The Kansas City Chiefs open the 2012 season Sunday afternoon when they welcome the Atlanta Falcons to Arrowhead Stadium. After an inconsistent preseason, the Chiefs find themselves as home underdogs in Romeo Crennel’s first game as head coach without the interim tag.
The Chiefs will need to find a gear they never used in the preseason to get out of the gate quickly. They lost their final three preseason games by a combined score of 99-34, including a total no-show in the always important third game against the Seattle Seahawks.
On top of their poor play in the preseason, the Chiefs are also dealing with multiple key injuries. Starters Brandon Flowers, Derrick Johnson, Jovan Belcher and Kendrick Lewis are all listed on the final injury report.
After going 10-6 last year and losing in the first round of the playoffs, the Falcons were also 1-3 in the preseason, but easily handled the Miami Dolphins 23-6 in Week 3. They will also take the field Sunday completely healthy, with their only players listed on the final injury report serving as backups but also “probable” to play.
Here are the three players from each team that you should keep your eyes on.
Offense: Jamaal Charles
In the preseason the Chiefs eased their most explosive weapon back into action after he missed most of last season with a torn ACL. Charles sat out the first preseason game and then over the next three never touched the ball more than seven times in a game and only carried the ball 12 times in the entire preseason.
Now that he’s proven to be healthy, the Chiefs are going to need to unleash Charles if they are going to get things rolling on offense. Much like they did with Thomas Jones during Charles monster season in 2010, Kansas City can give him a breather thanks to Peyton Hillis, but they need to lean on Charles.
If he can touch the ball 20 times, it should open things up for Matt Cassel in the passing game and give Crennel’s squad the type of offense they’ll need to upset the Falcons.
Defense: Justin Houston
With Tamba Hali out of Sunday’s game due to a suspension, it’s Houston that will most need to step up if they Chiefs hope to pressure Atlanta QB Matt Ryan. The second-year linebacker was — like a lot of his teammates — quiet in the preseason, but was a force down the stretch as a rookie, racking up all of his 5.5 sacks the final five weeks of the season.
Obviously a large reason he was able to be so effective last year was due to having Hali draw so much attention. How he responds against the Falcons without the help of Hali will tell us a lot about just how good Houston is ready to be.
Special Teams: Dustin Colquitt
It’s a cliche, but winning the field position battle will be huge for the Chiefs on Sunday. The Falcons offense will already have a leg up thanks to the suspension of Hali and the injuries to Derrick Johnson and Brandon Flowers, so the last thing Kansas City can afford to do is give Matt Ryan & Co. a short field.
All four of Colquitt’s punts ended up inside the 20 last week against the Green Bay Packers, but he only managed to do the same with four of his 11 other kicks throughout the preseason.
Offense: Tony Gonzalez
Atlanta has no shortage of weapons on offense with Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones and Michael Turner. However, I think all eyes be following Gonzalez around whenever the Falcons have the ball.
After spending 12 years exciting the crowd at Arrowehad as a member of the Chiefs, the greatest tight end to ever play the game is making his first trip back to Kansas City as a member of the Falcons. At 36 he’s clearly not in his prime any more, though he can still get up and get the ball with the best of them.
The return of Gonzalez to Kansas City isn’t just odd for the fans that are still not used to seeing him in a different jersey. The tight end talked this week about coming back to Arrowhead.
“It’s going to be kind of weird going in there. It’s going to be like going back to the house that you grew up in.”
Defense: Akeem Dent
When the Falcons lost leading tackler Curtis Lofton to the New Orleans Saints in free agency, they immediately turned their attention at linebacker to Dent, a second-year player who did not start a single game as a rookie.
Dent led the team in special teams tackles last season, but will need to do a lot more playing in the middle and gets a strong test here in Week 1. If he can help contain Charles and Hillis, the Falcons will feel a whole lot better about their big gamble.
Special Teams: Jacquizz Rodgers
The Falcons are going to make sure they get the ball to the electric Rodgers more this season on offense — and no doubt has the attention of Crennel’s defense — but he is also a threat to turn in big plays as a kick returner.
Rodgers returned kickoffs in every game for Atlanta this preseason and turned in highs of 25, 29, 40 and 27. The speedster should provide a challenge to the new Chiefs special teams coach.