Raise your hand if you figured a Week 5 matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and Tennessee Titans in Nashville would feature teams with a combined 7-1 record.
If your hand is up, you’re likely fibbing.
In his first season in Kansas City, Andy Reid has already doubled last season’s win total. In his third season as the head coach of the Titans, Mike Munchak appears to have a revamped team on a good course.
ESPN Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky and ESPN Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher discuss the teams they cover in advance of the game.
Teicher: Jake Locker was obviously playing well but he won’t be available to the Titans on Sunday. What do the Titans lose without him in their lineup and how will their offense change, if it does, with Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback?
Kuharsky: Well, they won't have him running around as much, though he’s more mobile than one might think. But they haven't used Locker on bootlegs and roll outs so much as they might eventually, as they've been going against 3-4s. They moved away from Matt Hasselbeck in March as he was too expensive for a backup, and they were eyeing Fitzpatrick as they made that move. He’s a smart guy, obviously, and has been a good resource for Locker. He entered the Jets game with the Titans holding a big lead and he said his job was simply not to screw it up. He knows his job changes now for however long Locker is out. Fitzpatrick wasn't on a good team in Buffalo, but he turned the ball over way too much. The Titans are 3-1 in large part because they have not turned the ball over at all yet. The Titans are confident in their system and that Fitzpatrick will be able to keep the trend going.
Alex Smith is a minimal-mistake guy, too. How conservative has he been in Reid's offense?
Teicher: Smith opened things up a little more, went downfield a little more against the Giants on Sunday. Most of their long pass plays from the first three games had been of the catch-and-run type, but he has completed some passes down the field. The Chiefs actually have more pass plays of 20 or more yards (14) than their opponents (10). Smith threw his first two interceptions of the season Sunday, but you could argue that neither one was his fault. On the first, Dwayne Bowe ran a lazy slant route and allowed the cornerback to cut in front and make the catch instead. The other interception was deflected by Jamaal Charles, who accidentally kicked it straight to a defender. The throw wasn't a great one, it was slightly behind Charles, but the interception wasn't Smith’s fault. Going down the field a lot doesn't play to Smith’s strengths. He doesn't throw a great deep ball. His strengths are good decision-making and accuracy on shorter routes.
Big plays have hurt the Chiefs in the running game, but Chris Johnson is averaging fewer than 3.5 yards per carry. Is he still capable of exploiting KC’s run defense or are his best days behind him?
Kuharsky: He's definitely still capable of stellar runs. The Titans have faced some stiff run defenses, particularly in Pittsburgh and against the Jets. They rebuilt the interior of the offensive line, but the new threesome hasn't jelled as quickly as they may have expected. And Johnson will benefit from surrendering some carries to the bigger, better-in-short-yardage Shonn Greene, but Greene's been out since early in the opener with a knee injury that required a scope. He could return this week. Tennessee has run it 55 percent of the time, and Fitzpatrick and the Titans could look for that to go up.
Charles isn't just the Chiefs' top rusher, he's their top receiver. If the Titans can control him, how much will they improve their chances?
Teicher: A lot. In the passing game, no other receiver has stepped forward as a consistent threat for the Chiefs. Bowe has scored a couple of touchdowns, but otherwise, his numbers are way down. He’s just not getting open a lot. The other starting wide receiver, Donnie Avery, had a big game against the Eagles in Philadelphia but has otherwise produced little. Likewise, Dexter McCluster had a nice game last week against the Giants, but otherwise has given them almost nothing. The Chiefs are hurting at tight end. Of their top three tight ends at training camp, one is out for the season while the other two are injured and didn't play last week. In the running game, the Chiefs don’t trust anyone but Charles. They drafted Knile Davis in the third round this year, but between fumbles, lining up in the wrong place and running the wrong play, they can’t count on him for much.
The Titans are a lot like the Chiefs in that they are living off a nice turnover differential. The teams are tied for the league lead at plus-9. What’s it going to look like for the Titans when that begins to balance out?
Kuharsky: Not only are the Titans tied with Kansas City with the league-best plus-9, but Tennessee's plus-9 includes zero giveaways. Odds are this team is due to lose a fumble or throw a pick, and Fitzpatrick is more likely to get picked off than Locker, though he should be less inclined to force anything in this system than when he was pressing in Buffalo. But this is a big piece of what they want to do -- play mistake-free and capitalize on mistakes they help prompt.
Looking at the stats, I see the Chiefs are giving up 5.4 rushing yards a clip. Johnson once ran a mile for a touchdown at Arrowhead and then played the drums he found on the sideline to celebrate. Defensively, what's the best plan of attack for the Titans' offense?
Teicher: He played the drums well, too, as I recall. The Titans need to be patient with the running game. They need to stay with it even if they get behind early or it isn’t working well. If they give up on it early, it’s probably going to be a long day for Fitzpatrick and the offense because the Chiefs are relentless in getting after the passer. They have the players and the schemes to make it work, so the last thing Tennessee needs to do is drop-back the quarterback a bunch of times. Though their season stats look ugly, the Chiefs had only one game where their rushing defense stats were completely out of whack. Philadelphia rushed for 264 yards on 27 carries, but Michael Vick accounted for a lot of that. The Chiefs have allowed 11 runs of 10 or more yards and six were in that game. Their longest run allowed in the other three games is 15 yards. But that’s still the best plan of attack for the Titans.
The Titans haven’t received as much attention for the way they’ve played on defense, but they’ve got a lot of guys playing well on that side of the ball. Who are some of the defensive players the Chiefs need to make sure they account for in the running game and the passing game?
Kuharsky: A guy who's probably remembered by Chiefs fans, safety Bernard Pollard, is the defensive tone-setter. The Titans have managed to keep him out of coverage situations downfield, which are not his strength. Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey is a really good, disruptive rusher and effective run-stopper who rates as the best player on defense. Zach Brown is a speedy weakside 'backer who's gotten to the quarterback. And cornerback Alterraun Verner has more takeaways than anyone in the league with four picks and two fumble recoveries. They wondered if he'd be good enough playing more man-press, which they're going to more often. He's been great.
Same question to you. We know Justin Houston's got 7.5 sacks and Eric Berry is a very good safety. Who else keys that defense?
Teicher: They have a lot of guys playing well on defense. Dontari Poe, their nose tackle, has been outstanding. He’s providing some consistent push in the pass rush they haven’t had from the middle of their line in a long time. Inside linebacker Derrick Johnson is playing as well as he ever has. The other outside linebacker, Tamba Hali, had a big game against the Giants with a couple of sacks and a forced fumble. The corners, Sean Smith and Brandon Flowers, have mostly held up well. Dez Bryant of Dallas had a big game against Flowers. He has a sore knee that prevented him from playing Sunday and could be trouble for him again this week. A rookie, Marcus Cooper, filled in nicely for Flowers. A lot of their players seem to have taken to the pressure system put in by new coordinator Bob Sutton.