KANSAS CITY, Mo — Come the final week of the NFL preseason, football coaches do not like to be in a position where there is unfinished business on their “to-do list.”
Every season begins with questions and come the first of September, coaches want answers.
The Chiefs are preparing to wrap up their 2015 preseason with a trip to St. Louis on Thursday. There is nothing forgotten quicker in the NFL than the outcome of the final preseason game.
A team’s starters and key contributors are likely to see little or no playing time and the attention in the meeting rooms this week is not on the Rams, but the Houston Texans.
However, there remain decisions that Andy Reid and his coaching staff must make at three positions: right guard, right tackle and one of the inside linebacker spots.
Whether due to uneven performances or injuries (or both) there are not clear starters at each spot for the game against the Texans. Here’s a look:
Right guard and right tackle
Training camp began with Jeff Allen holding the right guard spot with the No. 1 offensive line. After a week, Allen was moved outside to right tackle replacing Donald Stephenson and last year’s starter Zach Fulton was with the first team at right guard. Injuries were not a factor in that decision.
Some three weeks ago the sprained right knee of Allen and the sprained left ankle of left tackle Eric Fisher forced juggling as Stephenson stepped in at left tackle and the right side blockers became Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (guard) and Paul Fanaika (tackle).
Against Seattle, Duvernay-Tardif and Fanaika struggled and the first-team offense wasn’t able to get much going against the tough Seahawks defense. In last Friday’s game against Tennessee, the No. 1 offense was productive, scoring 17 points on its first three possessions before starting quarterback Alex Smith came out of the game.
Allen and Fisher will not play against the Rams. Just how long Duvernay-Tardif and Fanaika play will provide an indication of whether they will open on the right side for the first game against J.J. Watt and the Texans defense.
Is there anything that can happen against St. Louis to settle the starters at right guard and right tackle?
“With the injuries that we have, it’s hard to actually just say ‘Yeah that would happen’,” offensive coordinator Doug Pederson said. “Whoever we put out there Thursday night, there’s still an evaluation process. We had the first set of cuts and now you have another set coming up … we’re going to find the best 11 to play. You have to be smart with what you’re doing and still allow your guys to go play without bogging them down.
“We still have some time, but the time is running out; we have to get that settled before we get to Houston, obviously.”
Last year at this time, unknown Josh Mauga was winning the starting spot next to Derrick Johnson on the inside of the Chiefs defensive front-seven. Mauga’s path to the starting lineup was cleared when the man ticketed for the spot – Joe Mays – suffered an injury in the second preseason game that would keep him shelved for two months.
Mauga was re-signed in the offseason and began training camp as the starter, but his own injury has now led to a possible change in the first unit. Labeled a heel problem by the Chiefs for several weeks, Reid called it an injury to his Achilles last week. Mauga has not played in the three preseason games and has been a limited practice participant.
That opened the door for fourth-round draft choice Ramik Wilson, and he’s grabbed his opportunity and built himself into a solid contender for playing time.
“The positive side of an injury like Josh’s that set him back a little bit, is that a another guy gets more reps and more opportunities for us to see,” said defensive coordinator Bob Sutton. “In the end, we make the assumption that Josh is going to come back all the way to full strength and it’s going to make us a better team. We all know to make it through an NFL season, you need a little depth.
“We’re anticipating Josh coming back; Josh played close to 1,100 plays last year so Ramik’s got about 800 more plays to go to catch him.”
In answering the questions about the starting job, Sutton leaves no doubt that if Mauga is healthy, he’ll be the starter. Coaches want players that can be expected to deliver a consistent performance; someone they can count on each play. Seldom is a rookie capable of that level of consistency, but Wilson has impressed the defensive coaches with his play over three games.
“I think he’s done a really good job,” Sutton said. “He’s a very instinctive player and he’s got a feel (for the position.) Playing linebacker, in a lot of ways is much like being a running back. The play starts here if you’re a running back, but the good running backs sometimes jump out, cut outside, sometimes they cut back because that’s what the defense is forcing them to do.
“And the same with linebackers – this is your responsibility, but the ball’s coming back and the guys that really play that position well have a feel for that. It doesn’t get too fast for them; they don’t just bury their head down. They go and find the football. Ramik’s done that. “He’s done a great job of getting his hands on the ball in the passing game. Those are instinctive things … the more he plays the better he’s going to get.”