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5 things to watch as the Chiefs host the Chargers

The first AFC West game of the season will be a very important one.

Kansas City Chiefs v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

For the first time this season, two AFC West teams will play each other. The Kansas City Chiefs (1-1) are preparing to host the Los Angeles Chargers (1-1) on Sunday; surprisingly, these two teams are tied for last place in the division.

Even as the Denver Broncos and Las Vegas Raiders hold better records, it still feels like the Chiefs and Chargers are the two most likely teams to contend for the division crown. After this game, they won’t meet again until Week 15 in Los Angeles on Thursday Night Football.

Both teams will be highly motivated to bounce back from their Week 2 losses. In yet another critical early-season game, I have five things to watch:

1. Early-down defense

NFL: DEC 29 Chargers at Chiefs Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When linebacker Anthony Hitchens spoke to reporters on Thursday, he emphasized a key point in the hopeful improvement of the defense:

“Our main focus is stopping this run — making it second-and-long, third-and-long — so we can let our rushers rush,” Hitchens told reporters. “We don’t have many sacks. The reason why is because [when] it’s third-and-2 or third-and-3, they can run or pass. We just have to correct that aspect, so we can let Chris and Frank Clark just take off and sack the quarterback.”

The run defense may not be as important as pass defense, but it helps the pass defense play better. The Chiefs have rarely forced opponents into third-and-long situations — and when they have, good things have happened; both interceptions from Week 2 happened on a rare third-and-long.

The Chargers have struggled on first and second downs this season; they have the second-most third-down attempts in the league. Fortunately for them, they also have the highest conversion rate on third down. With that said, the Chiefs’ defense will still want to put them in those situations. It will help the pass rush, which also helps the coverage on the back end.

2. Avoiding Derwin James in coverage

Los Angeles Chargers v Washington Football Team Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

There’s no question that the Chiefs’ coaching staff has game planned with Chargers’ safety Derwin James as the primary focus.

Los Angeles’ defense starts and ends with James, who will cover the back end as a safety and come up as a great defender on outside runs or quick passes to the flat. That said, the Chiefs need to primarily focus on their tendency to put James in man coverage on the opposing team’s best receiver in crucial situations like third down or the red zone.

He has the athleticism, length and size to match up with tight end Travis Kelce, which I believe will be his primary role on those important plays. He’s not going to be perfect going against the best receiving tight end of all-time, but he’ll be a handful for Kelce.

In those situations, the Chiefs should be able to depend on other pass catchers; the rest of the Chargers’ secondary isn’t anything to write home about.

3. Covering the Chargers’ wide receivers

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Los Angeles Chargers Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Quarterback Justin Herbert has the third-most passing attempts in the NFL this season. The Chargers have no problem throwing the ball all over the field, and they have the receivers to make it effective.

Wide receiver Keenan Allen has always been one of the best route-running receivers in the league, and his quickness in that respect is a mismatch for Chiefs cornerbacks. On the flip side, wide receiver Mike Williams is a big-bodied player that will catch over anyone — but he can also be an elusive player with the ball in his hands. Wide receiver Jalen Guyton can take the top off the defense, and running back Austin Ekeler is always a threat to align anywhere in the formation to make a play in the passing game.

With Allen as their primary slot receiver, cornerback L’Jarius Sneed will play a huge factor in the defense’s success against the pass this week. Charvarius Ward will see Williams on the outside quite a bit; in a contract year, this is a game that Ward has to play well to prove he’s worth a contract in the offseason.

4. Effectively running the ball

Kansas City Chiefs defeated the Los Angeles Chargers 23-20 in over time during an NFL game. Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

This season, the Chargers have allowed the eighth-most rushing attempts, the third-most rushing yards and the second-highest yards per rush rate. In Week 2, the Dallas Cowboys gashed the Chargers for 198 rushing yards at 6.4 yards per attempt. This should be an opportunity for the Chiefs’ run game to have its best performance yet.

However, Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Darrel Williams — the only two running backs to get carries so far this year — are averaging a combined 2.9 yards per rush, and neither has earned more than nine yards on one rush.

The surprising part about those statistics is that the run blocking from the new offensive line has been generally good — but they haven’t been helped by the coaching staff or the backs. Run plays were way too predictable before the snap in Week 2; also, Edwards-Helaire has left yards on the table with a lack of ball-carrying vision.

Because of that, the rushing attack might be more of a team effort...

5. The usage of Jerick McKinnon and Darrel Williams

Kansas City Chiefs v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Edwards-Helaire’s fumble shouldn’t garner too big of an overreaction, but I do believe the staff could divvy up the running back touches more to either motivate the second-year back — or just to see more of what they have behind him.

Veteran Jerick McKinnon looked good in the preseason, and has the experience that could help him maximize the run lanes that Edwards-Helaire just doesn’t seem to right now. Per the NFL’s Next Gen stats, Edwards-Helaire has 37 fewer rushing yards than he is expected to have over his 27 carries this season. It’s the lowest number in the league through two weeks.

Don’t be surprised if there are bigger slices of the “running back usage” pie for Williams and McKinnon this week.