondary.
Punter Brett Kern is off the Reserve/COVID-19 list and back on the roster, which is a plus. Kicker Randy Bullock has been hot, coming off a perfect game vs the Bills which improved his stats to 11-of-13 kicking field goals, and 14-of-15 on PATs, and that's another plus. But the challenge on Sunday against the Chiefs will be dealing with a dynamic return game that's ranked 2nd in the NFL with speedster Mecole Hardman leading the way. The Chiefs are also ranked 10th in the NFL on kickoff returns. In a game like this, special teams could play a big factor, and if you don't believe it, just recall the last regular season game between these two teams, when the Titans got a blocked field goal to seal the win in November 2019.