Keys to the game: Chiefs @ Texans

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Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith (11) passes to a teammate between Houston Texans outside linebacker Brooks Reed (58) and defensive end J.J. Watt (99) during the first half of an NFL football game at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo., Sunday, Oct. 20, 2013. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith (11) passes to a teammate between Houston Texans outside linebacker Brooks Reed (58) and defensive end J.J. Watt (99) during the first half of an NFL football game at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo., Sunday, Oct. 20, 2013. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

Offensive, defensive and special teams keys for the Chiefs during Sunday’s season opener at Houston:

OFFENSE

The Chiefs pass protection against the Texans pass rush will play a major impact on the outcome of the opener. Coach Andy Reid says he’s “comfortable” with his offensive line unit set to start against Houston.

The bigger question is whether Alex Smith will be comfortable in the pocket against defensive end J.J. Watt and the rest of the Houston pass rush.

Watt is at the top of the list of the best defensive players in the NFL; he’s the first pass rusher in league history to have more than one 20-plus sack season in his career. Last year, No. 99 had 20.5 sacks.

There’s no question that on every snap of the ball, the Chiefs must know where Watt lines up; Texans coordinator Romeo Crennel likes to move him around at different locations in his defense.

The starting duo at tackle with Donald Stephenson on the left side and Eric Fisher on the right does not have a wealth of experience at either position – Stephenson has nine career starts at left tackle and Fisher has 13 on the right side.

They will have to perform at a level higher than they’ve shown over their short careers if they are going to keep Watt and teammates like Jadeveon Clowney off Smith.

DEFENSE

Defensively for the Chiefs, cornerbacks Phillip Gaines and rookie Marcus Peters must find a way to keep Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins from having a big day. With veteran starter Sean Smith sidelined due to a three-game NFL suspension, youngsters Gaines and Peters will open on the corners.

Combined they have started just five NFL regular season games. Hopkins led the Texans last year with 1,210 receiving yards in 76 catches, an average of 15.9 yards per catch with six touchdown receptions.

That average was No. 4 in the league among receivers with 50 or more catches. The K.C. defense must limit the options for Houston’s new starting quarterback Brian Hoyer and that begins with Hopkins.

The rest of the Texans receiving group is pretty pedestrian after they signed NFL free agents Cecil Shorts and Nate Washington.

SPECIAL TEAMS

In the kicking game the Chiefs need a spark from De’Anthony Thomas. The second-year punt returner missed most of the preseason with a calf injury but is expected back for the opener against the Texans.

Last year as a rookie, Thomas was ranked fourth in the league with an 11.9-yard average on 34 punt returns, including an 81-yard touchdown return. In the past two seasons under special teams coordinator Dave Toub, the Chiefs have scored three punt returns TDs, something only Green Bay can match.

Houston punter Shane Lechler is very familiar to the Chiefs from his 13 seasons with the Oakland Raiders. Lechler has a powerful leg and while he averaged 46.3 yards a punt last year, his net average was just 38.7 yards.

Last year, the Texans allowed an average punt return of 12.4 yards, ranking No. 31 out of the league’s 32 teams. Translation: sometimes Lechler can outkick his coverage and that should create opportunities for the Chiefs.

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Bob Gretz is the senior editor for ChiefsDigest.com. Use the contact page to reach him or find him on Twitter: @BobGretzcom.

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