Championship Sunday Preview: Can Packers Find Special Sauce Vs. Niners D, Titans’ Reliance on the Big Play

Also, the invincibility of Patrick Mahomes, the Titans’ upcoming free agent quandary, Odell’s cash now, and a shocking draft decision. Plus, musical guest: Spoon!
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1. If I were Matt LaFleur, the moment the Green Bay Packers were done with Seattle last Sunday I would’ve grabbed one of my Rad Dog Trapper Keepers (probably not the one with the shark on it, but maybe the one with the skateboarder doing that sick kickflip) and headed straight to old pal Sean McVay’s house to learn how to move the ball against the San Francisco 49ers.

More than anything, great coaches can teach and great coaches can problem-solve. McVay put the latter on display in the best single-game coaching job of the 2019 season, when he took his Rams to Santa Clara in Week 16. In the first meeting between the Rams and the 49ers, back in Week 6, L.A. put up seven points and 157 yards of offense because their offensive line was literally incapable of blocking the 49ers’ defensive line. Fast-forward to the rematch, on a Saturday night in late December. While there were some new faces on the Rams’ offensive line, they were equally overmatched. So McVay went heavy on bootlegs and reintroduced the screen game in full, basically going wild with misdirection concepts and moving the pocket to help negate the pass rush. They also mixed in a little bit of tempo to slow the front four. The result was 31 points, 395 yards of offense, and one Jared Goff brain freeze on a pick-six to the flat (or one still-inexplicable blown coverage by a rookie safety) away from the upset.

The Packers, according to history books, had their collective non-denim pants pulled down at Levi’s Stadium in a November Sunday nighter—198 yards, eight points, 1-for-15(!) on third down. They are perfectly capable of replicating a lot of the concepts the Rams rolled out in their 49ers rematch. They will probably never truly go tempo with Aaron Rodgers because Rodgers prefers to take his time doing work at the line of scrimmage. But as for the rest of it, Rodgers really hasn’t fallen off physically in any meaningful way; you can still move the pocket with him. They can use Aaron Jones on the outside-zone runs and work play-action off of them. They have an expansive screen game. However, they did roll out a good chunk of screen plays last time they were in Santa Clara and it didn’t yield much—part of that was LaFleur’s play-calling struggles, and part was an obscenely talented 49ers defense able to recover from missteps.

Speaking of which, I used these clips earlier this season but check out Nick Bosa getting completely turned around twice in the first game against the Packers. The kicker: one play resulted in a short Rodgers scramble, the other in a holding call (Bosa literally turns to chase the running back upfield on play-action, and still ends up drawing a holding flag).

That brings us to the biggest reason the Packers might be unable to move the ball—and it’s the same reason that’s been at the heart of their issues on offense the past two seasons: Davante Adams is the only receiving weapon that causes any problem for the 49ers’ back end. The Rams had the luxury of having four potential go-to options for Jared Goff (Robert Woods and Tyler Higbee each had 100 receiving yards in the second 49ers game, while Cooper Kupp and Brandin Cook can be featured pieces). Rodgers only has—and only trusts—Adams.

Richard Sherman will surely stay on the left side while Adams will move around, but that’s not something new for an offense facing the 49ers. Whether it’s Ahkello Witherspoon on the right side or K’Waun Williams in the slot, they’ll get help on Adams. That leaves Geronimo Allison, Allen Lazard, Marquez Valdes-Scantling or one of the tight ends (the declining Jimmy Graham or Marcedes Lewis, or the ascending-but-not-ready Jace Sternberger) to make a play or two. And is there any reason to think that now, in the 18th game of the season, one of them will step up?

Gambling: Conference Championship Expert Picks Against Spread, Best Bets

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2. The Tennessee Titans found answers for Lamar Jackson last week. They stayed disciplined in their rush lanes to limit his scramble opportunities and forced him to throw outside the numbers—the last true weakness in Jackson’s game—often. The challenge this week is that it’s tough to similarly find an answer for how to slow down Patrick Mahomes.

While everyone loves the second-reaction plays, it’s the flawless execution of the routine (or, at least routine-looking) that has made Mahomes the best quarterback in the world the last two seasons. It seems there might not be anything you can do to make him uncomfortable.

The Titans are very good defensively—much better than the Texans—but it feels like if the Kansas City Chiefs struggle offensively on Sunday, it will be self-inflicted.

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3a. The amazing thing about the Titans offense is that they’re not just an offense built around the run game in the futuristic year 2020, but that they’re getting a ton of big plays out of that approach.

It wasn't that way early in the season. Through the first nine games, the Titans had three runs of 20-plus yards—none longer than 34—and one of them was a Ryan Tannehill scramble. In nine games since, they have 11 runs of 20-plus yards, including five of 50-plus (and three of 60-plus). For context, the Ravens are the only other team that had as many runs of 20-plus yards over that span.

As much as Tannehill’s solid work at the deep-intermediate levels have sparked this offense, it’s Henry’s big-play ability (aided by chemistry with the offensive line and Arthur Smith’s increased comfort as a play-caller) that has been the difference for Tennessee. Most teams crash hard against Henry to try to get him in the backfield, before he can get a head of steam. But when he gets his runway, it’s up to the second- and third-level defenders to keep six-yard runs from becoming 60-yard runs.

The Chiefs will have to be good on the back-end (without rookie safety Juan Thornhill again) against play-action, as the Titans have six passing touchdowns of 40-plus yards over the last eight games. It’s as simple as this: Kansas City has to limit the big plays and make the Titans piece together sustained drives.

3b. The Titans had more touchdowns of 20-plus yards over the past eight games than any team in the NFL (13). Though, of course, the Chiefs had more touchdowns of 20-plus yards than anyone over the course of the entire season (21).

Keys to the Game: AFC: Titans-Chiefs | NFC: Packers-49ers

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4. In short: You don't get games that are locks in this part of the season. But it's really difficult to picture the Chiefs and 49ers losing without some weirdness (special-teams gaffes, scoop-and-score fumbles, etc.) playing a big part.

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5. Not to get ahead of ourselves, but while Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry are indeed the most important free agents Tennessee will have this offseason, RT Jack Conklin has to be the most interesting.

Tannehill and Henry will both surely be in Nashville next season. But Conklin plays a premium position where even average players fetch enormous sums of money on the open market. He has a top-10 draft pick pedigree (and received an eye-rolling first-team All-Pro honor as a rookie—he was good but definitively not All-Pro good—but an All-Pro honor nonetheless) and has played well in 2019.

But Conklin also struggled mightily for most of 2018, perhaps due to a combination of the torn ACL suffered at the end of the '17 season and an adjustment to Matt LaFleur’s offense. Regardless of the reason, the Titans declined a fifth-year option that would have paid him a little less than $13 million next season. That might end up looking like a bargain-basement price.

The Titans surely want him back—Conklin has seemed at home in Arthur Smith’s offense, which is much more similar to the one he was originally drafted to play in—and if nothing else they don’t want to mess with the chemistry they’ve found up front. But if they have to burn the inappropriately-named franchise tag on Tannehill and Conklin hits the open market, watch out. Because considering what the likes of Trent Brown, Andrew Norwell and Nate Solder got in free agency, the Titans are going to have to break the bank.

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6. Odell Beckham Jr. is just like us, what with going to his alma mater’s sporting event and getting (it would seem) exceedingly drunk. And while I appreciate anyone willing to needle the cartel that is the NCAA, the premeditated attention-grab that was handing out wads of cash to players could’ve been done a little bit more thoughtfully. Perhaps put the cash in an inconspicuous envelope. Or maybe just Venmo some money. The downside is you draw less attention to yourself, but the upside is that, this way, the young men who just generated millions for their university for very little compensation (and none of it actual money) are rewarded with, you know, money.

Learn from Mayor Quimby:

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7. Travis Etienne returning to Clemson is the shocker of draft declaration season. I wouldn’t be doing my job as one of the media’s breathless pocket-watchers if I didn’t point out that, as a running back, there’s little upside to staying in school if you're projected to be an early-round pick—even if he avoids injury, the wear and tear will be held against him next draft season.

Maybe Clemson has promised to continue developing Etienne in the passing game. His first two seasons he did very little as a pass-catcher, last year they got him involved in the screen game, and now maybe they expand his route tree. 

But, I guess if he loves playing for Clemson, loves playing for his coaches and with his teammates, and doesn’t mind how he’s being exploited, why not go back to a place where he knows he’ll be happy (once you decide to leave they don’t let you come back). There’s more to life than maximizing one’s earning power, so maybe there’s something to be said for playing for a national title with your friends rather than going to Detroit to have Matt Patricia make you run wind sprints because someone was slouching during a film session.

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8. Ladies and gentlemen . . . Spoon!

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