Here’s The Star’s weekly game preview detailing the key players and matchups for the KC Chiefs’ game against the Miami Dolphins (6-8) at noon Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium. The game will air on CBS (Ch. 5).
Head coach: Adam Gase (16-14) is in his second year on the job. Gase began his career as an undergraduate student at Michigan State, serving as an assistant to the coaching staff. He followed Nick Saban to Louisiana State in 2000, and was promoted to recruiting assistant the next year. He joined the Detroit Lions as a scouting assistant in 2003, was promoted to offensive assistant in 2005 and quarterbacks coach in 2007. He spent a year with the 49ers as an offensive assistant before joining the Broncos to become their receivers coach in 2009. He was promoted to quarterbacks coach in 2001 and offensive coordinator in 2013. He spent a year with the Bears in the same role in 2015 before the Dolphins hired him for his current gig. Gase is regarded as an offensive and quarterback guru with strong leadership traits.
Offense: Clyde Christensen, 61, is in his second year as Miami’s offensive coordinator. He was an All-American quarterback at Fresno City Junior College in 1975 before finishing his career at North Carolina. He spent 17 years coaching quarterbacks, running backs, receivers and tight ends in college before he was hired to be the Buccaneers’ tight end coach in 1995. He also coached the Bucs’ quarterbacks and served as the offensive coordinator before he became the Colts’ receivers coach in 2002. He was promoted to assistant head coach in 2008 and offensive coordinator in 2009. He spent 2012-2015 as the Colts’ quarterbacks coach before he landed his current gig in Miami. Miami ranks 28th in total offense (301.6 yards per game), 20th in passing offense (213.3) and 29th in rushing offense (88.3). Miami is among the most pass-heavy teams in football, throwing it 63 percent of the time (second in the league). They use play-action 21 percent of the time, 12th in the league), according to Football Outsiders.
Defense: Matt Burke, 41, is in his first year as Miami’s defensive coordinator. Burke played safety at Dartmouth and spent four years as an assistant on the college level before joining the Titans as an administrative assistant in 2004. In 2006, he was promoted to defensive quality control coach, and in 2009, he was hired to coach the Lions’ linebackers. He held the same job with the Bengals (2014-2015) and Dolphins (2016) before earning a promotion to his current position following the departure of Vance Joseph, who left to become the head coach of the Denver Broncos. Miami runs a 4-3 defense that ranks 17th in the league in total defense (332.5 yards per game), 15th in pass defense (222.6) and 28th in sacks (25). The Dolphins’ run defense ranks 13th in the league (109.9).
Special teams: Darren Rizzi, 47, is in his seventh year as the Dolphins’ special-teams coach and assistant head coach. Rizzi, a former tight end at Rhode Island, coached in the collegiate ranks for 16 years before joining the Dolphins as an assistant special-teams coach in 2009. He was promoted to his current position in the middle of the 2010 season, and has remained there ever since. He also earned the title of assistant head coach in January. Kicker Cody Parkey has made 18 of 19 field-goal attempts, and his 95 percent conversion rate is tied for second in the league. Punter Matt Haack has dropped 29 of his 77 punts inside the 20, third in the league. The Dolphins rank 17th in kickoff returns (21.0 yards per return) and 21st in punt returns (7.4). They also rank fourth in kick-return coverage (19.0) and 12th in punt-return coverage (6.4).
Four keys to a Chiefs victory
1. Establish the run
The Chiefs’ running game was awful for most of October and November, when they averaged a mere 71 yards per contest from weeks six through 12. The good news is that the Chiefs –– and particularly their offensive line –– have started to pick things up big time in recent weeks, rushing for an average of 150 yards across their last three games. To beat the Dolphins, the offensive line –– which has been particularly nasty recently –– will need to keep it up, especially with Ndamukong Suh looming in the middle of the defense. If they can keep a body on Suh, Kareem Hunt –– who is running with September-like juice again –– could slice the Dolphins up enough to open up the passing game. Miami has surrendered 15 total touchdowns to running backs, which is the fourth-most in the league, so this plan of attack is possible, provided the men up front rise to the challenge.
2. Target Travis
If the Chiefs can get the run game going, the Dolphins are going to have to make a choice about whom to devote resources to, covering the pass game. Tyreek Hill has emerged as a legit No. 1 receiver, and it will be interesting to see if the Dolphins let Xavien Howard –– a young corner who has played well recently –– travel with him. But their biggest problem will be deciding how to handle Chiefs star tight end Travis Kelce. The Dolphins surrender 59.1 yards to the tight end every game, which is the seventh-worst mark in the league, and Kelce –– a multi-time Pro Bowler –– is one of the league’s very best. If linebacker Kiko Alonso is aligned against Kelce in one-on-one coverage, Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith might be tempted to test him.
3. Get after Cutler
When starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill suffered a season-ending knee injury in training camp, the Dolphins called on Jay Cutler to save their season. Gase worked well with Cutler in 2015, during his one season as Chicago’s offensive coordinator, but Cutler has brought the same maddening mix of arm talent and bad body language that has dogged his career. He’s completed 63 percent of his passes for 2,374 yards, 18 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, and his passer rating of 80.6 ranks 30th among quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts. The Chiefs must get after Cutler; they cannot allow him to get hot or give him time to throw. If they can harass him and fluster him early, they can prevent the shot at an upset.
4. Keep the juice going
Once again, this one will come down to energy and enthusiasm. I shouldn’t have to keep using this as a key to winning, but the Chiefs’ uninspired play in November is difficult to shake. It’s time these guys show up against an opponent that isn’t in the AFC West. Seriously. The Chiefs can clinch the division title with a victory, so they should have all the motivation they need to play with enthusiasm. When there’s a big play, let’s see some chest thumps. When there’s a touchdown, let’s see a choreographed celebration. Clinching the division at home would be a nice apology to the fans who had to watch this team’s brutal play when it lost six of seven and might be enough to get some off those same fans –– who remain reticent about the team’s playoff upside –– back on the bandwagon.
Four Dolphins to watch
No. 32, RB Kenyan Drake, 23 years old, 6-1, 211, second season
In the midst of a breakout campaign. Saw his playing time and opportunities increase following the midseason trade of Jay Ajayi to Philadelphia. After rushing 33 times for 179 yards (5.4 yards per carry) and two touchdowns as a rookie, he’s rushed for 312 yards in his last three games and is on pace to rush 121 times for 585 yards (4.8 yards per carry) with three touchdowns this season. He’s also caught 29 passes for 224 yards and a touchdown. Slippery one-cut runner who side steps tacklers with ease and shows good burst and toughness as a runner. Possesses explosion out of his cuts and doesn’t mess around in the backfield –– always seems to be churning forward. Excels at cutting back inside on outside runs. Also flashes an impressive spin. Has good long speed and can take it the distance. Very capable receiver out of the backfield with good hands and run-after-the-catch ability. Has made strides as a pass protector, which used to be his weakness.
No. 14, WR Jarvis “Juice” Landry, 25 years old, 5-11, 208, fourth season
Ranked No. 42 on the NFL’s top-100 list for 2017. Recorded 94 catches for 1,136 yards and four touchdowns in 2016. Is on pace to catch 112 passes for 965 yards and nine touchdowns. Outstanding possession and slot receiver who doubles as an excellent red-zone target due to his elite hands, ball skills and reliability. Wins contested balls with regularity and makes tough catches look easy. Super-competitive and tough. Plays his tail off and runs hard and with power and elusiveness after the catch. Isn’t going to blow you away with his top-end speed –– ran a 4.77 40-yard dash at the 2014 NFL Combine –– but he runs good routes with plus burst out of his cuts. Has a lot of Anquan Boldin in him.
No. 93, DT Ndamukong Suh, 30 years old, 6-4, 305, eighth season
Team captain. Ranked No. 55 on the NFL’s top-100 list for 2017. Recorded 72 tackles, five sacks, 11 tackles for loss and 17 quarterback hurries in 2016. Is on pace to record 51 tackles and six sacks this season. Also has 11 quarterback hurries and nine tackles for loss this season. Defensive tackle who occasionally lines up at end. Boasts outstanding combination of overall athleticism and grown-man strength –– can overpower double teams, shed blocks and can dominate his man when he feels like it. Has an effective swim move. Can close the distance on backs and quarterbacks. Plays with old-school nastiness and intensity, which he uses to intimidate. Packs a punch when he hits backs and quarterbacks. Has not been quite as productive or dominant as a pass rusher as he was during his days in Detroit but still requires attention and must be accounted for, especially on run plays. Has consistently been one of his team’s most penalized players.
No. 91, DE Cameron Wake, 35 years old, 6-3, 263, ninth season
Team captain. Ranked No. 62 on the NFL’s top-100 list for 2017. Recorded 29 tackles, 11.5 sacks, six tackles for loss and 24 quarterback hurries in 2016. Is on pace to record 35 tackles and 10 sacks this season. Also has 24 quarterback hurries, the fourth-most in the league, and 11 tackles for loss this season. Smart, aware player who can really bring it as a pass rusher. Left end with good bend and explosiveness off the edge, along with an assortment of pass-rush moves, including an effective speed rush and rip move. Is a terror for slow-footed tackles. Tempo setter who plays hard and tries to go for the strip when he attacks quarterbacks, often to great success. Has struggled some against. the run as he’s gotten older and doesn’t always set the edge the way he used to. Still must be accounted for, especially on passing downs.
Prediction: Chiefs 27-14
The Chiefs enter this game as 11-point favorites, which seems a tad high on the surface, given the fact the Dolphins haven’t been eliminated from the playoffs just yet. Still, the Dolphins need to win out and get multiple breaks to qualify, and their test this week against a Chiefs team that has righted the ship of late figures to be too much to overcome. The Dolphins are 2-5 on the road this season, and have lost each of those five games by at least eight points. What’s worse, the weather figures to be in the low 30s, and Miami is sub-.500 in such games all-time. The Dolphins bucked that trend in 2008 by beating the Chiefs in 10-degree weather at Arrowhead, but it would take a major letdown from the Chiefs –– who could clinch an AFC West title for the first time in club history and probably earn a week off with a win –– to let that happen.