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Chiefs game plan: Scouting the San Diego Chargers

Chiefs game plan: Chargers at Chiefs, Week 1 preview

Kansas City Star Chiefs beat reporter Terez Paylor breaks down the regular-season opener: San Diego Chargers vs. Chiefs, noon Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium (TV: CBS)
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Kansas City Star Chiefs beat reporter Terez Paylor breaks down the regular-season opener: San Diego Chargers vs. Chiefs, noon Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium (TV: CBS)

A detailed look at the key players and matchups for the Chiefs-Chargers game at noon Sunday in Arrowhead Stadium. The game will air on CBS (Ch. 5).

Scheme

Coach: Fourth-year man Mike McCoy (23-27) is on the hot seat after a 4-12 season in which nearly everything that could go wrong, did. McCoy, 44, made his bones in the NFL as an offensive coordinator for Carolina and Denver and is known for his work with quarterbacks.

Offense: Used the most shotgun of any team in the NFL. Was primarily an “11” personnel (three-wide) team with some “22” personnel (two backs, two tight ends) mixed in. Quarterback Philip Rivers prefers the shotgun but the Chargers operated under center more this preseason to better take advantage of the strengths of second-year running back Melvin Gordon. The return of offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, who helped Rivers have a career year in 2013, should help with that.

Defense: Defensive coordinator John Pagano generally relies on his 3-4 defensive front to provide pressure and is not overwhelmingly exotic in the blitz game, though he will use some line stunts to get home. The Chargers like to mix up man and zone coverage, with lots of single-high looks.

[ Podcast: Terez previews Chiefs-Chargers with special guests ]

Four keys to a Chiefs victory

1. Pound the rock

The Chargers had one of the league’s worst run defenses a year ago, ranking 27th in the NFL. The Chiefs did their part to contribute to that, rushing for nearly 205 yards — for an average of 4 yards per carry — in their two games against them a year ago. The Chargers are hoping free-agent nose tackle Brandon Mebane (6-1, 311) will make them more stout up front, but the Chiefs need to use 229-pound sledgehammer Spencer Ware and 205-pound slasher Charcandrick West to test the gap discipline and toughness of a defense that surrendered 288 rushing yards in its preseason opener against Tennessee.

     

2. Attack the linebackers in coverage

The Chargers could seek to make a statement by selling out against the run early. In that instance, the Chiefs need to be ready to show off what potentially could be the most dynamic passing game of Andy Reid’s tenure. The Chargers’ best cornerbacks Jason Verrett (5-10, 188) and Casey Hayward (5-11, 192) are pretty solid — and Verrett shadowed Jeremy Maclin the last time they met — so the Chiefs might be wise to see if they can isolate inside linebackers Manti Te’o (6-1, 241) and Denzel Perryman (5-11, 240), a pair of thumpers, in coverage. Charcandrick West had a 63-yard touchdown catch a year ago in which the Chargers’ linebackers failed tackle him in space (it was called back).

3. Be sound (and physical) vs. the run

Running back Melvin Gordon (6-1, 215) looks much quicker and explosive than last season, when he battled a knee issue, dealt with 26 different offensive-line combinations and didn’t score a single touchdown. He’s been helped by the Chargers’ renewed commitment to operating under center, which he grew comfortable with during his record-setting career at Wisconsin. San Diego’s running game stunk last season, but if the Chargers — whose offensive line is finally healthy and averages 6 feet 6 and 325 pounds across the board — are able to get it going on the ground, it will open the play-action passing game, where Rivers can slice you up. Look for the Chargers to test both the stoutness and gap discipline of outside linebacker Dee Ford and new inside linebacker Justin March-Lillard.

4. Always account for Keenan Allen

Mounting a pass rush against 34-year-old star quarterback Philip Rivers (6-5, 228) is always important against the Chargers, but so is keeping a close eye on Allen (6-2, 211), his No. 1 target. Allen likes to line up on both sides of the formation, which means he won’t always see the Chiefs’ top cover corner, Marcus Peters. That could be a problem for a young secondary tasked with matching up against the crafty fourth-year pro Allen, a chain-mover who sometimes catches the ball with his body but consistenly wins both short and intermediate with his size, route running and ball skills. Agile run-after-the-catch threat, particularly on his pet routes, which include curls, slants and crossers.

Four Chargers to watch

No. 12, WR/PR Travis Benjamin, 26 years old, 5-10, 176 pounds, 5th season

Big-money free-agent acquisition with 4.36 speed and terrific short-area burst and quickness. Has home-run speed and can win on the deep ball; boasts an outstanding 52.3-yard average on touchdown catches. Possesses a very slight, narrow build; presents a small target on 50/50 balls and is vulnerable to physicality. Seems more comfortable on the outside than in the slot and is a weapon on screens. Should also add some punch to one of the worst punt-return units in NFL history, as the Chargers recorded only 84 punt-return yards a year ago, the fewest in the NFL since 1981.

No. 77, LT King Dunlap, 30, 6-9, 330, 9th season

Mounting a pass rush against Rivers is always important, but the Chiefs’ other outside linebacker, Dee Ford, might have his hands full with right tackle Joe Barksdale (6-5, 326), who played well last season. That means Tamba Hali might have to make some hay against Dunlap, who is coming off a down season in which an ankle injury and a concussion limited him to only seven games. Dunlap is an extremely long, rangy tackle with decent athleticism who uses his size and understanding of angles to win in pass protection and the running game. Is difficult to run around; repeatedly uses his length to push edge rushers past the quarterback but can be beat on inside counter moves. Generally completes his assignment as a run blocker but is not overpowering, despite his imposing size. Body catcher who does not always generate movement at the point of attack due to his height, which makes it easier for smaller players to get into his chest.

No. 54, OLB Melvin Ingram, 27, 6-2, 247, 5th season

Recorded a career-high 10  1/2 sacks last season. Played all 16 games for the first time since 2012. Will line up on both edges. Boasts the burst, strength and athleticism to consistently threaten the edge. Recorded a sack against the Chiefs last year in which he blew past right tackle Jah Reid at the snap with a speed rush, bent around the corner with a rip and sacked Alex Smith.

     

The Chiefs also surrendered a few sacks to the Chargers in the last game because they failed to pick up stunts; if they struggle there again, and Ingram gets going, the Chargers’ pass-rush can disrupt the passing game. Can be caught giving up the edge as a run defender. Will match up in coverage against some tight ends. Has good speed going forward but is tight in space.

No. 24 CB Brandon Flowers, 30, 5-9, 187, 9th season

Undersized former Chief who has dealt with knee issues and is coming off one of his worst seasons as a pro. Played too heavy last year but is noticeably thinner and significantly more agile; he does not seem to allow as much separation out of breaks as he did a year ago. Plays lots of slot corner against three-wide sets and still has very good instincts for the position. Still a competitve, very willing tackler who will stick his nose in the action. Toughness allows him to be an effective blitzer from the slot. Made an impressive interception against Arizona three weeks ago where he blitzed from the slot, read the bubble screen and leaped into the passing lane for a pick-six.

     

PREDICTION: Chiefs 34, Chargers 27

Both offenses should be able to put some points on the board, with the Chiefs scoring plenty behind a balanced attack and the Chargers taking advantage of an uncertain edge rush and some youth at cornerback. Alex Smith was good against the Chargers last year, completing 72 percent of his passes against the Chargers last year for 444 yards, and the Chiefs should have enough playmakers on defense to make get a stop or two when it counts.

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