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Opponent scout: Chargers’ passing attack should be Chiefs’ main focus

The combination of Justin Herbert and any of Los Angeles’ pass-catchers will be their biggest threat.

NFL: SEP 26 Chargers at Chiefs Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In this weekly series, I break down the Kansas City Chiefs’ upcoming opponent by examining its strengths, weaknesses and tendencies — and how those things affect its matchup with Kansas City.


In a short week, the Chiefs will take on the Los Angeles Chargers in SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California. The winner of this game will have a firm grasp on the AFC West lead with only three weeks remaining.

Overview

The Chargers have had a roller-coaster season to go to 8-5. The two-game win streak they’re on is the first instance of them winning back-to-back games since Week 5.

Offensively, they’ve lit up the scoreboard as of late: the team has scored 37 or more points in three of their last four games; the only game they failed was a 28-13 loss at the Denver Broncos two weeks ago. The Chargers are sixth in total yards, fourth in first-down conversions, and fourth in points per drive. The unit has the fifth-best third-down conversion percentage and the 10th-ranked red-zone touchdown percentage.

On defense, Los Angeles has generally struggled; they allow the seventh-highest points-per-game rate in the league. The area they struggle the most: run defense. For the season, they have allowed the fourth-highest rate of yards per rush while also giving up the third-most rushing touchdowns. They have the league’s worst third-down conversion percentage allowed.

Offense

In the last matchup between these two teams, the Chargers exploited the Chiefs’ pass coverage with a heavy emphasis on getting the ball quickly to wide receivers Mike Williams and Keenan Allen. The two combined for 172 yards on 15 catches and three touchdowns against the Chiefs.

For Thursday’s game, Allen has just returned from the reserve/COVID list this week — while Williams was a limited participant in practice on Tuesday.

The two hammered the Chiefs’ cornerbacks with slant routes for most of the Week 3 game — but two of the three cornerbacks that saw the most snaps were Mike Hughes and Deandre Baker. Starter Charvarius Ward missed the game with an injury, and Rashad Fenton had not yet emerged from his reserve position.

Quarterback Justin Herbert’s ability to get the ball out fast to open receivers prevented Chiefs defensive lineman Chris Jones from having a more significant day.

That’s important because Jones is currently on the team’s Reserve/COVID list. That’s very fortunate for the Chargers, based on their offensive line’s performance in recent weeks; Herbert’s been sacked nine times in the last three games. That was especially prevalent against the Denver Broncos, who held them to 13 points and Herbert to only 6.8 yards per attempt.

This week, the Chargers also had to place starting left tackle Rashawn Slater on the Reserve/COVID list.

To get the Chiefs’ defense off-balance, the Chargers went to an up-tempo style of offense at times in the first matchup with Kansas City — and that’s still a key part of their strategy.

Here, the Chargers randomly use a hurry-up strategy after no gain on first down to catch the Cincinnati Bengals’ defense out of position. The deep safety jumps the dig route underneath, which plays right into Herbert wanting to find Williams on a deep completion.

Running back Austin Ekeler is always a thorn in the defense’s side and was in Week 3 to the tune of 107 total yards. He was a limited participant in practice on Tuesday after hurting his ankle in Week 13.

Defense

For the Chargers’ defense, there are two individuals that opposing offenses should always know the location of at all times. The first name is defensive end Joey Bosa, who gave right guard Trey Smith a “Welcome-to-the-NFL moment” in his third-career game back in September.

For the season, Bosa has 8.5 sacks — including one in five of his last six games. Bosa will be used in a variety of alignments, but he will generally be lined up on the edge of the defense. Opposite him, edge defender Uchenna Nwosu also has multiple sacks in recent games; against the Bengals, he forced a fumble and recovered one as well. Defensive lineman Jerry Tillery can also disrupt from an interior position.

While Bosa headlines the front, safety Derwin James is the leader of the back end. He’s a dynamic player against the run and as a blitzer — but the Chargers didn’t choose to use him in that way against the Chiefs. As they rarely blitzed, James played more as a traditional safety, where the offense could more easily avoid him.

The Chiefs executed that part of their game plan despite the turnovers: James recorded only tackles in his box score, while tight end Travis Kelce caught seven passes for 104 yards.

His skills allow him to have incredible reps like this one — when he is used as a pass rusher. To use the full extent of James’ abilities, the Chargers may move him around and be more aggressive with him this time around against Kansas City.

James missed the Chargers’ last game with a hamstring issue; he was a limited participant on Tuesday.

The bottom line

When the Chiefs’ defense is on the field, their main focus should be how to slow down the passing attack that racked up 281 yards and four scores in Week 3. If the Chargers commit to running the ball, the Chiefs can trust the front seven to take care of business — but they can’t help Herbert and his weapons to beat them through the air by paying too much attention to the run.

On offense, Kansas City just needs to have a plan for Bosa — just like they’ve had a plan for Las Vegas Raiders’ defensive end Maxx Crosby. If they can neutralize him — while also being mindful of where Derwin James is on any given play — they should be able to handle the rest of the unit.

They did in Week 3 but inexplicably turned the ball over four times.