In the offseason, this Monday Night Football matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Los Angeles Chargers in Mexico City was one of the most anticipated games on the schedule. It was assumed that both would be playoff contenders — and the division could come down to which team won this game.
As the season progressed — with the Chargers underperforming and the Chiefs looking like they would run away with the AFC West — this contest lost some of its luster. But now, the Chiefs’ division lead has dwindled to just half a game. Further losses — especially to a division rival — could jeopardize their postseason aspirations.
So we’re back where we started — and here are five things to watch:
1. Chiefs pass rush stepping up
The defense was a big letdown in Week 10. After collecting four sacks, the pass rush was one of the bright spots — but it suffered a huge blow with the loss of defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah, who suffered a torn pectoral muscle. The pass rushers will have to move forward without their sack leader — and against the Chargers, they will have a great chance for a strong start.
The Los Angeles offensive line may be the worst unit the Chiefs have faced since the Denver Broncos in Week 7. They have already lost two starters to season-ending injuries. Two more starters did not participate in practice on Thursday.
The group has given up the eighth-most quarterback hits in the NFL — but only the 19th-most sacks. According to PFF premium stats, quarterback Philip Rivers has the third-most pressured dropbacks in the league — and when pressured, has also thrown the third-most interceptions. In Week 10, the Oakland Raiders were able to consistently collapse the pocket on Rivers. It was the main reason he threw three interceptions — and Raiders penalties negated a few more.
The Chiefs and their fans should have high expectations for the pass rush in on Monday. Defensive lineman Chris Jones has been dominant — three of his five sacks on the season have come in the last two weeks — but his teammates need to help him out. Defensive end Frank Clark has talked about dealing with a pinched nerve all season, but he sounds ready to roll for Monday night. With Ogbah out — and defensive end Alex Okafor possibly missing his third-straight start — he will need to be. Look for the pass rush to step up and force Rivers into bad decisions.
2. Containing Austin Ekeler
The Chargers boast a solid duo in the offensive backfield. Running backs Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler are both good players — but in different ways. Gordon is a workhorse who can wear down the Chiefs defense with a combination of power and agility. But I am personally more concerned with Ekeler.
At 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds, Ekeler does not look intimidating. But he is a dangerous weapon in the passing game. Since Gordon returned from his holdout, Los Angeles has frequently lined up Ekeler as a wide receiver — with good results. He has accumulated 57 catches, 559 yards and six touchdowns. Ekeler’s 9 yards per target are the most of any running back in the league with 30 or more targets — and he also leads all running backs in yards after catch.
But the reason this is such a scary matchup is that Chiefs linebackers have been so poor in coverage. Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones torched multiple linebackers on his way to seven catches, 159 yards and two touchdowns in Week 8. The next week against the Minnesota Vikings, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo seemed to have made adjustments to remove his linebackers from being in those situations — so ideally, he is cognizant of the problem Ekeler will present.
The defense needs to be aware of Ekeler’s abilities, and Spagnuolo should strategize to stop him. If the Chiefs are not prepared, it could be another frustrating performance for the defensive unit.
3. Dealing with Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram
One of the ugliest parts of the loss to the Titans was what we saw at the left tackle position. Since he is a backup, Cameron Erving should not be expected to play at the level of a starter — but he shouldn’t be as bad as he was against Tennessee; he was constantly driven back and beaten by edge defenders. At one point, he was even pancaked by a defensive back. Thankfully, starting left tackle Eric Fisher — who was a full participant in practice on Thursday and Friday — may finally be making his return to the lineup. He will have his work cut out for him.
Bosa and Ingram are among the best pass-rushing duos in the NFL. While Ingram has missed four games this season, Bosa has been healthy all year — and has been one of the most dominant pass rushers in the league. He ranks fifth in sacks and total pressures, seventh in quarterback hits, 13th in quarterback hurries and is one of only six players with PFF pass-rushing grade of 90 or more. Ingram has battled back from his hamstring injury and played well; four of his five sacks have come in the last two weeks.
The two will frequently flip sides — which means both Fisher and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz and will get a shot to block each of them. They will need to bring their A-games to keep these pass rushers away from quarterback Patrick Mahomes. If they don’t, a crucial sack or two could make the difference in the game.
4. Covering the Chargers wide receivers
I‘ve covered the effect Ekeler may have in the passing game — but that should not take away from the importance of covering the Chargers’ talented receiving corps.
Wide receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams are very different stylistically. Allen is known for his quickness and route-running abilities. He has built great chemistry with Rivers in their seven years together — but in 2019, he has not been as productive as in previous seasons. Allen is catching a career-low 66.7% of his targets. His YAC per reception is also the lowest it’s ever been. When Rivers is targeting Allen, his passer rating is 78.5 — and interestingly, PFF has credited Allen with five interceptions this season, which is the most among all wide receivers.
You may still be having nightmares about Williams from last year’s Week 14 contest at Arrowhead Stadium, when he had arguably the best game of his career with 95 total yards, three touchdowns and a game-winning two-point conversion. His combination of size and athleticism will make him a tough matchup for any Chiefs cornerback.
Watch to see if the cornerbacks embrace the challenge and can minimize big plays. The performance of the Kansas City pass rushers will certainly affect how they do.
5. Mahomes continuing to get back in rhythm
With his two-game absence, Mahomes has been completely left out of the MVP conversation. With other viable candidates stepping up, I think that’s fair — but he absolutely still has a chance to put himself back among the favorites with more performances like he had against the Titans. Pete Sweeney broke down this possibility in these pages on Thursday.
The Chiefs will need one of those performances against the Chargers. Mahomes has played very well in the two games he’s played against them. In last season’s matchups, he threw six touchdowns, no interceptions and had a passer rating of 122.2. Even before Mahomes arrived, the Chiefs have done well playing against the Chargers’ Cover 3 defensive scheme. Our film analyst Matt Lane broke their success down in a tweet thread.
The Chiefs had a lot of success attacking the Chargers Cover-3 by going vertical, especially outside— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) November 15, 2019
They'll take their deep shots with speed but they found a ton of success with the deep over routes. Slot WR crosses the field while outside WR occupies the deep third defender pic.twitter.com/rgv2oLeiie
Heading into the bye week, it’s important the team has reason to be confident for the final stretch of the regular season. Mahomes’ play — combined with head coach Andy Reid’s success against the Chargers — could be a big factor in making that happen.