Here’s The Star’s weekly game preview detailing the key players and matchups for the Chiefs’ game against the Buffalo Bills, 5-5, at noon Sunday at Arrowhead. The game will air on CBS (Ch. 5).
Head coach: Sean McDermott (5-5) is in his first year on the job. McDermott, 43, is a former all-conference safety at William and Mary who joined the Eagles as a scouting assistant in 1998 before he was promoted to assistant to the head coach (Andy Reid) in 1999. He rose through the ranks with the Eagles, coaching the secondary and linebackers before eventually earning the promotion to defensive coordinator in 2009 to replace the legendary Jim Johnson. McDermott was fired by Reid after two seasons but quickly landed with the Carolina Panthers, where he guided a big, fast, physical defense to a Super Bowl appearance in 2015. McDermott was hired as the Bills’ head coach in January and he managed to lure Chiefs’ receivers coach (and longtime Reid assistant) David Culley to coach his quarterbacks.
Offense: Rick Dennison, 59, is in his first year as the Bills’ offensive coordinator. Dennison, a former tight end/receiver at Colorado State, played for the Denver Broncos from 1982 to 1990 and became an offensive assistant with the Broncos in 1995. He was promoted to special teams coach in 1997, promoted again to offensive line coach in 2001 and promoted to offensive coordinator in 2006. He was demoted to offensive line coach in 2009 before joining the Houston Texans in 2010 to become their offensive coordinator. He also spent time as the Baltimore Ravens’ quarterbaccks coach in 2014 before again serving as the Broncos’ offensive coordinator from 2015 to 2016. He joined the Bills this offseason in his current position. Buffalo features a run-heavy offense that ranks 30th in passing offense (184.4 yards per game) and 11th in rushing offense (118.4). Buffalo is passing the ball only 53.6 percent of the time, which ranks 27th in the league. The Bills run play-action 19 percent of the time, which ranks 19th in the league according to Football Outsiders. They are only averaging 5.6 yards per play on such plays, which ranks 26th in the league.
Defense: Leslie Frazier, 58, is in his first year as Bills’ defensive coordinator. Frazier, a former defensive back at Alcorn State, played for the Chicago Bears from 1981 to 1985, when we was a member of one of the all-time great defenses. Frazier coached in the collegiate ranks for 11 years before joining the Philadelphia Eagles (and current Chiefs coach Andy Reid) in 1999 as a defensive backs coach. Frazier was hired to be the Cincinnati Bengals’ defensive coordinator from 2003 and 2004, and after a brief stint in multiple roles for the Indianapolis Colts got another chance to run a defense with the Minnesota Vikings in 2007. Frazier was promoted to assistant head coach the next year and interim head coach in 2010 before he landed the head coach in 2011. He spent three years in that position before he was fired. He coordinated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ defense from 2014 to 2015 and spent a season as the Ravens’ secondary coach before earning his current position. After years as a 3-4 team under former coach Rex Ryan, Buffalo now runs a 4-3 defense that ranks 24th in the league in pass defense (246.9 yards per game) and 29th in sacks (15). The Bills are not terribly blitz-heavy. Their run defense ranks 24th in the league (119.9). They also rank seventh in the league in takeaways with 18.
Special teams: Danny Crossman, 50, is in his fifth year as the Bills’ special teams coordinator. This will be his 15th year in the NFL. Crossman, a former All-American cornerback at Pittsburgh, coached in the collegiate ranks for 12 years before joining the Carolina Panthers as a special teams assistant in 2003. He was promoted to special teams coach in 2005 and special teams coordinator in 2007. He served in the same capacity with the Detroit Lions from 2010 to 2012 and has been in his current role with the Bills since 2003. Kicker Stephen Hauschka has made 18 of 20 field-goal attempts, and his 90 percent conversion rate ranks seventh in the league among kickers with 10 attempts or more. Punter Colton Schmidt has dropped 16 of his 50 punts inside the 20, tied for 19th in the league. The Bills rank 15th in kickoff returns (21.6 yards per return) and 10th in punt returns (9.1). They also rank 17th in kick-return coverage (21.9) and fourth in punt-return coverage (4.9).
Four keys to a Chiefs victory
1. Pound the rock
If there was ever a time for the Chiefs to re-establish their running game, this it. The Chiefs feature one of the game’s most elusive backs in Kareem Hunt, and while their offensive line has struggled to re-establish its September form, they now draw a Bills team that has allowed an absurd 638 rushing yards and nine touchdowns over its last three games following the trade of enigmatic defensive tackle Marcell Dareus. That’s an average of nearly 213 rushing yards per game, and the individual numbers are ugly. The New Orleans Saints had two backs (Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara) top 100 yards by pounding the ball a few weeks ago, while Matt Forte and Bilal Powell of the New York Jets each rushed for at least 77 yards. Meanwhile, Melvin Gordon III of the Los Angeles Chargers tallied 80 yards and a touchdown. The Chiefs need to test out their zone and power runs against this team and just keep working with whatever sticks against an interior defensive line and linebacking corps that struggles to be gap sound and consistently shed blocks. Hunt needs at least 20 carries this week.
2. Playmakers must make plays
Over their last three games — all losses — the Bills have set a team record for most points allowed in a three-game span (135). Not surprisingly, they’ve had a very difficult time containing other teams’ top receivers, as Keenan Allen of the Chargers torched them for 12 catches, 159 yards and two touchdowns while Michael Thomas of the Saints caught nine balls for 117 yards. That means Chiefs receiver/track star Tyreek Hill could go off against this team — Buffalo’s top corner, Tre’Davious White, is having a nice rookie season but is vulnerable on deep balls — provided quarterback Alex Smith can to get Ty the ball downfield. The Chiefs’ other playmakers, like tight end Travis Kelce and receiver Demarcus Robinson, must also take advantage of their matchups and win after the catch if the Bills decide to go zone-heavy like the Chiefs’ last few opponents and force them to take the short passes.
3. Swarm Shady/win on first down
The Bills have one of the league’s worst passing games, and last week they turned to rookie quarterback Nathan Peterman to disastrous results. He threw five first-half interceptions, something that had never happened before in NFL history. This week the Bills went back to Tyrod Taylor, and while he does a good job protecting the ball (only three interceptions), teams haven’t feared him or his assortment of wideouts. Instead, they’ve wisely invested resources in stopping running back LeSean McCoy, who remains very elusive at age 29 and needs to be swarmed at all times. If the Chiefs can cheat against the run, especially on first down, and force the Bills to convert in second- and third-and-long situations — and thus, throw the ball aggressively downfield, which they aren’t particularly adept at doing — it will go a long way toward helping them send fans home happy.
4. Jump on these guys early
The Bills aren’t really built to come back from a big deficit. This is a team you want to jump on early, largely because of their generally unthreatening passing game. This, however, could be a problem for the Chiefs, who haven’t started a game fast since their 29-19 win over the Denver Broncos on Oct. 30. Several players have noted that they’ve struggled to gain momentum early lately, with the loss to Dallas on Nov. 5 being blamed on a lack of energy and the loss to the Giants last week blamed on poor execution. Well, the time for excuses has come to an end. If this Chiefs team wants to regain the confidence of its fans, they need to come out on Sunday with some juice — it better be genuine, too. Let’s see some celebrations, let’s see some enthusiasm. This is a winnable home game against a football team with a shaky offense. Come out and dominate.
Four Bills to watch
No. 5, QB Tyrod Taylor, 28 years old, 6-1, 215, seventh season
Team captain. Coming off a season in which he completed 61.7 percent of his passes for 3,023 yards, 17 touchdowns and six interceptions, while rushing 95 times for 580 yards and six touchdowns. Is on pace to complete 285 of 446 passes (63.8 percent) for 2,947 yards, 18 touchdowns and five interceptions. Has also rushed 57 times for 275 yards and three touchdowns. Uses outstanding athleticism to be a true dual threat. Is very elusive in space and adept at picking up yardage with his legs. Is also elusive in the pocket, forcing 15 missed tackles — fifth-most in football (according to FO) — and flashes creativity and the ability to make something happen. Has a good enough arm to make most of his throws and does a nice job protecting the football. Also adept at throwing on the run and flashes the ability to throw with touch. Shows some poise; does not get skittish in the pocket, even with bodies around him. Prefers to work short to intermediate but seems to be far too willing to check down and needs to be more aggressive when it comes to pushing the ball downfield.
No. 25, RB LeSean McCoy, 29 years old, 5-11, 210, ninth season
Ranked No. 27 on the NFL’s top-100 list for 2017. Made the Pro Bowl last season, when he rushed 234 times for 1,267 yard and 13 touchdowns and caught 50 of 57 passes for 356 yards and a touchdown. Is on pace to rush 272 times for 1,134 yards and six touchdowns in 2017. Has also caught 42 passes for 265 yards and a touchdown this season. One of the most elusive backs of all time. Juke-move specialist who regularly wins in space and leaves defenders grasping for air. Also breaks out a nasty spin move. Can still run away from defenders. Runs with great tempo and pace. Solid receiver out of the backfield who is adept at running routes, has good hands and can hurt you in the passing game. Carries the ball like a loaf of bread sometimes and has fumbled three times this season, losing one. Thrives out of the shotgun but isn’t doing that as much due to a new offensive scheme. Not a truck-stick guy.
No. 57, SLB Lorenzo Alexander, 34 years old, 6-1, 245, 11th season
Ranked No. 91 on the NFL’s top-100 list for 2017. Team captain. Came out of nowhere to post a marvelous breakout 2016 season in which he made the Pro Bowl and was voted All-Pro by finishing with 76 tackles, 12 1/2 sacks, 22 quarterback hurries, six pass deflections and three forced fumbles. Is on pace to finish with 94 tackles, three sacks and six forced fumbles. Has nine quarterback hurries. Combines good strength and good athleticism for his age. Aware player who can get stuck on blocks. Has an effective rip move and bull rush. Blue-collar player who has logged 51 percent of the Bills’ special teams snaps this year. All-day sucker who gives max effort. Ball carriers and quarterbacks need to be aware around him; he’ll go for the strip when possible. Has missed way too many tackles this season (16, second-most in the league according to FO). Not a natural in coverage and can be targeted when he drops.
No. 23, SS Micah Hyde, 26 years old, 6-0, 197, fifth season
Coming off a 2016 season in which he finished with 58 tackles, three interceptions and nine pass deflections for the Green Bay Packers. After spending the first four years of his career as a subpackage role player in Green Bay, Hyde — a free-agent signing this offseason— is in the midst of a career year in which he is on pace to finish with 75 tackles, eight interceptions and 13 pass deflections. Above-average athlete who covers plenty of ground and has emerged as a playmaker with the ball in the air; he has good instincts that normally put him in position to be a difference-maker. Has good hands and ball skills, and is adept in both man and zone coverage and even has some press skills as a former cornerback. Can line up against slot receivers. Solid, willing tackler who plays with great effort and would start for many teams. Suffered a knee injury last week against the Chargers but has practiced in full all week.
Projected Chiefs two-deep depth chart
KEY: Bold=Player to Watch, C=Captain, PB=2016 Pro Bowl, AP=2016 All-Pro, Q=Questionable
No., Name, Ht., Wt., Years
11 Alex Smith (C, PB), 6-4, 220, 13 | 15 Patrick Mahomes, 6-3, 230, R
27 Kareem Hunt, 5-11, 208, R | 35 Charcandrick West, 5-10, 205, 4
42 Anthony Sherman, 5-10, 242, 7
14 Demarcus Robinson, 6-1, 203, 2 | 80 Jehu Chesson, 6-3, 203, R
10 Tyreek Hill (C, PB, AP), 5-10, 185, 2 | 80 Jehu Chesson, 6-3, 203, R
12 Albert Wilson (Q), 5-9, 200, 4 | 13 De’Anthony Thomas, 5-9, 176, 4
87 Travis Kelce (C, PB, AP), 6-5, 260, 5 | 84 Demetrius Harris, 6-7, 230, 4
72 Eric Fisher, 6-7, 315, 5 | 75 Cameron Erving, 6-5, 313, 3
70 Bryan Witzmann, 6-7, 320, 3 | 73 Zach Fulton, 6-5, 316, 4
61 Mitch Morse, 6-6, 305, 3 | 73 Zach Fulton, 6-5, 316, 4
76 Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, 6-5, 321, 4 | 73 Zach Fulton, 6-5, 316, 4
71 Mitchell Schwartz (AP), 6-5, 320, 6 | 75 Cameron Erving, 6-5, 313, 3
95 Chris Jones, 6-6, 310, 2 | 94 Jarvis Jenkins, 6-4, 300, 7
96 Bennie Logan, 6-2, 315, 5 | 94 Jarvis Jenkins, 6-4, 300, 7
97 Allen Bailey (Q), 6-3, 288, 7 | 99 Rakeem Nunez-Roches, 6-2, 307, 3
50 Justin Houston (C), 6-3, 258, 7 | 92 Tanoh Kpassagnon, 6-7, 280, R
56 Derrick Johnson, 6-3, 242, 13 | 57 Kevin Pierre-Louis, 6-0, 230, 4
59 Reggie Ragland, 6-1, 252, 2 | 45 Ukeme Eligwe, 6-2, 239, R
91 Tamba Hali (Q), 6-3, 275, 12 | 51 Frank Zombo, 6-3, 254, 8
22 Marcus Peters (PB, AP), 6-0, 197, 3 | 23 Phillip Gaines, 6-0, 193, 4
38 Ron Parker, 6-0, 206, 7 | 21 Eric Murray, 5-11, 199, 2
49 Daniel Sorensen, 6-2, 208, 4 | 30 Steven Terrell, 5-10, 197, 5
20 Steven Nelson, 5-11, 194, 3 | 25 Kenneth Acker, 6-0, 195, 4
24 Darrelle Revis, 5-11, 198, 10 | 39 Terrance Mitchell, 5-11, 190, 4
Projected Bills two-deep depth chart
KEY: Bold=Player to Watch, C=Captain, PB=2016 Pro Bowl, AP=2016 All-Pro, Q=Questionable, *=See “additional notes” section below for more info on player
No., Name, Ht., Wt., Years
**5 Tyrod Taylor (C), 6-1, 215, 7** | 2 Nathan Peterman, 6-2, 225, R
**25 LeSean McCoy (PB), 5-11, 210, 9** | 39 Travaris Cadet, 6-1, 210, 6
42 Patrick DiMarco, 6-1, 234, 6
*87 Jordan Matthews (Q), 603, 212, 4 | 10 Deonte Thompson (Q), 6-0, 205, 6
18 Andre Holmes, 6-4, 210, 6 | 15 Brandon Tate, 6-1, 195, 9
*11 Zay Jones, 6-2, 200, R | 15 Brandon Tate, 6-1, 195, 9
*85 Charles Clay (Q), 6-3, 255, 7 | 84 Nick O’Leary, 6-3, 252, 2
73 Dion Dawkins, 6-5, 320, R
*64 Richie Incognito (PB), 6-3, 319, 11 | 72 Ryan Groy, 6-5, 320, 4
70 Eric Wood (C), 6-4, 310, 9 | 72 Ryan Groy, 6-5, 320, 4
62 Vlad Ducasse, 6-5, 329, 8
*79 Jordan Mills, 6-5, 316, 5 | 73 Dion Dawkins, 6-5, 320, R
90 Shaq Lawson, 6-4, 267, 2 | 54 Eddie Yarbrough, 6-3, 259, 1
95 Kyle Williams (C, PB), 6-1, 303, 12 | 98 Deandre Coleman, 6-5, 341, 2
92 Adolphus Washington, 6-4, 295, 2 | 91 Cedric Thornton, 6-4, 290, 7
55 Jerry Hughes, 6-2, 254, 8 | 56 Ryan Davis, 6-2, 260, 6
**57 Lorenzo Alexander (C, PB, AP), 6-1, 245, 11** | 44 Deon Lacey, 6-3, 235, 1
*52 Preston Brown, 6-1, 251, 4 | 40 Tanner Vallejo, 6-1, 228, R
50 Ramon Humber, 5-11, 232, 9 | 58 Matt Milano, 6-0, 223, R
*27 Tre’Davious White, 5-11, 192, R | 20 Shareece Wright, 5-11, 184, 7
**23 Micah Hyde, 6-0, 197, 5** | 29 Shamarko Thomas, 5-9, 205, 5
21 Jordan Poyer, 6-0, 191, 5 | *36 Trae Elston, 5-11, 190, 1
20 Shareece Wright, 5-11, 184, 7 | 24 Leonard Johnson, 5-10, 194, 6
*28 E.J. Gaines, 5-10, 185, 4 | 24 Leonard Johnson, 5-10, 194, 6
4 Stephen Hauschka (C), 6-4, 210, 10
6 Colton Schmidt, 5-11, 224, 4
15 Brandon Tate, 6-1, 195, 9
15 Brandon Tate, 6-1, 195, 9
69 Reid Ferguson, 6-2, 244, 1
Additional scouting notes
▪ None of the Bills’ receivers are putting together nice statistical seasons. Jordan Matthews leads the wideouts with 22 catches for 253 yards and a touchdown, while Zay Jones is second with 20 catches for 236 yards and a touchdown. The Bills traded for Kelvin Benjamin in October to give this unit a shot in the arm, and he is indeed a good player, but he’s missed lots of practice time this week with a knee injury.
▪ Tight end Charles Clay could be a problem. Clay isn’t very big (6-3, 255), but he’s a really good receiver who is targeted a lot. He’s back from an injury and is a solid route runner that linebackers often have problems staying with. If second-year safety Eric Murray draws the assignment on Clay, he’ll need to have a good game. Clay leads the Bills in receiving yards with 298.
▪ Guard Richie Incognito is still a really good player at age 34, but he’s grabby for a lineman — has been whistled for a team-high six penalties, all holding.
▪ Offensive tackle Jordan Mills has been whistled for false starts three times; I wonder if Justin Houston can get in his head by winning with a speed rush or two early.
▪ The Bills struggle to generate much pressure, but defensive end Jerry Hughes is fairly disruptive. He has just three sacks but he explodes off the ball and his 22 1/2 pass pressures is only four fewer than Houston’s. He’s done this despite attracting a ton of attention from opposing offenses because no other Bill is making them pay.
▪ Teams have had success running and throwing at inside linebacker Preston Brown this year. Brown is a big, physical guy who looks the part and has a good football IQ but isn’t a great athlete. The Chiefs would be wise to do the same.
▪ Former Mizzou corner (and Fort Osage grad) E.J. Gaines is a solid player for the Bills on the back end.
▪ Cornerback Tre’Davious White is in the midst of a nice rookie season. The Bills’ first-round pick — he was taken with the Chiefs’ original pick, which they swapped to move up and select quarterback Patrick Mahomes — has been beaten deep this year, but he still leads the Bills in pass deflections with 13. The Chiefs liked him, too; they interviewed him at the NFL Combine in February.
▪ Safety Trae Elston is a hitter.
Prediction: Chiefs 24-17
After the Chiefs’ miserable loss to the Giants a week ago, I wrote that I will no longer refer to this team as a Super Bowl contender until it makes multiple strides in multiple areas. That remains the case. However, I do think the Chiefs are better than the Bills, and I’m banking on Andy Reid preventing this particular team — which still has lots of talent — from losing five of six games. I do not think it will be easy, because breaking out of slumps in the NFL is usually difficult, but I do think the Chiefs will beat the Bills and win enough games down the stretch to win the AFC West for the second straight year. What they do after that, though, remains a major question mark.