Grading Conference Championship WR/CB Matchups: Just How Good Is the Titans Secondary?
Will Newton/Getty Images. Pictured: Adoree’ Jackson.
Wide receiver-cornerback showdowns might be the most important individual matchups in football.
In this piece, I leverage snap data from Pro Football Focus to project NFL Conference Championship WR/CB matchups.
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.
I’ll update my WR/CB projections throughout the week.
Conference Championship WR/CB Matchups
Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs
Sunday, 3:05 pm ET
Titans WRs: Adam Humphries (ankle) hasn’t played since Week 13, so Tajae Sharpe is locked in as the No. 3 receiver with a defined slot role. Kalif Raymond returned to action last week after missing the previous two games, and he caught a 45-yard touchdown, but he also played just three snaps and is not a challenger to Sharpe’s role.
But it’s worth noting that as the Titans have emphasized the running game over the past two weeks, they have shifted to a two-tight end set as their base offense. That change has resulted in less playing time for Sharpe, who had just 18 snaps on Wildcard Weekend and 16 snaps in the Divisional Round.
Collectively, backup tight ends MyCole Pruitt and Anthony Firkser are likelier than Sharpe to play the majority of snaps in the AFC Championship game, as I expect the Titans to continue to lean on the running game.
In the past two games, A.J. Brown, Corey Davis and Sharpe have combined for 4-22-1 receiving on just 13 targets.
UPDATE (Jan. 19): Humphries practiced every day this week on a limited basis and is tentatively expected to play, although I expect that Sharpe will still mix in with Humphries in the slot.
Chiefs CBs: Because of the Week 17 injury to safety Juan Thornhill (knee, IR), regular slot corner Kendall Fuller shifted to free safety in the Divisional Round, and backup Rashad Fenton started in the slot. They are likely to play in those same roles this week.
Despite being a sixth-round rookie, Fenton has been solid in limited usage this year, allowing a catch rate of just 50%. There’s a decent chance he’s better than the typical backup.
The Chiefs have a solid yet nondescript group of corners in Bashaud Breeland, Charvarius Ward and Fenton. In the regular season, they were No. 6 in pass defense DVOA and specifically Nos. 3 & 7 against opposing Nos. 1-2 wide receivers (per Football Outsiders).
This year, the Chiefs have held opposing wide receivers to the league’s second-fewest fantasy points. This is by no means a favorable matchup for the Titans wide receivers, and based on their recent usage, I doubt the Titans will pass much anyway.
Chiefs WRs: Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins and Demarcus Robinson are locked in as the starting wide receivers, although Mecole Hardman does rotate in for 10-20 snaps each game.
All the receivers regularly line up across the formation, so their projected cornerback matchups are not as meaningful as they otherwise might be, but on a snap-to-snap basis, it’s likely that Robinson will be out wide and either Hill or Watkins will be in the slot.
Titans CBs: No. 1 cornerback Malcolm Butler (wrist, IR) has been out since Week 10, and in his absence, the Titans defense has ranked No. 29 in pass success rate allowed (per Sharp Football Stats).
That’s not good.
But on Wild Card Weekend, No. 2 cornerback Adoree’ Jackson returned to action after missing a month with an injury. Since his re-joined the lineup, the Titans have held the Patriots and Ravens to 13 and 12 points over the past two games.
Is Jackson responsible for the defensive success the Titans have had? Probably not. But he is significantly better than backups LeShaun Sims and Tye Smith, both of whom unsuccessfully tried to fill in for him while he was out.
Although the Titans have occasionally used Jackson in shadow coverage in Butler’s absence, for the past two weeks he has played primarily at left corner. I doubt the Titans will want to have him shadow Hill.
Opposite Jackson on the perimeter is aged veteran Tramaine Brock, who was claimed off waivers in Week 14, and in the slot is Logan Ryan, who allowed an NFL-high 114 targets, 80 receptions and 940 yards in the regular season.
Although the Titans defense has played well in the playoffs, I still think their starting cornerbacks are average.
UPDATE (Jan. 19): Jackson (foot) is officially questionable after being limited all week in practice, but he’s still expected to play.
Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers
Sunday, 6:40 pm ET
Packers WRs: Since returning from injury in Week 9, Davante Adams has averaged a robust 11.3 targets per game, and for the season, he’s had either 100 yards or a touchdown in nine of 13 games. His campaign has gone overlooked because of four missed games, but on a per-game basis, Adams has had a season similar to that of the All-Pro DeAndre Hopkins.
Allen Lazard and Geronimo Allison are locked in as the Nos. 2-3 wide receivers, but Jake Kumerow and Marquez Valdes-Scantling still play more than a few snaps per game. After Adams, no Packers wide receiver can be trusted.
49ers CBs: Ahkello Witherspoon has struggled since returning from injury in Week 11, and after giving up 70 yards and a touchdown on just three targets last week, he was benched for backup Emmanuel Moseley.
An undrafted second-year special-teamer, Moseley played well in place of the injured Witherspoon in the first half of the season, and he’s allowed a catch rate of just 57.9%. He’s likely to start for the 49ers for the rest of the postseason.
Collectively, Richard Sherman, K’Waun Williams and Moseley are the best cornerback trio left in the playoffs, and the 49ers are No. 1 in PFF coverage grade.
Adams will get his targets, but this is a very unfriendly matchup.
49ers WRs: Since joining the 49ers in Week 8, Emmanuel Sanders has been the ostensible No. 1 wide receiver, but he’s been outproduced by rookie Deebo Samuel, who has had a very 2018 D.J. Moore-esque performance with 45-676-2 receiving and 12-157-3 rushing in his 11 games with Sanders.
Kendrick Bourne is locked in as the No. 3 wide receiver, but despite his six touchdowns this year, he’s rather unreliable.
Packers CBs: No. 1 corner Jaire Alexander has shadowed on occasion this year, and it probably would make sense for the Packers to put him on Samuel for most of the game, but he has played almost exclusively at left corner for the second half of the season, and that’s where I expect him to line up this weekend.
Across from Alexander on the perimeter is Kevin King, who is the largest liability in the Packers secondary. A 2017 second-rounder, King entered the NFL with promise, but he’s failed to realize his potential, and of any starting corner still in the playoffs, no player has a worse mark than his 1.71 yards allowed per snap (per PFF).
Whether he’s facing Samuel or Sanders, I expect King to be targeted often.
Conference Championship WR/CB Matrix
I take a cautious approach to injured players I expect to be questionable or out. If by the weekend it seems likely that they will play, I will include them in my updates.
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.