Ask any outdoorsman and he'll tell you that a wounded animal is a dangerous animal. As the Vikings head outside to play the Kansas City Chiefs Sunday, they find an opponent that is the NFL equivalent to a wounded animal. Forced by schedule-makers to play their first two games on the road, the Chiefs make their home debut with a record of 0-2 with an offense that is struggling mightily. On paper, it would look like the Vikings have a better-than-average chance of coming out of Kansas City with a win, but this dangerous animal is fighting for its season and might go to great lengths to get a win – whether through scheming or fake field goals or punts.
The Chiefs have a quarterback controversy of their own. After essentially giving away former starter Trent Green to the Dolphins, the reigns of the offense were turned over to Damon Huard. He had a 6-0 record at home in relief of the injured Green and won over the hearts of fans last year. But those days would appear to have vanished as quickly as it took Green to get out of town once he heard he was traded. Huard has struggled in his first two games. He's completed 67 percent of his passes, but he's averaging just 5.2 yards per attempt. There has been almost no deep passing game and only one of his top six receivers is averaging more than 10 yards a reception. He has been sacked seven times in two games and has thrown some hideous passes. Coach Herm Edwards even had to assure fans that he would the starter this week after rumors circulated that backup Brodie Croyle might get the start this week. While he won't be active, the No. 3 QB is Tyler Thigpen, who was plucked off the waiver wire when the Vikings tried to slide him through to the practice squad.
Perhaps no individual player is more critical to the outcome of the game as running back Larry Johnson. After missing almost all of the preseason due to a contract holdout, Johnson has only carried the ball 26 times for 98 yards in his first two games. Expect to see him being asked to carry the full load and make a dent in a Vikings defense that allowed opposing teams to gain just 3.1 yards a carry and no touchdowns. Johnson is also a decent blocker and good receiver – he leads the team with 10 receptions. If he needs a break, former Viking Michael Bennett is the next option. Bennett, who never fully panned out as a featured back with the Vikings, is a quick change-of-pace to Johnson's bruising style and might see a series or two or third-down duty.
While the running game seems in good hands, the same can't be said for the receiver corps. The Chiefs have had some of the most non-descript wide receivers in the league and that hasn't changed this season – although the team finally invested a top pick in a wide receiver. Eddie Kennison has been sidelined due to injury and won't play, opening a spot for rookie Dwayne Bowe to step in. He has the only touchdown of the season for the Chiefs, although it came on a play where he cut off his own route and got in the way of a TD pass intended for tight end Tony Gonzalez. He joins fourth-year pro Samie Parker in the starting lineup with little to no depth behind them. Second-year NFLer Jeff Webb has stepped in as a third receiver option.
The Chiefs have always focused much of their passing offense on their tight ends and Gonzalez is among the best in the business. One of the few tight ends that demands double coverage, Gonzalez remains the Chiefs' top passing threat and the most likely recipient of downfield passes because of his ability to find a seam to run through. Fellow tight ends Jason Dunn and Kris Wilson also find their way into the passing game, especially when the Chiefs get in the red zone. The Vikings won't face a team this year – with all due respect to Antonio Gates – that brings the depth and danger at the TE position that the Chiefs bring.
One of the culprits in the lack of success of the Chiefs offense has been leveled at the offensive line. Having lost Pro Bowlers like Jon Tait and Willie Roaf the last couple of seasons, this isn't the dominating unit it once was. Left tackle Damion McIntosh has been injured and right-side starters like guard John Welbourn and the tag team tackles of Kyle Turley and Chris Terry have been inconsistent and overwhelmed at key times on the line. The strength of the line is now in the middle, where center Casey Wiegmann is very solid at his job and eighth-year pro Brian Waters has blossomed into one of the best underrated left guards in the game. Depth is slim, so health is key and, if McIntosh isn't 100 percent, the Vikings will be bringing a lot more blitzes than usual.
While the offense has struggled mightily in their first two games, the Chiefs defense has stood up quite well in adversity. The defense has allowed just two touchdowns in the first two games and has held opponents to less than 170 yards passing per game. The Vikings had hoped they wouldn't face future All-Pro DE Jared Allen, who was suspended for four games due to multiple DUI arrests. However, his sentence was commuted to two games and he'll be in the lineup Sunday, replacing Jimmy Wilkerson – a clear step up for the Chiefs. He joins second-year pass rusher Tamba Hali on the outside with Alfonso Boone and Ron Edwards at tackle. If the Chiefs are in run-stuffing mode, rookie Tank Tyler is also likely to see some playing time.
The linebackers were once of the weakest links in the Chiefs chain, but that has changed with the influx of new talent. Third-year pro Derrick Johnson has the athleticism to make plays, but it was clear last year that he needed help. So the Chiefs went out and spent for defensive improvement – bringing 34-year-old Donnie Edwards back to the Chiefs after a stint in San Diego, where he made Chiefs fans regret the decision to allow him to leave twice a year. They also made a big free-agent offer to former Viking Napoleon Harris and signed him to be their starting middle linebacker. The team has good depth with veteran Kendrell Bell trying to recapture some of his past glory and fourth-year man Keyaron Fox, who got some valuable starting experience last year. What was a weakness of the defense just a year or two ago may now be its strength.
The Chiefs have also spent a lot of money in free agency to improve their pass defense and have done an adequate job. The secondary is a mixed bag with 13-year veteran Ty Law and 10th-year pro Patrick Surtain on the corners and second-year men Bernard Pollard and Jarrad Page at safety. Page, a second-round pick, started 12 games as a rookie and held up well. Pollard, a seventh-round pick in 2006, has supplanted eight-year veteran Greg Wesley at the free safety spot. This could be a dangerous mix. While Surtain and Law are still very good corners, each has lost a step and, with young safeties that can bite on playfakes, they are susceptible to getting beat over the top – something Kelly Holcomb and the offense will try to target.
The Chiefs also have problems in the kicking game. Former Packer Dave Rayner was brought in Week 2 after Justin Medlock had awful kickoffs and missed a key field goal in Week 1. If the game is on the line, the Chiefs coaches may not have the confidence in their kickers to take a chance on a critical miss, which could play in the Vikings' favor.
Like many games on the Vikings schedule, this looks like a game that has a 16-13 final score written all over it. If the Vikings can control the ball and not commit turnovers like they did against Detroit last week, they have a good chance to win the game. But the Chiefs are a desperate team seeing the 2007 season slipping away from them. If they lose this game, their entire season could go up in smoke since they head to San Diego next week. Mistakes will turn the tide of momentum in this game, which has a legitimate must-win tag for both teams.
Preview: Chiefs Desperate and Defending Home
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