The Kansas City Chiefs will open the season against a very formidable opponent in the Cleveland Browns. The Chiefs took care of them in the postseason last year — even with backup quarterback Chad Henne playing most of the second half — but there are plenty of differences between last year’s Browns and this version coming to Arrowhead on Sunday.
One of the biggest differences is the return of wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. The three-time Pro Bowl selection tore his ACL midway through the season last year. Cleveland would go on to play with high efficiency on offense and win a postseason game without him — but don’t get it twisted: a healthy Beckham raises the ceiling of this offense’s scoring potential.
Chiefs’ defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo agrees with that sentiment, and he would know more than most. Spagnuolo spent three seasons with the New York Giants as their defensive coordinator and interim head coach, which overlapped with two of Beckham’s three Pro Bowl seasons.
“Number 13 changes a lot of things,” Spags mentioned of Beckham during his press conference on Thursday. “I know that firsthand going against him every day in practice. Along with the tight ends, Landry, and those two running backs — you’re looking at an offense right out of the gate that’s going to be a huge challenge for our guys.”
Cleveland’s offense was already explosive enough to score 40 or more points in three of their last seven games of the 2020 season — including the playoffs. Now they’ll add Beckham, who has looked like his old self according to observers of Browns’ training camp.
His ability to score on any given play is what Spagnuolo has emphasized to his players the most.
“He’s the ultimate game wrecker, in my opinion,” Spagnuolo stated. “He can wreck a game from an offensive standpoint. He can catch the ball for a five-yard slant, and it could go 60 [yards]. He could catch a hook, make a guy miss, then go 80 [yards]. That’s the concern. We’ll have our eyeballs on it. Corners, safeties, everybody is talking about it.”
As aware as the defense needs to be of the dynamic receiver, they can’t divert too much attention to him.
“They got other weapons too,” Spagnuolo pointed out. “You can’t commit too many guys to Odell Beckham, then you can’t tackle all of those running backs. We’ll play that game within the game, but we’re aware of how talented he is.”
Tackling is another aspect of the matchup that Spagnuolo is wary about. We’ve heard Spagnuolo mention the lack of tackling from last year’s season opener earlier this preseason. He re-emphasized that point on Thursday.
“Real concerning,” Spagnuolo prefaced of the team’s tackling ability against the Browns. “We had the advantage of three preseason games, didn’t have those last year. Last year when we didn’t have a preseason game, we had 14 missed tackles in that Houston game — so is that concerning? Yes. We’ve had some preseason games, but our first group didn’t play a lot. We’ve worked on it, every time we put the pads on, we’re tackling; the only thing we’re not doing is tackling guys to the ground. It’s in the forefront of coaches and players’ work ethic and concern right now.”
Spags went on to note that the defense actually tackled well against the Browns in last season’s matchup; specifically, they excelled at limiting yards after the catch opportunities.
One player that will be doing plenty of tackling is rookie Nick Bolton, who will see an increase in playing time due to starting linebacker Willie Gay Jr. going on the IR with turf toe. The rookie got plenty of run in training camp and the preseason, and Spags liked what he saw.
“When he played in the three preseason games, it felt like to me that the game wasn’t too big for him,” Spagnuolo described of Bolton. “I don’t see why that would change in this game. We’re confident in what he does mentally; will he make rookie mistakes? Yeah, they all do. They’re all going to make them. He plays alongside a guy in [Anthony Hitchens] who can help him out a lot, and Ben [Niemann]. The combination of those three — hopefully — can get the job done. We’re anxious to see what he can do.”
By all accounts, the Chiefs’ defensive coaching staff is taking the Browns’ offense very seriously. I detailed many of the same points he made in my opponent scout article on Thursday — including the dangers of a healthy Beckham.
Reports out of CLE are that OBJ looks like his old self.— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) September 9, 2021
With Sneed primarily covering Landry in the slot, Beckham should see Ward or Hughes plenty. If he really is as quick and explosive as ever, that's a game-changing mismatch on the outside #Chiefs pic.twitter.com/LKwJJYRn7J
Beckham’s playing style is an obvious mismatch for the Chiefs’ starting outside cornerbacks in nickel personnel: Charvarius Ward and Mike Hughes. Both like to be physical and disrupt routes at the line of scrimmage but struggle to keep up with someone as explosive and quick as Beckham can be.
In a game that could be a back-and-forth battle, a big play or two by Beckham could be what allows the Browns to pull an upset in Kansas City.