Double Coverage: Chargers vs. Chiefs

The improved Kansas City Chiefs defense, led by linebacker Derrick Johnson, will be a challenge for the San Diego Chargers and running back Ryan Mathews. Getty Images

The Kansas City Chiefs lost their first game of the season last weekend against the Broncos in Denver, but at 9-1 they remain tied for first place in the AFC West. On Sunday, they return home to face another divisional rival, the San Diego Chargers, who after losing their last three games have fallen to 4-6.

But the Chargers are still in contention for a wild-card berth, so both teams have a lot to play for Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium. ESPN Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher and Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams discuss the upcoming game.

Teicher: Philip Rivers has revived his career after a couple of -- for him -- down seasons. How do you explain him turning things around? Is it as a simple as a coaching/system change?

Williams: Rivers has been helped by a scheme change implemented by Mike McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt. With a reliance on a short passing game, Rivers is getting the ball out quick to his playmakers, evidenced by his league-leading 70.9 completion percentage. However, Rivers has struggled during San Diego’s three-game losing streak. He has completed 64.2 percent of his passes, throwing four touchdowns and three interceptions. Rivers also has been sacked eight times in the past three games and has an 89.1 passer rating.

Speaking about the quarterback position, I understand Andy Reid had some familiarity with Alex Smith. Can you explain what went into the Chiefs making the decision to acquire Smith. And can Kansas City win a Super Bowl with him?

Teicher: When he was with the Eagles, Reid inquired about trading for Smith. He liked him coming out of college and has always admired his skills. Between free agency, trades and the draft, the quarterback market was awfully slim this year, and Smith was, in Reid’s opinion, by far the best option. Reid thought he was an accurate passer and the ideal fit for his version of the West Coast offense. He liked how Smith survived some rough seasons early in his career and thrived when his football world stabilized after the 49ers hired Jim Harbaugh as coach. Smith isn’t the kind of passer who can carry a team on his back. In order to win a Super Bowl, he will have to be surrounded by the right type of talent.

The Chargers’ leading wide receiver, Keenan Allen, is a rookie whom many Chiefs fans won’t be familiar with. Give us a little scouting report on Allen.

Williams: Allen’s draft stock took a hit when he suffered a knee injury during the second half of his final season at Cal. The Chargers snapped Allen up in the third round. With Danario Alexander and Malcom Floyd placed on the injured reserve with season-ending injuries, Allen emerged as San Diego’s go-to receiving threat on the perimeter. At 6-foot-2 and 211 pounds, Allen is sneaky fast with reliable hands. He does a nice job of creating separation out of his breaks, and for a big guy, he has some wiggle to create explosive runs after the catch. Allen also has a flair for making a big play in critical moments of the game. He is third on the team in catches with 41 for 613 yards and three touchdowns.

With four defensive players making the Pro Bowl last season for the Chiefs, the talent has always been there. But Kansas City defensive coordinator Bob Sutton has this unit playing at a high level. How has Sutton done it? And specifically, how has the improvement of defensive tackle Dontari Poe contributed to the defense’s success?

Teicher: Sutton is playing to the strengths of the individual players and putting them in spots where they can excel. It sounds simple, but that’s not something the Chiefs had done very well in recent seasons. They let their cornerbacks play press man-to-man coverage and then try to pressure the quarterback. Justin Houston spent a lot of time dropping into coverage last season, but he’s getting to rush the quarterback more this year. As far as Poe, he’s been central to their success on defense. He has generated consistent push up the middle in the pass rush but also has been strong against the run. He’s like a lot of young defensive linemen. It takes most of them some developmental time before they become premier players, and that was the case with Poe last season as a rookie.

Judging from the Chargers’ defensive stats, it looks like they should be giving up a lot of points. They’re allowing 4.8 yards per rush, and opposing quarterbacks are completing almost 68 percent of their throws with a passer rating of over 100. They’ve also forced only seven turnovers. So how is it that they’re 11th in the league in scoring defense?

Williams: Good question. While defensive coordinator John Pagano’s unit might lack talent at key positions, he makes up for it in innovation. The Chargers use multiple looks defensively, creating the illusion of pressure up front to mask the fact that they don’t have an elite pass-rusher. Pagano’s defense has been decent getting off the field on third down, but they’ve also benefited from a ball-control offense that eats up time of possession, so they’re not on the field as much. The Chargers held Denver’s prolific offense to 28 points, but the team also is susceptible to giving up explosive plays due to poor tackling.

Kansas City leads the NFL with a turnover differential of plus-15, including a league-low nine giveaways. The Chiefs had a league-worst minus-24 turnover differential last season. How have the Chiefs dramatically changed course in this important barometer of success in the NFL?

Teicher: Much of the difference can be traced to the quarterback. Last season, Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn committed 27 turnovers combined, including fumbles and interceptions. This year, Smith has thrown four interceptions and hasn't lost a fumble. One of the qualities Reid liked about Smith is that he doesn't commit many turnovers. On defense, the Chiefs are pressuring the opposing quarterback more than last season, resulting in more forced turnovers.