Even though the win was meaningless, it’s nice to start the 2019 campaign on a good note. The Kansas City Chiefs put up 38 points against the Cincinnati Bengals last Saturday — the most of any NFL team in preseason Week 1. They will go on the road this week to play the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field on Saturday night.
Here are five things to think about as you watch the game:
1. Defensive starters
In the first preseason game, the Chiefs began with most of their starters on defense. The only two missing pieces were defensive ends Frank Clark and Alex Okafor — both of whom were inactive with minor injuries. This starting group appeared to have forced and recovered a fumble on the second play of the game, but the mandatory booth review showed otherwise.
Once the defense retook the filed after the review, starters linebackers Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson, safety Tyrann Mathieu and defensive tackle Chris Jones were gone for the rest of the game. Most of the other active starters stayed in and allowed a 14-play touchdown drive.
It will be interesting to see if the first-string defense plays any longer in Saturday’s exhibition. The more live plays they get as a group, the quicker they’ll get comfortable in the new defensive scheme. The Chiefs may continue to hold out Frank Clark; he’s been dealing with a sore wrist and didn’t practice on Tuesday or Wednesday due to an illness. Clark did return Thursday for the Chiefs’ shortened, 10-10-10 workout.
The rest of the starting squad should be good to go — and I’m hoping we see them on the field longer than a couple of plays.
By the way... it sounds like rookie defensive back Juan Thornhill has been taking more reps as the starting safety in practice this week — taking snaps away from veteran Daniel Sorensen. Watch to see if he’s out there with the first-team.
2. Running back rotation
In late May, offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy labeled running back Damien Williams as the team’s starter. We haven’t seen much of him on the field since then. He injured his hamstring during the first few days of training camp and was inactive for the preseason opener. He returned to practice this week and appears to have retained the trust of his coaches.
“Damien (Williams) is the guy who will start. Other guys will supplement, but he’s the lead guy.” - #Chiefs RB coach Deland McCullough pic.twitter.com/lNBfcFNC9q— Brandon Kiley (@BKSportsTalk) August 13, 2019
So far, veteran running back Carlos Hyde has been the immediate backup to Williams. He started in the first exhibition game and punctuated the Chiefs’ initial drive with a touchdown run. He will need to perform well enough to hold off the youngsters at his position — rookie Darwin Thompson and second-year back Darrel Williams.
In the Bengals game, Thompson burst onto the scene with a few highlight plays. He saw the field with the second and third-team offenses, but left his mark with tough runs, a great rep in pass protection and a flashy catch-and-run for a score. Darrel Williams has sometimes mixed in with the first team at camp and had a few plays against Cincinnati.
Watch the playing order of the backs and how long each of them stay in the game. Hometown kid Josh Caldwell — who had a 47-yard run to set up the Chiefs’ final touchdown against the Bengals — was cut to make room for the signing of tight end Manasseh Garner, so there should be more snaps available for the remaining backs.
3. Bounceback performance
It’s easy to overreact to preseason performances — good or bad. The defensive players are still learning a new scheme and should not be expected to be at their best right now.
That being said, last Saturday’s game was a rough day for one defensive starter.
The Bengals picked on second-year undrafted free agent Charvarius Ward right out of the gate. He surrendered two catches on the first drive — including a deep throw down the sideline that set up the initial Cincinnati touchdown. He was step-for-step with the receiver, but couldn’t finish the play. His size and length should help him break up those kind of throws.
The signing of veteran cornerback Morris Claiborne may be an indication of the Chiefs’ confidence in Ward; so far, he hasn’t performed to the level he showed down the stretch last season. He’s slow in his transitions from backpedaling to running, and he doesn’t show the amount of athleticism he’ll need to keep up with the talented NFL receivers he’ll face as a starting boundary cornerback.
Look for Ward to have a bounceback game this week by making a play or two on the ball. Pittsburgh is notorious for producing quality receivers, so it will be a good challenge. If he continues to struggle, it may be time to start giving more consideration to another young cornerback.
4. Herb Miller
Miller, 21, has been garnering the attention of the Chiefs staff all summer. He stood out enough during his tryout at the rookie minicamp to be signed to the 90-man roster. Now he’s one of the first cornerbacks off the bench — or at least he was against the Bengals. Once the starters came out, the cornerbacks were second-year player D’Montre Wade, rookie sixth-round pick Rashad Fenton and Miller.
He performed well overall. He gave up two receptions on four targets for 20 yards — allowing a 25.0 passer rating when targeted. He also nabbed an interception on a Hail Mary thrown right before halftime.
Miller continued to look good in practice this week. At best, he is likely destined for a practice squad spot — but watch how he performs this week against a talented young receiving corps in Pittsburgh. If he continues to impress the team, he may be able to play himself into an active roster spot.
5. Marcus Kemp
I’ll be honest: I have never been a big fan of third-year wide receiver Marcus Kemp. I’ve always acknowledged his special teams contributions, but over the past couple of seasons, I have convinced myself the Chiefs should upgrade to someone with a higher upside as a receiver.
I guess I didn’t consider the possibility the 24-year-old would take it into his own hands and improve his receiving game.
During the three days I spent at training camp, Kemp’s receiving abilities stood out every day. He made multiple contested catches in traffic and showed a good rapport with quarterback Patrick Mahomes. He was the first reserve receiver in the game against the Bengals and had an impressive key block on Carlos Hyde’s touchdown run.
The conflicting part is the final WR likely isn't seeing many snaps for their receiving ability but rather the extra stuff. It's easy to see why a coaching staff would like Kemp even if he hasn't developed a ton as a receiver.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) August 11, 2019
Good job working across the D to seal off the LB pic.twitter.com/Nngx3g5Owg
Watch to see if he continues playing early — and if he makes plays in the passing game. There are a lot of deserving young receivers fighting for the last few spots, but Kemp is a smart bet to make the active roster once again.