The NFL has become a league of match ups. Every Sunday (or Monday, Thursday, and now even Wednesday) a game in which up to 92 players can take part in is often defined by one key match up. Last year for example the much maligned Kansas City Chiefs managed to knock off the previously unbeaten Green Bay Packers by exploiting a couple of areas in which they had the personnel advantage. With all that being said, here are three guys who have to step up on Sunday if the Chiefs are going to have enough to take down the Atlanta Falcons.
1) Eric Berry
I don’t think that importance of Berry in this game can be underestimated for a couple of reasons. Firstly with the suspension of Tamba Hali and the injury questions surrounding Derrick Johnson and Brandon Flowers, Berry is thrust squarely into the role of defensive leader. I have no doubt Berry can handle the task, but for a guy who will be playing his first game back after a nasty ACL tear, this is not the ideal situation.
Secondly, Berry will be primarily tasked with covering former Chiefs legend Tony Gonzalez. I don’t know what it is about the Chiefs defensive scheme over the last decade, but it seems like tight ends have caused more than their fair share of heartbreaking moments to the Arrowhead faithful. You have to believe that Gonzalez will have seen the damage that Antiono Gates has wreaked on the Chiefs twice a year and hope that Romeo Crennel‘s defense is just as vulnerable. If Berry can lead the defense effectively while keeping Gonzalez under wraps with his ability to cover and break on the ball, then the Chiefs have a shot.
2) Peyton Hillis
This one is going to be a season long trend for the Chiefs. At his very best Hillis can be an improved version of Thomas Jones circa 2010, but at his worst he can be Jackie Battle. For the Chiefs to be effective against the Falcons, the key is going to be time of possession. Whether or not you are a true believer in Matt Cassel it is really hard to see his mid range passing game opening teams up on a consistent basis. Thus the Chiefs are going to need to get all the mileage they can out of the running game.
It has been proven that two back systems are the way to go in the NFL, and Hillis needs somewhere around 15 carries per game. This will allow his bruising running style to be effective, while keeping Jamaal Charles in the 20 carry range. This is the ideal amount for Charles to work and find creases for those game breaking runs. If Hillis is not effective, then the Chiefs whole game plan falls apart from the start.
3) Dexter McCluster
They often say that the third year is when it really clicks in NFL, especially at the wide receiver position. McCluster has to be the x-factor for the Chiefs both on Sunday and the rest of the season. With Dwayne Bowe and Jon Baldwin manning the outside spots (and with the pass catching abilities of Charles and Hillis) McCluster is going to find himself in a ton of one-on-one mismatches with nickel corners and linebackers. Though his growth as a play-maker has been stunted by constant position changes, the Chiefs have finally decided to stick with McCluster in the slot and it has the potential to pay off in spades. He is the Chiefs best player in space, and in the preseason Cassel seemed to be finding him with more consistency on those short throws which maximize his run after catch ability. If McCluster can find holes in the Falcons zone then the Chiefs will keep the chains moving.