It should be all good feelings and positive vibes for everybody as we head into the 2023 NFL season, especially if you’re a fan of the Kansas City Chiefs.
Fresh off a Super Bowl LVII championship, the team will open up the NFL calendar with a Thursday night matchup hosting the Detroit Lions at 7:20 p.m. Arrowhead Time. The Chiefs opened as 6.5-point favorites at DraftKings Sportsbook, but the line has fallen to 4.5 points since the tight end Travis Kelce was announced as questionable to play.
It’s one of the two things making this great day feel weird, one of the two dark clouds looming over the tailgates and fans at Arrowhead Stadium: Kelce’s knee hyperextension and the continued holdout of defensive tackle Chris Jones.
Jones won’t be playing, and Kelce probably shouldn’t. That leaves plenty else to talk about leading up to the game. I have five things to watch here:
1. How the Chiefs’ defensive line holds up
No Jones, but also no Charles Omenihu — the defensive lineman signed this offseason who is serving game one of a six-game suspension. It puts a lot of pressure on the remaining defensive linemen, facing a Detroit Lions’ offensive line considered one of the best.
Lions right tackle Penei Sewell is entering his third season after being selected seventh overall, progressively becoming more dominant on the way to a Pro Bowl invitation last year. He and Taylor Decker — the eighth-year veteran at left tackle — will provide a very tough challenge for Chiefs’ defensive ends.
Rookie first-round pick Felix Anudike-Uzomah may have flashed in the preseason, but he’ll have a harder time winning through contact in his pass rush than he did in those exhibitions. It will be more on George Karlaftis to continue his strong finish from 2022, and a notable night on Thursday would be encouraging.
It’s the interior that looks to be in trouble without Jones, even against the run. The big bodies of Derrick Nnadi and Neil Farrell Jr. will need to plug gaps as well as they ever have, but they need to be helped by the coaching staff. Watch for creative alignments and fronts to help the talent mismatch.
2. A glimpse at life without Travis Kelce
Since Mahomes’ first year starting in 2018, Travis Kelce has missed one game with him, a comfortable late-season win in 2021 because he had a positive COVID test.
We don’t know what the Chiefs’ offense would look like without Kelce, but we may get a glimpse into it on Thursday evening. With the injury coming on short notice, it would be hard to overhaul the game plan, but we can still learn from who Mahomes relies on without his primary safety blanket in Kelce.
Tight end Noah Gray will physically fill in for Kelce’s position, but I predict we will see wide receiver Skyy Moore’s sophomore year get jump-started. In the same way, JuJu Smith-Schuster was a reliable option outside of Kelce last year, showing strong hands through contact; Moore profiles as the receiver that can be relied on over the middle and in conversion scenarios.
He could lead the team in targets and receptions, which would be an excellent sign for his development.
3. Manufacturing pass rush
An obvious reaction to the mismatch the Chiefs will face up front: to blitz, on run downs and pass downs.
While you'd normally expect Spags to dial up the blitz rate...the Lions ranked 1st in EPA/play vs the blitz last year. BETTER THAN THE CHIEFS.— Mina Kimes (@minakimes) September 5, 2023
And that was before they added Gibbs, who I think could be a huge weapon vs extra pressure.
The problem is that the Lions’ offense was very good against the blitz last season, taking advantage of less defenders dropping into coverage with quick passes and other fast-developing plays. Quarterback Jared Goff will be sharp to his hot reads and checkdowns when he sees additional pressure coming.
The Chiefs will need to be careful when blitzing, especially with Lions rookie running back Jahmyr Gibbs in the formation. He is an explosive, dynamic athlete in the open field who could really take advantage of linebackers or safeties in coverage if left alone with them.
4. Chiefs’ coverage carrying pass defense
No. 3 is why No. 4 might be the most crucial part of the game for the Chiefs’ defense: how well their back end can cover.
The Lions’ passing attack won’t be threatening with talent in their receiving corps. Amon Ra St. Brown leads the group, but even he is more of a possession receiver from the slot, in the same mold as wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. The suspension of last year’s first-round pick, Jameson Williams, takes away a big-play element from Detroit’s pass-catchers.
It’s why I want to see the defensive backs win this matchup. Cornerbacks Trent McDuffie and L’Jarius Sneed have a tough matchup in the slot, but one they can win. Safety Justin Reid should be able to contain rookie tight end Sam LaPorta. Cornerback Joshua Williams or Jaylen Watson has a favorable matchup against either Josh Reynolds or 33-year-old Marvin Jones Jr. on the outside.
5. A consistent, effective rushing attack
The Lions’ offensive line has an advantage in their matchup, but so does the Chiefs’.
Detroit’s defensive front will feature last year’s first-round pick Aidan Hutchinson as a threat to the offensive tackles — against the run and pass — but the Chiefs will have a solid plan to neutralize his impact.
The interior of the Lions’ defensive line is not as stocked as they are still dealing with some lineup changes. Initially a starting nose tackle, Lions’ player Isaiah Buggs told reporters on Monday he would not be playing; he is projected to be a gameday inactive.
That shuffling should give the Chiefs a big advantage on inside runs — and just in the run game, generally. I believe running back Isiah Pacheco will have a strong day because of it, averaging over five yards a carry and keeping the offense ahead of the sticks. I’m also confident that the offense will be successful on short-yard runs, at least for Week 1.