In Week 4, the Kansas City Chiefs will take on their old Super Bowl nemesis: the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. With their record at 2-1, this will be a critically important opportunity for the Chiefs to get back on track after their terrible loss to the Indianapolis Colts in Week 3.
The Buccaneers have been less explosive on offense than in years past — largely due to injuries at wide receiver and the offensive line. But a Tom Brady-led offense will tend to find ways to win — and shouldn’t be underestimated. Given the struggles we’ve seen lately from Kansas City’s offense, the Tampa Bay defense might prove to be an even bigger challenge.
Here are a few Chiefs who may be trending as we head into this pivotal matchup.
Khalen Saunders: Lost in the noise of an inexplicable Chiefs loss, Saunders had the best game of his career. He was active against the run and the pass, with eight total tackles and two quarterback hits. His most interesting play, however, might have been when he came in on offense and lined up as a fullback — even with actual fullback Michael Burton also on the field. Saunders drove a linebacker into the end zone, showing the power he can bring to this package. There will reportedly be more to come from Saunders on the goal line, so he’ll be one to watch going forward.
L’Jarius Sneed: The Chiefs’ best defensive back has been all over the field this season. Against the Colts, he racked up his second sack of the season, along with a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. He’ll give up some receptions — especially on the boundary — but he’s been an elite slot defender (and a ballhawk) in a defensive backfield full of rookies. Against Brady and the Buccaneers, he’ll have a chance to compete against big receivers and the most veteran of veteran quarterbacks. So even if Brady completes a few passes on Sneed and his teammates on Sunday, also expect him to make some plays on the ball.
JuJu Smith-Schuster: As we discussed on this week’s “Out of Structure” podcast, someone from Kansas City’s wide receiver room needs to step up and be the guy. Looking at the other candidates, Smith-Schuster is the most likely to remain the No. 1 option. He was targeted eight times against the Colts — just like in Week 1 — and has responded well, showing the ability to move the chains. He’ll need to do a little more than that in the coming weeks, stepping up his game to pick up the slack around him. Perhaps this week, the Chiefs could get a performance to rival his 2019 game against Tampa Bay — when he had nine catches for 116 yards?
Others trending in the right direction: cornerback Jaylen Watson, fullback Michael Burton, linebacker Darius Harris, defensive end Frank Clark and safety Juan Thornhill.
Orlando Brown, Jr.: In Week 2, it looked like the big left tackle was on the right track, holding his own against a tough Los Angeles Chargers defense. Then against the Colts, something about Brown didn’t look right. It’s hard to tell whether he was battling through a lingering injury (Remember: he was on the injury report with a knee issue), or whether there was something out of sync about the protections — and it sure looked like there was. The play to which people were overreacting on Twitter was a simple case of being tripped by tight end Noah Gray. But if Brown’play doesn’t bounce back, he could have a rough week against a fierce Tampa Bay defensive front.
Marquez Valdes-Scantling: If Smith-Schuster is the receiver showing signs he can do more, the former Green Bay Packers wideout might be the guy who is showing his limitations. Valdes-Scantling is big and fast — at least in a straight line — but may not have the suddenness needed to separate from man coverage. Over the last two weeks, he’s only converted six of his 14 targets into catches — and has not been able to connect with quarterback Patrick Mahomes on a single deep attempt. The Chiefs expected Valdes-Scantling and Mecole Hardman to be the deep threats who could keep defenses honest. But to date, the team hasn’t been able to get much production out of either one of them.
Jody Fortson: It seems like each week, I put someone in the Bears column — and they have a great game (or vice versa). So I’ll try some reverse psychology, hoping to will a good game into existence for the exciting red-zone threat. Fortson has seen his usage dwindle — he played only six snaps in Indianapolis — and wasn’t targeted. It could be a game-planning thing, but it sure appears that Fortson isn’t as big of a part of the offense as we had hoped. Watch to see if that trend continues — or if my reverse-jinx really works.
Others trending in the wrong direction: right tackle Andrew Wylie, cornerback Rashad Fenton, wide receiver Mecole Hardman, left guard Joe Thuney, right guard Trey Smith and running back Jerick McKinnon.
Value (sleeper) pick: Isiah Pacheco
The Chiefs’ running game was great in Week 1, mediocre in Week 2 and downright terrible in Week 3. What was the difference in the first week? Pacheco was given double-digit carries and a chance to help salt away a victory. The offensive line has also struggled in both games since then — as shown by the general lack of production on the ground. What could help the running game get back on track? Maybe it’s a rookie with fresh legs, legit speed and an attacking running style. Could Sunday be the time to once again feature Pacheco on offense?