A team fighting back from a poor start to the season can always use some lucky breaks — and boy did the Kansas City Chiefs (4-4) catch one in their Week 9 matchup with the Green Bay Packers (7-1). Star quarterback Aaron Rodgers will miss the game after testing positive for COVID this week, and backup Jordan Love will start in his place.
After the early line had the Packers as slight favorites, the Rodgers news propelled the Chiefs to 7.5-point favorites, according to DraftKings Sportsbook.
Things may be easier on the Chiefs, but this isn’t a guaranteed win. In fact, it’s far from one; the Packers are one of the NFL’s best teams with Rodgers, and they still have an elite roster without him.
I have five things to watch in a pivotal game for the Chiefs:
1. Causing chaos and confusion for Jordan Love
The Chiefs will be facing a quarterback that has never started a regular-season game in his career. He didn’t find out he would be starting until Wednesday morning, and he’ll be on the road in Arrowhead Stadium to kick off his career.
All that to say this: Chiefs’ defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo needs to make it hard on Love, which means a higher volume of blitzes, coverage disguises, and creative pass-rush packages.
Love is a talented player, so the Chiefs need to do everything they can not to allow him to feel comfortable using that talent. Get him off rhythm by disrupting wide receivers’ timing routes, making him move in the pocket with effective pressure; this level of inexperience could lead to a few turnover opportunities for the defense.
Love threw 17 interceptions over 13 games in his final collegiate season. Spags needs to force him into a bad decision or two to help the Chiefs control this game.
2. Continuing to trust the ground game
Last week, I wanted to see the Chiefs establish their rushing attack. They absolutely did — for one drive.
In the second quarter, the Chiefs finished a touchdown drive by running the ball five consecutive snaps, seven of the 11 plays for the possession. It was the only drive they truly leaned on the rushing attack, but I believe that the quality of the offense needs to be more emphasized.
The Chiefs’ offensive line once again dominated in the run game, blowing open holes for running back Derrick Gore to shine in his breakout game. The plays that seemed to be the most successful? Gap-scheme runs, where one or two pulling blockers lead the ball carrier through a specific gap.
Whether it’s Trey Smith pulling to blow up a defensive end on a kick-out block or left tackle Orlando Brown down blocking to create a massive lane, Kansas City’s offense enjoys gap-scheme runs because it utilizes their physicality much more than zone blocking does.
With the passing game sputtering in recent weeks, the Chiefs should trust gap runs more often to get the explosive play they need.
3. Limiting big runs by Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon
With Love in his first career start, the Packers would be wise to protect him with an efficient ground game. Fortunately, they have the backs to do it.
Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon have become one of the league’s best duos from the same backfield. Jones brings open-field elusiveness and receiving ability to the table, while Dillon’s physicality and power set him up to be a colossal pain to tackle. The best part is that both are interchangeable; each can do it all.
In Week 8, the Packers rushed 34 times for 151 yards and a score in their victory over the Arizona Cardinals. They continually chipped away at the Arizona defense while Rodgers had his second-lowest single-game production this season.
A similar formula could be in the works for Kansas City — but the Chiefs’ defense has held well against the run in recent weeks. This might be one of their toughest tests all season; if they can limit big runs and force Green Bay into passing situations on third down, it puts a lot of pressure on Love.
4. Pass catchers making plays after the catch
There’s no secret to what coverage shell quarterback Patrick Mahomes will see when he drops back to pass; opponents have stuck to defending the Chiefs with two high safeties, and the Packers are fundamentally built to play from that setup anyways.
That means the Chiefs’ offense needs to be patient, waiting for the shot plays to come open; in the meantime, hammer the quicker routes like they did on the opening drive against the New York Giants.
Head coach Andy Reid made a point to quickly get the ball in the hands of wide receiver Tyreek Hill, but that was also the case for every other receiver. The Chiefs need to continue that philosophy to build Mahomes’ confidence back up, but that also requires the pass catchers to be playmakers themselves and turn short passes into huge gains.
You trust that Hill and tight end Travis Kelce can do it, but players like wide receivers Mecole Hardman, Byron Pringle, or Josh Gordon need to do this as well. If they can’t produce the YAC they need, Mahomes may feel the need to force throws downfield again to make up for it.
5. Covering Davante Adams
The Chiefs don’t have a cornerback that anyone should feel great about containing wide receiver Davante Adams; don’t take that the wrong way, because few NFL cornerbacks can even think about it.
Adams is debatably the best receiver in the NFL, and that will likely cause Love to rely on him when he’s not sure exactly where to go with the ball. Adams is an incredible route runner and will constantly create tons of separation to be an available target for Love.
If the Chiefs can limit him to the short stuff, that’d be ideal — but they will obviously need to be aware of his intermediate and deep routes. There should always be some level of safety help on Adams’ side. To be brutally honest, Kansas City needs to avoid a potential matchup with cornerback Mike Hughes substituted in and lined up across from Adams.
If the Chiefs prove not to be up for the task of limiting Adams’ production, Love could force-feed him and allow him to take over the game.