Chiefs vs. Browns WR/CB Matchups: Downgrade Jarvis Landry vs. Kansas City in Divisional Round
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images. Pictured: Jarvis Landry (80).
Wide receiver-cornerback showdowns might be the most important individual matchups in football.
In this piece, I leverage snap data from Pro Football Focus (PFF) to project Divisional Round WR/CB matchups for the Chiefs-Browns game.
For more, see the FantasyLabs Matchups page, where we provide basic and advanced data — including fantasy and red-zone performance — for each offensive skill-position player based on his matchup.
As we get more clarity during the week on the injury status of receivers and corners, I will update my WR/CB projections.
Chiefs (-10) vs. Browns (57 Over/Under)
Kickoff: 3:05 p.m. ET on Sunday | TV: CBS
Chiefs Wide Receivers
No. 1 wide receiver Tyreek Hill sat out during Kansas City’s meaningless Week 17 game with a minor hamstring injury. But, coming out of the bye he appears to be healthy: He wasn’t even listed on the Wednesday injury report.
Hill missed four games in 2019 and played two additional games without quarterback Patrick Mahomes; but in his two full seasons with Mahomes, Hill has been one of the league’s best receivers.
- 2018 (16 games): 87-1,479-12 receiving | 10.8 yards per target
- 2020 (15 games): 87-1,276-15 receiving | 9.5 yards per target
With his speed and ability to line up on the perimeter and in the slot, Hill is an incredibly difficult player to scheme against for opposing defenses.
No. 2 receiver Sammy Watkins (calf) suffered a seemingly minor injury in Week 16. As a result, he sat out Week 17 and got much-needed additional rest during the Wild Card Weekend bye.
Watkins missed practice on Wednesday, which is a red flag for his availability against the Browns, but beat reporters are yet to express concern. So, I’m tentatively projecting him in.
Plus, Watkins threw some shade at the Browns over the weekend …
I wouldn’t go that far lol..!
— King me (@sammywatkins) January 11, 2021
… and that feels like something he would do only if he knew that he was playing.
Watkins has been frustratingly inconsistent in his three years with the Chiefs. In 34 games, he has achieved just 129-1,613-8 receiving during the regular season.
But in the postseason, he has been every bit Hill’s equal.
- Sammy Watkins (5 games): 24-464-1 receiving | 13.7 yards per target
- Tyreek Hill (5 games): 26-326-2 receiving | 7.6 yards per target
The sample is small, but it highlights Watkins’ extant talent. Even with his propensity to underwhelm in the regular season, he is an explosive receiver capable of big performances in any game.
After Hill and Watkins, Demarcus Robinson and Mecole Hardman play in a rotation, with the slight edge in playing time usually going to Robinson.
Despite playing regularly in three-wide sets, Robinson has done little of note over the past two seasons. In fact, despite playing ahead of Hardman, he has easily been outproduced by the speedy slot man.
- Demarcus Robinson (32 games): 77-915-7 receiving | 8.0 yards per target
- Mecole Hardman (32 games): 67-1,098-10 receiving | 10.7 yards per target
Nonetheless, both Robinson and Hardman are deprioritized in the offense relative to Hill, Watkins and tight end Travis Kelce.
Even if Watkins misses this weekend and Robinson and Hardman both start, I doubt either one will be a reliable option.
With Sammy Watkins out for 5 games in the middle of the season …
Demarcus Robinson: 23 targets, 19 catches, 214 yards, 2 TDs
Mecole Hardman: 17 targets, 13 catches, 217 yards, 1 TD https://t.co/bAPwSXpu6Y
— Jared Smola (@SmolaDS) January 13, 2021
Robinson and Hardman are both capable of having big performances, but they are supplementary receivers.
For the past two games, the Browns have been without starting cornerbacks Denzel Ward (COVID-19) and Kevin Johnson (COVID-19). However, this weekend, both players will return to action.
We’ve made the following roster moves:
Activated from Reserve/COVID-19:
CB Kevin Johnson
CB Denzel Ward
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) January 13, 2021
The return of Ward especially is great for the Browns.
One of the NFL’s best young corners, Ward is yet to have a subpar season since entering the league in 2018 (based on PFF coverage grades).
- 2018: 83.6
- 2019: 72.7
- 2020: 74.6
For his career, Ward has allowed just 6.0 yards per target and a 51.4% catch rate. He’s one of few corners truly capable of handling opposing No. 1 receivers in man coverage.
Denzel Ward: 31% completion % when in single coverage the last 3 seasons
The only CB below 40% 🔒 pic.twitter.com/XuCwD3sr1K
— PFF (@PFF) January 13, 2021
Almost no corner can hang with Hill in a foot race, but Ward might actually have the speed (4.32-second 40-yard dash) to keep Hill in check on the perimeter.
But, here’s the problem for the Browns: Chiefs head coach Andy Reid moves all his receivers across the formation, and this year Hill has run the majority of his routes from the slot.
Since the Week 9 bye, the Browns have shadowed No. 1 receivers with their top corner (Ward when healthy, Terrance Mitchell when Ward has been out) in every game. Cleveland has been obstinately committed to its shadow scheme in the second half of the season.
But Ward and Mitchell have almost never ventured into the slot when shadowing. Ward has played just eight slot snaps this year; Mitchell, 14. And that means the Browns are unlikely to have Ward on Hill for most of the game.
Instead, they will probably have Ward shadow Watkins — as the Patriots have done the past few years with cornerback Stephon Gilmore — and then use bracket coverage on Hill.
Ward will be a challenge for Watkins.
For Hill, slot work means a matchup with Johnson and probably a safety over the top. Johnson is a slightly below-average cover man who has allowed a 74.5% catch rate this year. On his own, he shouldn’t be a problem for Hill.
Opposite Ward, Mitchell is likely to man-up Robinson for most of the game. A seventh-year, seventh-round journeyman, Mitchell is actually not a bad player. He has never earned a PFF coverage grade lower than 60 in any season, and he has held receivers to a catch rate of 53.9% over his entire career.
But, he’s also not a long-term starter. He’s a perfectly average corner facing a receiver likely to do little.
Browns Wide Receivers
The Browns are obviously without No. 1 receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 7, and they also might be without rotational receiver KhaDarel Hodge (COVID-19). But, even without Beckham Jr. and Hodge, Cleveland still fields a respectable three-wide set.
Of the three Browns receivers, the one I might be the least excited about is slot man Jarvis Landry, who is the most established of the cohort. Last week I was unfortunate enough to bet against Landry — I tracked my bet in The Action Network App — but I might go against him again this week despite his 5-92-1 receiving performance on Wild Card Weekend.
In the regular season, Landry had team-high marks with 68 targets and 48 receptions in his nine Beckham-less games, but he was also outproduced in yardage by No. 2 receiver Rashard Higgins, who had just 46 targets and 32 receptions.
- Rashard Higgins (9 games): 546 yards receiving | 727 AirYAC
- Jarvis Landry (9 games): 518 yards receiving | 718 AirYAC
As a high-volume, low-impact receiver, Landry typifies the kind of player whom I rarely find exciting. Higgins was just 2-28-0 receiving on seven targets last week, but he has been the superior receiver in the Browns offense without Beckham.
With Hodge out last week, Donovan Peoples-Jones had the No. 3 receiver job all to himself. Even though he did almost nothing with a 1-8-0 receiving performance, I’m bullish on him for the long term.
An explosive rookie, Peoples-Jones has played as the No. 3 receiver since Week 13. In his four regular season games with a snap rate of at least 50%, he amassed a cumulative receiving line of 11-277-2 and logged a 2-point conversion. Peoples-Jones is a true downfield playmaker, as evidenced by his 14.8 yards per target
The Chiefs rank 15th and 16th, respectively, with a 62.5 PFF coverage grade and 6.7% pass-defense DVOA (per Football Outsiders). They don’t have any truly dominant corners, and — at a glance — the Chiefs don’t look like the type of team that would be tough on receivers.
But, in the regular season they held wide receivers to the second-fewest receiving yards in the league with 2,159. What’s going on here?
It’s all about scheme.
The Chiefs pass defense is built to limit big plays deep and on the perimeter, which means the ball tends to be funneled short and to the middle of the field. As a result, the Chiefs allowed the most receiving yards to running backs (846) and ranked fifth in yards allowed to tight ends (954) during the regular season — but their cornerbacks look good.
At right corner Bashaud Breeland will likely match up with Higgins most often, although he will see Peoples-Jones as well. Breeland missed the first four games of the season due to suspension, but since returning in Week 5 he has allowed just 6.4 yards per target.
Breeland has also allowed five touchdowns this year and can be beaten deep on occasion, but 2020 was probably his best NFL season.
At left corner, Charvarius Ward has been an above-average but unexceptional defender. An undrafted third-year veteran, Ward has allowed 7.6 yards per target in his two seasons as a starter for the Chiefs. If not for the scheme, Ward would probably be an utterly nondescript player.
In the slot is fourth-round rookie L’Jarius Snead, who has been a difference-making standout. In Weeks 1-3, Snead started on the perimeter in absent Breeland’s place. Then after missing Weeks 4-10 to injury, he shifted to the middle in Week 11 and has been the starter there ever since.
Despite his status as a mid-round first-year slot man, Snead has allowed just 4.8 yards per target with a 1:3 TD:INT ratio and a 73.8 PFF coverage grade. As much as any rookie can, Snead should challenge the veteran Landry.
Wide Receiver Upgrades & Downgrades
- Tyreek Hill: Small upgrade
- Sammy Watkins: Large downgrade
- Demarcus Robinson: No change
- Jarvis Landry: Moderate downgrade
- Rashard Higgins: Moderate downgrade
- Donovan Peoples-Jones: Small downgrade
Chiefs & Browns WR/CB Injuries
- Chiefs WR Sammy Watkins (calf) is tentatively projected IN.
- Browns WR KhaDarel Hodge (COVID-19) is projected OUT.
Chiefs-Browns WR/CB Matrix
Pos = left, right or slot WR or CB
Projected shadow matchups are CAPITALIZED
WR Exp = Wide Receiver Expectation: I rank from 3 to -3 how much I think we should adjust expectations for wide receivers based on matchups. 3: Large upgrade. 2: Medium upgrade. 1: Small upgrade. 0: No change. -1: Small downgrade. -2: Medium downgrade. -3: Large downgrade.
Thanks to Scott Barrett for providing me with some of PFF’s historical data.
Matthew Freedman is 982-775-37 (55.9%) overall betting on the NFL. You can follow him in our free app.
The Editor-in-Chief of FantasyLabs, Freedman is commonly called the Oracle & the Labyrinthian.