To open the 2021 regular season, the Kansas City Chiefs may be facing one of their toughest challengers in the AFC.
The Cleveland Browns have become a popular pick to be this year’s main competitor to the Chiefs’ throne at the top of the conference. Last season, it was the Buffalo Bills, and the year before, it was the Baltimore Ravens. The Browns are now gaining hype as a legitimate Super Bowl contender — and I actually don’t think it’s a stretch.
They have one of the deepest rosters in the league, a great coaching staff, high-end players at important positions and momentum from their impressive second half of 2020.
They did win a playoff game for the first time since the 1994 season, but the Chiefs were the ones that stopped their magical run in the Divisional round. Cleveland will have the opportunity to get revenge on Sunday at 3:25 p.m. Arrowhead Time.
I have five things to watch for what should be one of the weekend’s best NFL games:
1. A tough first test for the offensive line
Everyone’s excited about the Chiefs’ new offensive line — and there’s good reason for it. Left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. is a proven starter, left guard Joe Thuney may be the most consistently sound guard in the NFL, and the three rookies that make up the rest of the unit have impressed in their three games of preseason action.
However, there’s nothing to prepare the unit for the live bullets of a regular-season game — and their first experience will be against a talented and deep Cleveland front.
Defensive end Myles Garrett has the second-best betting odds to win the Defensive Player of the Year award this season. He’s had at least 10 sacks each of the last three years, and will be a handful for right tackle Lucas Niang — the side he primarily lines up on. Former No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney is strong and disruptive at the other defensive end spot. In recent years he’s lacked as a pass-rusher, but he’ll still penetrate the pocket with power and be stout against the run.
On the interior, they boast a quality four-man rotation with veteran Malik Jackson, Andrew Billings, former Missouri Tiger Jordan Elliott and former second-round pick Malik McDowell — who has looked great this preseason in his first chance to bounce back after off-field issues held him out of football the last few years.
Chiefs head coach Andy Reid will protect his new line through the plays he calls — but that can’t be the case for every snap. They likely won’t be perfect, but a good showing would be very encouraging moving forward.
2. The importance of a strong performance from the defensive line
On the flip side, the Browns’ offensive line is their best position group — and might be the best five-man unit in the league.
They’ll run the ball at any time and at any part of the field. With how difficult their running back duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt is to tackle, it’s important that the Chiefs’ defensive line can hold their gaps at the line of scrimmage and prevent the backs from getting open run lanes to the second level — mainly to protect the Chiefs’ linebackers.
Starting linebacker Willie Gay Jr. isn’t playing, which means the trio of Anthony Hitchens, Ben Niemann and rookie Nick Bolton will share the field in base formations against the Browns’ 12 (one running back, two tight ends) or 21 (two running back, one tight end) personnel packages. As well as Bolton has played against the run in preseason action, that grouping is shaky — and is likely worse than last year initially because of Damien Wilson’s departure.
For the Chiefs to prevent chunk plays from the Cleveland rushing attack that result in long, methodical drives, the defensive line needs to hold their own at the line of scrimmage.
3. Attacking the young members of Cleveland’s secondary
This week, the Browns announced that rookie first-round pick Greg Newsome II was named the starter at cornerback opposite Denzel Ward — beating out another young corner, Greedy Williams.
Newsome and Ward will man the outside positions in base downs — but from what I’ve seen of the Browns’ preseason, Newsome may be the player that moves inside in three-cornerback sets while Williams enters the game on the perimeter. It’s similar to how the Chiefs currently use L’Jarius Sneed.
The Chiefs love to use Tyreek Hill in the slot, and he’s had some of his biggest plays from that alignment. Last year, seven of his 15 receiving scores came in the slot.
If the Browns trust Newsome to hold his own inside, the Chiefs need to test him early and often with Hill and Mecole Hardman — who averaged 14.5 yards per reception on 20 catches from a slot alignment last year.
If Cleveland gives Newsome a lot of aid over the top, the Chiefs should go after Greedy Williams in his third season; he missed all of 2020 with a shoulder injury.
4. Matching up with Browns’ pass-catchers
Cleveland will have their full arsenal of receiving weapons available against the Chiefs, something they couldn’t say for last year’s matchup.
Wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. has recovered from the torn ACL he suffered last season. Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is aware of how dangerous he is, but pieces around him like receivers Jarvis Landry, Donovan Peoples-Jones — and the tight end trio of Austin Hooper, Harrison Bryant and David Njoku can all make plays with the ball in their hands.
Landry is the offense’s primary slot receiver, so he and Sneed will do battle a lot of the game. Beckham and Peoples-Jones both have the big-play ability on the outside for Charvarius Ward and Mike Hughes to deal with. Plus, the tight end group will be a challenge for the linebackers and safeties over the middle of the field — especially without Gay.
The Browns’ effective use of play-action passes will only make things harder on the Chiefs’ coverage players.
5. Utilizing Clyde Edwards-Helaire as a receiver
One of the weakest position groups for the Browns’ defense last season was linebacker — specifically when covering running backs out of the backfield. They’ve improved it with the draft selection of the uber-athletic, second-round pick Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah — but it sounds like he may be their counter to tight end Travis Kelce.
This is where Edwards-Helaire’s receiving ability could really be utilized and become one of the keys to a Chiefs victory. Not only can Edwards-Helaire take advantage of one-on-one matchups with the Browns’ more traditional linebackers, but the screen game could also be a very effective way of slowing down Cleveland’s pass rush.
The second-year back missed last season’s matchup with the Browns while he recovered from a late-season injury — and running back Darrel Williams racked up 94 total yards in his place. The much shiftier, harder-to-tackle Edwards-Helaire could be in line for an even bigger game if utilized effectively in the pass game.