KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The biggest takeaway from the preseason is an annual reminder the four exhibition games are for evaluation purposes.
And none are more important than the third game where starters typically play into the second half with a view to the regular season.
With that in mind, here are areas to focus on when the Chiefs host the Minnesota Vikings Saturday evening.
From offseason shoulder surgery recovery to adjusting to the left side of the offensive line, the Chiefs had a uniform front throughout the week explaining left tackle Eric Fisher’s preseason struggles.
The basic explanation surrounds last season’s No. 1 overall pick growing fatigued as the game wears on.
While the Chiefs maintain confidence in Fisher, it’s not like there’s a choice given the current roster.
Nevertheless, the Chiefs must see improvement not just on the left side of the offensive line, but along the entire front.
And the issues are compounded by starting right tackle Donald Stephenson serving a four-game suspension to start the regular season for violating the league’s policy on performance enhancing substances, as announced Friday.
The first-team offense will likely play deep into Saturday’s game, so monitoring how well the offensive line plays is critical.
The Chiefs starters and backups have allowed nine sacks entering Saturday.
But the alarming statistic surrounds starting quarterback Alex Smith sacked three times in two games behind the starting offensive line. And the pounding arrives in limited action given the nature of preseason games.
Fatigue explanation aside, the grind known as the NFL regular season is two weeks away and the Chiefs won’t come up for air until the Week 6 bye.
The last chance for the team to rest first-team units is the fourth preseason game when second- and third-team players fighting for the final roster spots see extensive playing time.
Starters typically either make a cameo appearance or don’t play in the final exhibition game.
The Chiefs rotated backup quarterbacks Chase Daniel and Aaron Murray after Alex Smith left last week’s game against the Carolina Panthers.
Second-year pro Tyler Bray didn’t play, but he’s expected to be the first quarterback in after Smith leaves Saturday night’s game.
The Chiefs have a major decision looming at the backup quarterback position, so the strong-armed Bray must seize the opportunity to make a lasting impression.
Daniel has completed 11-of-14 passes for 161 yards and a touchdown against an interception through two games. Daniel missed an opportunity for an easy touchdown pass last week when he short-hopped a pass to running back Cyrus Gray, who was wide open at the 3-yard line.
Murray has completed 5-of-10 passes for 81 yards and a touchdown against an interception in his two appearances.
Bray completed 2-of-2 passes for 37 yards and lost a fumble in the preseason opener against the Cincinnati Bengals.
The NFL isn’t kidding around with the emphasis on illegal contact and defensive holding, evidenced by the mind-blowing amount of penalties around the league through two weeks of preseason action.
Kansas City’s defense has drawn its share with three defensive holdings, two pass interferences and an illegal contact infraction.
The underlying message from the league is it’s not up to the officials to adapt to playing style. The officials’ job is to enforce the rules in an attempt to clean up the downfield contact between defenders and receivers.
For their part, the Chiefs cornerbacks are working on technique in an attempt to perform within the established rules.
Meanwhile, the Chiefs are expected to continue the three-cornerback first-team rotation among Marcus Cooper, Sean Smith and Ron Parker.
NEXT MAN UP
Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe is battling a quad injury that prevented him from practice this week.
Second-year pro Frankie Hammond has run with the first-team offense in Bowe’s place.
And how Hammond performs will either make the Chiefs comfortable or queasy of receiver depth in light of Bowe’s one-game suspension to start the regular season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.
The good news is Hammond enjoyed a strong training camp, and the team is comfortable with him.
“He’s made the best of the opportunities that he’s had,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said Wednesday. “He’s taking great advantage of those and keeps getting better every day, one of the hardest workers on the team.”
More importantly, the man responsible for throwing the ball Hammond’s way is confident in the former Florida Gator.
“Frankie is like Mr. Reliable,” quarterback Alex Smith said Wednesday. “All offseason and all training camp the guy. I mean, every time he’s out there he knows what he’s doing, makes plays and he showed it in the preseason these last couple of games.”
INJURIES OPEN THE INSIDE DOOR
Left inside linebacker Joe Mays suffered a wrist injury and is scheduled for surgery, and Josh Mauga, whom the Chiefs list second on the depth chart behind Mays, is recovering from a groin injury.
Last season’s fourth-round pick, Nico Johnson, has worked with the first-team defense and should start Saturday night.
Mauga, whom the Chiefs signed the day before training camp started, didn’t play in the second season game, but practiced this week. His availability for Saturday remains unclear.
Johnson led the team with six total tackles (three solo) in last week’s preseason game. He must continue to make an impression given the uncertainty of Mays’ availability for the regular season opener.
Former Chiefs starting quarterback Matt Cassel returns to Arrowhead Stadium as the Vikings starter for Saturday night’s contest.
Cassel bore the full brunt of fan angst over the failed Scott Pioli regime from 2009-12. And the frustrations boiled over on Oct. 7, 2012 at Arrowhead Stadium when a segment of fans appeared to cheer as Cassel lay on the ground with a concussion against the Baltimore Ravens.
The Chiefs made sweeping changes following the 2012 season, including the firings of Pioli and then-coach Romeo Crennel. The Chiefs released Cassel on March 13, 2013 and he eventually signed a free-agent contract with the Vikings.
Outside of the playing field, Cassel was heavily involved in the Kansas City community.
How he’s received Saturday evening is worth watching.
Wide receivers Dwayne Bowe (quad) and Junior Hemingway (hip), strong safety Eric Berry (right heel), running back Charcandrick West (illness), inside linebacker Joe Mays (wrist), offensive lineman Ryan McKee (knee) and cornerback Damond Smith (abductor) did not practice Thursday.
Running back Jamaal Charles (foot), who missed the first two days of practice before returning Thursday worked with the scout team.
Don’t be surprised if Charles, Bowe, Hemingway and Berry aren’t playing Saturday night. Mays is obviously out.
[Edited, 8 a.m. CT, Aug. 23: Defensive end Mike Catapano (illness) also didn’t practice the final two days, leaving his status for Saturday’s game in doubt.]