Pre-existing health issues stand in the way of the Kansas City Chiefs being the clear favorites in the AFC West.
They’ve done well to construct this roster and would be a safer bet than their three rivals if the season could use the Madden online format.
However, once the other shoe dropped earlier this week in the form of Justin Houston landing on the Reserve/PUP List, injuries continue to define 2016 for the Chiefs instead of their assembly of a high-end roster despite it lacking an upper-echelon quarterback.
Kansas City’s talent notwithstanding, the version of the well-constructed roster the Chiefs will employ next week looks like it will have issues defending aerial attacks. They’re going to need their own to be a bigger factor as a result.
Alex Smith should be capable of elevating his game based on multiple factors. And he may have to since it’s a reasonable bet the Chiefs are going to need to score more points with significant questions surrounding their ability to stop quarterbacks.
Age 32 and Year 12 aren’t exactly commonly correlated with breakout seasons, though.
Being out their best player for at least five games, coupled with Tamba Hali’s murky status and Dee Ford’s lowering ceiling, will affect the Chiefs’ ability to generate pressure. This, in turn, will make an unproven contingent of cornerbacks vulnerable.
Smith has done well to revive his career during the 2010s, carrying the reliable play he showed under Jim Harbaugh into Andy Reid’s system and providing the Chiefs with their best quarterback since Trent Green. The former No. 1 pick did incredibly well to keep the 2014 Chiefs in games despite their historic lack of receiving talent, and he became a multidimensional threat last season (career-high 498 rushing yards) after Jamaal Charles’ injury weakened the run game.
But the Chiefs finished as the league’s No. 30 passing game and Smith the No. 35-ranked quarterback in terms of yards per game. (Throw out the limited samples from Geno Smith and Kellen Moore and Smith jumps a bit, but he remained behind Peyton Manning and Brian Hoyer last season.) Even with Jeremy Maclin involved, Smith’s yards-per-game figure increased by just 0.02 yards per game — to 217.9.
Kansas City’s defense also protected its offense as well. So did a favorable second-half schedule.
Houston already missed five games last season, and Smith proved he could keep the Chiefs afloat. But he did it in comfortable circumstances thanks to inferior or injury-riddled opposition. The cadre of offenses the Chiefs defense subdued during that stretch: the not-quite-ready Raiders, ravaged Ravens and Chargers units and the Johnny Manziel-led Browns. Those did not put a lot of pressure on the Chiefs’ pass defense sans-Houston.
This season’s opening five games, as it stands now, will do more to challenge the defense.
Philip Rivers will have nearly a full complement of weapons in Week 1, and the Texans devoted almost all of their offseason resources to bolstering their offense — which fared incredibly poorly against the Chiefs last season. Ryan Fitzpatrick has one of the best receiving tandems in football, and Ben Roethlisberger could well be healthy come Week 4 after missing the teams’ 2015 matchup. The Raiders will be improved to some degree this season, although it’s debatable by how much.
Stopping these offenses without Sean Smith will test the Chiefs. But that element fused with the deployment of a declining Hali that’s suddenly expected to become a No. 1 pass-rusher again when he should probably be shifting into a passing-down specialist and a Dee Ford-headed contingent of unproven complements will be difficult.
Kansas City will counter this weakness with one of the game’s better defensive fronts, one that’s set to feature quality talent Chris Jones off the bench, and two perennial Pro Bowlers up the middle in Derrick Johnson and Eric Berry. This will go a long way toward helping the defense cope without Houston.
But the Chiefs still have a hole opposite Marcus Peters and don’t have an answer as to who its Nos. 2-3 corners will be yet. Their trade for Kenneth Acker for basically nothing last weekend isn’t a ringing endorsement for the holdovers or two rookies vying for those jobs. Losing both Husain Abdullah and Tyvon Branch will force more three- and four-cornerback sets.
Like last season, the defense could struggle early on.
Smith put together a fine preseason, completing nearly 70 percent of his passes in one of the best-schemed offenses in football. He’s in an ideal situation under Reid and has the luxury of being in one system for four years now. The 49ers threw six different offenses at him in San Francisco; a revolving door of coordinators never featured one staying more than two years during his eight-season stay there.
Ingredients exist for Smith to be better.
The Chiefs upgraded immensely at right tackle, with Mitchell Schwartz filling a void that’s existed since John Tait departed in 2004. Mitch Morse and Eric Fisher should also be improved versions of their 2015 iterations. K.C.’s receiving corps should be a bit more dangerous; their quantity-over-quality approach opposite Maclin should produce a decent committee. Spencer Ware could protect the Chiefs to a point from sputtering as Jamaal Charles returns to full strength, or whatever his new 100 percent is.
Smith may be asked to win games from behind as the Houston-less defense attempts to cope. He’s earned the game-manager tag, seeing his careful style never produce a 3,500-yard passing season. This looks like his best shot in Kansas City to date to show he’s worth the franchise-quarterback salary he’s earning.
More should be demanded of him this season. It goes without saying that Smith’s performance will determine how the Chiefs fare in ’16, as that’s the case for nearly every team.
Without the benefit of a top-10-level defense, Smith will have a greater say in the Chiefs’ viability as a playoff frontrunner. The steady quarterback staying on his current course might not be enough.
So while it’s weird to ask a 12th-year passer to hit another gear, Kansas City — as its defensive health regenerates — will absolutely require a better version of Smith or risk falling short during a season built for the franchise to excel.