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5 things to watch as the Chiefs play Washington

The interconference matchup will be a fork in the road for the 2021 Chiefs.

NFL: OCT 02 Redskins at Chiefs Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There will be a lot to learn about the Kansas City Chiefs (2-3) on Sunday, when they travel to FedEx Field and play the Washington Football Team (2-3). Kansas City is a 6.5-point favorite to win, per DraftKings Sportsbook.

While you could say that last week was the real fork-in-the-road game, I believe the two paths for the Chiefs — depending on the result of this matchup — are more extreme.

In one direction, the confidence of a team and its fan base could be strengthened with a decisive win — how a contender should play against a middling team. But the other way — including a loss or even an uncomfortable victory — and the outside questions about the team may begin to seep into the minds of the players and staff. They’ve struggled against the best the AFC has to offer, but a lousy game against Washington would be way less excusable.

Washington has also struggled all year on defense — the side of the ball where it was supposed to be elite. They also lost starting quarterback Ryan Fitzgerald in Week 1.

That said, they’ve been a tough out most of the year. I have five things to watch in the Week 6 matchup.

1. Run defense

Buffalo Bills v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Remember when the biggest concern with the Chiefs was run defense? Those were simpler times.

If it feels like that hasn’t recently been a topic, it’s because they’ve faced three consecutive opponents that do not focus on establishing the run; instead, they’ve relied on pass-heavy play-calling. On Sunday, they’ll defend against a Washington team that at its core, wants to run the ball — but because they’ve played from behind so much this year, they’ve been forced to throw frequently.

Even with the opponents’ play styles in mind, the Chiefs have been solid in defending traditional runs since the Week 2 debacle in Baltimore. Designed rushes for quarterbacks still get the best of the unit, but opposing running backs have averaged just 3.7 yards per carry over that three-game stretch.

Stuffing their run game on early downs forces Washington and quarterback Taylor Heinicke to pass to the intermediate and deep areas of the field on third down. This is where Heinicke has confidence — but sometimes, too much confidence. He will push the envelope on tight-window throws, which has led to five interceptions. The more the Chiefs can put him in those situations, the better.

2. Pass protection

Kansas City Chiefs v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

As an entire group — offensive linemen, skill players helping and the quarterback — the pass protection has had its ups and downs. They’ve allowed sacks on the third-lowest percentage of quarterback dropbacks among the league — but in the last few weeks, pressure from the edge has become a more frequent factor.

Against the Bills, right tackle Lucas Niang gave up eight pressures, per PFF. The week before, he only allowed one quarterback hit — but a quick sack he allowed wasn’t included because of a defensive holding penalty. He also earned a holding penalty for himself in Week 4. Left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. has been the better of the two, but has also struggled in spurts.

The interior offensive line has been excellent in pass protection, but all five players are getting tested this week; even if it hasn’t resulted in success so far, Washington’s defensive line is still one of the most talented in the league.

Defensive ends Chase Young and Montez Sweat will work Niang and Brown hard, while a rotation of defensive tackles highlighted by Jonathan Allen will be a handful for the two rookies — and potentially left guard Joe Thuney, who would be playing through a fractured hand.

3. More blitzing

Buffalo Bills v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The Chiefs’ defense already ranks ninth in blitz rate among NFL teams this season. But after Sunday, don’t be surprised if they start to climb up that list.

It’s a hard pill to swallow, but I believe the defensive coaching staff is beginning to accept that they simply cannot get consistent pressure with four-man rushes — especially if defensive end Chris Jones is not playing; he didn’t practice this week and has now been declared out for the game.

To get a quarterback uncomfortable and out of rhythm — especially Heinicke — they’ll need to send frequent blitzes. Against the Bills, they turned up the blitz rate as the game went on — and it actually helped them earn three consecutive stops in the second half.

With the defense underperforming, blitzing more may be an easy way to raise their single-game ceiling. It may lead to more significant plays for the offense, but it can also result in a few more significant sacks or turnovers. The strategy could very well be worth its negatives.

4. Secondary wide receivers

Buffalo Bills v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

We talk about the secondary receivers for the Chiefs a lot — and for good reason: they’ve constantly been put in a position to be relied upon because of opposing defenses’ strategies to take away Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. Still, none of them have yet to prove they can be more than just role players.

It’s become apparent why the team was interested in signing Josh Gordon — and also why he was brought up so quickly: the staff knows they don’t have a difference-maker behind Hill at wide receiver.

20 of Mecole Hardman’s 22 catches this season have traveled fewer than 10 yards downfield. Demarcus Robinson has three catches for 25 yards over the last three games combined, yet plays 70% of the offense’s snaps. Byron Pringle has had some crucial drops this year, plus two fumbled kick returns in consecutive weeks.

If there was a game to get right — similar to the group’s Week 2 performance — it’s this one. Washington’s back end has been very susceptible to big plays through the air; Sunday’s matchup has “Gordon break-out game” written all over it.

5. Running back rotation

Kansas City Chiefs v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Starting running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire will officially miss at least the next three weeks while on the team’s Reserve/Injured list. That means the duo of Darrel Williams and Jerick McKinnon has an ample opportunity that starts in Week 6.

Williams has the experience in the system that will likely give him the bulk of the touches and snaps — but pay attention to the touches McKinnon gets, too. Compared to Williams, McKinnon looked like the more dynamic, explosive ballcarrier in training camp and the preseason. He could be relied upon for screen passes and runs that require more speed than power.

If the run blocking can bounce back and create running lanes — as they did in Week 4 — McKinnon might be more likely than Williams to turn those large runways into huge gains.