The Kansas City Chiefs will begin their division title defense when they host the Buffalo Bills Sunday at Arrowhead. With special pregame ceremonies planned for the 10 year anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, emotions will be at an all-time high when kickoff arrives.
After a preseason that was highlighted by a rookie (WR Jonathan Baldwin) getting injured in a locker room fight, a starting tight end suffering a season-ending injury (TE Tony Moeaki), an offense unable to get into any sort of groove and a porous defense, there’s no telling how much of the trouble will carry into the regular season. Though the drama isn’t something to be ignored, a quick start out of the gate against the Bills will go a long way towards putting it all in the rear view.
Despite the poor preseason, the Chiefs are favored over a Buffalo team that is expected to struggle again this season under head coach — and former Kansas City offensive coordinator — Chan Gailey.
Here are the three players from each team that you will need to keep your eyes on.
Offense: Matt Cassel
In a town with plenty of famous ribs, right now all eyes are on the ones Cassel is carrying around under his pads. As one of the few starting QBs in the league to play extended time in the final preseason games, Cassel suffered an injured rib when 340-pound Howard Green of the Packers landed on him.
Though he was on the injury report for the Chiefs, Cassel was adamant about being ready to play against the Bills. As we all know, there’s a world of difference between playing and playing without limitations. We’ve seen the Kansas City QB play through injuries in the past, so he has shown a high tolerance for pain.
It will be interesting to see how often, if at all, the Chiefs offense looks to throw the ball down the field. If passing game is unable to open things up, it will be awfully tough task for last season’s top ranked rushing offense to get out of the blocks.
Defense: Tyson Jackson
There has been a clear plan for every team playing the Chiefs this preseason: run at Jackson, the former third overall pick that has yet to live up to expectations. What some people, however, seem to over look is that some of those expectations were unrealistic from the start and continue to be due to some of the players drafted after Jackson.
Instead of comparing him to the players the Chiefs could have drafted, look at the promise that Jackson showed last year when he was healthy. Considering how much he struggled as a rookie, it is those bright spots from last season that fans should hope come through more in 2011.
If Jackson’s preseason struggles carry into the regular season, expect to see more of Wallace Gilberry on first and second down in place of Jackson. But before he is put on the bench, Jackson will get every chance to show he is ready to take a big step forward. That all starts Sunday against the Bills.
Special Teams: Dustin Colquitt
Believe it or not, Colquitt was the Chiefs best player in the preseason. No one wants to hear that their standout performances each week are coming from a special teams player that doesn’t score, but if Colquitt carries this level of play into the regular season, the Kansas City defense will have a huge advantage every week.
The Chiefs were very mediocre on special teams last season and the punting game was a big reason. Early signs point to those problems being a thing of the past, though Colquitt will have to start doing it for real now, something that he couldn’t do consistently in 2010.
Offense: Stevie Johnson
When the Buffalo Bills traded away Lee Evans, the focus of the offense immediately went to Johnson. Being the player other teams key on hasn’t been lost on the young receiver and so far it seems just fine by him.
Not only did Johnson happily step right into the role as Buffalo’s No. 1 receiver, but he put an even bigger spotlight on himself by saying he has “something” special planned for the Kansas City defense after he makes it to the end zone as if a trip there is guaranteed.
Something tells me cornerbacks Brandon Flowers and Brandon Carr will have something to say about Johnson’s dancing plans. Though it’s important to remember that in last year’s matchup between the Chiefs and Bills, Johnson scored his team’s only touchdown.
Defense: Shawne Merriman
All I’ve heard this week is how the former Charger is “back” to the level he was playing at his first three years in the league when he averaged over 13 sacks a season. Excuse me if I’m a bit skeptical, especially after Merriman has had all of four total sacks in the three seasons that followed his huge entrance into the league.
If he is going to start things off on the right note, he’ll be going against the right offensive line. Between injuries and inconsistent play, the Chiefs line is ripe for the picking for Merriman and the rest of the Buffalo pass rush.
Special Teams: Brad Smith
The former Missouri star might be listed as a QB for the Bills, but you will see him on the field more than any other third string quarterback in the league. Sure, the Chiefs will see him in various offensive sets, but Smith is also always a threat on special teams.
Though he has yet to return a kick for Buffalo since coming over from the New York Jets, Smith is a dangerous X-factor in the return game and a better option than Marcus Easley or Justin Rogers, who are both sitting out against the Chiefs.