NFL Week 1 is here and the San Diego Chargers are all set to face a divisional rival in the season opener. For the Chargers, a team that finished 4-12 last season, a matchup with the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium is a stiff challenge. The Chiefs advanced to the divisional round of the playoffs last year.
In addition, they have swept the Chargers the last two seasons, including beating them by a combined score of 43-6 last season. The Chargers played what was probably their worst game of the season in 2015 in Week 11 when the Chiefs blasted them 33-3. The worst part of that was the fact that the game took place in San Diego.
So how do the Chargers reverse their fortune? How do they open the season with a win in one of the league’s most hostile environments? It won’t be easy, but the Chargers will have a full complement of players who are 100 percent healthy for this game, something they didn’t have in either meeting with the Chiefs last season.
With that said, let’s take a look at three key matchups in this game that should help decide whether the Chargers start 0-1 or 1-0.
Dec 13, 2015; Kansas City, MO, USA; San Diego Chargers running back Melvin Gordon (28) is tackled by Kansas City Chiefs outside linebacker Tamba Hali (91) in the first half at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports
Melvin Gordon vs. Chiefs Run Defense
In two games against the Chiefs last year, Melvin Gordon rushed for a whopping 39 yards on 18 carries. That’s a miserable 2.3 yards per attempt. For the Chargers to win this game, that simply can’t be the case.
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Gordon showed promise in the preseason and with a restocked, healthy offensive line, he’ll need to find the holes that simply didn’t exist against the Kansas City run defense last season.
Hopefully, the team can turn to Andre Williams to help wear down the defense. Though he just joined the team, he can be used in short-yardage situations to help set up big plays for Gordon. The Chargers are at their best when they dictate the pace by running the ball. That is something offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt will be focused on establishing, so look for Gordon to have a much better performance in this game against the Chiefs.
Aug 13, 2016; Nashville, TN, USA; San Diego Chargers wide receiver Travis Benjamin (12) looks on during the second half against Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium. Tennessee Titans won 27-10. Mandatory Credit: Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports
Travis Benjamin vs. Steven Nelson
Most fans will want to check out the duel between Keenan Allen and Marcus Peters, particularly because that matchup never happened last season. Allen was injured in Week 8 while Peters went on to become the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year.
That will be a key matchup for sure, but on the other side of the field, Philip Rivers may be able to exploit the Chiefs’ other cornerback with one of his new weapons. Steven Nelson, a third-round draft pick out of Oregon State last year could be that cornerback, particularly with the recent trade of Marcus Cooper to the Arizona Cardinals. As a rookie, Nelson saw limited action, making just eight tackles on the season.
Rivers will want to take at least one deep shot to Benjamin in this game, and the new wide receiver has the jets to get behind the young Nelson. Expect Rivers to take his shots at Nelson in this game.
Aug 19, 2016; San Diego, CA, USA; San Diego Chargers defensive tackle Brandon Mebane (92) and outside linebacker Kyle Emanuel (51) pressure Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer (3) during the first quarter at Qualcomm Stadium. San Diego won 19-3. Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports
Brandon Mebane vs. Mitch Morse
If you watched Brandon Mebane play this preseason, you noticed what a difference he can be in the middle of this defensive line. He could be the biggest difference-maker on the San Diego roster this season.
The Chiefs will look to aid center Mitch Morse with guards Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and Parker Ehinger, but Mebane should be able to eat up double teams all day. This is why the Chargers got him. As a result, inside linebackers Manti Te’o and Denzel Perryman should be able to come up and make plays on the Kansas City running backs.
Last season in the game in San Diego, the Chiefs did most of their damage on offense with reserve backs Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West. If the defense can slow Jamaal Charles and his buddies down, they can force Alex Smith to put the ball in the air on third-and-long situations. That will give the revamped secondary a chance to make plays on the ball.
Mebane will be the key to doing this.