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Five things to watch as the Chiefs play the Chargers

The Kansas City Chiefs’ season opening 34-20 victory over the Houston Texans did not indicate how swift and sound of a butt-whooping it was. The Chiefs completely controlled a pretty good Texans team — one that features one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks.

With those reps under their belt, they’ll travel to Los Angeles on Sunday to take on the Chargers in their new home: SoFi Stadium. As bad as the Texans looked against Kansas City, they clearly have to be considered a better team than the Chargers, who miraculously won their Week 1 game against the Cincinnati Bengals after a close offensive pass interference penalty negated a touchdown — which was followed by a botched field goal.

The point is that the Chiefs should beat up on their divisional foes. I believe it will be a good opportunity to learn more about the new players emerging on this team — and to enjoy elite players doing… you know… elite things.

I have five things to watch in the Chiefs’ first road game of the year:

1. The Chiefs’ pass rush

Houston Texans v Kansas City Chiefs

Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

After the first week of the NFL season, Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones is tied for fifth in the league with six total pressures. Right behind him, defensive ends Frank Clark and Tanoh Kpassagnon each have five pressures. Only two other teams have three players with five or more pressures.

Those three — along with any other defenders getting after the quarterback — will become a key part of the Week 2 contest. In order to help their hampered secondary, the Chiefs’ pass rush needs to seriously affect Chargers quarterback Tyrod Taylor. The injury to cornerback Charvarius Ward creates an opportunity for the Chargers to exploit — but the Chiefs can negate it with a disruptive pass rush.

In the season opener, Taylor was pressured on 32.4% of his dropbacks — the 10th highest rate in the league. That said, the Los Angeles offensive line didn’t give up a sack; the only one allowed was Taylor’s fault. The Chiefs pressured Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson at a comparable rate, but earned four sacks along the way.

They should have a similar — if not better — performance against the Chargers. Clark totaled 14 pressures and two sacks in the two games against Los Angeles last season, and Jones has 3.5 sacks in his last three matchups with them.

2. Clyde Edwards-Helaire’s receiving game

NFL: Houston Texans at Kansas City Chiefs

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The rookie running back had a phenomenal debut in Week 1, but all of his 138 yards came on the ground; the only target he saw was an inaccurate dump-off to the flat that fell incomplete.

There’s reason to believe he won’t be shut out of the passing game for a second straight week. In the two matchups with the Chargers in 2019, 33% of quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ pass attempts were targeted to running backs. Over the full season, he targeted running backs on 22% of his throws.

Los Angeles will run a Cover 3 as their base coverage. Chiefs wide receivers will tend to push the three deep defenders downfield with their speed threat, opening up the seams and flats for running backs and tight ends. This puts the onus on Chargers’ underneath coverage defenders to make open-field tackles on Edwards-Helaire and other running backs.

The former LSU running back caught 55 passes for 453 yards in his last season in college. As impressed as we already are with the rookie, there could be more to fawn over after Week 2.

3. Performance of Chiefs linebackers

Los Angeles Chargers v Kansas City Chiefs

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The most noticeable flaw of the Chiefs defense continues to be the linebacker corps. Against the Texans’ running game, the defense surrendered 5.4 yards per carry — the second-highest rate in the NFL — and the linebackers’ inability to effectively fill running lanes looked like the main reason.

Per Pro Football Focus, the three linebackers who saw the field the most — Anthony Hitchens, Damien Wilson, and Ben Niemann — all finished among the 18 lowest-graded linebackers of Week 1. There were only two other teams with multiple players in that range; no other team had three.

The group lacks athleticism and explosiveness — two traits possessed by rookie linebacker Willie Gay Jr. The team’s second-round selection didn’t have a single defensive snap in Week 1, while third-year linebacker Dorian O’Daniel had five — and earned a sack.

The Chargers totaled 155 rushing yards on 39 attempts against the Bengals, good for 3.97 yards per rush. They’ll likely attack the Chiefs in a similar manner, which will be another test for the linebackers.

If there are further struggles, Gay has to see the field soon — whether he’s ready or not.

4. Kelechi Osemele continuing to pave roadways

Houston Texans v Kansas City Chiefs

Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Week 1 was the first look at one of the offseason’s veteran acquisitions: offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele. He definitely did not disappoint.

Playing at left guard, Osemele anchored an offensive line that dominated the Houston defensive front in the running game. The Chiefs ran for nearly six yards a clip until the last two drives of the game, when the score was out of reach and there was an extended period of goal-line stuffs.

Osemele paved the way for Chiefs’ running backs more than any other lineman. According to Pro Football Focus, the Chiefs rushed behind Osemele five times, gaining 60 yards — including three rushes of 10 yards or more and the only rushing touchdown of the game.

Things will get tougher in Week 2, with Chargers veteran defensive tackle Linval Joseph lining up across from Osemele. Joseph was an elite run defender at one point in his career — around the same time Osemele was at his peak. The individual matchup will be fun to follow — and will be an important indicator for success in the Chiefs’ running game.

5. Cornerbacks against Keenan Allen and Mike Williams

Kansas City Chiefs v Los Angeles Chargers

Photo by Manuel Velasquez/Getty Images

Charvarius Ward is reportedly “making progress” in his recovery from the bone fracture in his hand that he suffered against the Texans. Whether he’s able to play or not, Los Angeles’ duo of wide receivers will present a much different challenge than the L’Jarius Sneed, Rashad Fenton and Antonio Hamilton faced in the opening game.

Three-time Pro Bowl wideout Keenan Allen is known as one of the best route runners in the NFL. In the two matchups with the Chiefs last season, Allen caught 17 passes for 153 yards and two touchdowns. In those games, Allen took 52% of his snaps from the slot, accounting for 13 of the catches and both touchdowns.

If Allen continues to produce from the slot, the hampered group of boundary cornerbacks only have one other legitimate threat to worry about: fourth-year wide receiver Mike Williams. Williams led the team in targets during the season opener — including three targets 20 or more yards downfield, with one becoming a 37-yard reception.

There are no other notable names among the Charger’ wide receivers — but those two could give the Chiefs’ depleted secondary fits.

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