Perhaps no team has been as disappointing as the Kansas City Chiefs through the first two games. For a roster with as much talent as the Chiefs possess, following a near-playoff run, and returning several key players from injury, it has been shocking to see the team outscored 75-41.
As for Kansas City’s opponent, the bad start for the New Orleans Saints was a little more predictable for some, with the team led by an interim-interim head coach. However, the way New Orleans has fallen to 0-2 has been equally as stunning as the Chief’s defeats. The defense, despite upgrades at linebacker and a new scheme, has been just has bad as it was last season. Meanwhile, what was one of the league’s best offenses in 2011 has looked out of sorts.
It might not be a “must-win” game for this pair of teams, but it’s about as close as you can get with a game in the third week of the season. Here are three matchups that could decide which team turns things around on Sunday.
Can the Saints Pressure Cassel?
This has been a question for the New Orleans defense every week, and with good reason. In 2011, the Saints produced PFF’s worst-graded pass rush and thus far, in two games this season, there hasn’t been much of an improvement. Of the defensive linemen, only reserves Akiem Hicks and Tom Johnson have graded positively for their pass rush efforts and the two have only played 14% and 29% of the team’s defensive snaps, respectively. It may be time for these two, along with a guy like Martez Wilson, to see the field more often against a strong Chiefs offensive line. Just how strong has Kansas City’s OL been to start the year? Led by the efforts of tackles Branden Albert (+3.0 in pass blocking) and Eric Winston (+3.0), Matt Cassel has been pressured on just 29% of his drop backs, one of the best marks in the league.
Speaking of Cassel, the quarterback has to do a better job when he does face pressure against the Saints. So far this season, he has completed just 6-of-15 passes and received a grade of -5.1 in those situations. A possible strategy for the Saints could be to blitz more often and get defenders matched up on the Kansas City backs. Peyton Hillis has allowed a sack and hurry in eight snaps in pass protection.
As bad as Cassel has played under fire, Drew Brees has arguably been worse, completing just a third of his passes when facing pressure. Maybe part of the drop off for the QB who led the league in accuracy under pressure a season ago has been because he’s been seeing it more often. Brees has been hassled by opposing rushers on just over 12% more of his drop backs compared to last season; a massive increase. A lot of the blame for this should fall on the Saints’ offensive line. One of the best lines in the league a season ago has regressed to start the year. Jermon Bushrod (-7.4 in pass protection) has been a flat-out turnstile at LT, giving up 12 hurries and three QB hits to go along with Brees’ only sack.
Somehow, Kansas City has had an even worse pass rush than the Saints at this point, producing just one sack and 16 total pressures. However, that included a game without one of the league’s best pass rushers in Tamba Hali, who sat out Week 1 due to a suspension. Against Buffalo, he came out strong with three hurries. On Sunday, Bushrod will get to see a lot of Hali, who lines up primarily on the right side of the defense. It will be interesting to see whether New Orleans adds extra protection or utilizes chips by backs and tight ends to help out their struggling tackle.
One way New Orleans offense can help neutralize Hali and the rest of the pass rush is by being less predictable by personnel. Through two games Darren Sproles, for example, has played 86 total snaps without getting a single carry and only five of those plays have been runs by someone else. On the other hand, the team has run the ball on over three-fourths of the plays Mark Ingram has been in the game. Similar patterns can be seen with the wide receiver and tight end groupings.
Kansas City LBs vs. Pierre Thomas
A week after being gashed on the ground by C.J. Spiller, the Chiefs now enter the home of one of the league’s top rushing offenses. Despite only touching the ball 13 times against Carolina, Pierre Thomas gained 143 yards from scrimmage. What was most impressive about the performance was that he forced 12 missed tackles with a remarkable combination of strength and balance. Amazingly, the Saints have only given Thomas 18 total touches through the first two weeks. They should make sure Thomas touches the ball 18 times on Sunday after a performance like that.
For Kansas City, the primary task of defending Thomas will go to the linebacking trio of Justin Houston (+2.0 against the run), Derrick Johnson (+1.3), and Jovan Belcher (+1.3). The three have been strong against the run, combining for 43% of the team’s stops in the run game, despite the overall lackluster play of the defense. With a secondary that has struggled and is responsible for seven of the team’s eight missed tackles on the year, these LBs must stop the elusive Thomas from reaching the second level.