Offensive, defensive and special teams keys for the Kansas City Chiefs (9-5) in Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns (3-11) starting at noon CT at Arrowhead Stadium.
For Alex Smith and the Chiefs offense, the last few weeks have been inconsistent performances, with enough points to win the game and only one turnover. But shaky pass protection, too many penalties and other mistakes made for tough times against the Chargers and Ravens, with the offense producing just three offensive touchdowns.
They face a Cleveland defense that has been less than mediocre through the 2015 season. The Browns rank No. 26 in the league in yards allowed (388 per game) and No. 31 in points allowed (387) and tied for No. 21 in takeaways (17.) Defensive end Desmond Bryant is the Cleveland sack leader with six; he’ll go head-to-head with right tackle Jah Reid. Linebacker Karlos Dansby leads the Browns in interceptions with three, including two that he returned for touchdowns. Tight end Travis Kelce will likely see quite a bit of him. Dansby is also the leading tackler with 99, followed by safety Donte Whitner with 74 stops.
Those are the bodies that will attempt to stop quarterback Alex Smith, running backs Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware and the rest of the offense.
Offensively, the Chiefs need to stick with their plan of keeping the play calling balanced between pass and run. In the victory over Baltimore, it was 28 running snaps and 28 passing plays; on the season it’s 56 percent pass/44 percent run. Keep the play calls close to even, provide better protection for Smith and secure the ball. If those tasks are accomplished the Chiefs should have their ninth straight victory.
The Chiefs defense continues to be the engine pushing the team through its eight-game winning streak and toward the playoffs. They rank in the top half of the league in just about every defensive category of importance. They are third in fewest points allowed (257), No. 8 in offensive yards given up (335.4 average), seventh in rushing yards allowed (92.2), No. 17 in passing yards given up (243.2) and tied for fourth in takeaways (27.)
On Sunday, they face a Cleveland team that has struggled all season on offense. They rank No. 30 in rushing yards (86.5), No. 29 in points scored (253) and No. 26 in giveaways (25.) Johnny Manziel has started the last two games for the injured Josh McCown and he’s performed at a level much higher than he showed in earlier opportunities. The Browns are 1-1 in these last two games and Manziel has completed 63.5 percent of his passes for 431 yards, two touchdown throws and two interceptions. He was sacked four times and ran nine times for 32 yards.
The Chiefs defense needs to focus on tight end Gary Barnidge and running back Duke Johnson. No matter who the Cleveland quarterback has been, they always seem to find Barnidge coming off the line of scrimmage or Johnson circling out of the backfield. The tight end ranks among the league’s top five tight ends in receptions (68), receiving yards (930) and touchdown catches (9). In comparison, K.C.’s Travis Kelce has receiving numbers of 65-822-4.
Johnson is a third-round draft choice out of the University of Miami and he’s caught 54 passes for 485 yards; among all NFL backs, he’s fourth in catches and third in yards. That duo is where Manziel will look when he needs to get rid of the ball; in his most recent starts, Barnidge-Johnson caught 35 percent of his completions.
The Chiefs have not allowed a punt return for a touchdown in the last 50 games: that’s the whole Andy Reid Era with Dave Toub serving as special teams coordinator. The last man to reach the end zone came on Dec. 9, 2012, when Travis Benjamin returned a punt 93 yards for a touchdown.
This Sunday, Benjamin returns to Arrowhead with the Browns and he’s ranked at No. 4 among all league punt returners after 14 games with an 11.4-yard average, and a 78-yard touchdown return. Over the last three seasons, opponents have averaged 6.5 yards per punt return against the Chiefs, 6.4 yards this year with the longest punt return given up at 17 yards. That has K.C. as the No. 7 punt-cover team in the league.
The Chiefs have faced only five returners ranked this week among the league’s top 20 and the group of Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown, Minnesota’s Marcus Sherels, Oakland’s Jeremy Ross, Houston’s Keith Humphrey and Detroit’s Golden Tate combined for 11 returns for 53 yards.
But, the Chiefs coverage team hasn’t faced a returner like the Browns’ Benjamin. They must keep him under wraps.