That shouldn’t be taken as disrespect to the Cardinals. Instead, it’s an indication of how monumental the Week 2 matchup between the Chiefs and the Los Angeles Chargers really is. According to DraftKings Sportsbook, the Chiefs are favored by four points.
It’s one of the most anticipated matchups of the 2022 season — and all offseason, both teams have undoubtedly been preparing for this first clash between them. This game really could be the difference between winning and losing the AFC West.
I have five things to watch in the Chiefs’ home opener:
1. The plan for pass protection
When the Chiefs drop back to pass on Thursday, they’d better have a good strategy for how to minimize the impact of edge rushers Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack.
With 11 Pro Bowls and three All-Pro selections between them, the Chargers’ outside linebackers are advanced pass rushers with the tools to win in any way they want. Both can be technical rushers, but they can also overwhelm offensive tackles with strength.
One way or the other, the Chiefs’ offensive tackles have an enormous challenge ahead of them. Left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. may be able to handle the power — but no matter which pass rusher lines up across from him, right tackle Andrew Wylie is on the wrong side of a major mismatch.
The Chiefs will be forced to help both tackles with chips from running backs or tight ends — or maybe even keeping a tight end in to double-team a rusher. It could limit what the Chiefs can do on a given passing down — but to keep quarterback Patrick Mahomes clean, it might be necessary.
2. Downfield pass coverage
Without starting cornerback Trent McDuffie, the Kansas City defense will be at a disadvantage; the rookie was placed on IR this week with a hamstring injury.
When the Chiefs are in their nickel or dime formations, the third cornerback spot will now be played by rookie Jaylen Watson — a seventh-round pick. We’ll see if fourth-rounder Joshua Williams rotates in; in training camp and preseason, the two of them battled back and forth for this backup role.
Chargers’ quarterback Justin Herbert will test either rookie, using his unlimited arm strength to go downfield with jump balls to wide receiver Mike Williams. Both Watson and Joshua Williams have the build to physically compete with Williams, but it’ll be interesting to see if the rookies can make a play or two in coverage. They’ll definitely get the opportunity: Herbert would be wise to test a rookie cornerback early and often.
3. The rushing attack
Last season, the Chargers’ rush defense was one of the worst in the NFL; they allowed the third-most rushing yards among all teams.
In last year’s Week 3 matchup, the Chiefs were churning out big runs against Los Angeles. Running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire took 17 carries and earned 100 yards; he had three carries go for 10 or more yards.
In Week 1, the Chargers only gave up 64 yards on the ground — but the Las Vegas Raiders’ offensive line isn’t one that could take advantage of the matchup. The Chiefs, however, have such a line — and the coaching staff will need to trust them in this phase of the game. It will help counter the impact that Bosa and Mack will have in the passing game.
4. How to pressure Justin Herbert
In Week 1, the Chiefs’ pass rush got after quarterback Kyler Murray. They were the only NFL team to have three different defenders register six or more pressures: rookie George Karlaftis, Mike Danna and Chris Jones.
With his ability to escape the pocket and win with his legs, Herbert will present a similar challenge. But having the stature to see and throw over the pass rush, Herbert is also much better at throwing from a clouded pocket. It may negate some pressures — which will be frustrating — but the pass rushers will just have to continue being relentless.
While Herbert may be able to throw from off-platform, the Chiefs will still need to put him in those situations. When he has a clean runway from which he can step up and throw, there’s nowhere on the field he can’t reach. With a short-handed secondary behind them, it’s going to be important for the Chiefs’ defensive line to keep that runway muddy.
5. Travis Kelce’s impact
In Week 1, Arizona blitzed Kansas City way too much. That opened up receiving opportunities for tight end Travis Kelce, who ended up with 121 yards and a touchdown on eight catches.
The Chargers will not blitz as much. In their two matchups last year, Los Angeles only blitzed Mahomes on 28% of his dropbacks — which pales in comparison to Arizona’s blitz rate, which Pro Football Focus calculated at 59%.
I believe this will impact how easy the Mahomes-to-Kelce connection looks. In addition, Chargers safety Derwin James is a much harder defender to beat than Arizona linebacker Isaiah Simmons. Los Angeles is just not going to allow Kelce to be as available to Mahomes.
So it’ll be fascinating to watch how Mahomes reacts. Will he force the ball to Kelce too often — or will one of the Chiefs’ wide receivers benefit by having their first big game of the season?