November 15, 2018 / 6:46 PM / 3 months ago

Take 5: Chiefs-Rams take center stage

Monday night’s battle between the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Rams is a doozy, as just the fifth matchup since 1970 featuring two teams without multiple losses after Week 10.

Nov 11, 2018; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) takes the field before the game against the Arizona Cardinals at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The victor might just be whoever has the ball last, but each offense has issues to address.

1. K.C. must protect Mahomes

An injury-plagued O-line finally cracked last week in protection, allowing five sacks and seven hits of Patrick Mahomes. Several came from mental breakdowns, which Andy Reid called a learning opportunity for an inexperienced group.

Even so, Reid would be wise to ease the burden on fill-ins Andrew Wylie and Austin Reiter on Monday. The Chiefs’ tackles should hold up fine, but Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh and Michael Brockers could feast inside if K.C. keeps throwing so often (34.5 attempts per game).

Instead, the Chiefs should go run-heavy against a front allowing an NFL-worst 5.2 yards per carry, including 5.6 a pop since Week 7.

Donald looks more patient and disciplined versus the run this year, but he doesn’t have the frame to dictate against double teams. Suh can be hit-or-miss, either stonewalling a double or getting washed out of the play. More concerning, slender linebackers Cory Littleton and Mark Barron struggle to get free when O-linemen reach the second level.

Reid helps linemen do that by shrewdly manufacturing light boxes. He loves stacking or bunching wideouts and tight ends out wide, forcing a linebacker to shade outside. Reid then gets five blockers on five box defenders by using arc releases and zone-read and jet-sweep fakes, often with a pass option built in. These tactics become even more effective against two-high safety looks, which Tyreek Hill’s speed often mandates.

The Chiefs also should consider more fake-screen-and-go concepts, which they’ve used surprisingly little despite running so many bubble screens. Executed properly, they could punish an aggressive secondary.

Also worth noting: Reid exploited Wade Phillips’ stingy Broncos defenses in 2015 and ‘16, averaging 29.0 points and scoring at least 24 in four meetings.

2. How will the Rams fill Cooper Kupp’s void?

L.A. scored 58 points from Weeks 7-8 without Kupp, and many expect the offense to keep humming with Josh Reynolds stepping in. But there’s no doubt Kupp’s torn ACL will have ripple effects.

As detailed in our Week 2 film study, Kupp isn’t just a great route-runner with sure hands. He also thrives as a featured blocker (often lining up inline like a tight end) and a key play-action cog, diligently selling the run with patient and crafty releases. Robert Woods also excels in these areas, but Reynolds likely won’t meet that standard, a concern for an offense that relies heavily on play-action.

Sean McVay might stray some from his beloved 11 personnel (one RB, one TE, three WRs) — used on 95 percent of snaps this year — for more two-TE sets (only 15 snaps total). The Rams planned as much entering the season before explosive-but-raw sophomore Gerald Everett (shoulder) missed the preseason. They could sprinkle it in now, although it might hurt the run game — Everett’s a shaky blocker — and two tight ends would invite more crowded boxes.

But that won’t hurt Monday night if it means more snaps against Chiefs linebacker Reggie Ragland. A ferocious banger against downhill runs, Ragland struggles on the move against outside zone — the bedrock of L.A.’s run game — and is highly susceptible in coverage. If K.C. prefers more speed, rangy-but-undisciplined rookie Dorian O’Daniel or dime safety Daniel Sorensen will play alongside Anthony Hitchens.

3. Can the Bears’ D handle a bigger stage?

After quietly impressing in 2017, Chicago’s defense blossomed with Khalil Mack’s arrival. Four-man pressure weaponizes coordinator Vic Fangio’s slew of disguised zone coverages, blurring quarterbacks’ reads and creating bountiful turnover opportunities.

But takeaways are inherently fickle, and the Bears’ pilfered troves from terrible teams: 11 of 24 via the Cardinals, Dolphins and Bills. Frankly, Chicago has faced few formidable offenses, and leaked badly against Tom Brady and a gimpy Aaron Rodgers.

Kirk Cousins is playing mentally sharper than ever and reading the field well in coordinator John DeFilippo’s scheme. He has just five interceptions on 363 attempts (1.4 percent, well below 2.4 career average), with two hitting his receivers’ hands and one due to miscommunication. His top weapons, Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, are rarely pinned down one-on-one, and both know how to settle into voids to beat zone coverage.

The Bears must turn the tide up front. Rookie right tackle Brian O’Neill — who took Rashod Hill’s job — will need extensive help against Mack, meaning Leonard Floyd and Aaron Lynch will have opportunities against struggling left tackle Riley Reiff. Inside, Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman and Roy Robertson-Harris should exploit a battered trio.

Game script will be critical. If Cousins & Co. take an early lead and aren’t forced into obvious passing situations, they should win the battle.

4. Beginning of the end for Washington?

Jay Gruden’s club deserves tremendous credit for a 6-3 start, and its two-game NFC East lead might hold up. But the Skins’ point and yardage differentials (plus-1 and minus-212, respectively) portray a mediocre team, and if regression doesn’t catch up to them, their offensive-line injuries probably will.

The run game (4.6 yards per carry) survived Sunday against the Bucs without left tackle Trent Williams and guards Brandon Scherff and Shawn Lauvao, but Washington managed only 286 yards against a defense that’s allowed 414.3 per game against all others. Williams will eventually return, but Scherff — due for a monster extension this offseason, by the way — and Lauvao are done for the year.

That’s bad news with J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and the Texans’ top-ranked run defense (3.6 yards per carry) visiting Sunday, especially for a team so reliant on running the ball and playing from ahead. Remarkably, Washington has seen zero lead changes in nine games, a statistical oddity that nonetheless speaks to the team’s limitations.

Washington’s defense remains stingy, but if the offense can’t run efficiently, Alex Smith will have to throw more while facing more pressure. It’s hard to see that ending well, either on Sunday or down the stretch this season.

5. Battered Eagles’ secondary draws a brutal matchup

Helping Washington, however, is that division-rival Philadelphia could be staring at a 4-6 record.

Already without safety Rodney McLeod (MCL, IR) and cornerbacks Jalen Mills (foot) and Sidney Jones (hamstring), Philly lost Ronald Darby (ACL) for the season last week. Jones should return Sunday, but the paper-thin secondary now must face the fire-breathing Saints.

With the terrifying combo of Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara, Drew Brees and Sean Payton barely even need other proven weapons. After newly signed Dez Bryant tore his Achilles before playing a game, the Saints promoted Keith Kirkwood and promptly sprung the undrafted rookie — in his first NFL game — for a wide-open 42-yard catch on a “throwback” design.

The Eagles’ D-line could exploit Terron Armstead’s absence (shoulder) to limit the damage, but Brees delivers so quickly it probably won’t matter. Philadelphia’s offense might need to score 40 points to keep the Eagles from falling two games below .500.

—David DeChant, Field Level Media

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