Chiefs offensive line faces trial against Texans

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Chiefs travel to Houston Sunday, facing a pass rush that recorded five sacks and 13 quarterback hurries a week ago against Chicago, and they will be without two of their starting offensive linemen.

Kansas City's Alex Smith, right, throws downfield during the second half of Sunday afternoon's overtime win over the Chargers, 33-27, at Arrowhead Stadium on Sept. 11, 2016. (Chris Neal/The Topeka Capital-Journal)

Kansas City’s Alex Smith, right, throws downfield during the second half of Sunday afternoon’s overtime win over the Chargers, 33-27, at Arrowhead Stadium on Sept. 11, 2016. (Chris Neal/The Topeka Capital-Journal)

Right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif suffered a high-ankle sprain in last week’s opener against San Diego, and rookie left guard Parker Ehinger sustained a concussion in practice this week. Coach Andy Reid ruled both players out for Sunday’s game against the Texans.

Backup linemen Zach Fulton and Jah Reid will likely get the call to fill in as starters. Both filled in as starters a year ago along a banged-up Chiefs offensive line, experience Reid said helps in this situation.

“We’ve got a good group there, some guys that have some experience,” Reid said. “That becomes important in a situation like this.”

Center Mitch Morse agreed, noting the Chiefs practiced all week with the revamped line and prepared during training camp for eventualities such as this.

“It’s really just the seven or eight guys are all plug and play,” Morse said. “You have to be ready to play to start, as in this game anybody can get injured at anytime.”

Morse said changes in communication and game plan are negligible with personnel changes for the Chiefs.

“Those guys stay so involved in the game plan and with their stuff, so it’s super easy for me to get in there,” Morse said. “Maybe there’s a little nuance in how the technique’s different, but besides that it’s all good.”

The absence of Duvernay-Tardif and Ehinger leaves the Chiefs with just a single backup lineman on the active roster, the recently acquired Bryan Witzmann.

Witzmann feels ready to play if pressed into service Sunday.

“For me, every week I practice like I’m going to play, every week I practice like I’m going to start,” Witzmann said. “I’m ready to go if I’m needed.”

He said easing into the Chiefs offensive playbook has proved smooth thus far.

“A lot of the schemes are similar, it’s just more of the names transferring to different names,” Witzmann said.

Reid said general manager John Dorsey would make the decision on whether any roster move would be made to add an extra lineman for Sunday. The Chiefs have both Jarrod Pughsley and Jordan Devey on the practice squad.

Reid said he recalled maybe only one time in his coaching career he entered a game with just six offensive linemen.

“I can’t tell you it’s my favorite thing to do,” he said.

KEYS TO THE GAME

Start fast … no, really this time

The Chiefs proclaimed starting fast as a motto heading in to the season, and proceeded to start at turtle speed in the first half against San Diego.

The comeback against the Chargers gives the Chiefs confidence they can rally when needed. But the team cannot continue to dig itself in to a hole — or as Reid consistently says, shoot itself in the foot.

The Chiefs need to move the ball efficiently and effectively early on offense. Early points are critical, particularly against a Texans team that can play tough defense and concentrates on possession football on offense.

Pass protection

Quarterback Alex Smith struggled in the first half against the Chargers with little time to throw. Pass protection improved dramatically in the second half, and provided Smith the time he needed to key the dramatic comeback.

That challenge gets harder this week with Duvernay-Tardif and Ehinger out of action. The Chiefs made in-game adjustments last week to improve pass protection, but any changes this week need to happen quickly.

The Texans sacked Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler five times and recorded 13 quarterback hurries. If Smith finds himself under that kind of duress Sunday, the Chiefs cannot win.

Win third down

Another key to the Chiefs comeback Sunday rested with converting third- and fourth-down opportunities while holding the Chargers to three and outs.

The Chiefs converted just 36 percent of third downs against San Diego while allowing the Chargers a 47 percent conversion rate. During the woeful first half, the Chargers converted six of seven third downs while the Chiefs converted only one of six.

The defense showed better execution and improved tackling in the second half. But the defense must be able to flip the switch on defense and get stops in third-and-short situations.

PREDICTION

The key to the game rests with the Chiefs offensive line. The Texans struggled early against Chicago last week, a team the Chiefs manhandled in all phases in week three of the preseason. Houston has a playoff-caliber defense, but and personnel upgrades improved the offense on paper. But those changes need time to me mesh, and the Chiefs may be catching the Texans at the right time. Kansas City aims for a third-straight win in Houston during the past year. The Chiefs hang on in a close one, 23-19.

TALE OF THE TAPE

OFFENSE

• The Chiefs finished 2015 ranked 2nd in rushing (127.8 yards per game) and 16th in passing (203.4 yards per game). They rank tie for 20th in the league with 83 yards rushing and fourth in passing with 333 yards after week one.
• The Texans finished 2015 ranked 15th in rushing (108.9 yards per game) and 18th in passing (239.6 yards per game). They are tied for ninth in the league with 129 rushing yards and 21st in passing with 215 yards after week one.

DEFENSE

• The Chiefs finished 2015 rank fifth against the run (98.2 yards allowed per game) and fourth against the pass (231.1 yards allowed per game). They rank 30th against the run with 155 yards allowed and 15th in passing with 233 yards allowed after week one.
• The Texans finished 2015 ranked 10th against the run (99.8 yards allowed per game) and  third against the pass (210.4 yards allowed per game). They rank 10th in rush defense with 73 yards allowed and eight in pass defense with 185 yards allowed after week one.

THE LAST TIME

The Chiefs rolled the Houston Texans 30-0 back in January, posting the franchise’s first playoff win in 22 seasons.

That marked the second win for the Chiefs over the Texans in the 2015 season. Kansas City beat Houston 27-20 to open the campaign.

The Chiefs hold the edge in the all-time series against the Texans with a 5-3 record. The Chiefs have won three straight in the series, and are 4-2 all-time at NRG Stadium.

LOCAL TIES

• The Texans are loaded with former Chiefs, led by offensive guard Jeff Allen who spent the past four seasons in Kansas City before signing as a free agent during the offseason.
• Romeo Crennel serves as the Texans defensive coordinator. Crennel played the same role in Kansas City during the 2010-12 seasons, and went 4-15 as head coach during his last two years with the team.
• Texans linebackers coach Mike Vrabel joined the Chiefs in 2009 as part of the trade that brought quarterback Matt Cassel to Kansas City. He played 30 games for the Chiefs in 2009-10, picking up 73 tackles.
• Safety Quintin Demps has followed coach Andy Reid from Philadelphia to Kansas City in 2013, playing in all 16 games that season and tallying four interceptions.

QUOTABLE

Morse on playing without Duvernay-Tardif and Ehinger:

“It’s kind of next-guy mentality steps up, and we’ve been practicing that all week, and ready to rock and roll.”

Texans coach Bill O’Brien on injured LB Brian Cushing:

“You know any time you lose a guy like Brian who’s been around for a long time, and he’s basically the heart and soul of our football team that’s not easy, but this is a league where injuries occur and so you try to build the depth where the next man can step up and play well for you.”

Mitchell Schwartz on defending against Texans DE J.J. Watt:

“They’ve done an incredible job of surrounding him with talent as well so you can’t really focus on just him. Jadeveon Clowney is on the other side and he’s healthy and playing well in addition to Whitney Mercilus on the other. So you can’t focus on just one guy. Any guy on their front is capable of making plays.”

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Matt Derrick is the lead beat writer for ChiefsDigest.com and the Topeka Capital-Journal. Use the contact page to reach him or find him on Twitter: @MattDerrick.


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