Listen to any football coach talk about which aspects of the game matter most and they’ll undoubtedly bring up performance on third downs and in the red zone. Statistically speaking, those parts of the game are the most susceptible to noise. If projecting performance over a full season, performance on first and second down will give you a better indication of future performance than third. The same can be said for the other 80 yards of the field vs the 20 in the red zone.

But in a single game, say one that determines which team will get to go to the Super Bowl, those types of plays are absolutely going to matter. In the AFC Championship Game between the Tennessee Titans and Kansas City Chiefs, we could be in for fascinating red zone matchups on both sides of the ball.

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Offensive Performance

The Kansas City Chiefs were again a high-powered offense in 2019, though not at the heights of the 2018 season. Surprisingly, the biggest production drop off in the regular season came in the red zone. In 2018, the Chiefs led the league in points per red zone trip (5.69) and ranked second in touchdowns per red zone trip (0.718), per Football Outsiders. In 2019, that dropped to 4.84 points per red zone trip, which ranked 16th, and 0.54 touchdowns per red zone trip, which ranked 20th.

Patrick Mahomes had some struggles in the red zone, especially considering how nearly automatic he was throwing the ball in that area during his MVP campaign in 2018. A lot of that drop off came from Mahomes, whose on-target percentage dropped dramatically in 2019. Here are his numbers over the past two seasons, per Sports Info Solutions.

SeasonAttComp%On-Tgt%Y/ATD%Int%Sack%EPA/AttPostive Play%

That drop off didn’t really matter since the Chiefs were one of the league’s best big-play offenses and still ranked second in both points and touchdowns per drive. We also saw how predictive (or not so much) red zone performance can be after Kansas City scored a touchdown on seven straight red zone trips against the Houston Texans in the Divisional Round. Give Mahomes enough opportunities and he can lead a scoring drive from anywhere.

Meanwhile, the Titans were a red zone machine. Tennessee was third in points per red zone trip but led the league in touchdowns per red zone trip (0.756) by a significant margin. There was a bigger gap between the Titans and the No. 2 team than between the teams ranked second and 12th.

It shouldn’t be a surprise to hear the Titans did a lot of their damage on the ground, riding Derrick Henry as they approached the end zone. Henry was seventh among running backs in red zone carries (42), fourth in EPA, and fifth in positive play rate.

Still, the Titans were relatively pass-heavy in the red zone with the 10th highest rate of passes overall and 12th highest after Ryan Tannehill took over as the starter in Week 7.

Tannehill was extremely boom or bust when he threw in the red zone during the regular season. Per SIS charting, Tannehill led the league in on-target percentage on passes inside the 20 (83.8%) and had the highest completion percentage of any quarterback with at least 10 attempts in 2019 (70.3%, while no other quarterback was over 65%).

Only Lamar Jackson (40.0%) threw a touchdown on a higher percentage of red zone passes than Tannehill (37.8%). But only Brandon Allen (8.3%) had a higher interception rate than the Tennessee quarterback (8.1%). Tannehill was also one of the most sacked quarterbacks in the red zone during the regular season (6.8%).

Aggressive defense

How these quarterbacks fare in the red zone matters especially this week because the Chiefs and Titans have been two of the most aggressive defenses in the red zone this season.

Across the league, there has been a rise in the rate of Cover 0 blitzes by defenses backed up against their own goal line. (A Cover 0 blitz is basically an all-out blitz that leaves no deep safeties with man-to-man coverage against all receivers across the defense.) The theory here is when backed up in the red zone, there is only so much ground a deep safety can cover in the condensed space so losing them in coverage isn’t as big of a liability as it would be in a more open area of the field. Both Tennessee and Kansas City subscribed to that theory this season.

The Chiefs tied with the Ravens for the highest number of Cover 0 blitzes used in the red zone during the regular season (22) while the Titans were third (20). The Titans were technically more aggressive because they faced a lower number of pass attempts in the red zone overall, so their usage rate of the 0-blitz was much higher. Tennessee sent the house on 27.8% of their opposing drop backs while the Chiefs used it on 21.4%. While both teams still allowed scores while sending the blitz, both teams produced negative EPA overall while doing so.

Cover 0 Red Zone Plays, 2019

TeamComp%YPATD/INTPressure RateEPA/AttPositive Play %

This strategy worked much better for the Chiefs than it did for the Titans, though both teams were still much better with the aggressive blitz. Even though Tennessee didn’t have the results Kansas City did on those plays, it had just as big of an impact — if not more — because Tennessee’s red zone pass defense on all other plays wasn’t that great.

Non-Cover 0 Red Zone Plays, 2019

TeamComp%YPATD/INTPressure RateEPA/AttPositive Play %

It’s hard to predict what exactly is going to happen in the red zone, one of the most unstable parts of the field. Considering how these teams have won their playoff games, the performance inside the 20 is going to be meaningful on both sides of the ball. Tennessee wants to control the game on the ground, which makes it almost necessary to convert on the close chances they get. Kansas City proved against Houston they can score at will when given the chance.

We’re going to see two offenses that have used high red zone conversion rates to their advantage and two defenses that have been among the most aggressive in trying to prevent points in that area. Past performance might not mean all that much when predicting the future, but putting these two teams together given what they’ve done in the past, should make for some dramatic possessions in the highest leverage area.