Cover 3: Will the Titans Take Down Another Top AFC Contender?
Mike Vrabel is still a healthy and relatively young man, though a stressful first six weeks of the 2021 season could be taking as much of a toll on his 46-year-old body as the 14 years he spent playing in the NFL.
Vrabel’s Tennessee Titans have endured their share of wild finishes during a 4-2 start, perhaps none more heart-pounding then Monday’s nail-biter against the Buffalo Bills. The Titans have been in two overtime games and seemed destined for a third before Buffalo coach Sean McDermott opted to eschew a chip-shot field goal attempt in the final seconds that would have tied the game at 34.
Anyone who’s tuned into any morning talk show on any American major sports network this week knows the result. Tennessee’s defense came up with a fourth-and-1 stop and a statement win over a Bills team that’s emerged as the public’s favorite to win the AFC.
That thrilling outcome capped a week in which three other games went to overtime to bring the season total to 11, the second highest amount through a season’s first six weeks since the NFL adopted OT in 1974. This season is also the second in league history to have at least one overtime game in each of the first six weeks, joining the 2018 campaign in which Weeks 1-7 all had one or more.
This week’s schedule does appear light on blockbuster matchups. The Cincinnati Bengals’ visit to Baltimore is the lone game on the docket pitting teams with winning records, and it’s one we anticipate as a fairly comfortable victory for the red-hot Ravens.
Still, Sunday’s clash between the Titans and Kansas City Chiefs hardly qualifies as a potential yawner, as a rematch of the 2019 AFC championship game that features the NFL’s premier running back (Derrick Henry) and arguably it’s best quarterback (Patrick Mahomes) carries plenty of pizzazz.
That’s one of three Week 7 games we’re taking a closer look at because of their potential for competitiveness, excitement and impact on the standings.
Kansas City Chiefs (3-3) at Tennessee Titans (4-2), Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, CBS
Line: Chiefs by 4.5
The Analyst Win Probability: Chiefs 52%
Why to Watch: As mentioned above, it’s these teams’ first meeting since the 2019 AFC title game, when the Titans gave Kansas City all it could handle for three quarters before the Chiefs eventually pulled away for a 35-24 win. It’s also a massively important game for the two-time defending conference champions, who run the risk of falling two games behind the Los Angeles Chargers and Las Vegas Raiders in the tough AFC West.
Additionally, it’s another opportunity to witness the greatness of Derrick Henry, who’s at the very least the front-runner for fantasy MVP honors with 783 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns through six games. Henry’s streak of five consecutive 100-yard rushing games is the longest by any player in a season since DeMarco Murray ripped off eight straight with the Cowboys in 2014, and it’s a good bet that run continues against a Kansas City defense that’s allowing 1.153 yards over expected per rush attempt, which ranks 31st in the league.
Key matchup: Patrick Mahomes vs. Titans pass defense
It will be interesting to see how Tennessee defensive coordinator Shane Bowen decides to combat what appears to be a decided advantage in the Chiefs’ favor. The Titans have been woeful trying to stop enemy quarterbacks when they don’t blitz, having allowed a 107.0 passer rating in such situations that ranks 28th in the NFL. That number drops considerably to a much more respectable 87.3 when they do bring extra rushers.
So, the game plan seems rather straightforward, right? Well, not exactly.
Mahomes’ season thus far hasn’t been quite up to his usual standards, but he’s still been downright deadly versus the blitz. His 150.5 passer rating when blitzed trails only Kyler Murray for the best in the league (min. 25 pass attempts), and all eight of his interceptions in 2021 have come in non-blitz situations.
LARGEST DIFFERENCE IN PASSER RATING, BLITZ VS. NON-BLITZ THROUGH WEEK 6
(Rating better vs. blitz, min. 75 total pass att.)
Player vs. Blitz Non-Blitz Differential Teddy Bridgewater, DEN 146.1 84.4 +61.7 Patrick Mahomes, KC 150.5 94.7 +55.8 Kyler Murray, ARI 155.8 105.7 +50.1 Jimmy Garoppolo, SF 132.8 86.2 +46.6 Tom Brady, TB 133.7 99.0 +43.7
To further complicate matters for Bowen, rookie first-round pick Caleb Farley tore his ACL in Monday night’s win over the Bills and joined starting corner Kristian Fulton on injured reserve. Now without two of their top three cornerbacks, it’s vital that the Titans generate consistent pressure from four-man fronts if they’re to have any chance of slowing down Kansas City’s prolific pass attack.
Odds are they won’t. Tennessee has faced three elite quarterbacks this year (Kyler Murray, Russell Wilson, Josh Allen) who combined for 985 yards, nine touchdowns and a 118.2 passer rating in those games.
The Titans did win two of those contests, however, with Henry running wild on both the Seahawks and Bills. And if the Chiefs’ turnover issues persist another week, Tennessee has a very reasonable chance at another signature win.
Philadelphia Eagles (2-4) at Las Vegas Raiders (4-2), Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET, FOX
Line: Raiders by 3
The Analyst Win Probability: Raiders 57%
Why to Watch: This game shapes up to be by far the most competitive of the four in the Sunday afternoon time slot with the other three all featuring heavy home favorites in the Arizona Cardinals (vs. Houston Texans), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (vs. Chicago Bears) and Los Angeles Rams (vs. Detroit Lions). And despite the current disparity in win totals, these teams share several interesting similarities.
For starters, they’ve both been really bad in the first half of games. The Eagles have been outscored by 39 points over the first two quarters, with only the New York Jets, Lions and New York Giants – teams that are combined 2-15 – owning larger deficits. The Raiders haven’t been much better with a minus-26 first-half differential, but they’ve been awesome in third quarters with a league-best plus-36 differential while outscoring foes 42-6 for the period.
Both teams also have very common defensive philosophies in that they blitz infrequently and focus on limiting big gains through the air. Philadelphia allows a very high completion rate (71.5) but a league-low 9.39 yards per catch, just ahead of the Raiders’ 9.40 yards per reception. That’s very notable since Las Vegas’ M.O. on offense is all about stretching the field vertically. Derek Carr has attempted a league-high 37 passes of 21 or more air yards, and the Raiders’ 21 completions of at least 25 yards also top the NFL.
Vegas wins when Carr is hitting on those big plays, usually to second-year burner Henry Ruggs, and it doesn’t when they’re taken away. The Raiders are 4-0 when completing three or more passes of 25-plus yards in a game, and they had three combined in losses to the Chargers and Bears.
Philly’s offense has been plagued by inconsistency as well, and it’s been atrocious for two straight weeks as Jalen Hurts has struggled. The young quarterback has completed a mere 54% of his pass attempts during that stretch with an incredibly low 20.6% of those passes resulting in first downs.
The Eagles were able to overcome that inefficiency in their Week 5 win over Carolina, basically because Hurts still didn’t play as badly as counterpart Sam Darnold. That didn’t fly in a matchup with Tom Brady last week, though, and probably won’t against Carr either.
Key matchup: Eagles offensive line vs. Raiders pass rush
Hurts faces a tough spot to try to reclaim his early-season form, as the Raiders have allowed 0.933 yards fewer than expected on passing plays to rank second in the league in that category (the Eagles rank fourth). Vegas’ success is in large part due to a relentless pass rush that generated pressures on 47.1% of opponent passing attempts, the third-best mark in the league.
Maxx Crosby’s breakout season has been the catalyst for the Raiders’ pass rushing prowess. The third-year edge rusher’s 49 pressures (any play with a full or half sack, hit, hurry or knockdown) are tied with Rams star Aaron Donald for the most of any defender this season, and he accounted for three of the team’s five sacks as it battered Teddy Bridgewater and the Denver Broncos into submission a week ago.
Philadelphia’s offensive line has had continuity issues with four of its five starters already having missed two or more games. The unit does get a big one back this week, however, with right tackle Lane Johnson set to return from a three-game absence. Johnson surrendered a pressure on only 4.1% of passing plays in 2020, the lowest rate of any player at his position, and he’ll spend most of Sunday lined up opposite Crosby in perhaps the game’s most significant one-on-one matchup.
It may help the Eagles’ cause to place a greater emphasis on establishing the run, something they’ve been often reluctant to do during the early stages of the Nick Sirianni era. Though Philadelphia’s 0.888 yards per play above expected on running plays is fourth best in the NFL, it’s averaging a league-low 13 attempts per game from its running backs.
Indianapolis Colts (2-4) at San Francisco 49ers (2-3), Sunday, 8:20 pm ET, NBC
Line: 49ers by 4
The Analyst Win Probability: 49ers 56%
Why to Watch: It may not be the sexiest Sunday Night Football matchup, but it’s an important one with the loser facing an uphill climb in its quest to qualify for the playoffs. It’s also a test of validation of sorts for a Colts team that counts among the league’s early-season disappointments, having yet to answer the bell against competition stiffer than the spiraling Miami Dolphins and talent-deficient Texans.
The 49ers do qualify as a step up in class despite their sub-.500 record. They were 37 seconds away from beating NFC North-leading Green Bay Packers three Sundays back, then later hung tough on the road with still-unbeaten Arizona in Week 5 despite rookie quarterback Trey Lance playing much like one in place of an injured Jimmy Garoppolo.
It’s also a bit of a redemption game for the participating quarterbacks, both of whom aren’t long removed from being considered vital pieces on teams that reached the Super Bowl. One (Carson Wentz) has already been cast off to another organization, and the other (Garoppolo) is about to be with San Francisco implicitly declaring Lance as its franchise leader for 2022 and beyond.
Wentz has already managed to rebuild his reputation to an extent, having so far eliminated the 2020 interception issues that ultimately led to his exodus from Philadelphia. The former Pro Bowler has thrown just one pick in six starts as a Colt, and his pickable pass percentage of 1.68 reinforces the belief that he’s making better decisions with the ball with his new team.
Neither Wentz nor the offense in general have been the source of the Colts’ biggest problems, which have come on the other side of the ball. Which leads us to …
Key matchup: Jimmy Garoppolo vs. Colts pass defense
The 49ers have had trouble duplicating the potent running game that carried them to the Super Bowl just two years ago, as they’ve produced a negative yards over expected rush attempt during their 2-3 start with rookie backs Eli Mitchell and Trey Sermon displaying sporadic effectiveness. Those struggles could linger this week, as the Colts are allowing an average of 0.493 yards below expected on running plays (6th overall) with ends Tyquan Lewis (17.2%) and Al-Quadin Muhammad (15.9%), star linebacker Darius Leonard (6.2%) and safety Khari Willis (7.5%) all posting run disruption percentages (plays where a defender wins his specific matchup and is able to defend multiple gaps successfully) above the league average at their positions.
Defending the pass has been an entirely different matter for Indianapolis, our 29th-ranked team in yards over expected on plays through the air. Take away last week’s strong performance against overmatched Texans rookie Davis Mills, and the Colts have permitted opposing quarterbacks to complete over 73% of their attempts while surrendering 15 touchdowns and 12 passing plays of 25 or more yards in five games.
The 49ers haven’t been known as an air-it-out team under Kyle Shanahan, but Garoppolo – expected to start this week after missing one game with a strained calf – has shown at times the ability to exploit weak defenses. That was the case in the season opener, when he amassed 314 yards on only 25 throws as San Francisco rung up 41 points in a win over Detroit.
Deebo Samuel was the real star on that day with 189 yards and a touchdown on nine catches, and he’s primed for another huge performance provided he isn’t the sole focus of the Colts’ defensive game plan.
There’s reason to believe he could be. With George Kittle on injured reserve, San Francisco lacks a proven downfield threat opposite Samuel, who’s accounted for a whopping 42.8% of the 49ers’ total receiving yards. Only Green Bay’s Davante Adams (44.4%) has a greater chunk of his team’s output in that category this season.
The 49ers need someone, likely Brandon Aiyuk, to step up this week with Kittle still out and Samuel likely to draw a healthy dose of double teams. The 2020 first-round pick has been a major disappointment thus far in his sophomore season, producing an open percentage (how often a receiver is open on throws in which he is targeted) of 46.7 that’s well below the league average of 73.9 for wide receivers.
Graphic design by Briggs Clinard.