The San Diego Chargers visit the Kansas City Chiefs in a division matchup that could jump-start either team's season.
The Chiefs swept the Chargers last year, winning both games, though the weather looks to be better this weekend than the last time these teams met at Arrowhead Stadium. The Chiefs beat the Chargers in Kansas City, 10-3, but the game was played in a torrential downpour. The running attacks of both teams needed to be good last year and both will be looking to control the football in this contest as well. That might not be as easy for the Chiefs as they would have liked.
The Chiefs' running game ended the 2015 campaign in solid shape even though four-time Pro-Bowl running back Jamaal Charles was on the shelf with a torn ACL in his right knee. The injury happened in Week 5, so many in the organization thought Charles would be ready to play in the 2016 opener. Those plans may be tempered against the Chargers on Sunday.
Charles will likely miss the season-opening game, Chiefs coach Andy Reid said Friday.
"He's probably not going to play," Reid told reporters when talking about his running back.
The Chiefs kept four running backs on the 53-man active roster with Charles still ailing. The tandem of Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware held up their end of the bargain in 2015. The running backs combined for 1,037 yards and 10 touchdowns.
The Chiefs kept Knile Davis, primarily a kickoff returner, as the fourth tailback as insurance in case Charles is not healthy enough to play against the Chargers.
Ware is the likely starter with West and Davis also available.
"They'll all play," Reid said. "We have some personnel groupings so we'll see how that goes. You could probably say that (Ware will start) but it depends on the personnel groups so don't hold me accountable."
The Chargers have a new-look defensive line to take on those running backs. The Chargers' first-round selection in the 2016 draft was defensive end Joey Bosa, and his defensive linemates will be tasked with trying to contain the Chiefs' running attack.
Bosa started practice this week with his leg wrapped, observing from the sideline, and is not expected to play.
The starting nod goes to second-year defensive end Darius Philon. The former Arkansas Razorback is powerful with his hands and is strong at the point of attack. Philon is solid against the run when lined up next to nose tackle Brandon Mebane. Since the Chargers run a 3- 4 base defense, the nose tackle position is critical to eat up the blocks of the center and at least one of the offensive guards. That is a talent at which Mebane excels.
With Mebane occupying two blockers, this should free up starting inside linebackers Manti Te'o and Denzel Perryman to have clear paths to the Chiefs' ball carriers. If Te'o and Perryman fill the running lanes and tackle with force, the Chargers should be able to force the Chiefs into passing the football more than they would like.
That's where Bosa enters the picture. The Chargers lacked consistent pressure on quarterbacks in 2015. Bosa, along with outside linebackers Melvin Ingram and Jerry Attaochu or Kyle Emanuel, will be rushing the edges against free-agent right tackle Mitchell Schwartz and newly-paid left tackle Eric Fisher. The revamped offensive line must keep quarterback Alex Smith clean in the pocket. The pass rushers of the Chargers hope this offensive line is as leaky as last year's when the front five gave up 45 sacks on the season. Bosa, Ingram, Attaochu and Emanuel must get to Smith in the backfield if the Chargers hope to win the game.
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers has never lacked confidence. Even with the Chargers coming off a 4-12 campaign and not winning a single AFC West contest, the signal-caller still believes in his squad.
"We believe in here that we can go from the very bottom to winning the division," said Rivers about the team's plan to rebound from a year ago.
The difference must begin with Rivers and a much-maligned offense. This was an offense that was so poor in 2015 that most of the offensive staff was fired.
Newly installed offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt needs to find a way to protect Rivers and establish a running game with Melvin Gordon. A 2015 rookie who had a very productive college career at Wisconsin, Gordon has yet to score a NFL touchdown or even rush for 100 yards in a game.
Rivers has a new pass-catcher in wide receiver Travis Benjamin to complement Keenan Allen. This duo needs to be active outside the hash marks against the young cornerbacks of the Chiefs. Both Steven Nelson and Marcus Peters are second-year players who are aggressive, but can be beaten deep. Phillip Gaines is also expected to see time at cornerback opposite Peters.