We’ve made it.
After a long offseason with as much change as Kansas City Chiefs fans have seen in the era of quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the regular season is here. The Chiefs open up with a road game against the Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, kicking off at 3:25 PM Arrowhead time on Sunday.
The Chiefs opened as a slight betting favorite, but the spread has grown to six points, per DraftKings SportsBook. The over/under total stands at 54 points.
It’s a battle of two playoff teams looking to advance further than they did last season. I have five things to watch in the season opener:
1. Which pass catcher has the first big game
On Thursday, quarterback Patrick Mahomes joked with fantasy football players that they’d have a tough time picking which player would go off each week because it would be different every time. Well, who’s up first?
I believe opposing defenses will test Mahomes’ chemistry with new receivers early by especially keying on tight end Travis Kelce. The Cardinals have athletic linebackers like Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins to pick him up at the second level, then a safety like Budda Baker to put a cap on Kelce vertically.
With Kelce hogging the attention, I believe we’ll see wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling have the group’s first big game. Juju Smith-Schuster will also see plenty of work, mainly operating from the slot — where the play-making Byron Murphy will likely patrol. Arizona’s outside cornerbacks will be the more exploitable targets, giving Valdes-Scantling an opportunity on intermediate and deep passes behind the attention of Kelce or down the sideline.
2. The pass rush plan
Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray will be a handful to deal with, both as a runner and a passer. The strategy to neutralize him has to start with the front four.
The Chiefs defensive ends need to be disciplined in their rush path, and you will notice it. Their rushes will be focused on containing Murray in the pocket, banking on the middle to collapse on Murray with the help of star defensive tackle Chris Jones. If he’s not getting all the way through, Jones’ height and ability to bat passes will still make Murray uncomfortable operating there.
That also means the other interior rusher will be important, taking advantage of a one-on-one situation that will happen when the center helps the other guard with Jones. The Chiefs have practiced with a few guys in that spot. Defensive tackle Tershawn Wharton is the first guy up, but defensive ends Mike Danna and rookie George Karlaftis could be wrecking balls to throw in there and maul a guard.
Overall, the pass rush needs to make things difficult on Murray, in order to help the newcomers in the secondary.
3. Weaponizing the offensive line
The Chiefs have seen this unit operate together for an entire season now and likely understand that they have the advantage in the trenches against most of their opponents.
That could be the case 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 Markus Golden — who totaled 11 sacks last year — missed Wednesday’s practice with a toe injury, and was limited on Thursday.
The Cardinals’ defensive front was already a weaker chain in the link of their unit, with their playmakers coming from the second and third levels of their defense. I’d like to see the play calling weaponize the front five, with a higher volume of down-scheme run plays and layered pass concepts, trusting the pocket will allow the routes to open each other up.
4. Situational defense
History tells us defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo relies on his Dime personnel to be on the field for most third downs, and other crucial passing downs. No matter the offensive personnel, Spags has wanted his three-safety set for the important play.
Based on the preseason, this year’s Dime package will feature linebacker Nick Bolton rather than Ben Niemann; it also replaces Tyrann Mathieu and Dan Sorensen with Justin Reid and rookie Bryan Cook.
It’s likely we’ll see the same strategy right out of the gate, but I’d be curious if they trust the Nickel package more this year — with linebacker Willie Gay Jr. on the field alongside Bolton, while Cook stays on the sideline. In my opinion, the team’s best defense for a given play has Bolton and Gay on the field together.
Watch for that, but also how well Bolton does as a three-down linebacker. He racked up 14 tackles and three passes defended when he was trusted similarly last year against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 15.
5. Rookie impact
There are many first-year players to keep an eye on, finally getting a full, regular-season game to see how the team feels about them:
- Cornerback Trent McDuffie was the starting boundary cornerback from Day 1 of training camp, but could we see more rotation into the slot? Especially with matchups against shiftier receivers like Arizona’s Marquise Brown or Rondale Moore.
- Defensive end George Karlaftis may not start on first downs over Mike Danna, but he’ll be in for every major pass-rushing snap.
- Wide receiver Skyy Moore will likely just complement the rest of the offense’s weapons right away, but that could mean finding space as the third or fourth progression for a huge play. He’s also the starting punt returner.
- Safety Bryan Cook is the third safety in the aforementioned Dime, but has also splashed on punt and kick coverage this preseason.
- Linebacker Leo Chenal took the first snap as the SAM linebacker in Preseason Week 3. That said, the Cardinals’ offense likely won’t attract many scenarios for base defense.
- Cornerbacks Joshua Williams and Jaylen Watson will be fascinating to monitor. One of them may be a game-day inactive, and I’d predict it to be Williams. I’d also expect right tackle Darian Kinnard not to dress.
- Besides starting at kick returner, running back Isiah Pacheco should be in the active rotation at running back, giving the offense more explosion than the other backs, especially if Ronald Jones is a game-day inactive.