Dr. Jekyl? Or Mr. Hyde?
Princess Fiona? Or Ogre?
Beauty (or Beautician)? Or the Beast?
Who are the Kansas City Chiefs? Are they a legit 10-6 team? Or are they paper tigers that benefited off of a 4-0 record against the NFC West? Are they playoff contenders? Or should we be concerned that they got demolished in 3 of the last 4 division games they played?
We really won't know until Sunday, because to me, it represents the first competitive game the Chiefs have played in a long time where they have their deck completely stacked and the stakes are high. Against San Diego, the Chiefs were minus their starting Quarterback; against Oakland, the Chiefs were potentially minus any real motivation to win. But it goes back to a point I made earlier in the season: more than likely, the Chiefs are an ascending team that still has talent deficiencies that require a perfect football game for them to win games against competitive teams. If they play fundamentally sound, mistake-free football, they can compete with just about anybody regardless of talent gaps.
I started the year thinking that this was a consistent formula that Haley had established for the team. In recent weeks, I've become a little concerned that they're a little bit of beauty and a little bit of beast. The Kansas City Chiefs are basically like a box of chocolates (you know the rest).
More movie references to come.
Today, I'll start with the offense.
Run Offense: The Chiefs' run offense is superb. They've struggled of late, but why is that? It's not because they're not good. It's not because the run blocking leaves a lot to be desired. It's because defenses are willing to give up a few yards in the air to make sure the Chiefs don't control the ground game. The Chiefs' success in the running game is out of the running backs' hands. The Ravens are undoubtedly going to force Cassel to throw early, and they're going to make him prove he can beat them downfield. If Cassel pulls off a few nice downfield throws, that's going to open up a lot of space for the running game.
Also, I get that Thomas Jones hasn't produced of late, but I'm still one of the few that likes his value to the team when he's used in the right capacity. In his defense, he's been asked to run through brick walls of late. For me, the Chiefs' objective early in the game is to establish an offensive rhythm. A 75-yard run on the first drive is great for the Chiefs, but I view that more as a shock to the system rather than a battery that lets the offense run smoothly all game long. While Charles allows the Chiefs to move down the field faster, I feel like Jones allows the Chiefs to establish a rhythm through a balanced, methodical offense that allows the team to ease into the game. That's going to be important early on for a young team playing against an experienced playoff team. I like the idea of committing to Thomas Jones early. Let him take the beating when the defense crowds the line of scrimmage and get the offense and the defense in rhythm.
At the same time, the Chiefs need to be smart about using Jamaal Charles because he is, in my opinion, the Chiefs' most important playmaker. Too often the Chiefs wait too long to get Charles involved in the offense and too often, in the peak moments of the game, the Chiefs still commit to Thomas Jones, even though he's just not capable of doing anything more than nickel and diming the defense. If the Chiefs wait too long to get Charles into the game, it could be too late. If the Chiefs don't get Charles actively involved, they lose a lot of big play potential.
The Ravens' defense is way too stout at the point of attack for Thomas Jones to be any kind of a threat. Charles can glide right past the wall and can likely break a few big plays. There is no excuse for him to have any less than 20 carries by game's end.
Pass Offense: In Shrek, Princess Fiona is a beautiful princess by day, ugly ogre by night. That's how I see the Chiefs' pass offense. From week to week, even quarter to quarter, you really don't know which one you're going to get.
Let's get one thing straight: if the Chiefs don't pass the ball well against the Ravens, they are absolutely doomed. The Ravens are going to force the Chiefs to beat them in the downfield passing game. I'm not talking about dominating the passing game early. All the Chiefs need to do is be effective enough to force the defense to uncrowd the box. Because the run offense is like Pandora's box. Once you open Pandora's box even just a little bit, you give the run offense a few cracks to slip through. When the run offense starts to establish themselves, it becomes easier to pass the ball. More importantly, the Chiefs can control the clock and keep their defense off the field. The Chiefs can't win unless they run the ball and they can't run the ball if they can't pass the ball.
Let's start with Matt Cassel. The past few weeks, I've been complimentary of his play at Quarterback and his rocky play against Oakland isn't going to change my opinion. I admire that he hung in there even though his offensive line looked like they gave up before the game even started. It's really difficult to gauge whether Cassel is capable of consistently playing four quarters of solid football. I'm not talking about piecing together a flawless, virtually puntless game, as we saw against the Colts in the 2003 playoffs. I'm talking about four quarters that don't consist of a ton of 3-and-outs or 6-and-outs or a few of them consecutively. To Cassel's credit, he's become much more effective starting games off on the right foot, something he wasn't doing earlier in the year. And in Cassel's defense, the Chiefs' dropoff after a hot start or sizeable lead seems to be moreso due to overly conservative playcalling than it does to Cassel not being that effective.
Still, with Cassel, we're not quite sure what we really have. We know that he's perfectly capable of torching bad defenses--many Quarterbacks can't brag the same. Against the Ravens, he's going to have be some kind of special. I have always believed that Ed Reed is the scariest defensive player in football. He is the Peyton Manning of defense. He may know more about what Cassel's thinking during a play than Cassel himself. Cassel can't afford to stare down his receivers or to favor Bowe, because Reed will sniff it out from a mile away. He has to get off to a quick start against the Ravens and that's going to be very difficult to do.
Much more importantly, we don't know what we're going to get out of the Chiefs' receivers. The game against the St. Louis Rams still haunts my dreams. The receivers knew they were going into a crucial game with playoff implications playing behind a hurt Quarterback who needed all the help he could get. That's a situation where you expect the receivers to step up and make big plays. Instead, there were three inexcusable third down drops in that game, two of them coming in the first quarter. When the Chiefs badly needed Dwayne Bowe against Denver, he was flat-out shut down. The Chiefs' receivers have improved over last year, but they are wildly inconsistent on third down situations where they are needed the most and somewhat inconsistent production-wise. I have no idea what to expect from this unit and that scares me. Even worse that we're not 100% sure if Bowe will play or if Kevin Curtis is going to see significant snaps.
In terms of the pass protection, I'd like to think that their horrendous play against Oakland was an abberation. The offensive line looked lazy and emotionless. I don't expect that to happen this Sunday. The Chiefs' offensive line is flawed, but I don't think they're a liability. As a pass protector, Branden Albert is adequate. Barry Richardson is below average. Brian Waters is solid, but not what he used to be. And Ryan Lilja and Casey Wiegmann are solid guys who might be undersized for the Ravens' unit. Still, we've seen the Chiefs square up against some decent defensive lines and my feeling about this unit is that they are going to protect Cassel just enough for him to make plays. He's probably going to take a sack or two, probably going to get knocked around a bit, and probably going to be forced to use his pocket, but I think they'll give him enough room to do his thing.
All-in-all, the Chiefs need to be effective in the air or the dominoes may start to fall. Even though the Chiefs will likely win the game through Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones, they won't be in the game without effective play from Matt Cassel.