I know several fans might be inclined to think this Thursday Night Football game will be lower scoring than we’re anticipating. L.A.’s Keenan Allen was ruled out, and this will be the first time in the Justin Herbert era that the Chiefs will be without Tyreek Hill. However, in case last week wasn’t enough evidence already, the Chiefs don’t need Hill in order to be explosive. While the loss of Allen does hurt the Chargers’ passing attack, Herbert proved more than capable of spreading the ball around to other playmakers in last week’s victory over the Raiders. This game will obviously be a measuring stick for both franchises, one that improved drastically over the offseason and one that many believed had regressed in that same span.
I know it sounds obvious to claim that the Chiefs need their All-Pro tight end and go-to passing weapon to perform well in order for Kansas City to win, but it goes further than that. While the Chargers upgraded at edge rusher with the addition of Khalil Mack as well as at cornerback with the addition of J.C. Jackson (you could argue the addition of Sebastian Joseph-Day was also a big upgrade), they didn’t upgrade their linebacking corps. A slot corner is too small to cover someone as big and talented as Kelce, and Los Angeles’ inside linebackers just aren’t talented enough to cover him. I mean, Kenneth Murray had a 38.1 coverage grade from Pro Football Focus last season. Sure, Drue Tranquill is better in coverage, but he’s still a little inexperienced. Despite 2022 being Tranquill’s fourth year in the NFL, he’s only started 12 games in his career. Plus, the last time Tranquill was put in charge of covering Kelce, Kelce went off for 10 receptions, 191 yards, and two touchdowns. Tranquill was given a 29.6 coverage grade — the second-lowest of his career — across 36 pass coverage snaps that game.
The logical conclusion would be to stick Derwin James on Kelce. James’ physicality has been heralded by NFL players ever since he came into the league. He plays bigger than his size (he’s already a big guy) and would probably be the best chance for the Chargers to limit Kelce’s impact. Hell, even Kelce himself has sung James’ praises. The last time they played, when James was on the field, Kelce only had one catch for fourteen yards. Go back up and look at his line for the entire night. Yeah, James’ presence was felt.
So, now the question is, would the Chiefs’ wide receivers be talented enough to carry the offense if Kelce’s impact is limited by James? The optimistic part of me hoping for a high-scoring affair wants to say yes. While J.C. Jackson will likely shut down JuJu Smith-Schuster most of the night, Patrick Mahomes did say prior to the season that the offense would run through a different receiver every week. While Smith-Schuster may have been the top wideout option against Arizona, it could very well be Skyy Moore, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, or even running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire who gets the bulk of the targets against L.A. tonight. That’s where Joey Bosa and Mack come in.
Mack looked like his prime self last week against his former team, recording three sacks and just overall being a menace as a run defender as well. That’s been Mack’s biggest strength the last few years as his pass-rushing prowess has taken a dip. Assuming that last week was a fluke and that we won’t see another three-sack performance from Mack all season, the former Defensive Player of the Year will likely be limited in his effect in this game against KC.
The Chiefs have never been a very efficient team running the ball with Edwards-Helaire, and while Isiah Pacheco looked capable as a runner in Week 1, he received the bulk of his carries in the second half of what was already a blowout win. Either way, the Chiefs will likely look to avoid running all that often against a stout Chargers defensive line, so Mack’s value will have to come as a pass rusher, and that could be a problem depending on who he’s lined up against most of the night.
The Chargers will look to take advantage of the Chiefs’ inexperienced right tackle Andrew Wylie. He’s definitely not a pushover, but he’s undoubtedly the weakest part of that Chiefs’ offensive line and will likely be fed a healthy dose of Mack and Bosa all night. Aside from Wylie though, the Chiefs don’t have too much of a hole anywhere on their O-line. Andy Reid is obviously a phenomenal coach and shouldn’t have a problem drawing up protection plans to mitigate any effort the Chargers might make to force Wylie into a one-on-one situation with either of their All-Pro edge rushers.
Despite all the improvements the Chargers made this offseason, the Chiefs still hold the advantage in my opinion. Their improvements are mostly countered by how the Chiefs operate. They don’t rely on a single receiver, so J.C. Jackson might be a non-factor. They don’t run the ball as often as you’d like, so Mack’s strengths are limited. Aside from that, it’s mostly the same Chargers team that the Chiefs battle well every time.
The game is in Kansas City, and the absence of Keenan Allen could hurt the Chargers drastically considering how poorly the Cardinals’ offense performed against what is considered a weak Chiefs’ secondary without DeAndre Hopkins. This game should be a shootout, and while there is a blueprint for how the Chargers could hold the Chiefs’ offense to a very low score, there is too much for L.A. to focus on and there wasn’t enough time to prepare. Either team could win, but the Chiefs undoubtedly have the upper hand.