As starters go, the Chiefs have had better days.
Not the preseason opener itself, that ended with a 34-19 Chiefs victory over the Arizona Cardinals.
But so much of the season’s first action is about the abbreviated play of the first-team players, and the Cardinals got the upper hand Saturday at University of Phoenix Stadium, where their first series ended in a touchdown, and the Chiefs’ resulted in a turnover.
“Listen, the ones could have been sharper,” Chiefs Coach Andy Reid said. “Long drive with their offense against our defense. Offensively, we had a couple of blown assignments there, and if you have a blown assignment things are going to happen negatively.”
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Arizona’s starters wasted no time marching down the field, going 80 yards in less than 3 minutes with quarterback Carson Palmer finding running back Andre Ellington over the middle between a pair of Chiefs defenders.
By the time Ellington was caught from behind by Ron Parker, he had rumbled 57 yards to the 5.
“It was just an option route, him one-on-one with the dime safety or corner,” Palmer said. “He just did a great job getting open and we had great spacing on the play.”
The Chiefs came up with one big stop in the shadow of the goal line when linebacker Derrick Johnson, playing for the first time since rupturing his Achilles in the 2014 regular-season opener, dropped Ellington for a loss at the 2.
But Ellington bulled in on the next snap and the Cardinals’ starting offense had breezed against the Chiefs’ defensive starters.
Could the Chiefs return the favor?
They attempted to go big on the first play when Alex Smith launched a bomb to Jeremy Maclin, the former Missouri star acquired to provide the Chiefs with a big-play wide receiver.
“(Reid) told us a few days ago that we might take a shot at that first play,” Smith said. “It was fun. It kind of made a statement we’ll come out shooting.”
But the opening series ended in disaster. Smith’s pass over the middle intended for wide receiver Jason Avant was nowhere near the target. The only player who was, Cardinals cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, returned the interception 18 yards to the Chiefs 28.
“I wound up sailing it and hit the DB in the chest,” Smith said.
Second-team quarterback Drew Stanton couldn’t move the Cards, who settled Chandler Catanzaro’s 33-yard field goal and a 10-0 lead.
The news got worse for the Chiefs before it got better. Three players left the game because of injuries before halftime and didn’t return: Allen (MCL sprain), wide receiver De’Anthony Thomas (calf sprain) and running back Knile Davis (knee sprain). After the game, Reid said he expected all three to be out for a few days.
The Cardinals got starter Carson Palmer out after the first drive. The Chiefs kept Smith in for the entire first quarter, and they got on the board on the first play of the second quarter when Cairo Santos booted a 48-yard field goal, ending a six-play, 34-yard drive.
When the second teams matched up, the Chiefs and quarterback Chase Daniel dominated.
Daniel went three-for-three engineering scoring drives. He completed them with touchdown passes to players who figure to be part of the wide receiver competition: Fred Williams, Frankie Hammond Jr. and De’Ron Brown.
The most impressive came late in the first half when Daniel drove the Chiefs 78 yards in 68 seconds. He hit Hammond from the 14 with seven seconds remaining in the half for a 17-10 lead.
The Chiefs’ improved depth was on full display after the starters were gone. The reserves dominated both sides of the ball, including Ramik Wilson’s interception of a deflected pass that he returned 27 yards, setting up Darrin Reaves’ 1-yard touchdown run on the first series directed by third-team quarterback Aaron Murray.
The Chiefs didn’t want to risk an injury by using running back Jamaal Charles, and promising rookie wide receiver Chris Conley, who missed two weeks of training camp, warmed up but didn’t play.
Still, the starters will seek a better start when the preseason schedule continues Friday against the Seahawks at Arrowhead Stadium.