Some role reversal will be in play Sunday when the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans meet at Arrowhead Stadium. The Chiefs were 2-14 last season but now are 6-0 and one of the NFL's two remaining unbeaten teams. The Texans were 5-0 last season and on their way to an 11-1 start but are 2-4 after losing their last four games.
ESPN Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher and Texans reporter Tania Ganguli discuss Sunday's game.
Teicher: After the collapse against Seattle, blowouts the past two weeks, explain Gary Kubiak’s thinking in starting Case Keenum over T.J. Yates, give a little description of his strengths and weaknesses and how ready to do you think he is to play against one of the NFL’s better defensive teams in a difficult stadium for visiting teams?
Ganguli: He wants a spark. It’s as simple as that.
Coming out of Kevin Sumlin’s offense at the University of Houston, Case Keenum had a lot to learn on the NFL level. He didn’t do too much talking in his college offense and had fewer responsibilities in running the plays. He also had to transition to playing under center like so many shotgun spread quarterbacks do. Yates beat out Keenum for the backup job at the beginning of the season, but they were close. Keenum has a very nice deep ball, which isn’t something we’ve seen out of the Texans very much this year. You ask a great question about his readiness to face Kansas City’s defense on the road. That’s not easy for veterans to face. And it won’t be an easy beginning for Keenum.
What do you think have been the most important factors in the Chiefs’ fast start this season?
Teicher: If their success can be boiled down to one factor, it’s field position. The Chiefs have started 17 possessions on their opponent’s end of the field while the opponents have started three possessions on Kansas City’s side of the field. The best starting field position for the opponent this season has been the Chiefs’ 42. So the Chiefs aren’t just consistently winning the turnover battle -- at plus-12, they’re best in the league -- they’re using it to their benefit. They haven’t put their defense in a bad position all season. Their offense doesn’t generate many big plays, so favorable starting field position is a necessity. The Chiefs have also scored a touchdown on an interception three times. They are consistently getting pressure on the quarterback even when they don’t get the sack. They’re putting teams in a lot of third-and-long situations and getting off the field.
Turnovers aside, why aren’t the Texans scoring more points? With Arian Foster and Ben Tate running the ball and Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins catching it, shouldn’t they be producing more on offense?
Ganguli: Turnovers have been a huge factor in why the Texans aren’t scoring, probably the biggest. But we can talk only so much about it. The Texans’ red zone efficiency has been a problem. On Sunday against the Rams, for example, Houston scored once on six trips to the red zone. Its goal-to-go efficiency was only 33 percent. Those kind of numbers hurt. It’s a departure from earlier this season when the Texans’ red zone offense was fantastic. Against the San Diego Chargers in Week 1 and the Tennessee Titans in Week 2, Houston entered the red zone seven times and scored a touchdown every time. Some consider the Texans’ red zone play calling to be conservative. I had ESPN Stats & Information look into it, and the Texans have run 53 red zone plays -- 28 passes and 25 runs. Of those, 10 have been passes into the end zone. That ranks in the lower half of the league as a percentage of total plays and pass plays.
Speaking of numbers, the Chiefs have put up some incredible pass-rushing numbers and have more than twice as many sacks as the Texans have. Are they as good as their numbers indicate? How can an opponent neutralize the pass rush?
Teicher: They’ve been pretty good with the pass rush. Consistent. They're disrupting the quarterback even when they don’t bring him down. And they can come at him from many places and angles. That’s maybe the most impressive thing about it. Seven players had at least a half-sack Sunday against the Raiders. Justin Houston (9.5 sacks) and Tamba Hali (7.5) are their top pass-rushers, but even taking those guys out of the picture, the Chiefs have 14 sacks from eight players. Nose tackle Dontari Poe has been the key, providing a strong, consistent inside pass rush. Inside linebacker Derrick Johnson and strong safety Eric Berry are two of the other players to watch when the Chiefs send more than four to the quarterback. The best way to neutralize their rush is to have an effective running game. Runs by mobile quarterbacks have hurt the Chiefs this season, but otherwise only one running back, Philadelphia’s LeSean McCoy, has had a big game against the Chiefs.
When the Texans are on defense, there might be a lot of favorable matchups for them. Other than the obvious ones like J.J. Watt and Brian Cushing, who are some of Houston’s defenders who are playing well?
Ganguli: Outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus has played well with an expanded role this season. He was one of the most productive rookies in the league last year on a per-snap basis and leads the team with 4.5 sacks this season. Nose tackle Earl Mitchell has been solid but isn’t on the field much. Safety Danieal Manning had been playing well and was about to become a bigger part of the Texans’ return game. But Manning suffered a knee injury Sunday that will land him on injured reserve. As a whole, the Texans' defense has played well, but it could help the Texans more if it created more turnovers and committed fewer penalties.
The Chiefs’ offense has done enough given how strong the defense has played. Is that going to bite them?
Teicher: Eventually it will, perhaps as soon as Sunday. The passing game has been particularly unproductive. Alex Smith is completing just 56.5 percent of his passes, an alarmingly low number in Andy Reid's version of the West Coast offense that features a large number of high-percentage passes. Some of that is his fault, but protection has been leaky and Smith has been forced to run for his life on too many plays. Right tackle Eric Fisher, the first overall pick in this year's draft, has been lousy. Most everything the Chiefs get offensively comes from Jamaal Charles. He leads the team by a sizable margin in rushing, receptions, receiving yardage and touchdowns. I'd be surprised if he can keep this up over 16 games and maybe more, so the Chiefs need to develop other threats.