Preview: Chiefs shuffling at OL, secondary

The Chiefs had a dominant first half of last season before falling on hard times. Now they have a few positions where an overhaul is underway.

If Saturday’s game with the Kansas City Chiefs was to happen a month from now, the primary storyline would center around the matchup battle between Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles as to which back’s style is more dominant in the modern-era NFL.

But with neither A.P. or Charles expected to play, the Week 3 matchup with Kansas City is going to be sans the marquee players but an important game for both teams setting the tone for 2014.

Most fans know that the Chiefs were a playoff team in 2013, but it was tale of two teams – the one that started 9-0 and, more importantly, the one that finished 2-6.

History remembers them as a playoff team that lost in an epic wild card game, 45-44. The coaches, players and fans of the Chiefs have blurred the memory of the 9-0 start. Their focus has been on the 2-6 finish.

Suffice to say, even without Charles – who will be the centerpiece once winning and losing counts for or against them – the Chiefs are looking to make a statement Saturday. The only question is whether that statement will be good or bad.

The Chiefs have a solid team on both sides of the ball, but aren’t great on either. As head coach Andy Reid proved last year, the team itself was greater than the sum of its parts and that starts at quarterback. Alex Smith is a former No. 1 overall pick who struggled early in his career, but he posted a record 31-11-1 in his last 43 games. He doesn’t have a cannon arm, but rarely makes mistakes, so the Vikings will have to press the issue or he will have the ability to pick them apart.

By far, Kansas City’s biggest offensive weapon is Charles, but he is expected to sit out the game, which should open the door for Knile Davis to carry most of the running workload – something he proved capable of when he was the primary back in the final regular season game and in their epic 45-44 playoff loss to Indianapolis last year.

The receiver corps is a work in progress, with veterans Dwayne Bowe and Donnie Avery as the starters. Bowe has immense talent, but his lack of work ethic and tendency to gain weight in the offseason has been troubling. Despite paying him like a go-to No. 1 receiver, he has never lived up to his big contract. Avery is a veteran who ideally plays in the slot where he uses quickness and savvy to get open. Backup help is provided by former 49er A.J. Jenkins and second-year pro Junior Hemmingway. There isn’t a wealth of talent or depth in this crew, so much will be expected again from Bowe and Avery. At tight end, Anthony Fasano is the starter, but the player to watch is second-year pro Travis Kelce. The Chiefs haven’t had a downfield tight end threat since they allowed Tony Gonzalez to leave and Kelce is the first legitimate replacement in being a stretch-the-defense tight end the Chiefs have had.

The biggest question mark coming into the 2014 season for Kansas City is along the offensive line. The team lost three of its starters to free agency – Brandon Albert, Jon Asamoah and Geoff Schwartz and didn’t draft an offensive lineman until the sixth round. Former No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher moves from right tackle to left tackle, being replaced at right tackle by Donald Stephenson. They are joined by guards Jeff Allen and Zach Fulton and center Rodney Hudson. Few teams, much less playoff teams, have that much turnover on the offensive line in a single season, so it will be a work in progress as the Chiefs try to quickly get some continuity to a line that has a lot of new players in new places – something that is very difficult to succeed with early.

It was the defense that was largely responsible for the Chiefs getting off to their 9-0 start last year and they will be counted on heavily to do the same this time around. Nose tackle Dontari Poe is the leader up front. Last season, he had a huge year, recording 51 tackles, notching 4.5 sacks and routinely requiring double teams to keep him from blowing up plays. The defensive ends will run a rotation in the Chiefs 3-4 scheme with Mike Devito, Allen Bailey and Vance Walker seeing time.

As with any 3-4 defense, linebackers are critical to any success they will have and the Chiefs are loaded. On the outside, Tamba Hali has developed into one of the game’s top pass-rushing linebackers and Justin Houston is relentless in pursuit. Not be complacent, the Chiefs used their first-round draft pick on Dee Ford, who was a college defensive end and is learning a new position. On the inside, Derrick Johnson was the team’s leading tackler with 107 in his ninth NFL season. He isn’t showing any signs of aging and, with seven-year veteran Joe Mays alongside him, they have helped make the Chiefs linebacker corps one of the most formidable in the league and clearly the strength of the defense.

The secondary collapsed late in the season last year and is looking to rebound this year. In their first nine games last season, they didn’t allow a single 300-yard passer, but allowed five in the final seven games down the stretch. At cornerback, the team got rid of starters Dunta Robinson and Brandon Flowers and are starting over with a young group that will likely see jockeying for playing time. Second-year pro Marcus Cooper is going to get the opportunity to start, but will be challenged by veterans Sean Smith and Ron Parker for playing time. While the cornerbacks will have a new look, the safeties are expected to remain the same, with Pro Bowler Eric Berry and former Viking Husain Abdullah coming off big seasons and expected to be the rock of the secondary. Berry (heel) isn’t expected to play Saturday.

Were the Chiefs a mirage last year? That’s the question on the minds of many fans in Kansas City as they enter a season in which they looked like world-beaters through the first two months of the season and eminently beatable in the final two months. They will be a good test for the Vikings as Matt Cassel makes his return to the stadium where the home fans cheered his being injured. In 2012, Cassel was seen as one of the primary reasons for their failure, but it was a team effort as the Chiefs tanked down the stretch last year. Looking for a new start, they’ll be out to make a statement against the Vikings. It will be up to the purple and gold to dictate what that statement will be.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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