This past weekend the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers cruised to relatively easy victories in their respective Conference Championships on the way to the Super Bowl. Their matchup will be talked about in excruciating detail over the next two weeks, but right now we will focus on the two teams they beat last weekend, the Packers and Titans. How did they go from finishing third in their respective divisions in 2018 to one game away from playing for the ultimate prize? And what offseason improvements might help them finish next season on top?
Green Bay Packers
How They Got Here
The Packers finished the 2018 season on one of the lowest notes the franchise had seen in decades. They fired their coach mid-season and had embarrassing late-season losses to the lowly Arizona Cardinals and Detroit Lions by a score of 31-0, both at Lambeau Field.
The Packers front office shifted their team-building philosophy last offseason. For the first time in years, the Packers were buyers in free agency and gave out large contracts to help shore up their defense and offensive line. In the draft, they doubled down on defense and offensive line as their first three picks were used on edge rusher Rashan Gary, safety Darnell Savage, and guard Elgton Jenkins.
Their aggressive approach in free agency paid off as their defense made significant improvements defending the pass. Per Sports Info Solutions (SIS), they went from allowing an average EPA of 0.11 on designed pass plays in 2018, to allowing a staggering -0.07 in 2019. The Smiths were the largest impact additions as they combined to create a pass rush the Packers had been missing:
Packers Top Pass Rush Duos by Season
|2019||Za'Darius Smith & Preston Smith||139|
|2018||Kenny Clark & Clay Matthews||61|
|2017||Clay Matthews & Nick Perry||85|
|2016||Nick Perry & Mike Daniels||74|
On offense, the Packers were led by the Aarons, quarterback Aaron Rodgers and running back Aaron Jones. Rodgers continued his amazing career and actually led the league in SIS’s Total Points metric this past season. He managed this while working with a below-average receiving corps that only included one legitimate threat. Jones, for his part, played a full 16 games for the first time in his career and rewarded the Packers’ faith in him with 1,558 yards from scrimmage, 19 touchdowns, and the fifth-most Total Points of any running back.
How They Can Improve
If the Packers want to return to the NFC Championship next season and have a different result, they need to improve in two key areas: their run defense and their receiving corps other than Davante Adams.
Their run defense was shredded last weekend, as Raheem Mostert had a career day and the 49ers put up 37 points with only eight pass attempts. During the regular season, the Packers allowed an average EPA of 0.03 on designed run plays, which is the worst result they have seen in the last four years. Some of this was scheme based, as the Packers defense had six or more defensive backs on the field 52% of the time this season, which was by far the most in the league.
Some of this was also due to a lack of relevant production from the middle linebacker spot. Linebacker Blake Martinez might have tied for first in tackles against the run, but ranked 458th out of 485 in Run Defense Points Saved among defenders who played at least 300 snaps. He also ranked 154th out of 189 in Adjusted Tackle Depth + (ATD+) among defenders with at least 30 tackles against the run.
The Packers’ passing attack was inconsistent most of the year. A lot of this can be blamed on an extremely weak receiving corps outside of No. 1 receiver Davante Adams. Adams accounted for a large portion of the Packers receiver production, despite missing four games due to injury. When he was on the field he received 35% of all the Packers targets, which was the largest target share of any receiver this season.
Davante Adams Compared to All Other GB WRs
|All Other GB WRs||183||0.17||31|
Adams is a legitimate No. 1 receiver for the Packers to build around, but they will need to upgrade the pieces around him if they want to help make Aaron Rodgers’ job easier in the future.
How They Got Here
Last offseason the Titans were coming off their third straight season of finishing 9-7 and looking to improve. 2018 was a decent season for first-time head coach Mike Vrabel, but there were questions surrounding the quarterback position as Marcus Mariota’s health and consistency continued to be a problem. To help Mariota out, they signed guard Rodger Saffold and receiver Adam Humphries in free agency and drafted receiver A.J. Brown and guard Nate Davis with two of their first three selections. However, it was a trade that resulted in their biggest acquisition of the season.
The Titans acquired Ryan Tannehill from the Dolphins for almost nothing, as the Dolphins even agreed to pay most of his salary. He was supposed to be an insurance policy in case Mariota was injured once again. However, he took over as the starting quarterback in Week 7 due to Mariota’s ineffectiveness and turned around the Titans’ struggling season. He instantly improved the Titans’ passing offense and became one of the league’s most efficient passers.
Ryan Tannehill vs. Marcus Mariota as Titans QB
Tannehill proved to be extremely efficient and finally provided the Titans with a passing game that could take advantage of teams loading the box to stop the run. This in turn helped open things up for the NFL’s leading rusher, Derrick Henry. Henry ran for 1,540 yards and 16 touchdowns in total, but he was much more efficient with Tannehill lining up under center:
Derrick Henry’s Rushing Efficiency by QB
|QB||Carries||Yds/Att||Stacked Box%||Avg Yds |
As the defense held the explosive Ravens offense and expected league MVP Lamar Jackson to just 12 points in the playoffs, it is a little surprising that the Titans season numbers are mostly in the middle of the pack. They ranked 13th in EPA Per Play Allowed, 16th in EPA Per Dropback Allowed, and seventh in EPA Per Designed Run Play Allowed. However, this was just enough to help an improved offense with Tannehill reach the playoffs and upset the number one ranked Ravens.
How They Can Improve
The Titans defense was middle of the road last season and to improve they will need a revamped pass rush. It ranked 30th in Pressure Rate, only generating pressure on 30% of their opponents’ dropbacks. Last season’s first-round pick Jeffery Simmons could provide some help in this area, as he wasn’t able to return from a torn ACL until late in the season. Linebacker Harold Landry paced the team in Total Pressures last year with 55, but no other player had more than 30 on the season.
The Titans offense doesn’t have as clear of a weakness as the Packers, as it was extremely balanced last season. Their offensive line was solid as the new additions of Saffold and Davis shored up the interior. They also finally found a No. 1 receiver in A.J. Brown. However, once again the quarterback position is the question mark.
Tannehill was a revelation and one of the most efficient passers in the league. But, he is a free agent and the Titans will need to decide if they want to go all-in with him based on half a season or move on. This isn’t really a weakness they need to shore up, as it is simply a question mark that needs to be answered. If answered correctly the Titans will likely return to the playoffs as a real threat. If answered incorrectly, returning to 9-7 might even be a stretch.
The Packers and Titans both had impressive seasons that somehow proved doubters wrong by ending up in their respective conference championship games and proved doubters right by being easily defeated by true contenders in the playoffs. If they want to replicate their successes and avenge their failures next season, they will need to improve in some key areas. The Packers need to improve their run defense, while also finding some more receiving weapons. And the Titans need to improve their pass rush and make a critical decision at quarterback. If they can make those improvements and build upon their strengths, both teams can be contenders in 2020.