After a wait that has felt like an eternity, the games finally count again! The Kansas City Chiefs will officially open The New Arrowhead tonight on Monday Night Football as they host the San Diego Chargers.
Will Matt Cassel show he is ready to lead the Kansas City offense? Have the Chiefs learned how to stop the run? Will the Chargers be able to protect Phillip Rivers’ blindside? Tonight will tell us a lot about just how competitive the AFC West will be this season.
Check out the three players (offense, defense, special teams) from each team that you will need to keep your eyes on tonight.
Offense: Matt Cassel
After struggling in his first year in Kansas City to the tune of a 1:1 TD to INT ratio and an equally uninspiring preseason, there is no player that needs to get off to a fast start more than Cassel. While he was understandably never fully embraced during the Chiefs 4 win season, the anti-Cassel rhetoric really seemed to gain steam in the offseason and carried into the preseason.
Last year against the Chargers, Cassel was picked off 4 times but he will be facing a very different San Diego defense. He will also have better toys to play with after Scott Pioli signed free agent Thomas Jones and drafted Dexter McCluster.
Cassel can quickly quiet the critics (and send the Arrowhead crowd into a frenzy) with a few deep balls, something that he allegedly does not posses in his arsenal.
Defense: Tamba Hali
All the injury talk surrounding the Chiefs has been about Dexter McCluster’s stomach, but for me the most important ailment to watch is Hali’s ankle. Most of us have been assuming that he has been held back just as a precaution, but it bears watching as the Chiefs try to take advantage of hold out RT Marcus McNeill’s replacement, Brandyn Dombrowski.
Phillip Rivers has a quick release that helped him avoid Hali last season. Not having McNeill protecting the blindside will help but only if Hali is able to go at full speed.
If he is hampered at all, look for Demorrio Williams to get some more reps as an outside rusher. As impressive as he was in the preseason experimenting outside, Williams is a huge downgrade from Hali.
Special Teams: Javier Arenas
Throughout training camp and the preseason, Arenas showed off the skills that helped him become one of the most prolific return men in SEC history. Now it’s time to see if he can get the job done when the lights are the brightest. There’s no reason to believe that what we have seen was a fluke, however you never know for sure until the games count.
As we all remember from the days of Dante Hall, nothing will get the Arrowhead crowd rocking more than a big time return. Chiefs fans haven’t had much reason to stay loud throughout a game the past few seasons. Hopefully those days are over with Arenas providing the spark the team and crowd needs to keep the pressure on San Diego.
Offense: Ryan Mathews
Both teams will find out early on if their offseason plans are ready to pay off.
The Chargers are entering the post-LT era and are banking on the young rookie to carry the load immediately. The Chiefs, meanwhile, are trying to prove that they can stop the run consistently for the first time in years.
In three preseason games, Mathews averaged nearly 5 yards a carry, showing the explosiveness that made him the 12th overall pick in April’s draft. Don’t think that Darren Sproles is the only Chargers back that can catch the ball out of the backfield as Mathews also averaged 6.6 yards per reception.
Defense: Shaun Phillips
The second best game from Phillips last year? That’s right, Week 7 against the Chiefs. You can bet that with his running mate Shawne Merriman likely sitting out tonight, Phillips will be looking to make his presence felt early and often.
With Jamaal Charles and Dexter McCluster trying to take the ball outside and turn the corner, they will both be trying to out run Phillips all night long.
Special Teams: Darren Sproles
Last year the Olathe North grad had two quiet games against the Chiefs returning kicks (though he did deliver a nifty 58-yard TD reception). He didn’t return any for scores as he found his long in those games going for 32 yards. But past results unfortunately won’t help predict future performance.
With rookie Ryan Mathews likely getting most of the work in the running game, Sproles will be fresh and ready to deliver on special teams.