NFL Playoffs: Wildcard Weekend observations

Derrick Henry helped the Titans spring an upset. Tennessee Titans web site

Wildcard Weekend has wrapped up. It delivered some excitement, as well as some nap time material. Overall, it was another great weekend of football. Why? Well, because it’s football dammit and we only have a month left before games go away! Let’s take a look back at this weekend’s games…

Tennessee Titans vs Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs came back from the dead to win the AFC West this year and were rounding back into early season form. Meanwhile, the Titans scratched out a 9-7 record and won the fifth seed. Playing at home, the Chiefs were favored. Not only because they were at home, but they were playing better and weren’t dealing with losing their starting running back like the Titans. The teams exchanged punts, then the Chiefs put together touchdown drives on their next two possessions, sandwiched by another Titans punt. Less than two minutes before halftime, Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce caught a pass over the middle and took a mean shot to the head and left the game with a concussion. Although the Chiefs went on to score a touchdown on the drive to go up 21-3 before the half, their offense would never be the same. On the opening possession of the second half, Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota ended a 15 play, 91 yard drive with the rare touchdown pass to himself (first time that happened since 1997). That was the turning point. The Chiefs, at that point, were up 21-10 at home and proceeded to meltdown. League leading rusher Kareem Hunt only got five carries for 17 yards in the second half. The Titans went on to stop the Chiefs from scoring again and added two touchdowns of their own. The game ended when the Chiefs failed to convert on 4th and 9. The star of the game was Titans running back Derrick Henry who didn’t have to share carries with Demarco Murray and ran for 156 yards and a touchdown. He appears to have taken over the lead back role. Now the Titans get the unenviable task of facing the New England Patriots in Foxboro.

Atlanta Falcons vs. LA Rams

This game was a matchup of what seemed to be two ships passing in the night. The upstart Rams have made a huge turnaround this year and looks like one of the new hot teams atop the NFC. The Falcons were the NFC representative last year in the Super Bowl, but seemed to have taken a step back this year and only got the final playoff spot with a week 17 win over division rival Carolina Panthers. After trading punts on the first four possessions of the game, the Falcons got on the board first with a field goal. Following another Rams punt, they added a second field goal. It seemed as if this would be a test of wills. Then the Rams kick returner Pharoh Cooper fumbled, Falcons recovered, then they scored a touchdown to go up 13-0. The Rams followed that up with a touchdown, forcing a punt, then a field goal to cut the score to 13-10 by halftime. In the second half, the Falcons’ experience, and defense, took over. Comparing the two teams’ second halves, the Rams’ four possessions gained 172 yards, but yielded only three points, a punt, and two turnovers on downs. On the other hand, the Falcons’ five possessions netted them 208 yards, 13 points, a punt and a kneel down to end the game. Credit the Falcons secondary for tackling well as members of their defensive backfield were the second through fifth leading tacklers. Because they were the No. 6 seed and won, they get to go to Philadelphia to face the Carson Wentz-less Eagles next,

Buffalo Bills vs Jacksonville Jaguars

This was by far the worst game of the weekend. It always had the makings of being a bad game. When you have the league’s best sack total team in the Jags going against the team that surrendered the most sacks, it spells trouble. Add to that the fact that Bills star running back, and guy responsible for a third of the team’s offense, LeSean McCoy was hobbled by an ankle injury. In the first half alone, there were nine punts, a turnover, two field goals, and a total of 244 yards of offense. The second half started with the teams trading punts. The Jags scored the game’s lone touchdown on a 15 play, 86 yard drive that took up 8:52 of the 3rd quarter when Blake Bortles found tight end Ben Koyack on a 4th and Goal from the one yard line. From there, we were privileged to see another six punts (bringing the game total to 17). On their last stand, Bills’ quarterback Tyrod Taylor was knocked out of the game. Backup Nathan Peterman came into the game and threw an interception on his third pass attempt to seal their fate. I imagine the infamous Bills Mafia (their fanbase) put up a better fight against Jags fans than either team did during the game. The most telling stat of this game was that Bortles, who’ll never be mistaken for Michael Vick, totaled more rushing yards (88) than passing yards (87). Last time that happened: the Tennessee Titans and Steve McNair beat the Buffalo Bills in the 1999 “Music City Miracle” game. The Jags get the Pittsburgh Steelers up next which could prove a favorable matchup if Antonio Brown isn’t healthy.

Carolina Panthers vs New Orleans Saints

In the second best game of the weekend, these division rivals put on a fireworks display. Being their third meeting of the season, it was expected to hold up to expectations, and it did. All season long, the Saints have relied on running backs Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. They were the first backfield duo to be selected to the Pro Bowl in over 40 years and first duo ever to both total over 1,500 scrimmage yards each. However, the Panthers were having none of it. The Saints’ impactful tandem was held in check with a whopping combined total of only 68 yards, and no touchdowns. It was a complete turnaround for the Panthers defense from the previous two games. Both quarterbacks threw for over 300 yards each (Panthers’ Newton threw for 349 and Saints’ Brees threw for 376). One of the best matchups was seeing Brees and Panthers All-Pro middle linebacker Luke Kuechly trade adjustment calls. As Brees would make an adjustment, Kuechly would do the same. It was like watching a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu submission specialist go against a stand-up striker in an MMA fight. The game came down to the Saints 4th & 2 play while up 31-26. They tried to draw the Panthers offsides, but called a timeout. Instead of punting, they tried a play action pass which was intercepted. The Panthers had a chance to score a game winning touchdown, but turned the ball over on downs following a blitz and sack of Cam Newton on 4th & 23. In the process, the Saints lost another player to injury as offensive lineman Andrus Peat was carted off the field in the first half. They get to go to Minnesota and play the Vikings next week in what will be a matchup of a high-powered offense for the Saints and a hard-nosed defense for the Vikings.

Outside of the Bills/Jags snooze-fest, each game had its own flare for the dramatic. No outcome was a surprise. Except the fact that the Chiefs choked away an 18-point lead over the second half at home. That was just terrible, but entertaining nonetheless. Even though the Falcons beat the Rams by 13, the game seemed to be closer. The Saints/Panthers game was bound to be exciting because it was a matchup of division rivals.

Next week’s games should give us better games and matchups. Next Saturday, the Falcons/Eagles should provide some entertainment, provided Eagles quarterback Nick Foles can be 2013 Nick Foles and Matt Ryan, along with his band of merry men, can perform as wellas they did last year in their Super Bowl run. When the Titans/Patriots hook up, I fully expect the Patriots to win. However, if the Titans can manage to rough up Tom Brady and keep the game close, they should have a shot in similar fashion as the Dolphins did when they beat the Patriots in week 14. The Jags/Steelers game will be a matchup of contrasting styles. The Steelers feature a high octane offense, and the Jags of “Sacksonville” bring the league’s 2nd ranked total defense (1st in passing yards allowed per game). When the Saints and Vikings faceoff, it’ll be a regular season rematch in which the Vikings came out victorious. Both teams are different from that week one matchup. The Vikings are now quarterbacked by Case Keenum and still have a stellar defense. The Saints have jettisoned Adrian Peterson, allowing Ingram and Kamara to flourish. This has the makings of a classic, or a blowout, depending on which defense can dictate to the other’s offense. Regardless of what happens, next weekend will be another great weekend of football, because football dammit!

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Tucker looks like the real deal. Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Kyle Tucker finally had his breakout season in 2020. The 23-year-old flashed potential to be a legitimate five-tool threat. He slashed .268/.325/.512, swiped eight bags, and played above average defense. Is Tucker's performance sustainable? Not only that, but is there room for growth?

Hard Hit % - 44.5%

Barrel % - 9.1%

K % - 20.2%

BB % - 7.9%
Chase % - 26.2%

The first thing to realize with Kyle Tucker is the small sample size at the MLB level. Despite appearing in three separate seasons, he's played in a total of 108 games, which is obviously quite a bit shy of even one full season. He also has an extremely unique swing that you wouldn't teach to anybody, but it "works" for him. This makes him a tough hitter to judge, as it's uncomfortable judging mechanics that work for him, and it's uncomfortable judging numbers that haven't had time to develop trends.

Hard Hit, Barrel, and Chase numbers are unavailable for the minors, but walk and strikeouts percentages are. This creates the ability to at least look at one trend.

Tucker broke onto the scene in 2018 with a monstrous season for AAA Fresno, the Astros affiliate at the time. In 2018, Tucker slashed .332/.400/.590 with 24 homers and 20 steals. He had an 18.1% K% and a 10.3% BB% that season. In 2019, Tucker struck out a little bit more (21.6%) but also walked a little bit more (11.2%). Tucker's 20.2% K% in 2020 is more in line with his minor league K%, indicating he's adjusted to major league pitching.

Tucker essentially put the pieces of contact ability and quality of contact from his previous MLB stints together in 2020. In 2018, Tucker didn't strike out very much (18.1% K%), but his 3.9% Barrel % didn't strike fear in any opponent.

In 2019, Tucker had a 12.8% Barrel %, and his 92 MPH average exit velocity is the best of his three seasons in MLB, but he struck out 27.8% of the time and walked just 5.6% of the time.

In 2020, there's a marriage between the two. His K% and BB% aren't as good as his 2018 marks, but they're better than his 2019 marks. His exit velocity and Barrel % aren't as good as his 2019 marks, but they're better than his 2018 marks. Tucker became a hitter that was able to do more damage without sacrificing consistency.

Tucker had a xBA of .267, which is right in line with his .268 average. His .459 xSLG lags behind his .512 actual SLG, but it isn't a catastrophic drop. The version of Tucker Astros fans saw is essentially who he is, but how does he improve?

What really unlocked Tucker in 2020 was a change in his setup.

Image via: GraysonSkweres/Twitter/Screenshot

Here he is on August 2nd against the Angels. As you can see, he's standing pretty straight up, and he has a "neutral" stance. Following the game on Aug. 2, Tucker was batting .200/.250/.300 with no homers.

Image via: GraysonSkweres/Twitter/Screenshot

Here's Tucker on August 6th, just a few days later. He's started to close off his stance just a bit, but he's still pretty neutral, and he has a little more forward body lean with his torso. Following the game on Aug. 6, he was batting .214/.267/.357 with a homer.

Image via: GraysonSkweres/Twitter/Screenshot

Now, here's Tucker on August 10th. His stance is considerably closed off, and he's maintaining the forward body lean he adopted on August 6th. Following the game on Aug. 10, Tucker was batting .190/.230/.328. It would be the last time any of those numbers would be that low the rest of the year. He maintained that stance for the rest of the season, and he finished the month of August hitting .272/.333/.588.

The swing change allowed him to be a factor on the outside pitch. Tucker would pull off on his front side, which made it tough for him to keep balls fair on the pull side. He'd often yank inside fastballs into the stands down the right field line. It also made him uncompetitive on outside strikes, as he'd either swing-and-miss, or roll them over into the shift.

After he made the change, Tucker started steering inside pitches fair, and he was able to do something with pitches on the outer third.

The next step is finding a way to continue to diversify his batted ball profile. Tucker's pull percentage in 2020 was 47%. That's a higher pull % than guys like Kyle Schwarber and Matt Olson. It was only 1% lower than Rangers outfielder Joey Gallo.

The one dimensional batted ball profile allows teams to shift Tucker aggressively. Teams shifted Tucker in 74% of his at-bats. His wOBA against the shift is .304. In AB's where teams didn't shift him, Tucker had a .455 wOBA. The shift hurts Tucker more than most as well, because he hits the ball on the ground 39% of the time. Gallo and Olson hit it on the ground 32% and 35% of the time respectively.

Lastly, Tucker's performance on breaking balls leaves a lot to be desired. He crushes fastballs, as he batted .303 with a .574 SLG against fastballs in 2020, with a .292 xBA and .528 xSLG. His .208 AVG and .396 SLG against breaking balls aren't very good, and his .209 xBA and .340 xSLG don't tell a prettier story. His 32% whiff % against breaking balls is nearly double his whiff % on fastballs.

If Tucker can learn to be more competitive against breaking balls and learn to use the whole field, then he'll be a really scary hitter. If he doesn't, teams will be able to gameplan for him, and he'll see streaky production similar to other one dimensional hitters like Matt Carpenter and the aforementioned Gallo and Olson.

While the bat may be streaky, Tucker brings it with the glove and on the bases. He had 5 DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) in the outfield in 2020, a 0.6 UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating), and he was plus-4 in Outs Above Average. His well above average speed and instincts give him the ability to be a rangy outfielder and dangerous baserunner.

Tucker had a breakout season in 2020, but there's still changes left to be made if he wants to be a breakout star and not a one hit wonder.

This is part four of an offseason series covering the 2020 Houston Astros. Be sure to check out parts 1-3 on SportsMap.

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