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Five things to watch as the Chiefs play the 49ers

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The biggest week of the preseason is here — the last significant playing time we will see from the starters before the regular season begins

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

It was tough to watch the rain-delayed, sloppily-executed game played by the Kansas City Chiefs in last week’s 17-7 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. It didn’t sound like anyone in the organization was happy with the performance. They’ll look to bounce back with a home game against the San Francsico 49ers — or as our Kent Swanson likes to call them, the 33ers.

For the Chiefs. preseason Week 3 means the starters will play more than they have in the previous two exhibitions. There are plenty things to observe — but I have narrowed it down to five areas of the game you should be watching.

1. Cam Erving and Andrew Wylie

Cincinnati Benglas v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

Earlier in the offseason, I wrote about how the training camp position battle between Wylie and Erving was something to watch. Wylie emerged as the clear starter at left guard — but in the NFL, things can change quickly.

In Thursday’s time with the media, head coach Andy Reid informed us that Erving will get game reps with the first-team offense this week. Wylie will also get first-team reps, but it’s a shakeup from the first two games — Wylie has taken all of the first-team snaps at left guard and Erving has exclusively been the second-team left tackle. Reid said he feels like “both of the guys are starters, so you just don’t have enough spots.”

I was shocked by the announcement. Thanks to a noticeably-poor performance, Erving was one of my losers from Saturday’s game. He was playing tackle, but his lack of strength and ability to get to a defensive lineman’s chest — problems he’s had his whole career — were on full display. Watch to see if a move back to last year’s position will make Erving feel more comfortable — and look better. It’s also important to observe how many snaps Erving and Wylie see at left guard. Wylie may still retain the starting spot, but the coaches have opened it up for competition.

2. De’Anthony Thomas and Cody Thompson

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Los Angeles Chargers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

It was devastating to hear about Marcus Kemp’s season-ending injury. The third-year receiver seemed to have improved a lot this offseason. The injury opened up a vacancy in the receiver group and all four phases of special teams. Undrafted free agent rookie Cody Thompson seemed to be the man to step in to those roles, but the Chiefs decided to bring back a veteran who is familiar with the schemes.

Sixth-year gadget player De’Anthony Thomas was signed back to the team on Tuesday. He didn’t waste any time getting involved at practice.

Special teams coordinator Dave Toub was excited to have him back. In his media availability, he talked about Thomas being able to fill in on all the special spots in which Kemp had played. He reiterated his opinion that Thomas is “pound-for-pound, probably the toughest player” the Chiefs had before his season-ending injury last year. Toub was not shy about praising Thomas’ skill as a gunner — and in other special teams positions.

Thomas and Thompson are probably battling for a roster spot. Watch to see which player gets in earlier on offense, and which player is more involved with special teams early on. Toub has shown that he has an important voice in determining the 53-man roster. The experience Thomas has in the special teams scheme will undoubtedly be a big factor, and may push Thompson to a practice squad spot.

3. The safeties

Kansas City Chiefs v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

So far this preseason, we haven’t had a good look at the potential starting safety duo. Veteran Tyrann Mathieu and rookie Juan Thornhill will most likely be the Week 1 starters — but to this point, they haven’t yet taken a game snap together. Mathieu had a minor shoulder injury last week that shortened his night. He had a full practice on Thursday, but afterwards, Reid wouldn’t say whether Mathieu would play this week. Hopefully the two can finally take the field together.

It will be a tough matchup for all of the players at the safety position. 49ers tight end George Kittle burst onto the scene last year and broke the single-season receiving record for tight ends — a record that Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce broke himself shortly before Kittle bested him in Week 17. Week 3 of the preseason should allow him to play plenty of snaps, and guarding Kittle will be a good test of the safety group’s man-coverage skills.

The remaining three safeties may have to fight among themselves for a roster spot. The team could keep five, but in defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme, depth could be more important at other positions. Dan Sorensen, Armani Watts and Jordan Lucas will be looking to prove themselves in these last couple of exhibition games. Keep an eye not only on their individual performances, but also who gets in first and who plays more on special teams. Sorensen’s veteran presence is an important factor, and Watts has been stepping up lately. This may leave Lucas as the odd man out.

4. Morris Claiborne

NFL: AUG 14 Chiefs Training Camp Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There is little optimism surrounding the Chiefs cornerback position. A veteran presence was needed — and that’s exactly what the team got when seventh-year corner Morris Claiborne was signed two weeks ago. According to Spagnuolo, Claiborne should be seeing the field on Saturday.

“Yeah, we’re hopeful,” Spagnuolo told the press this week. “I think that’s Coach’s plan. We’d like to see him get out there. He’s been great; he’s a pro. Been in it long enough. He knows how to handle things.”

Claiborne cannot play in the first four regular season games of 2019 while he serves a suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, so this may be the only chance fans have to see him until Week 5. Watch for his performance and see how he compares to other cornerbacks. If he already looks better than some players who have been here all offseason, it will likely be more of an indication of how poor that position group has been — rather than how quickly Claiborne has picked up the defense.

5. Interior defensive line

Cincinnati Benglas v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images

The interior defensive line is a unique position group. Obviously there are starters, but good defensive fronts need depth on the interior so they can rotate fresh players in and out. The Chiefs understand that philosophy.

Star defensive tackle Chris Jones leads the group. His contributions will come from a 3-tech position — or maybe even on the edge. Second-year player Derrick Nnadi and fifth-year tackle Xavier Williams are the main guys playing at the 1-tech position.

In his media time, Spagnuolo was asked about what separated Nnadi and Williams, “I don’t know that there’s a separation,” he said. “You’re gonna need a lot of big guys to rotate in, and those guys are doing that right now. The only difference right now is [Xavier] dealt with that back injury for a while and lost some reps, and I think Nnadi just continues to get better.”

Watch the interior defensive line rotation to see who gets in earlier and how much they play. While third-round rookie Khalen Saunders has had a tough time making an impact so far, third-year defensive tackle Joey Ivie has gotten playing time over him — and has stood out multiple times. Watch to see if Saunders can reverse the trend by making some plays — and if Ivie can keep it going.