We have made it.
Long after Kansas City Chiefs fans have seen as many changes as quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ era, the regular season is here. The Chiefs kicked off at 3:25 p.m. arrowhead time on Sunday with a road game against the Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.
The Chiefs opened as a minor betting favorite, but the spread has risen to six points, per DraftKings Sportsbook. Over/under total is 54 points.
It’s a battle of two playoff teams looking to advance further than last season. I have five things to look for in the season opener:
1. Kiss Pass is the catcher’s first major game
On Thursday, quarterback Patrick Mahomes joked with fantasy football players that he would have a hard time choosing which player to go out every week because it would be different every time. Okay, who’s first?
I believe the opposing defense will especially test Mahomes’ chemistry with the new receiver by keying in on tight end Travis Kelce. The Cardinals have athletic linebackers like Isaiah Simmons and Xeven Collins to take him to another level, then a security like Buddha Baker to put the standing cap on Kelsay.
With Kelce’s attention drawn, I’m confident we’ll see wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling play the group’s first major. JuJu Smith-Schuster will also see a lot of work, mainly working from the slot – where the playing Byron Murphy will likely be patrolled. Arizona’s outside cornerbacks will be more exploitable targets, giving Valdes-Scantling an opportunity on the intermediate and deep passes behind the focus on Kelsea or on the sidelines.
2. Pass Rush Scheme
Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray would be a handful to deal with as both a runner and a passer. The strategy to neutralize him will have to start with the front four.
The chiefs’ defensive ends need to be disciplined in their crowded way, and you’ll notice it. His race will focus on pocketing Murray, banking on the middle to fall on Murray with the help of star defensive tackle Chris Jones. If he’s not moving, Jones’ height and ability to bat will still make Murray uncomfortable working there.
It also means that the other inner rusher will be crucial, taking advantage of the one-on-one situation that will occur when the center assists the other guard with Jones. The chiefs have practiced with some people at that place. Defensive tackle Tershaw Wharton is first man, but defensive end Mike Danna and rookie George Karloftis can doom the balls to throw there and hit a guard.
Overall, the nearby mob needs to make things harder on the undead, in order to help newcomers to the secondary.
3. Weaponizing the Offensive Line
The Chiefs have seen this unit work together for an entire season now and probably understand that they have the advantage in the trenches against most of their opponents.
The same could happen on Sunday, especially when considering Arizona’s injury report. Veteran defensive end JJ Watt has missed two practices with a calf injury, and defensive end Marcus Golden – who sacked 11 total last year – missed Wednesday’s practice with a toe injury, and was limited on Thursday .
The Cardinals’ defensive front was already a weak chain in their unit line, with their playmates coming from the second and third tiers of their defense. I’d like to see Play Calling weaponizing the Front Five, with a plethora of down-scheme run play and layered pass concepts, relying on pockets will allow routes to open to each other.
4. Situational Defense
History tells us that defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo relies on his dime personnel to be on the field for most of the third downs and other important passing downs. No matter the offensive personnel, Spaggs wants his three-safety set for crucial play.
Depending on the preseason, this year’s dime package will include linebacker Nick Bolton instead of Ben Niemann; It also replaces Tyrone Matthews and Dan Sorensen, along with Justin Reid and rookie Brian Cook.
It’s likely we’ll see the same strategy right out of the gate, but I’d be curious if they rely more on the nickel package this year – with Bolton on the field with linebacker Willie Gay Jr., while Cook stays on the sidelines . In my opinion, the team’s best defense for any given game is to have Bolton and Gaye together on the field.
Watch out for him, but also check out how well Bolton does as a three-down linebacker. He made 14 tackles and defended three passes when he was relied upon in Week 15 against the Los Angeles Chargers in a similar fashion last year.
5. The Cheater Effect
There are several first-year players to keep an eye on to finally get a full, regular-season game to see how the team feels about them:
- Cornerback Trent McDuffie was the starting boundary cornerback from day one of training camp, but could we see more rotation in the slot? Especially with matchups against shiftier receivers like Arizona’s Marquis Brown or Rondell Moore.
- Defensive end George Karloftis may not start on Mike Danna on the first down, but he will be there for every big pass-rush snap.
- Wide receiver Skye Moore will likely complement the rest of the offense’s weapons immediately, but it could mean finding space as a third or fourth progression for a huge play. He is also a starting punt returner.
- Safety Brian Cook is the third safety in the above dime, but punt and kick coverage has also been featured this season.
- Linebacker Leo Chenal took his first snap as a SAM linebacker at Preseason Week 3. That said, the Cardinals’ offense likely won’t attract many scenarios for a base defense.
- Cornerbacks Joshua Williams and Jaylen Watson will be attractive to watch. One of them could be game-day idle, and I predict it to be Williams. I also expect Darien to treat Kinard right for not dressing up.
- In addition to starting from the kick returner, running back Isiah Pacheco must be in active rotation on the back, allowing the offense to explode more than other backs, especially if Ronald Jones is inactive one game-day.