Game plan with Terez Paylor: Chargers at Chiefs, Saturday night edition

Kansas City Star Chiefs beat writer Terez Paylor analyzes the four keys to a KC Chiefs victory over the Los Angeles Chargers on Saturday night at Arrowhead Stadium. He also shares his prediction for the outcome of this battle for first place in th
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Kansas City Star Chiefs beat writer Terez Paylor analyzes the four keys to a KC Chiefs victory over the Los Angeles Chargers on Saturday night at Arrowhead Stadium. He also shares his prediction for the outcome of this battle for first place in th
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Chiefs-Chargers scouting report, key players to watch and a prediction

By Terez A. Paylor

tpaylor@kcstar.com

December 15, 2017 02:51 PM

Here’s The Star’s weekly game preview detailing the key players and matchups for the KC Chiefs’ game against the Los Angeles Chargers, 7-6, at 7:25 p.m. Saturday at Arrowhead Stadium. The game will air on CBS (Ch. 5) and the NFL Network.

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Scheme

Head coach: Anthony Lynn (7-6) is in his first year on the job. Lynn, 48, is a former running back at Texas Tech who forged a six-year playing career in the NFL, despite going undrafted in 1992. A two-time Super Bowl champion with Denver (1997, 1998) he joined the Broncos’ coaching staff as a special teams assistant in 2000 when he was forced to retire due to repeated neck injuries. He served in that role until 2003, when he was hired to be the Jaguars’ running backs coach. Over the next 12 years, he also worked for the Cowboys, Browns and Jets in the same capacity. He added the title of assistant head coach with the Jets in 2013, and was hired for both roles with the Bills in 2015. After Greg Roman was fired last September, Lynn became an offensive coordinator for the first time in his career. And when Rex Ryan was fired last December, Lynn was also named the interim head coach. He was fired to be the Chargers’ first head coach in January, becoming the first African-American to serve in that role in the club’s 56-year history.

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Offense: Ken Whisenhunt, 55, is in his third year as the Chargers’ offensive coordinator. This is his second stint. Whisenhunt is a former tight end at Georgia Tech who carved out a seven-year career with the Falcons, Jets and Washington. He then spent a few years as an assistant at Vanderbilt before joining the Ravens as tight ends coach. Over the next seven years, he coached the same position for the Ravens, Browns and Steelers and spent a year as the Jets’ special teams coach. In 2004, he was promoted to offensive coordinator with the Steelers, where he enjoyed enough success to be hired as the Cardinals’ head coach in 2007. Whisenhunt went 45-51 during his six years in the desert, falling just short of a Super Bowl title in 2008. He spent a season as the Chargers’ offensive coordinator in 2013 before getting his second shot as a head coach in 2014. He was hired by the Titans, however, after going 3-20 in two seasons. Since then he’s served as the Chargers’ offensive coordinator, where he’s been a good fit due to his relationship with quarterback Philip Rivers. Los Angeles ranks fifth in total offense (373.7 ypg), third in passing offense (273.2) and 24th in rushing offense (99.5). Los Angeles is a three-wide dominant team that is passing the ball 59 percent of the time, 15th in the league. They rarely lean on play-action, as they call it 17 percent of the time, which ranks 27th in the league according to Football Outsiders.

Defense: Gus Bradley, 51, is in his first year as the Chargers’ defensive coordinator. Bradley is a former free safety and punter who played for North Dakota State from 1984 to 1988, where he played for three national championship teams. He joined North Datoka State’s coaching staff as a graduate assistant shortly thereafter, and eventually spent 14 seasons as a defensive coordinator on that level before he was hired to be the Tampa Bay Buccaneeers’ linebackers coach in 2006. In 2009, he was hired by Pete Carroll to be the Seattle Seahawks’ defensive coordinator, a position he thrived in until 2013, when he was hired to be the Jacksonville Jaguars’ head coach. Bradley was fired after going 14-48 across four seasons, but landing in his current role with the Chargers. Los Angeles runs a multiple 4-3 defense with 3-4 elements that ranks 10th in total defense (325.1 ypg), third in pass defense (200.3) and fifth in sacks (37). The Chargers’ run defense ranks 29th (124.8). Teams use play-action 24 percent of the time against the Chargers, tied for the most in football with the New York Giants.

Special teams: George Stewart is in his first year as the Chargers’ special teams coach. Stewart was a guard at Arkansas from 1977-80, and he joined the Razorbacks’ staff in 1983 as a graduate assistant. He followed Lou Holtz to Minnesota and Notre Dame, where he worked as a linebackers coach until he joined the Steelers as a special teams coach in 1989. He also worked in the same capacity for the Buccaneers and 49ers, then spent 17 years as a receivers coach for the 49ers, Falcons and Vikings. He was hired for his current job by Lynn in January. Kicker Travis Coons has made seven of eight field-goal attempts. Punter Drew Kaser has dropped 21 of his 60 punts inside the 20, 19th in the league. The Chargers rank 30th in kickoff returns (18.9 ypr) and 11th in punt returns (9.3). They also rank 28th in kickoff returns (24.9) and 17th in punt-return coverage (7.6).

Four keys to a Chiefs victory

1. Dial up the zone runs

The Chiefs racked up 189 yards on 25 carries in their 24-10 win over the Chargers in September, and many of those yards came via the zone runs that have long been associated with Andy Reid’s West Coast scheme. The Chiefs went through a long stretch this season — most of November — where the offensive failed to block those particularly well, but the unit got back on track in the Chiefs’ 26-15 win over Oakland on Sunday. The Chargers are still one of the league’s worst teams against the run, at least statistically, allowing a league-high 12 runs over 20 yards or more, so the Chiefs should immediately see if they can handle their running game this time. Running back Kareem Hunt went off for 172 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries in the first matchup, so it would be a surprise if Los Angeles didn’t do something to try to take him away. Whatever adjustments Los Angeles makes, however, can surely be countered, which means Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce could be in for nice nights.

2. Get Rivers off his spot

The Chargers do most of their damage through the air, as quarterback Philip Rivers is in the midst of a Pro Bowl season. They rank third in the league in passing yards, fourth in first downs via the pass (180) and seventh in passes over 40 yards (nine). That said, the key to disrupt this offense is to get to Rivers. He is a gunslinger, through and through, but he’s cut down the interceptions this year because his pass protection has been outstanding. The Chargers have surrendered the fewest sacks in football (15), which has allowed Rivers to deliver strikes from the pocket. But if the Chiefs’ interior front seven can collapse the pocket, it will force Rivers — who is not particularly mobile — to make throws on the move, which is where his accuracy and decision-making wanes. Rivers, if you remember, threw three interceptions in the Chiefs’ win in September. The Chiefs’ defensive interior needs to have another big game. All eyes are on Chris Jones, Rakeem Nunez-Roches, Allen Bailey and Bennie Logan.

3. Roll coverage toward Keenan Allen

The fifth-year receiver is en route to a career year, as he’s already racked up a career-high in catches (83), targets (128) and receiving yards (1,143). This guy has been lights out for the last four weeks too, catching 39 passes for 547 yards and four touchdowns. Let’s just the say the Chiefs need to put some bodies around him. Allen is one of the guys star cornerback Marcus Peters gets jacked up for, and that’s a good thing, but it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to roll coverage Allen’s way, regardless of who he’s lining up against. This is not an indictment of Tyrell Williams or Travis Benjamin, who can hurt you in their own right, but the when the Chargers are in a gotta-have-it-situation, the Chiefs can’t let Allen beat them. It’s worth noting that the Chiefs handled Allen well three months ago, limiting him to five catches for 61 yards.

4. Seize the Arrowhead momentum

This is self-explanatory but a key nonethless. The Chiefs’ enthusiasm has been off-and-on for the better part of two months, and in my opinion, it’s no coincidence they’ve only won two of their last eight games. When this team is fired up and celebrating and legitimately into it — as they were in their season-saving win over Oakland on Sunday — there’s very few teams in the AFC that can beat them. Well, it will take that sort of effort to win against a Chargers team that is much better — and much more confident — than it was the last time they met. Fortunately, the crowd should be jacked up. Because this game falls on a Saturday night, fans will have all day to tailgate and all of Sunday to recuperate. This atmosphere could be terrific, especially if the Chiefs jump out to a quick start. Fans are looking for any reason to believe. If the Chargers let the Chiefs give it to them, it’s lights out.

Four Chargers to watch

No. 17, QB Philip Rivers, 36, 6-5, 228, 14th season

Ranked No. 73 on the NFL’s top 100 list for 2017. Pro Bowler in 2016, when he completed 60.4 percent of his passes for 4,386 yards, 33 touchdowns and 21 interceptions. Is likely headed toward another Pro Bowl season, as he’s on pace to complete 62.8 percent of his passes for 3,611 yards, 23 touchdowns and seven interceptions with a passer rating of 97.2. Very competitive and chatty on the field — the Chiefs’ defenders actually respect him for his swagger and enthusiasm for the game. Is not overly elusive in the pocket but can zip it in there from different platforms. Loves to go up top but will also throw up plenty of 50/50 balls. Has the arm strength to make all the throws, but at his worst he trusts his gun too much and makes iffy throws into tight windows, which results in interceptions. Has done a better job protecting the football this season.

No. 13, WR Keenan Allen, 25, 6-2, 211, fifth season

Only caught six passes for 63 yards last season, when his year came to a close due to a torn ACL tear against the Chiefs in the season opener. Is on pace to catch 102 passes for 1,407 yards and six touchdowns. Has never made a Pro Bowl due to the high number of injuries he’s had to battle during his career, but when healthy, he’s one of the league’s best wideouts. Elite route runner with terrific savvy and burst out of his cuts. Outstanding arm length (32  3/4 inches) and hand size (10 inches) allow him to pluck the ball out of the air in contested ball situations. Is a terror on underneath routes, where he creates separation with ease and can win due to his size and length and even with good coverage. Has some run-after-the-catch qualities — can make you miss with the ball in his hands. Extremely competitive and can be an irritant to opponents with his talking. Does not have elite speed but is fast enough to win downfield.

No. 99, DE Joey Bosa, 22, 6-5, 280, second season

Ranked No. 100 on the NFL’s top 100 list for 2017. As a rookie in 2016, Bosa recorded 41 tackles for 10  1/2 sacks and 21 quarterback hurries in only 12 games due to a contract dispute. Is on track to finish with 70 tackles and 15 sacks this season, as he also has 19 quarterback hurries, which ranks 13th in the league. Strong, relentless all-day sucker with a great frame who plays with great effort. Good but not great athlete who uses the power in his hands to jolt offensive linemen. He uses that, in addition to plus technique and enough speed, to consistently generate pressure. Gets to quarterbacks quickly with a nice closing burst and is very quick looping inside on stunts. Diagnoses the run quickly and generally holds the edge. Sheds blocks well. Doesn’t have many weaknesses and should be one of the league’s very best edge rushers for years to come.

No. 54, OLB Melvin Ingram, 28, 6-2, 247, sixth season

Recorded 60 tackles, eight sacks and 19 quarterback hurries in 2016, when he again starred as one of the league’s most underrated edge rushers. Is now the midst of a career year, as he’s on pace to finish with 46 tackles and 11 sacks. He also has 20 quarterback hurries, tied for 10th in the NFL, and could be in line for his first Pro Bowl appearance. Superb athlete who boasts the burst, strength and athleticism to consistently threaten the edge. Closes on ball carriers and quarterbacks fast and can really get after it. His burst, when paired with a bull rush, can be a lethal combination. Is also quick when looping around on stunts. Has the bend to close ground on quarterbacks quickly in the pass rush. Lit the Chiefs up for three sacks in Week 3 and must be accounted for at all times. Solid against the run and has developed into a strong all-around player.

Projected Chiefs two-deep depth chart

KEY: Bold=Player to Watch, C=Captain, PB=2016 Pro Bowl, AP=2016 All-Pro, Q=Questionable

QB

No., Name, Ht., Wt., Years

11 Alex Smith (PB), 6-4, 220, 13 | 15 Patrick Mahomes II, 6-3, 230, R

RB

27 Kareem Hunt, 5-11, 208, R | 35 Charcandrick West, 5-10, 205, 4

FB

42 Anthony Sherman, 5-10, 242, 7

X-WR

14 Demarcus Robinson, 6-1, 203, 2 | 80 Jehu Chesson, 6-3, 203, R

Z-WR

10 Tyreek Hill (PB, AP), 5-10, 185, 2 | 80 Jehu Chesson, 6-3, 203, R

Y-WR

12 Albert Wilson, 5-9, 200, 4 | 13 De’Anthony Thomas, 5-9, 176, 4

TE

87 Travis Kelce (PB, AP), 6-5, 260, 5 | 84 Demetrius Harris, 6-7, 230, 4

LT

72 Eric Fisher, 6-7, 315, 5 | 79 Parker Ehinger, 6-6, 310, 2

LG

70 Bryan Witzmann, 6-7, 320, 3 | 75 Cameron Erving, 6-5, 313, 3

C

73 Zach Fulton, 6-5, 316, 4 | 65 Jordan Devey, 6-6, 320, 4

RG

76 Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, 6-5, 321, 4 | 75 Cameron Erving, 6-5, 313, 3

RT

71 Mitchell Schwartz (AP), 6-5, 320, 6 | 75 Cameron Erving, 6-5, 313, 3

DEFENSE

LDE

99 Rakeem Nunez-Roches, 6-2, 307, 3 | 95 Chris Jones, 6-6, 310, 2

NT

96 Bennie Logan, 6-2, 315, 5 | 94 Jarvis Jenkins, 6-4, 300, 7

RDE

97 Allen Bailey, 6-3, 288, 7 | 95 Chris Jones, 6-6, 310, 2

LOLB

50 Justin Housto, 6-3, 258, 7 | 92 Tanoh Kpassagnon, 6-7, 280, R

WILB

56 Derrick Johnson, 6-3, 242, 13 | 57 Kevin Pierre-Louis (Q, quad), 6-0, 230, 4

MILB

59 Reggie Ragland, 6-1, 252, 2 | 45 Ukeme Eligwe, 6-2, 239, R

ROLB

51 Frank Zombo, 6-3, 254, 8 | 91 Tamba Hali (Q, knee), 6-3, 275, 12

LCB

22 Marcus Peters. 6-0, 197, 3 | 39 Terrance Mitchell, 5-11, 190, 4

FS

38 Ron Parker, 6-0, 206, 7 | 21 Eric Murray (Q, ankle), 5-11, 199, 2

SS

49 Daniel Sorensen, 6-2, 208, 4 | 21 Eric Murray (Q, ankle), 5-11, 199, 2

NCB

24 Darrelle Revis, 5-11, 198, 10 | 25 Kenneth Acker, 6-0, 195, 4

RCB

20 Steven Nelson, 5-11, 194, 3 | 24 Darrelle Revis, 5-11, 198, 10

SPECIAL TEAMS

K

7 Harrison Butker, 6-4, 205, R

P

2 Dustin Colquitt, 6-3, 210, 13

KR

13 De’Anthony Thomas, 5-9, 176, 4

PR

10 Tyreek Hill (PB, AP), 5-10, 185, 2

LS

41 James Winchester, 6-3, 240, 3

Projected Chargers two-deep depth chart

KEY: Bold=Player to Watch, C=Captain, PB=2016 Pro Bowl, AP=2016 All-Pro, Q=Questionable, *=See “additional scouting notes” section below for more info on player

OFFENSE

QB

No., Name, Ht., Wt., Years

**17 Philip Rivers (PB), 6-5, 228, 14** | 10 Kellen Clemens, 6-2, 220, 12

RB

*28 Melvin Gordon III (PB), 6-1, 215, 3 | 30 Austin Ekeler, 5-9, 195, R

FB

34 Derek Watt, 6-2, 234, 2

WR

**13 Keenan Allen, 6-2, 211, 5** | 81 Mike Williams, 6-3, 218, R

WR

16 Tyrell Williams, 6-4, 205, 3

WR

12 Travis Benjamin, 5-10, 175, 6

TE

85 Antonio Gates, 6-4, 255, 15 | *86 Hunter Henry, 6-5, 250, 2

LT

*76 Russell Okung, 6-5, 310, 8 | 69 Sam Tevi, 6-5, 311, R

LG

68 Matt Slauson, 6-5, 315, 9 | 78 Mike Schofield, 6-6, 301, 4

C

73 Spencer Pulley, 6-4, 308, 2 | 66 Dan Feeney, 6-4, 305, R

RG

79 Kenny Wiggins, 6-6, 314, 4 | 78 Mike Schofield, 6-6, 301, 4

RT

72 Joe Barksdale, 6-5, 326, 7 | 78 Mike Schofield, 6-6, 301, 4

DEFENSE

DE

**99 Joey Bosa, 6-5, 280, 2** | 95 Tenny Palepoi, 6-1, 298, 4

NT

92 Brandon Mebane, 6-1, 311, 11 | 71 Damion Square, 6-2, 293, 5

DT

94 Corey Liuget, 6-2, 300, 7 | 93 Darius Philon, 6-1, 300, 3

DE

**54 Melvin Ingram, 6-2, 247, 6** | 40 Chris McCain, 6-5, 236, 3

OLB

51 Kyle Emanuel, 6-3, 250, 3 | 49 James Onwualu, 6-1, 232, R

ILB

50 Hayes Pullard, 6-0, 240, 3 | 56 Korey Toomer, 6-2, 235, 3

OLB

*52 Denzel Perryman, 5-11, 240, 3 | 57 Jatavis Brown, 5-11, 221, 2

LCB

*26 Casey Hayward (PB, AP, Q, calf), 5-11, 192, 6 | 20 Desmond King, 5-10, 201, R

SS

*37 Jahleel Addae, 5-10, 195, 5 | 31 Adrian Phillips, 5-11, 210, 3

FS

33 Tre Boston, 6-1, 205, 4 | 31 Adrian Phillips, 5-11, 210, 3

NCB

20 Desmond King, 5-10, 201, R

RCB

24 Trevor Williams, 5-11, 191, 2 | 43 Mike Davis, 6-2, 196, R

SPECIAL TEAMS

K

5 Travis Coons, 6-1, 200, 2

P

8 Drew Kaser, 6-2, 206, 2

KR

30 Austin Ekeler, 5-10, 195, R

PR

12 Travis Benjamin, 5-10, 175, 6

LS

47 Mike Windt, 6-1, 237, 8

Additional scouting notes

▪ Running back Melvin Gordon III (#26) is outstanding. He’s on pace to finish with 282 carries, 1,050 yards and seven touchdowns. He flashes premier burst with very good elusiveness and is a tough runner who does not go down easily. He has also improved his vision and seems more comfortable running out of the gun than he was as a rookie. He’s come a long way since his rookie season but is still working on his pass protection.

▪ Tight end Hunter Henry (#86) is coming into his own. He’s on pace to catch 52 passes for 678 yards and five touchdowns and has emerged as a terrific receiving threat. He definitely needs to be accounted for in the red zone.

▪ Left tackle Russell Okung (#76) has been worth every cent of the $13.5 million he’s being paid this year. He’s helped locked down the left side on one of the best pass-blocking offensive lines in football. This used to be a trouble spot for the Chargers, but no more.

▪ Inside linebacker Denzel Perryman (#52) has helped shore up the Chargers’ run defense since his return. The former All-Juice ’backer is built like a fire hydrant but hits like a tank.

▪ Cornerback Casey Hayward (#26) would be one of the four players to watch if he wasn’t questionable for the game with a calf injury. He’s accumulated 35 tackles, four interceptions and a league-high 23 pass deflections this year. He’s a good athlete with solid instincts and ball skills who enjoys press coverage and is adept at both man and zone coverage.

▪ Safety Jahleel Addae (#37) is having an outstanding season. He’s a hard-hitting headhunter, so receivers, quarterbacks and running backs should always beware. But he’s been better in coverage this year and has matured into an all-around player.

Prediction: Chiefs 23-20

I think the Chargers’ Anthony Lynn is a good coach, and I think Los Angeles is a good team. I do not think it’s their time to win the division, however. That will likely come next year, as the Chiefs retool some things on defense and get younger on both sides of the ball. In the meantime, I expect the Chiefs to tap into the same level of energy and excitement they showed against the Raiders on Sunday in a win that should pave the way for the Chiefs’ second straight AFC West crown and a wild-card home game.

Kansas City Star Chiefs beat writer Terez A. Paylor welcomes the A-Team as the quartet of writers discusses the Kansas City Chiefs leading up to the Saturday night showdown at Arrowhead against the Los Angeles Chargers for the AFC West lead.

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