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Five things to watch as the Chiefs play the Vikings

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The Chiefs have now lost three of the last four games — and with a hot Vikings team coming to town, it won’t get any easier

NFL: OCT 18 Chiefs at Vikings Photo by Rich Gabrielson/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I am entirely aware that Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes may play in Week 9 against the Minnesota Vikings. He is officially listed as questionable for Sunday.

The way the coaching staff has talked about it both this week and last, he seems closer than anyone could have imagined when the injury occurred. It would be great to watch the best quarterback in the league play again.

But please... can he hold off another week? Just to be careful? 17 days after a scary injury does not seem like enough time — but 24 days sounds a bit more feasible.

For now, I’ll assume that Matt Moore will start at quarterback. Here are five things to watch as the Chiefs play the Vikings:

1. Neutralizing the Vikings run offense

Minnesota Vikings v Detroit Lions Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Vikings don’t hide what they want to do on offense. There may not be an NFL team that better embraces the idea of establishing the run.

Minnesota has the third-most rushing attempts in the league — and the fewest passing attempts. Third-year bell-cow running back Dalvin Cook has taken advantage of the strategy. Cook is the NFL leader in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns — and also holds the fourth-highest yards-per-carry rate among running backs at 5.3. His playing style has always reminded me of former Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles; his explosion and open-field agility makes it tough to bring him down.

It’s important to slow down the Vikings rushing attack because of the offense’s effectiveness with play-action passes. The more success they have running the ball, the more success they will have throwing from play-action. And the Vikings do it well.

Quarterback Kirk Cousins has the fifth-most play-action pass attempts in the NFL — and it has resulted in the most passing yards and touchdowns. His 135.5 passer rating in these situations ranks him fourth in the league in that category.

The Chiefs defense has done relatively well against the run in the past two contests, in which they have allowed 4 yards per rush — compared to 4.9 yards per attempt over the season. They may be getting back some key contributors as well. Star defensive tackle Chris Jones and defensive end Frank Clark are listed as questionable for this week —but defensive end Alex Okafor has been ruled out. The defense’s recent improvement against the run will be put to the test with what might be their biggest challenge of the season.

2. Chiefs wide receivers

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

For the first time this season, the Chiefs receiving corps was completely healthy for a whole game against the Packers — just in time for starting quarterback Patrick Mahomes to be absent due to injury. Backup quarterback Matt Moore stepped in and played well against Green Bay — but he might need to play even better for the Chiefs to have a chance against the Vikings.

If there’s one aspect of the tough Minnesota defense that is exploitable, it’s the cornerback position. It wasn’t long ago that Xavier Rhodes was considered one of the best cornerbacks in football, but his play has significantly diminished in recent seasons. So far in 2019, he has allowed a 124.7 passer rating when targeted — and has given up a reception on 85% of his targets. Both of those figures are career highs. He plays physically but lacks the athleticism and speed to keep up with fast, shifty wide receivers like Tyreek Hill or Sammy Watkins. The Chiefs should look to take advantage when those matchups are presented.

Their other cornerbacks are Trae Waynes and Mike Hughes. As a whole, the group has only been able to come away with two interceptions this season. The Chiefs should be the best group of receivers they’ve faced in 2019. If Moore is given enough protection on his pass attempts, the Chiefs wide receivers should be able to win their battles with the Vikings cornerbacks.

3. Chiefs cornerbacks validating improvement

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The Chiefs defense has faced ridicule for many aspects of their play in recent weeks, but their cornerbacks have avoided it with improved play.

Charvarius Ward’s performance has been the most notable. Over the last four games, Ward has allowed a catch on 60% of his targets — and less than nine yards per reception. In that same span, he has also nabbed an interception and a made pass breakup — while not allowing a touchdown. Among NFL cornerbacks with 200 coverage snaps or more this season, he has the 10th-lowest passer rating allowed when targeted.

Ward and the rest of the group have not faced great receiving corps over the last couple of weeks — but that will change in Week 9. The Vikings arguably have the best wide receiver duo in the league. Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs are both dangerous in all facets of their position. They are both great route-runners, strong at the catch point, and able to gain big yardage after the catch. Between them, they have 10 receiving touchdowns in 2019. Thielen missed last game with a hamstring injury — and is officially listed as questionable for Sunday’s game.

Watch to see if the cornerbacks can prove their recent success has not been a fluke. It will be hard to shut down the Minnesota duo completely — but good plays against them will have more significance than the plays they’ve made on lesser receivers in the past few games. Cornerback Bashaud Breeland was a limited participant in practice this week — but he was not listed on the final injury report for the week.

4. Protecting Matt Moore

Philadelphia Eagles v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

After the unfortunate ankle injury Laurent Duvernay-Tardif suffered in Week 8, the Chiefs will be down two starters on the offensive line for the Vikings game. To make matters even worse, the Minnesota defensive front may be the best unit the Chiefs have faced all year.

Defensive ends Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter are absolute studs. The duo has combined for 13 sacks this season — and have the second and third-most pressures among all edge defenders. They also lead all defensive end duos in combined quarterback hurries with 68. They can win their pass-rushing reps in multiple ways: strength, speed, and quality moves. Interior defensive lineman Linval Joseph will also be a force; he has produced three sacks this season.

With starting left tackle Eric Fisher set to miss another week, his replacement Cameron Erving may have his biggest challenge of the year. He will primarily be facing Griffen — a 10-year veteran who will assuredly be studying and exploiting Erving’s weaknesses. Chiefs right tackle Mitchell Schwartz will have his hands full with Hunter — but he should be trusted to hold his own.

Look to see how well Moore is protected. If the offensive line can’t hold up, it will be irrelevant that Vikings cornerbacks could be exploited by Chiefs wide receivers. With as many as three starters out, the offensive line could be in for a long day.

5. Snap counts for the running backs

Green Bay Packers vs Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

The NFL trade deadline has passed without the Chiefs making any moves. Everyone clamored for an addition to the defense — but interestingly enough, the only major player the Chiefs were reportedly looking into on Tuesday was New York Jets All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell. This may speak to their opinion on the current group at that position.

Veteran running back LeSean McCoy is clearly the most talented runner of the group, but he has coughed up the football twice in the last four weeks, appearing to have been benched after each one. It would be unwise to keep McCoy off the field for long, but sometimes coaches will put players in the dog house.

Running back Damien Williams has looked better since his ugly start to the year. Teammate Darrel Williams has looked good in his limited reps — but it looks like the Chiefs want to get rookie Darwin Thompson in the mix, too.

Watch to see how the snap counts shake out for the running backs. As we enter the second half of the season, the Chiefs will need to solidify the roles for each player so they can determine who should be active each week. They won’t regularly have four running backs activated for a game.