San Diego Seeks Quick Start in KC

The San Diego Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs will battle for sole possession of first place in the AFC West when they collide on Monday Night Football. We set the table for this divisional tilt by breaking down what to watch for in each phase of the game.

When the Chargers Run

For the first time this millennium, someone other than LaDainian Tomlinson will be the opening-day starter at running back. That someone is Ryan Mathews, a first-round pick out of Fresno State. Mathews lived up to the hype during the preseason, carrying 34 times for 146 yards (4.4 ypc) and catching five passes for 33 yards. Now, he must continue that productivity when the games matter.

If Mathews is going to be more productive than Tomlinson, the offensive line must do a better job. The big change up front comes with Brandyn Dombrowski replacing holdout Marcus McNeill at left tackle, although that should hurt the pass protection more than the run blocking. Kris Wilson must deliver as a blocker in two-tight end sets, as he takes over for blocking specialist Brandon Manumaleuna.

The Chiefs appear vulnerable against the run; they ranked last in the AFC in run defense last season, allowing 156.5 yards per game. Their big newcomer on defense is first-round pick Eric Berry, the dominant safety out of Tennessee. A fun match-up to watch will be Berry against the fullback tandem of Jacob Hester and Mike Tolbert.

When the Chargers Pass

How much will the absence of Vincent Jackson and Marcus McNeill affect the downfield passing game? It's a question that's been debated for months and the answer will finally come on Monday. Taking Jackson's spot in the rotation will be Patrick Crayton, although it's unclear how much he can contribute after coming over in a trade on Sept. 3. He'll likely share third-receiver duties with Buster Davis.

The driving forces behind the offense will be Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates. Rivers had his way in both meetings with Kansas City last season, combining to throw for 585 yards, five TDs and no INTs. Gates also has a reputation as a Chief-killer, dating back to his in-division rivalry with Tony Gonzalez (now with the Atlanta Falcons).

The key will be preventing the Chiefs from finding a pass rush, which has been mostly missing in action since Jared Allen was shipped to Minnesota a couple seasons ago. The big threat is Tamba Hali, who led the team with 8.5 sacks last season. Hali has 27 sacks in his four-year career, including four against the Chargers.

When the Chiefs Run

Last season, the Chargers lost defensive anchor Jamal Williams in Week 1 and the run defense never recovered. This season, the Chargers will use a deep rotation of defensive linemen to try to shut down the run. That unit will get a good test Monday, as the Chiefs bring the two-headed attack of Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones.

The big test will come up the middle of the defense, which was gashed often last season. Antonio Garay, a midseason pickup in 2009, shined throughout the offseason and will get the start at nose tackle. He'll rotate with rookie Cam Thomas, who has a size-and-strength combination reminiscent of Williams.

The Chargers will count on their inside linebackers playing downhill and shooting gaps aggressively. Stephen Cooper, who has averaged more than 100 tackles over the last three seasons, will quarterback the defense and lead the charge. Flanking Cooper will be Kevin Burnett or Brandon Siler, with Siler likely receiving the bulk of the snaps in running situations.

When the Chiefs Pass

The key to stymieing Kansas City's passing game is pressuring Matt Cassel, who takes a long time to unload the football. With Shawne Merriman nursing an Achilles injury, the bulk of that heat will have to come from Shaun Phillips and Larry English. Ron Rivera will also try to free up Luis Castillo to generate some pressure.

San Diego is familiar with the Chiefs' top two pass catchers. Chris Chambers spent parts of three seasons in San Diego before being released midway through last year. He signed with the Chiefs and instantly emerged as a playmaker. Opposite Chambers is Dwayne Bowe, who was Buster Davis' running mate at LSU.

It will be interesting to see how the Chargers match up with a team with two strong receivers, as San Diego now has just one shutdown cornerback (Quentin Jammer) after trading Antonio Cromartie to the New York Jets. Antoine Cason gets his first chance to show he is a deserving starter on Monday. Also Monday will be the debut of Donald Strickland, who will see plenty of playing time as the nickel back.

Just for Kicks

This will be Nate Kaeding's first meaningful game since his 0-for-3 playoff meltdown against the Jets. If the game comes down to a Kaeding field goal, Chargers fans will have their hearts in their throats.

Mike Scifres has shaken off the groin injury that plagued him last season and will resume his quest for a first-ever Pro Bowl invite. Scifres and Kaeding will both get some help from their coverage teams, which are led by fullbacks Hester and Tolbert and sophomores James Holt and C.J. Spillman.

What are Bolts fans saying about Monday's match-up? See in the message boards.

Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 15 years and covered the team since 2003. You can see more of his updates by following him on twitter.

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