Championship game mismatches: Why Sherman gives Niners major edge
Cornerback Richard Sherman, who had a terrific season, closes in on Packers running back Jamaal Williams during the 49ers' 37-8 win in Week 12. Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

Championship game mismatches: Why Sherman gives Niners major edge

Yardbarker's Michael Nania analyzes the biggest positional mismatches during the NFL playoffs.


DVOA (Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average): A method of evaluating teams, units or players in a comparative fashion. It takes every play during the NFL season and compares each to a league-average baseline based on situation.

EPA (Estimated Points Added): The measure of a play’s impact on the score of the game. It represents the difference between a team's "expected points value" (the net point value a team can expect given a particular combination of down, distance and field position) before and after a play.

Titans offensive line vs. Chiefs run defense

Why Tennessee has the edge: Derrick Henry has produced at a historical level, rushing for at least 182 yards in each of his past three games and eclipsing 100 yards in seven of his past eight. His efficiency and high volume are impressive (6.3 yards per attempt on 25.4 carries per game since Week 10).

In the Titans' surprising run, Henry has benefited from impressive offensive line play. Including the postseason, the Titans own a 72.2 Pro Football Focus run-blocking grade, fifth best in the league. Tennessee's three best run-blocking performances, according to PFF, have come in the past three games. In the regular season, Tennessee ranked fourth in Football Outsiders' adjusted line yards per carry (4.66) and converted at the fifth-best rate in short-yardage (third or fourth down, two yards or less to go) rushing situations (73 percent success rate).

Why Kansas City will struggle: Run defense is Kansas City's Achilles heel. The Chiefs ranked 29th in run defense DVOA in the regular season. They allowed the fourth-most yards per rush attempt (4.9) and yielded the eight-highest conversion rate in short-yardage rushing situations (71 percent), numbers that suggest a huge problem playing against Henry.

How Tennessee does it: Left guard Rodger Saffold, a longtime Ram who was signed a four-year, $44 million deal before the 2019 season, is an unheralded star in Tennessee's hot streak. His run-blocking has paved the way for major gains by Henry, including several in the Titans' 35-32 win against the Chiefs in Nashville in Week 10. Henry rushed for 188 yards (8.2 yard average) and two touchdowns against Kansas City. On this play, Saffold (#76) hits the second level and wallops Chiefs linebacker Damien Wilson (#54), clearing a lane for Henry to pick up 14 yards.

Chiefs secondary vs. Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill

Why Kansas City has the edge: The Chiefs have struggled against the run, but their play against the pass is stellar (sixth in DVOA). Kansas City has saved its best for last, allowing a 67.4 passer rating from Weeks 13-17, second best over that span behind only Green Bay. In the divisional round, the Chiefs held Houston's Deshaun Watson to 7.5 yards per attempt, well below his career average (8.1).

The addition of safety Tyrann Mathieu has bolstered the defense immensely. In the regular season, the "Honey Badger" took on the most targets in coverage of any safety (76), limiting receivers to minuscule production. Mathieu allowed 5.4 yards per target (fifth best among safeties with 30-plus targets) and a 67.5 passer rating (sixth best).

Why Tannehill will struggle: He had a phenomenal finish to the regular season, posting a 119.6 passer rating from Week 7 onward, second only to Baltimore's Lamar Jackson (128.2). Thanks to an impressive running game, Tannehill has not shouldered much of a load in the postseason. He has averaged just 7.5 completions and 80 passing yards over Tennessee's two playoff victories. He is the first quarterback since Bob Griese in 1973 to win back-to-back playoff starts with under 100 passing yards.

In the regular season, Tannehill, who took over as starter in Week 7, averaged 27 pass attempts a game, second fewest over that span. He has yet to pass 40 or more times in a game with Tennessee. Kansas City's offense can take over a game in the blink of an eye, so the Titans may need to abandon the run game and rely on Tannehill to carry them. Is he capable? In six seasons with the Dolphins, Tannehill was 2-17 when he passed 40 times or more.

How Kansas City does it: Mathieu's versatility in coverage has done wonders for Kansas City. On this play against the Texans in the divisional round, Mathieu carries the slot receiver up the field, then fluidly passes him off and switches on to DeAndre Hopkins' route over the middle, landing a perfectly timed jab at the ball to knock it out and record a key third-down stop.

49ers secondary vs. Packers wide receivers

Why San Francisco has the edge: The 49ers' pass defense is the primary reason for the team's success. San Francisco ranked second in pass defense DVOA and EPA, and it allowed the fewest passing yards per game (168.2) and net yards per pass attempt (4.8).

Cornerback Richard Sherman's elite season has carried the back end of San Francisco's defense. He was tagged with allowing just 0.44 yards per cover snap, tops among the 135 cornerbacks with at least 130 snaps in coverage. It was futile for opponents to challenge Sherman, who yielded 4.5 yards per target (best among cornerbacks). He was targeted once every 10.1 snaps in coverage, second best among No. 1 cornerbacks, behind the Chargers' Casey Hayward.

Why Green Bay will struggle: Davante Adams, the Packers' top receiver, has averaged 89 receiving yards per game over the regular season and playoffs. Green Bay's No. 2 pass-catcher, Allen Lazard, posted just 477 receiving yards (29.8 per game).

Sherman will likely be tasked with neutralizing Adams, a crucial battle between two superstars. That would leave Green Bay's wide receiver depth matched up against San Francisco's cornerback depth, a major mismatch in the Niners' favor. San Francisco cornerbacks K'Waun Williams and Emmanuel Mosely ranked 33rd and 50th of 135 qualified cornerbacks, respectively, in fewest yards per cover snap allowed.

How San Francisco does it: Sherman had a lockdown performance in San Francisco's divisional-round win over Minnesota. He allowed only one catch for nine yards over 34 snaps in coverage against the Vikings' star wide receiver duo of Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. Notably, Sherman picked off Kirk Cousins to set up a touchdown that would put the Niners up by 14. Below, Sherman (left cornerback) disrupts Thielen's route with physicality, then beats him inside for the interception, taking advantage of an apparent miscommunication.

Michael Nania writes about the NFL, focusing mainly on statistical analysis. His work can also be found at Gang Green Nation and Elite Sports New York. On Twitter, Michael can be found @Michael_Nania.

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