A 4-1 record in the NFL should not be scoffed at.
Yes, the way the Kansas City Chiefs earned their first loss of the season was frustrating, but it happens in the NFL. There is a reason only two teams have achieved a perfect regular-season record in the modern era. The losses in October can be useful to a contender if the team learns from them and avoids repeating the same mistakes.
The Chiefs just need to limit the losses to have a chance at home-field advantage in the postseason — and the schedule is not getting any easier in the foreseeable future. Next up is the 3-2 Houston Texans — who should be considered the third-best team in the AFC behind the Chiefs and the New England Patriots.
I have five things to watch in this great Week 6 matchup:
1. Texans wide receivers
We should feel better about the Chiefs secondary after they gave up a season-low 151 passing yards, snagged an interception and didn’t allow a touchdown through the air last week, right?
All year, Bashaud Breeland has notably been the best of the cornerback group for the Chiefs — but he was called for four penalties and allowed a 118.8 passer rating when targeted in Week 5. Kendall Fuller and Charvarius Ward didn’t give up much — but the Colts only targeted wide receivers nine times against Kansas City.
Expect a different target share from the Houston Texans.
The Texans wide receivers have seen 69.4% of the team’s targets this year. For comparison, Chiefs opponents have thrown to wide receivers on 45.8% of their targets in 2019. This should illustrate the difficult position the Chiefs cornerbacks will be put in this week — especially considering the receiver talent on the Texans. All-pro DeAndre Hopkins can do it all. He can run by you, he can win against physical coverage, and he can come down with a contested catch as well as anyone in the league. His teammate — receiver Will Fuller — went bananas in Week 5 with 217 receiving yards and three touchdowns.
To say that the Chiefs defensive backs will have their hands full against the Texans would be an understatement. Following a 53-point performance, quarterback Deshaun Watson will be riding high and ready to continue their success through the air. If the Chiefs want to slow down this Houston offense, their cornerbacks will have to be at their best.
2. Bounce-back performance from the Chiefs offense
There were plenty of reasons why the offense was not at its usual level of play in Week 5. There were a plethora of injuries, there were some crucial missed opportunities and the lack of in-game adjustments all contributed to a bad game. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes being hobbled did not help either.
There should be minimal panic about the offense moving forward, though.
A big topic leading up to the Week 6 game has been the use (and success) of man coverage against the Chiefs in their past two games. It sounds like the team did not prepare to see the amount of man coverage they did — but head coach Andy Reid is too smart to go a third consecutive week without a plan to beat it.
The most obvious way to counter that coverage strategy is to have one of the most dangerous deep threats in the NFL. Wide receiver Tyreek Hill has been a limited participant in practice this week — but it is possible that he’s active in Week 6. His elite speed and ability to beat press-man would make the Texans defense think twice about playing man-to-man heavily.
If Hill is not ready by Sunday — with Sammy Watkins listed as doubtful — it will be on the rest of the pass-catchers to step up and perform better. Second-year receiver Byron Pringle seemed to be the only player able to create separation from his defender in Week 5 — so Demarcus Robinson and Mecole Hardman will need to show improvement in that area. Tight end Travis Kelce had one of his worst performances in recent memory with multiple drops — but that should not be expected to continue.
If Mahomes’ ankle allows him to be more mobile against Houston — and his arsenal of weapons can play closer to their ceiling — the offense should be back to looking like the elite unit Chiefs fans are used to.
3. J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus
The lack of pass protection was extremely prevalent in the Week 5 loss to the Colts. The Chiefs offensive line allowed 21 total pressures and four sacks on 49 dropbacks. The scariest part of that lackluster effort is that the Texans pass rush is significantly more talented.
All-pro defensive lineman J.J. Watt should be the main focus. The 30-year-old may not be in his prime anymore — but he is still a game-wrecker. He has averaged 8.5 pressures per game in the last four contests and has brought down the opposing quarterback five times. He has primarily lined up on the right side of the offensive formation in 2019 — which would match him up with the Chiefs’ best offensive lineman: right tackle Mitchell Schwartz. The Texans would be smart to switch that up and take advantage of the significant mismatch of Watt against Cam Erving or whoever starts at left tackle.
While Watt is the big name, edge rusher Whitney Mercilus should be a threat too. He has matched Watt with five sacks this year, mostly coming from the left side of the offensive formation.
The Chiefs are not getting any healthier along the offensive line this week. Starting left tackle Eric Fisher will not be back for this game and left guard Andrew Wylie is doubtful after suffering an ankle injury in Week 5. Reid will likely plan around this with quick throws or extra tight ends to help the offensive line keep defenders off of Mahomes’ banged-up ankle.
4. The Chiefs’ defensive line
The list of excuses for the Chiefs pass rush has piled up: Frank Clark has faced a ton of extra attention, failure to stop the run has limited pass-rushing opportunities, the Colts offensive line is very good and now star defensive tackle Chris Jones is out of the lineup with a groin injury. With all that being considered, it’s time for the unit to show up in the box score.
Deshaun Watson has been sacked on 10.2% of his dropbacks — the second-highest rate in the league this season among quarterbacks with 100 or more attempts. According to Pro Football Focus, he has been under pressure on 79 of his attempts — the fourth-most in the NFL. PFF has put the blame on Watson for four of his sacks, meaning that he either held onto the ball for too long or put himself in position to be brought down.
Hopefully for the Chiefs, they are able to take advantage of those trends — but they also need to be better against the run. The Texans have topped 125 rushing yards in four of their five games. Former Chiefs running back Carlos Hyde leads the way with 310 yards and two touchdowns on 4.2 yards per carry. The Houston rushing offense should not be as dominant as the Chiefs last three opponents — but it is safe to assume their game plan will include trying to expose the Kansas City run defense.
If the Chiefs’ banged-up defensive front can perform well against the Texans, it will limit the exposure of the secondary and get the ball back to the offense. If not, you gamblers that bet on the over will be happy with how this game plays out.
5. Ball security
Emphasizing a tight grip on the ball should not be something NFL teams need to worry about. That being said, you can bet the Chiefs coaching staff has made it a point during practices in recent weeks.
In the past two contests, the Chiefs have coughed up the rock five times; four of those have resulted in a turnover. The craziest part may be that each lost fumble has been credited to a different player. While they were able to overcome the turnovers in the Week 4 win over the Lions, the LeSean McCoy fumble against the Colts was crucial. It occurred at the tail-end of a 21-yard screen pass that would have put the offense in prime position to score toward the end of the first half. It was the closest the Chiefs would come to getting in the end zone for the rest of the game.
Look for an added emphasis on holding on to the football. Mahomes has shown that he can be trusted not to throw interceptions — so it’s up to the ball carriers to avoid turnovers.