This season, the Kansas City Chiefs aren’t overwhelming opponents with their offense — but rather, with the defense. The team is allowing only 14.7 points per game — the second-lowest mark in the NFL. Since defensive tackle Chris Jones’ return, opponents are averaging 267 total yards per game, and the unit has forced at least one turnover each week.
Even after holding down the passing attacks of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Minnesota Vikings, the Chiefs’ upcoming opponent — the Los Angeles Chargers — still may give the most formidable challenge yet. The Chargers are currently ranked seventh in scoring, and eighth in total yards; the team is also tied for the fewest giveaways this season.
While the eyes are usually locked into the screen most when the Chiefs have possession, I think Kansas City’s defense matching up with the Chargers’ offense is a heavyweight fight, one worth watching every jab and hook.
Here are the key matchups in that respect:
Keenan Allen vs. Chiefs’ cornerbacks
Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen has the fifth-most receptions in the NFL this season, and he is being utilized as heavily as any pass catcher in the NFL. That has partly been because wide receiver Mike Williams is out for the season, but Allen has had massive performances to earn the volume — like the 18 catches and 215 yards he put up against the Vikings.
He leads a skill-position group that Chiefs’ defensive backs coach Dave Merrit recognizes as a challenge for his guys.
“Keenan Allen is public enemy No. 1 that we’re going to look out for and try to take care of,” Merritt told reporters on Thursday. “Then you have [Joshua] Palmer, who has done a fantastic job against us, and of course [Gerald] Everett, the tight end, who is another dynamic runner after the catch.”
“We’re going to be tested at every level... it’s a challenge all around the board for the defensive backs, whether it be safety or cornerback.”
Keenan Allen has the 5th most receptions in the NFL this season. LA is getting him the ball in a variety of ways, using motion a lot to get him loose & dictate matchups pic.twitter.com/du1IANYvOU— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) October 19, 2023
The Chargers use pre-snap motion frequently to get the ball to the primary playmaker. Allen is constantly moving before the snap, even if he returns to his original position in the formation. He’ll also line up in the backfield on occasion, then motion out to try to create a mismatch.
That could allow Los Angeles to dictate the matchup Allen sees, depending how Kansas City plays it. While L’Jarius Sneed has matched up with number-one receivers this year, Allen’s style of play may not require that here. The Chiefs may let it play out more, knowing Trent McDuffie would be a good matchup in the slot — where Allen aligns on 63% of his receiving snaps.
Like most of the season, this game may spotlight McDuffie more than Sneed.
Austin Ekeler in open space
One of the league’s most dynamic backs in open space, Chargers’ running back Austin Ekeler has only played in two games this season: the season opener, and last week, returning from his ankle injury to total only 62 yards from scrimmage.
However, Ekeler has shown explosive, big-play ability in his minimal opportunity this year.
Austin Ekeler has only been able to play 2 gms this year (Wk1 and last week), but has ripped off three plays of at least 28 yards this season— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) October 19, 2023
Chargers want to get him the ball in space, quick into the flat with screens & checkdowns, but Ekeler can explode btwn the tackles too pic.twitter.com/0yMdGnhtJt
In last week’s loss to the Dallas Cowboys, Ekeler set up a touchdown with a 28-yard gain on a screen. In Week 1, Ekeler racked up 164 yards from scrimmage — 55 of them coming on an explosive run up the middle and 35 yards on a catch and run.
Last season, the Chiefs’ initial matchup with the Chargers was highlighted by missed tackles from linebackers like Willie Gay Jr. That group has improved this season and will be the key to containing Ekeler and his big-play ability.
Justin Herbert vs. Chiefs’ pressure
The Chargers and Justin Herbert have played relatively clean football this season. His two interceptions are tied for the third-fewest among full-time starting quarterbacks this season. Herbert is also one of the least-sacked signal callers in the NFL.
Justin Herbert has played mostly safe football this year, but his few turnover-worthy plays have come when pressured. Both of his INTs were thrown against pressure#Chiefs have the 2nd-highest team pressure percentage in the NFL (29.7%) pic.twitter.com/ht174gFEQB— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) October 19, 2023
However, both of Herbert’s miscues have come when pressured. Last week, the Cowboys forced a game-ending interception by getting in Herbert’s face as he attempted the pass. In a previous game against the Las Vegas Raiders, a hurried, scrambling Herbert was intercepted easily by the oncoming safety.
To disrupt Los Angeles’ pass game, the Chiefs need to continue what they’ve done this season: create pressure. The team currently ranks second among NFL defenses in pressure rate (29.7%) and may only be more dangerous with the potential return of defensive lineman Charles Omenihu.
At the same time, Herbert can be dangerous outside of structure, so Kansas City’s rush has to be in control. Chiefs’ defensive line coach Joe Cullen emphasized that point when speaking with the press on Thursday.
“Herbert does as good a job as anybody getting those guys the ball,” Cullen began. “He throws it really well on the run to his throwing side. We have to do everything we can to keep him in that pocket, and collapse the pocket, so it doesn’t give him the freedom to get out and get to those guys downfield.”