On Sunday, the San Diego Chargers travel to Arrowhead Stadium to face the Kansas City Chiefs with first place in the AFC West at stake. With a win, the Chargers can move to 3-1 with the opportunity to put a little distance between themselves and the rest of the division.
The Chiefs looked horrible for the better part of 10 quarters of football, but they woke up in the second half against the New Orleans Saints and pulled out an improbable comeback that may have saved their season. The confidence is back in Kansas City, and that can be a very dangerous thing for a team trying to claw back to .500.
Division games are always a struggle on the road, and the Chargers will have to play some of their best football of the year to beat the Chiefs. There is a blueprint for beating the Chiefs as established by the Atlanta Falcons and Buffalo Bills, but the Chiefs also aren’t the team they were two weeks ago.
Attack the Rookie
Starting center Rodney Hudson was placed on injured reserve by the Chiefs this week, and the team will have to shuffle the offensive line in his absence. The Chiefs didn’t have a reserve center on the 53-man roster, so left guard Ryan Lilja will make his first career start at center and the rookie Jeff Allen will make his first career start at left guard.
Lilja is a veteran and should be able to hold his own at center, but the rookie is vulnerable. Despite playing in just 57 snaps in Week 3, Allen is already the Chiefs' most poorly graded offensive player by ProFootballFocus.
The Chargers should attack Allen in the passing game and see how he holds up when the Chargers flood his area with two defenders. Young offensive linemen can be susceptible to the speed of linebackers, so the Chargers should create opportunities in which Allen has to block Shaun Phillips of Melvin Ingram.
Getting pressure on Matt Cassel will force him to make mistakes. Kansas City’s offense line has been very good in pass protection, so the Chargers' best chance to generate pressure is to exploit the rookie.
Set the Edge
It’s no secret that Kansas City’s offense is stuck in the mud without a productive Jamaal Charles. Last week, the New Orleans Saints routinely let Charles get to the edge, and once he was there, he used his speed to make big plays.
The Chargers will surely lose the game if they don’t set the edge against Kansas City. Setting the edge is usually done by the defensive ends, putting the pressure on Corey Liuget, Vaughn Martin and Kendall Reyes to be stout at the point of attack.
Setting the edge will force Charles back toward the linebackers and into traffic where he can’t use his speed. If you can limit Charles and force Cassel to throw, the Chiefs are a completely different offense. Cassel without the running game is prone to forcing throws, and the Chargers should be able to make a big play in the passing game if they can stop Charles.
Help Antoine Cason
The second-best offensive player in Kansas City is Dwayne Bowe, and the Chargers can’t ignore him. Bowe is a physically dominant wide receiver who will have a big game if the offense lets him get open with frequency.
Cassel is prone to forcing throws when the running game isn’t working, but he’s much better about finding his receivers open using the play-action pass. If the Chargers don’t give Cason help, Bowe will take advantage of him.
It’s a lot easier to bracket and otherwise limit Bowe when the safeties don’t have to worry about Charles speeding into the secondary. It starts with stopping Charles on first and second down and ends with bracketing Bowe on third down.
Protect Your Assets
The most valuable player in San Diego is clearly Philip Rivers, and he’s a much more effective quarterback when he’s given protection. With Tamba Hali and Justin Houston rushing the quarterback for the Chiefs, the Chargers will have their hands full giving Rivers time to throw the ball.
Jared Gaither returned to practice in limited fashion, and if he’s even close to being ready, the Chargers shouldn’t hesitate to let him protect Rivers from Hali instead of the undrafted rookie Mike Harris. Harris started strong against the Raiders but hasn’t done nearly as well against John Abraham and Kamerion Wimbley over the past two weeks.
Houston has been Kansas City’s best pass-rusher so far this season and he draws the matchup with Jeromey Clary, who has been a consistently poor pass-blocker over the past two seasons. The Chargers can chip one side or the other, but not both.
One or both of the offensive tackles need to have a good game in pass protection or Rivers is going to pay the price. If Rivers gets pressured too frequently, he’s likely to make a mistake and turn the ball over to the Chiefs, which could be the difference in the game.
Give it to Gates
Which player should the Chargers use to attack Kansas City's defense?
Nevermind what Kansas City has done in the past against tight ends, look at the Chiefs secondary. The Chiefs will have to cover Gates with linebacker Derrick Johnson, cornerback Travis Daniels or a safety. Gates has yet to have a great performance, and he’s overdue for a signature performance.
Gates was blanketed by tight-end killer Tyvon Branch in Week 1, missed Week 2 with sore ribs and was limited by Mike Nolan’s defense in Atlanta in Week 3. It’s time for Gates to have a breakout, and the Chiefs are the team to do it against.
Gates isn’t easily covered by a linebacker or a safety, and the Chargers need to feed Gates early and often down the middle of the field. If Gates gets involved early, the Chiefs are going to adjust, and that should open up opportunities for others. The safety will have to commit to Gates coming across the middle, and that could open up a deep pass to Robert Meachem.