I have a full preview of the game on Sunday vs. the Chiefs for tomorrow, plus a Q&A with the author of Arrowhead Pride , the Chiefs blog here on SBN, but I first wanted to highlight what I see as the five keys to Sunday's game.
1) Can we contain Larry Johnson?
Under previous offensive coordinator Al Saunders, the Kansas City Chiefs were known for their innovative play calling and amazingly large and complex playbooks. Throw all that out the window. Al Saunders and his 700 page playbook are gone. Furthermore, Trent Green is still sidelined with post-consussion symptoms. All of this means that the Chiefs are now employing a far less complex offensive scheme than in year's past.
After his remarkable close to the 2005 season, just about everybody expected RB Larry Johnson to put up astronomical numbers if he stayed healthy through all of 2006. Slight problem. There's no mystery to what the Chiefs wanted to do to start the season and defenses have adjusted accordingly, often times putting 8 or 9 guys in the box while daring Damon Huard to beat them. Johnso has had 2 100 yard games (against the Broncos and the 49ers), but was bottled up against the Bengals and Cardinals. In fact, last week Johnson only carried the ball 16 times for 36 yards. He did make his presence felt in other ways, catching 6 balls for 106 yards. On his final catch though, Johnson had his neck twisted as he was taken down by the face mask. Johnson is listed as probable for Sunday's game, so expect to see him suit up.
Thank God Johnson's ok, but maybe he'll need a week to get back to full strength???
Damon Huard has been quite efficient since the Denver game, but we must force him to prove himself once again. If we can hold Johnson to around 85-100 yards and our pass defense improves, we should have a great shot to win on Sunday. Speaking of the secondary...
2)Will our DBs do a better job in pass coverage?
I've thought for several years now that the wide receivers for the Chiefs were a primary reason why they were not a Super Bowl caliber team. Eddie Kennison, Sammie Parker, and Dante Hall all have positive attributes to their game, but none is the kind of possession receiver you'd like to have with an inexperienced QB. Kennison, I suppose, is somewhat reliable catching balls over the middle, but none of the three pose the kind of athletic threat that say the Jaguars receivers do. I hope we play closer to the line of scrimmage on 3rd and 7s and 3rd and 8s, instead of giving them a 5-10 yard cushion like we did against the Chargers.
3) Will we be able to run the ball? After giving up 96 yards to Rudi Johnson in week 1, and over 100 yards to the tandem of Mike and Tatem Ball in week 2, the Chiefs run defense has stiffened. They held the pleasantly surprising Frank Gore in week 4 coming off their BYE week, and limited Edgerrin James to less than three yards per rush last week. Willie Parker and the Steelers running game have had an up-and-down season. Against the Dolphins and Bengals, Parker ran wild; against the tougher Jags and Chargers, we seemed to abandon the running game a bit too early. Coach Herm Edwards has instilled a defense-first mentality with his club, so don't expect the Chiefs defense to roll over. I'm sure they are planning on making Big Ben prove that he can avoid the costly mistake and lead the Steelers offense down the field consistently through the air, but I still feel we need to stick with the running game, even if yards are hard to come by early in the game. There's murmurings that Dookie Davenport will have an expanded role in the running game, but then again so was Verron Haynes at the start of the year. I don't see Davenport contributing much of anything outside of short-yardage situations, so it's going to be on Fast Willie Parker to anchor a running game that desperately needs to carry the team to victory.
4) Can we finally win the special teams battle?
Even though we've gotten good play from K Jeff Reed, we seem to be getting beat week in and week out on special teams. Our kick returners have yet to break a big one, and we all know what's happened on punt returning duties. I thought Willie Reid looked pretty comfortable back there, but I wouldn't mind seeing Santonio Holmes get additional opportunities. Whomever it is, it sure would be nice to get a big play to spark the team and the crowd. We need some sort of defining play to perhaps change the course and complexion of our season. At the same time, it would make life much tougher on the Chiefs if they didn't have good field position from the returns of Dante Hall.
5) Will we be able to put pressure on Damon Huard?
I haven't seen Huard play too much this year, but it seems like he's pretty good at getting rid of the ball before the pocket collapses. Consequently, we're going to have to find ways to pressure him like we did Phillip Rivers in the first half of last Sunday's game. If we're playing tighter coverage at the line of scrimmage, I think it would be tough for their receivers to find an open spot on the field for Huard to deliver the ball to prior to the rush arriving. Let's get to the QB, force a few turnovers, give our offense a short field to work with, and build some confidence as we head into the meat of our schedule.