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Chiefs vs. Commanders Instabreakdown: Starting units have another impressive day

Kansas City’s early returns are looking great.

NFL: Washington Commanders at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Final score: Kansas City Chiefs 24, Washington Commanders 14

The second exhibition match of 2022 season ended with a Kansas City victory in front of the Arrowhead Stadium crowd. With their starters in the game until midway through the second quarter, the Chiefs built a 14-0 lead. The depth players finished it off by making plays down the stretch.

Offense (Ron Kopp Jr.)

The Chiefs’ starting offense wasn’t perfect, but they finished every opportunity that was required. They converted all five third downs they faced, finishing both possessions with a touchdown in the red zone. Both drives lasted 12 plays and went for over 80 yards.

Quarterback Patrick Mahomes was fantastic. Early on, he missed wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling breaking open deep — but with a few more games under their belts, the duo might complete that same play. On one third down, Mahomes stepped up in the pocket and correctly dumped off to running back Jerick McKinnon to convert. On another, he stood tall against a free blitzer, putting his throw in a perfect position for a huge gain.

On the second drive, he hooked up with tight end Noah Gray for 30 yards after staying patient in the pocket and waiting for the right window. Later, he turned a scramble to the left into a twisting throw back to the right, converting a third-and-6. It was hard to determine what was more impressive: the arm angle he used or the vision he displayed in finding the open receiver. He ended the game with 8.5 yards per attempt, two passing touchdowns and a 125.3 passer rating.

Tight end Jody Fortson made his presence known where we all thought he would: in the red zone. Both of the targets he saw from Mahomes were in the end zone — and both resulted in impressive touchdown receptions where he tapped his toes and secured contested balls. We all saw what he did in the red zone with his limited opportunities last season. A full season with that responsibility could be a huge asset for the team.

Wide receiver Justin Watson made another big play — this time, with the starting offense. On a third down, Washington sent a blitz, giving receivers had no time to waste in getting open. So on a vertical route, Watson quickly created separation over the middle, securing Mahomes’ over-the-shoulder pass for a 39-yard gain to the eight-yard line. It set up the first touchdown of the game.

On a lesser note, the running back group once again struggled to get anything going on the ground. Running backs Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Isiah Pacheco combined for 12 yards on six carries — with the longest rush by any running back being only six yards.

Some of the blame may rest with the offensive line — but in pass protection, they seemed to be handling the Washington front just fine. When Mahomes dropped back, he never had to deal with throwing as he was hit — or even any true pressure. On on one third-down attempt, he even rolled out of a clean pocket — which caught right tackle Andrew Wylie by surprise. The pass rusher’s quick change of path led to a holding penalty that was, thankfully, offset. The front five were much more impressive than they were in the exhibition opener.

Past the starters, quarterback Shane Buechele was far from impressive — although he knew when to pull out the scramble; he finished with a team-high 35 rushing yards. Wide receiver Daurice Fountain splashed with a 27-yard completion deep down the sideline. Corey Coleman made a similarly-impressive sideline catch for 14 yards, while Josh Gordon made a strong catch on a slant over the middle.

On one particular third down, backup left tackle Gerron Christian did not handle a speed rush well, allowing the edge rusher to go basically untouched for a clean sack. Right tackle Prince Tega Wanogho also allowed a few pressures — and right guard Nick Allegretti earned a holding penalty in pass protection.

Offensive Player of the Game: quarterback Patrick Mahomes

Even though he had seven incompletions, Mahomes had a very impressive showing — especially when you consider he was missing starting receivers Juju Smith-Schuster and Mecole Hardman. He spread the ball to eight pass-catchers, doing it in different ways. While there was some inefficiency on early downs, he made every play that he really needed. If he starts the year like he has played this preseason, he’ll be primed for a run at another MVP award.

Defense (Talon Graff)

Without its best player — defensive tackle Chris Jones — the defense still put together a nice performance. The group forced three punts to start the game, including two big third-down stops provided by cornerback L’Jarius Sneed and linebacker Nick Bolton, who were each able to cause incompletions.

Once again, first-round rookie defensive end George Karlaftis showed off his motor, fighting through a double-team (and an apparent hold) to bring down the Commanders quarterback. The former Purdue Boilermaker was in on several other plays.

Defensive tackle Khalen Saunders — now entering his fourth season — has been playing with some fire. The third-round pick from 2019 could be a factor for the Chiefs in 2022. He notched a sack in the third quarter and looks primed for a career year. Joshua Kaindoh — who the team hopes will take steps forward this season — was also in on some plays around the ball.

The linebackers are a solid group led by Nick Bolton and Willie Gay Jr. Locally-grown Elijah Lee continues to be the third linebacker with the starters — but Leo Chenal and Jermaine Carter are quality depth players who could step in for good reps; the former has a bright future as a tackling machine for defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.

The secondary broke down late in the first half as the Commanders scored a touchdown on a Heinicke pass over Dicaprio Bootle. But earlier in the drive, safety Deon Bush delivered a big (and legal) hit that knocked a third-down ball away. The play would have forced a punt, but it was negated by a questionable roughing-the-passer flag on Saunders.

Still, after struggling to finish plays a week ago against Chicago, the secondary looked improved on the whole. They mostly held Washington receivers in check, preventing big plays from developing behind them. When they were beaten over the top, they made late plays on the ball — like Chris Lammons did in his fourth-quarter interception.

The youth of the corners and safeties is a good problem to have; all flash potential as playmakers. But one of those playmakers — cornerback Rashad Fenton — went down with a groin injury after just returning from a shoulder issue. His status remains unclear.

Rookie corners Trent McDuffie and Joshua Williams continue to get meaningful reps during the preseason — but as they make the difficult jump from college to the pros (where offensive schemes are far more complex), consistency is the key for them. Williams made a good play to knock away a deep pass attempt from Taylor Heinicke to Dyami Brown. The potential is oozing out of this kid; somewhere down the road, it should all click for No. 23.

Overall, the defense kept the Washington offense from doing too much damage outside of two drives that show plenty of opportunities for improvement. But the players can still come out of their film study with plenty of positives on which they can build. The front seven was once again impressive — and the secondary showed they’ve been putting in work to get better as a group.

Defensive Player of the Game: defensive tackle Khalen Saunders

In two preseason games, Saunders has looked ultra-quick — and has made multiple plays in the backfield. He has given interior offensive linemen fits with his mixture of size and speed. His quick twitch allows him to avoid blockers at the line of scrimmage — and he has the acceleration to run down ball carriers. When the regular season arrives, he could push for some serious playing time.

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