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5 things to watch as the Chiefs host the Giants

The Monday Night Football matchup features two losing teams with their backs against the wall.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at New York Giants
Nov 19, 2017; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce (87) is tackled by New York Giants safety Darian Thompson (27) during the second quarter at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

If the Kansas City Chiefs (3-4) want to turn their season around, they’ll have to take it one week at a time — and that starts when they host the New York Giants (2-5) during Week 8’s Monday Night Football. DraftKings Sportsbook has the Chiefs as 9.5 point favorites.

For both teams, it’s pretty much do-or-die; the Chiefs have the NFL’s toughest remaining schedule, so losing to one of the weakest teams in that stretch would all but end any hopes for the postseason. The Giants are backed into a corner as well: falling to 2-6 would be nearly impossible to overcome.

Even with the difficult schedule coming up, the Chiefs play five of their next six games at home. If there were a recipe for turning a season around, it would start with a long stretch of home games — but winning the first one is the only thing to worry about right now.

I have five things to watch in this primetime matchup:

1. Establishing the running game

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Tennessee Titans Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

I cringed while typing this headline.

When you have quarterback Patrick Mahomes — and the receiving weapons to whom he can throw — the running game shouldn’t be that important, but this team isn’t performing like a typical Chiefs team.

At this point, it might go without saying — but Mahomes has been pressing and playing uncomfortably. One way to help him regain his confidence is to minimize his dropbacks and run the ball effectively — and keep doing it until the defense has to give more attention to it. And if they don’t? Run it down their throats all night.

Not only does this relieve some of the pressure on Mahomes — who is the NFL’s current leader in dropbacks — it also builds confidence in the offensive line. Right now, they are clearly a stronger unit in the running game than they are in pass protection — in fact, they might be one of the league’s best run-blocking units. Giving them more opportunities to simply fire off and move a defender will strengthen their control of the line of scrimmage.

This does not mean that the Chiefs should run it on every early down — and it doesn’t mean they should run the same play over and over again, either. It’s about taking some pressure off the quarterback and allowing your linemen to do what they do best. Even if they again fall into an early hole, I’d like the offense to trust the run to string together positive plays.

2. Chiefs pass rushers showing improvement

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Washington Football Team Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

No NFL team has fewer sacks than the Chiefs do this season, notching only eight in seven games. They actually have the 12th-highest team-pressure percentage; they just aren’t finishing these plays.

That said, I believe the defensive line has already begun to turn a corner with their pass-rushing effectiveness — and this could be the game where that progress turns into results. Since defensive end Frank Clark returned in Week 5 against the Buffalo Bills, he and the rest of the unit have started penetrating the pocket more each week. With Chris Jones’ return last Sunday, the defensive line is truly at full strength for the first time all season.

Clark’s pressure rate of 13.6% since Week 5 is one of the highest rates in the league for a player playing as many snaps as he has. Defensive tackle Jarran Reed has begun to make an impact, too: he has a team-leading six quarterback hits — three of them since Week 5. The continuing improvement of both of those players will allow Jones to rush more from an interior position — where he impacts the quarterback best.

On top of that, the Chiefs have started showing another wrinkle: using defensive tackle Tershawn Wharton as an edge rusher. In a small sample size, his quickness — combined with the raw strength as an interior lineman — has resulted in good snaps.

Considering the performance of the Giants’ offensive line — and injuries to its starters — this is the week for the pass rush to come alive; a big day could help build more consistency down the rest of the schedule.

3. New play designs in the passing game

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Philadelphia Eagles Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

One way to help Mahomes’ confidence is to be effective on the ground, but there’s more to it than that. When he is asked to drop back, he needs to take what the defense gives him — but he also needs head coach Andy Reid to work his magic, scheming receivers open for big plays.

The Chiefs know what they’ll be seeing in most of this game: some version of Cover 2 — whether there is man coverage underneath the deep safeties or short zones. We need to see more route concepts that take advantage of a Cover 2. That means vertical routes to the middle of the field between the two safeties — and more route combinations that push the deep safety to one side, where he must focus on one vertical route or the other.

Mahomes needs to improve his patience, keeping himself from pushing the ball downfield unnecessarily — but if receivers were actually open, he wouldn’t have to force deep passes. It is a lot tougher to do against the soft coverages they’ve been facing — but it’s not impossible. So on Monday, watch for Reid to step up his play designs — and improve when those plays are called.

4. Linebackers in pass coverage

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The Giants use play-action passes at a higher rate than average, doing it mostly from under center — and consistently getting quarterback Daniel Jones out in space on bootlegs. That will test the second level of the Kansas City defense, impacting their sideline-to-sideline range and their ability to pick up crossing routes.

Unfortunately, the Chiefs’ linebackers have been bad at that this season — especially last week against the Tennessee Titans. Their passing game was highly efficient because of the open throwing windows they saw at the intermediate level.

With the emphasis on stopping Titans running back Derrick Henry, the linebackers had an excuse for biting on the run — but that shouldn’t be the case against the Giants. New York has been inefficient on the ground; its ability to hand off — especially if running back Saquon Barkley doesn’t play — shouldn’t require as much attention.

That should allow the Chiefs’ second-level defenders to be in a better position to take away throwing windows on play-action passes and roll-outs — where this season, Jones has been at his best.

5. Shakeups in the wide receiver rotation

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Another way to help Mahomes get back in a groove is to consistently play wide receivers whom he can trust to target — and who also have the ability to make a big play. Frankly, that doesn’t describe wide receiver Demarcus Robinson.

Robinson has an incredibly low usage rate for being on the field more than any other skill-position player not named Tyreek Hill or Travis Kelce. He has 110 fewer receiving yards than Byron Pringle — even though he’s played nearly 200 more snaps.

On top of that, he’s been flagged for holding penalties in each of the last three weeks. It’s time to rely less on Robinson — and more on Pringle, Mecole Hardman and Josh Gordon.