KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Kansas City Chiefs swept the Houston Texans in two matchups in 2015 in very different games sharing a common theme – an efficient Chiefs offense scoring bunches of points against a very good defense led by reigning defensive player of the year J.J. Watt.
Chiefs co-offensive coordinator Matt Nagy said the key to keeping Watt and his teammates in check when the Chiefs (1-0) visit Houston (1-0) Sunday lies in effectively mixing the passing and running games.
“I think the biggest thing is you just go to try and keep them a little bit off balance,” Nagy said. “You see it in the Chicago game, if you get one dimensional with this team and they tee off and pin their ears back, you’re in trouble.”
That’s how the Chiefs beat the Texans twice last year, once in the season opener and again in the wildcard round of the playoffs. The Chiefs averaged 203 yards passing and 119 yards rushing in the two games while outscoring Houston 57-20 combined.
Watt leads a Texans defense built around a ferocious defensive front aimed at stopping the ground game and creating a hectic pass rush. Houston picked up five sacks against the Chicago Bears last weekend along with 13 quarterback hurries.
Quarterback Alex Smith said he knows he’s facing a playoff-caliber defense on the other side, which features defensive ends Watt and Jadeveon Clowney and linebackers Whitney Mercilus, Benardrick McKinney and John Simon.
“Mercilus is probably playing as good up front as any of them from a pass-rushing standpoint,” Smith said. “From their front, they’re really good.”
The Texans will be without linebacker Brian Cushing, who suffered a knee injury during the Texan’s game against the Bears Sunday. Coach Bill O’Brien called Cushing “the heart and soul of our football team,” but believe the team has personnel to weather the loss.
“Obviously Benardrick’s been in there with Brian,” O’Brien said, “he’ll still be in there and then we’ve got other guys like Max Bullough and Akeem Dent, Brian Peters, you know guys that can fill that role. You never want that to happen, but you have to be prepared for it if it does happen.”
The Chiefs have their own injury obstacles to navigate. Starting right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif missed his second straight practice since suffering a high-ankle sprain against San Diego in the season opener. Rookie starting left guard Parker Ehinger remains on the sidelines after sustaining a concussion during practice on Wednesday.
Yet the Chiefs found themselves in a familiar predicament last year in Houston. The team beat Houston 27-20 in the season opener in 2015 without starting offensive linemen Jeff Allen and Eric Fisher, who both missed the game with injuries.
If Duvernay-Tardif or Ehinger cannot play, backups Zach Fulton and Jah Reid would likely take place. Nagy noted that Reid stepped in during that game a year ago, filling in at right tackle.
“The lineman that we have that are in there, we have trust in all of them,” Nagy said. “He came in on short moment’s notice and did well in a such a hostile environment.”
The Chiefs do expect to have running back Spencer Ware ready to play Sunday. Ware returned Thursday after missing practice a day earlier with a sprained toe sustained against San Diego. Ware turned in a career performance against the Chargers, leading the Chiefs with 129 yards receiving along with 70 yards rushing.
Nagy said Ware helped spark the comeback against San Diego with not just his play but his enthusiasm as well.
“I was on the sideline, and when we were down 21 points, he’s over there – he just wanted the ball,” Nagy said. “Just to see him go out there and do it was pretty cool.”