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5 things to watch as Chiefs host the Rams on Thanksgiving weekend

It doesn’t appear that this game has the juice to be as exciting as the last time these two teams matched up.

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NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Los Angeles Rams Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

On a Thanksgiving weekend, the Kansas City Chiefs (8-2) may be thankful for some home cooking against a Los Angeles Rams (3-7) team that is starting its third-string quarterback and missing its best offensive player in wide receiver Cooper Kupp.

The Chiefs entered the weekend as 15.5-point favorites, per DraftKings Sportsbook. It’s the largest point spread of any NFL game this season.

That means this likely won’t look like the last time these two matched up: a 54-51 Monday Night Football thriller in 2018 that Los Angeles won.

I wouldn’t expect those fireworks, but there’s plenty to learn about the Chiefs this week. Here are five things to watch:

1. How dominant can this defense be?

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

The Chiefs’ defense has been impressive this year, making plays at the right time and getting stops in crucial situations. They’ve held up their end of the deal all season, but this game is an opportunity to prove they can shut down an inferior opponent from A to Z.

With Matthew Stafford ruled out, the Rams’ starting quarterback might be Bryce Perkins, an undrafted free agent from the 2020 NFL Draft class who took his first NFL regular-season snaps two weeks ago. Without Kupp, the Rams’ skill-position group is very underwhelming — and on top of that, the offensive line has been one of the NFL’s worst.

All that considered, the Chiefs’ front seven should be able to control the game against the run and pass; off-ball defenders must be ready for both designed and improvised quarterback runs. If they corral the rushing, they force the Rams to throw — and there should be chances for sacks and turnovers when that happens.

Watch to see if the Chiefs’ defense steps up with that focus to dominate or overlooks a banged-up Los Angeles offense.

2. The running back room

NFL: NOV 20 Chiefs at Chargers Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Outside of the Week 4 win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the last two weeks were the Chiefs’ highest rushing-yardage totals of the season. They were also the two games rookie running back Isiah Pacheco has played the most this year.

With original starting running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire now on injured reserve, Pacheco’s plate may be even more filled up — but his role may be tweaked a bit. Jerick McKinnon is the team’s best pass-down back, but now he’s the only reliable one — so Pacheco may have to be tested more in those spots to keep it unpredictable; last week, he was run over in pass protection to allow a sack on his only pass block of the game.

This could also be the first showcase for running back Ronald Jones, who earned a spot on the initial 53-man roster by looking explosive as a downhill runner in the third preseason game. Jones can break off a big run in similar ways as Pacheco, but one of them is in a rhythm while the other has been on ice.

It’s hard to imagine Jones is inactive this game. Watch to see how much he’s utilized, and how much it impacts the roles of the other two backs.

3. A closer look at the mismatch up front

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Rams’ offensive line wasn’t anything to be proud of at the beginning of the season — but since, they’ve had their starting left tackle and left guard go on injured reserve, their starting center miss time (including Week 11), and now their backup left tackle is a game-time decision.

Especially with an inexperienced quarterback behind them, this should be a feast for the Chiefs’ pass rush. Defensive tackle Chris Jones will bully the interior and attract double teams constantly, giving everyone else on the line consistent one-on-one opportunities. Any edge rusher going over left tackle should feel good about matching up with Bobby Evans, a career backup that allowed two sacks and three hurries in 28 pass-block snaps last week.

Kansas City’s unit has ballooned to the NFL’s fourth-highest sack total and sixth-highest pressure total for a reason, and it’s why they should be able to wreck this aspect of the game. I’d be disappointed with anything less than a dominant performance.

4. JuJu Smith-Schuster’s return

NFL: NOV 13 Jaguars at Chiefs Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After missing one week with the concussion he suffered against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Smith-Schuster has been a full participant in practice this week.

Even with wide receivers Mecole Hardman (injured reserve) and Kadarius Toney (hamstring) still not in the mix, Smith-Schuster’s return will come at the expense of the team’s two leaders at wide receiver last game: Justin Watson and rookie Skyy Moore.

In some ways, I feel like Watson was used as a direct replacement for Smith-Schuster in how they aligned — but Moore’s tough catches and plays over the middle were the kinds of plays that Smith-Schuster was making.

With Toney and Hardman being the receivers out of the lineup, Moore’s talents are more fit to replace those specific skillsets — so watch for the rookie receiver to have another impactful game.

5. Any change up at right tackle?

Kansas City Chiefs v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

This week, the Chiefs officially activated former starting right tackle Lucas Niang from the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) List that he has been on since training camp. Niang has finally recovered from the patella injury he suffered late in last year’s regular season.

As a reminder, Niang began the 2021 season as the team’s starting right tackle — getting five weeks in before the team made a change and put veteran Mike Remmers in his spot. Niang would return to the lineup four more times that season but left two of those games with injuries — including the season-ending one.

Since the Niang injury, veteran Andrew Wylie has taken every significant right-tackle snap — and while there are flaws, he has settled into an extent this season.

So is there any need for an immediate switch-up? Likely not — but keep an eye on it. Niang’s superior size makes him a more enticing run blocker, but Wylie’s quicker feet probably make him the better pass-protection candidate currently.

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