Sam Mellinger

Seven things that might matter from the Chiefs’ preseason game against the Steelers

This might come across as a joke, but this space has never been more serious:

The Chiefs’ second game of the preseason against the Steelers here on Saturday night was an unequivocal success because Patrick Mahomes remains healthy.

Tyreek Hill, too. And Frank Clark and Travis Kelce and Chris Jones and even Tyrann Mathieu, who technically left after three snaps because of a shoulder contusion, but realistically left because of Come On What’s The Point.

Most of the rest of the game could go pound sand. It was hard to take much from it.

Mahomes and the first-team offense looked off, but come on. The first- and second-team defense played mostly solid, if unspectacular, but Steelers star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger watched in shorts.

What does any of it mean? If anyone says they know, you should tell them they’re a liar.

But, all that said, here are seven things from this game that might mean something.

1. Mathieu’s “injury” meant rookie Juan Thornhill played a lot of snaps at safety which, if we’re honest, is probably for the greater good anyway. Thornhill has a real chance to lead this rookie class in snaps. His best attributes (coverage, speed, length) pair well with Mathieu’s (tackling, playmaking closer to the line of scrimmage) to improve an atrocious safety position from last year.

Thornhill showed well with the opportunity, in particular making a nice open-field tackle on a run to the opposite side and a diving deflection near the goal line in zone coverage.

New defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo prefers experience, but if the advanced decision is made that the best end-of-the-season defense includes Thornhill starting, it would be logical to get him going now.

2. More on the defense: The Steelers’ first touchdown was almost a literal walk, with blown assignments by the Chiefs all over the place.

We don’t bring this up as a criticism, just to point out the reminder: Spagnuolo’s defense is new to everyone, and many of these players are new to each other.

This group will likely take four or so games to get a feel for it all, and nobody should be surprised if they look wholly confused early and much improved by December and January.

3. Rookie receiver Mecole Hardman scored another touchdown. Disclaimers are appropriate — starters on both sides had long since left — but the particulars are encouraging. It was third and long, he flipped the cornerback around the wrong way, and he made the catch in front of a safety.

A week after scoring on a jet sweep, Hardman also did the six-different-directions presnap motion that we previously had seen only from Tyreek Hill. The Chiefs do appear to be prepping him for a role bigger than rookie receivers typically get in Andy Reid’s offense.

4. Rookie running back Darwin Thompson had another good day, too. His best moment came on a 14-yard run when the middle clogged and he used a bounce-cut to get outside and turn the corner. Particularly with Carlos Hyde’s fumble, Thompson could be closing the gap.

5. Defensive lineman Frank Clark played for the first time this preseason. He was out after two series, and has missed some time in training camp, but he did explode off the line of scrimmage and beat two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Alejandro Villanueva with a speed rush.

6. Tight end Deon Yelder left with a hobble after a long catch. The importance of the competition for the backup tight end spot has been overstated by many, but a week after neither Yelder or Blake Bell separated themselves, this could be a major factor in who lands the roster spot.

7. Backup quarterback Chad Henne looked ... solid? The play that left Yelder injured featured a dynamite throw by Henne — on time, perfectly placed, deep and over the outside shoulder. Henne also finished a 13-play, 76-yard touchdown drive with the throw to Hardman.

Henne’s most important job is to be a sounding board for Mahomes. But after that, it’s to be good enough and ready enough to get the Chiefs through a game or two if they need it. The Chiefs have started worse quarterbacks in the past, but if this is where we are in the column it’s probably fine to end it here.

The good news: Training camp has broken, practices will begin to more closely mimic the regular season, and Saturday’s game at Arrowhead Stadium will be the closest look we get to the real Chiefs before the season opener in Jacksonville.



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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.
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