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Five things to watch as the Chiefs face the Packers

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The Sunday Night Football matchup was supposed to be between two elite NFL quarterbacks, but there is still plenty to watch for regardless.

Kansas City Chiefs v Green Bay Packers Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

I feel robbed.

The Week 8 Sunday Night Football game was supposed to be the back-and-forth shootout reminiscent of last season’s 54-51 loss to the Los Angeles Rams on Monday Night Football — MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes going against former MVP gunslinger Aaron Rodgers. All at Arrowhead Stadium under the lights.

The game should still be a good one even with the absence of Mahomes — but with the NFL scheduling method, this may be the last opportunity for the Chiefs and Mahomes to face the soon-to-be 36-year-old Rodgers.

I have five things to watch as you take in this game:

1. A changed game plan

Kansas City Chiefs v Denver Broncos Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

There is speculation about whether Mahomes will be able to play or not. The team is being ambiguous about the situation — so I am going to go off of the initial report that says he would be out multiple weeks. That sets up backup quarterback Matt Moore to make his first start as a Chief.

I don’t think it would be smart to roll out the same type of game plan they have been using for Mahomes this year. The strategy has been very pass-heavy. The Chiefs lead the league in passing yards and are seventh in pass attempts — while also being 25th in rushing attempts and yards this season.

The lack of rushes has been chalked up to playing to the team’s strengths and the usage of RPO plays. When you have the MVP at quarterback, the likelihood of making big plays and scoring is much higher when throwing than handing off — especially with a banged-up offensive line that may not be able to create running lanes consistently. Head coach Andy Reid has cited that the RPO plays may be contributing to the lack of rush attempts as well. It has been up to Mahomes to read the defense on the field and he has elected to pull the ball and throw quite a bit.

Those reasons have to go out the window now. Moore should not be put in a position to have to read the defense on an RPO play as consistently as Mahomes was. There should be more traditional runs. We may see fullback Anthony Sherman more this week to help with that. The passing game should consist of quick throws and more designed screen passes. Moore should be able to execute the game plan as long as Reid molds it to fit his substitute signal-caller.

2. Continuing the success against the run

Kansas City Chiefs v Denver Broncos Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

As a Chiefs fan, the Thursday night victory over the Denver Broncos had to be an encouraging sign for the run defense. Yes — you can blame Denver for playing terribly — but the Broncos came into the game averaging 116 rushing yards per contest and were held to 71. That was also the lowest amount the Chiefs had given up in a game this season.

The exciting part about the performance is that the improvement was visible all across the front seven. The interior defensive line was excellent, as it maintained the line of scrimmage and controlled the blockers. Second-year defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi was praised for his performance after a rough first half of the year.

The linebackers played significantly quicker in terms of filling run gaps. Anthony Hitchens had just returned from injury and made a difference — but it was his fellow linebacker that may turn out to be the key. Linebacker Reggie Ragland played the most snaps of his season and was a huge factor in the success of the unit. They were seemingly in the base 4-3 defense more often to counter Denver’s tendency to run — and Ragland looked great getting through blockers and making plays. With the Packers ability to spread out and throw, it will be interesting to see how Ragland is utilized in Week 8.

The Packers have not had to rely on running the ball but have been very effective when they choose to do so. Running back Aaron Jones has 399 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground this season — four of which came against the talented Dallas Cowboys defense a few weeks ago. They will also use running back Jamaal Williams: he is averaging 4.6 yards per carry this year.

The Packers want to win on the arm of Aaron Rodgers — but if they are missing players in their receiving corps, they may try to take advantage of the Chiefs run defense that has looked bad for most of the season. Something to keep an eye on: Packers starting center Corey Linsley did not practice Thursday. The Chiefs’ defensive front needs to play well once again and show that the Denver game was not a fluke.

3. Pass protection

Green Bay Packers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

For as injury-riddled as the Chiefs offensive line has been lately, it has performed admirably in the past two weeks. It did not allow pass rushers J.J. Watt or Von Miller to sack its quarterback — even though both of those players were coming in playing well. The good news is that starting left tackle Eric Fisher has started to practice in a limited capacity this week — but the bad news is that the Packers pass rushers have been exceptional this season.

Edge defenders Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith have combined for 13 sacks this year. Za’Darius Smith is in the top five among edge rushers in total pressures this season — and Preston Smith is not far behind at 13th on that list. The duo was brought in together via free agency in the offseason. While Za’Darius has mainly been used against the left tackle, the two are flipped quite frequently.

The edge rushers are dangerous — but Green Bay is disruptive on the interior as well. Defensive tackle Kenny Clark has also been productive this season. He has the fourth-most total pressures out of all interior defensive linemen in the NFL. The fourth-year stud is coming into his own — and will be a big challenge for a shaky interior offensive line group for the Chiefs.

Watch to see how the offensive line handles this Packers front. It will be a great opportunity to prove that their recent performances were not lucky.

4. Stopping Aaron Rodgers

Oakland Raiders v Green Bay Packers Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

The Packers have been winning all season — but it felt like Rodgers was not getting much of the credit. His statistics had been underwhelming. He had not delivered many crazy plays to win them games. He had started to look more human than he has for most of his career.

Then he played the Oakland Raiders last week.

Without his best wide receiver Davante Adams, Rodgers came out firing early and often. He finished with 429 passing yards and six total touchdowns. He made some incredible throws, and there were multiple deep passes exploiting bad coverage. He finished with a perfect passer rating of 158.3.

The challenge will be for all levels of the defense. The secondary may have an advantage if Adams misses another game — but it did not matter for Rodgers last week. The linebackers will need to be sound in zone coverage to take away the threat of tight end Jimmy Graham in the middle of the field. The pass rushers will need to disrupt the rhythm of Rodgers; He had a clean pocket for a lot of the Raiders game.

Look for the pass rush to build off of its nine-sack performance against the Broncos. The injury report will need to be closely monitored: Edge defender Frank Clark has missed two practices with a neck injury — and defensive tackle Chris Jones is still being held out of practice with a groin issue.

5. Rookie impact

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most encouraging parts of the victory over the Broncos in Week 7 was the contribution from the 2019 draft class.

Wide receiver Mecole Hardman has been a big part of the offense all season — but his early touchdown catch showed both great focus on the catch and speed. Safety Juan Thornhill continues to play well and showed a few good reps coming up on the run and helping stuff it. Defensive tackle Khalen Saunders had the best game of his young career, helping Nnadi control the interior of the line of scrimmage in the run game. Cornerback Rashad Fenton stood out with a few plays at the catch point in crucial situations. He seemed to always be right on his man even if the ball was caught.

All of these rookies continue to be relied upon throughout the season. Saunders will once again be heavily involved if Chris Jones misses another game — and Fenton will be asked to play in the slot once again if starting cornerback Kendall Fuller is not recovered enough from his thumb injury.