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Chiefs-Saints rapid reaction: Backups, role players shine in first preseason game

Quarterback Shane Buechele threw touchdowns to Justyn Ross and Kekoa Crawford.

NFL: Preseason-Kansas City Chiefs at New Orleans Saints Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Saints defeated the Kansas City Chiefs 26-24 in the first game of the preseason. The club now has a day off on Monday before the final three days of training camp — which will be Tuesday through Thursday at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph.

This was not a good start for the first teams.

Let’s be clear: the Chiefs’ starters did not play well in a preseason game. The Sunday effort has absolutely no impact on how the season will unfold for them. That being said, I think fans would have liked to see something out of Kansas City’s first teams.

Quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the first-team offense were on the field for just six plays. Nitpickers of last year’s offense will talk to you about how annoying it was to see Kansas City consistently struggle in short-yardage situations. That reared its ugly head again on Sunday, as Blake Bell’s fourth-and-1 tight end sneak failed miserably.

Head coach Andy Reid has been reluctant to use the quarterback sneak since Mahomes’ 2019 injury, which is understandable. As he continues to use the former Oklahoma quarterback-turned-tight end, perhaps it is time to implement the Philadelphia Eagles-style “tush push.”

Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo — and defensive leaders like linebacker Nick Bolton and safety Justin Reid — have been forthcoming about their lofty goals for 2023: the unit wants to break into the league’s top 10. And sure: it was an exhibition game. But in its two drives, the first-string defense could not have looked any worse.

Obviously, some of that had to do with the absences of defensive tackle Chris Jones and cornerback L’Jarius Sneed — but even without them, seeing the available starters gashed by Derek Carr and Jameis Winston was not exactly encouraging. If we’re reaching for anything positive, defensive end George Karlaftis and newcomer Charles Omenihu each registered a quarterback pressure.

As he sat at home — still holding out during his contract dispute — Jones had to be smiling about how bad the defense looked without him.

Seeing running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire be featured was interesting, wasn’t it?

It was no surprise that running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire earned the start in New Orleans. With Isiah Pacheco still wearing a non-contact jersey in practice, he has been the first back to touch the football during drills in St. Joseph. Edwards-Helaire is also from Baton Rouge and attended college at LSU.

All that considered, I found it interesting that Edwards-Helaire touched the football on the first four plays in the game. Pacheco is expected to be back by the start of the season, which means Edwards-Helaire is in line to be the backup. When you add Jerick McKinnon’s return and rookie Deneric Prince’s emergence to the mix, would Kansas City consider trading 2020’s first-rounder?

Teams use the preseason not only for their own evaluation but also to drum up interest from other teams around the league. It was a different situation, but we’re only four years removed from general manager Brett Veach sending running back Carlos Hyde to the Houston Texans at the end of the preseason. Might history be repeating itself?

The Chiefs’ backups came back to take the lead in the football game.

The poor play of the top teams led to a 17-0 lead for the Saints, leaving it up to the backups to try to find a way to come back in New Orleans. They did just that, but an untimely interception by Chris Oladokun cost them the game.

First, wide receiver Richie James tracked down a 43-yard ball from backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert. A couple of plays later, he reined in Gabbert’s bad throw for a 3-yard touchdown. James broke out for 569 yards with the New York Giants last season, and I would imagine continued play like that this preseason could potentially see him take snaps away from someone like Justin Watson.

Hopeful Chiefs fans have to be pleased that wide receiver Justyn Ross found the end zone on a great throw by quarterback Shane Buchele. Ross snuck behind the Saints’ linebacker and held onto the ball despite contact right after the catch.

I was also impressed by rookie wide receiver Rashee Rice (who did have a drop) and his ability to catch contested passes and hold onto the ball while sustaining a hit. Rookie receivers typically take some time to learn the playbook and get in the game for Reid, but Rice looked the part in his opening audition, finishing with three catches for 30 yards.

Nikko Remigio continues to make his case for the practice squad or a 53-man roster elsewhere, leading the Chiefs with 71 yards.

I wonder if Buechele’s outing — and particularly, his Mahomesesque touchdown pass to wide receiver Kekoa Crawford — leads to more reps at training camp. We only get three more full-practice looks in St. Joseph, so if Buechele were to take a run at Gabbert’s backup job (I still find it unlikely), it would be behind closed practice doors.

The first look at rookie defensive end Felix Anudike-Uzomah was encouraging. Spagnuolo had to be pleased with the second team’s ability to get to the quarterback. All three levels of the defense got home for a sack: defensive tackle Danny Shelton, linebacker Drue Tranquill and rookie cornerback Chamarri Conner all had one.

There could be room for another cornerback because of Nazeeh Johnson’s torn ACL, and I think Kahlef Hailassie’s leaping interception gets him on the radar.

The Chiefs travel to take on the Arizona Cardinals in their second preseason game of 2023 on Saturday at 7 p.m. Arrowhead Time.

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