Chiefs vs. Panthers: Five Things to Watch

Here are a few things to keep in mind as the Chiefs travel to take on the Panthers on Sunday

The Kansas City Chiefs (6-2) travel to take on the defending NFC champion Carolina Panthers (3-5) on Sunday in a battle between two teams currently in the midst of winning streaks.

The Chiefs, winners of four straight, have shown a nice balance on both sides of the ball by averaging 25.5 points per game offensively, which ranks eighth in the NFL, while the defense has allowed just 14.8 points per game, which ranks second in the NFL over that time.

The Panthers are looking for their third straight victory after back-to-back wins over the Arizona Cardinals (30-20) and Los Angeles Rams (13-10).

Here are five things to watch on Sunday: 1.       The Chiefs offensive line has the toughest task of their season to date

The Panthers 4-3 defense is led by one of the NFL's fiercest defensive lines, not to mention an NFL Defensive MVP candidate and three-time All-Pro in middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.

"You could argue this will be the best defensive line that we've played up to this game or that we'll play this season," Chiefs coach Andy Reid said of the Panthers front. "They're a good bunch, man. They get after it – their whole front seven. You take those linebackers and they go. (Defensive coordinator) [Sean] McDermott is a phenomenal football coach. He'd be a good head coach someday.

"Then, (head coach) Ron [Rivera] was the master of defenses before that. These guys are getting coached, and they've got good players. They play hard, and they trust their defense."

The Panthers have sacked opposing quarterbacks 12 times over the past two games, and they rank third in the NFL by allowing just 77 yards rushing per game.

The Chiefs offensive line is in for the toughest matchup of the season against the likes of Star Lotulelei, Kawaan Short, Charles Johnson and former Missouri Tiger, Kony Ealy—the four starters along that impressive and disruptive defensive line. 2.       With Spencer Ware back this week, can the Chiefs find success running the football?

Despite missing the game last week against the Jacksonville Jaguars because he hadn't yet passed concussion protocol, running back Spencer Ware still ranks in the top 10 in scrimmage yards this season with 824, and after passing protocol earlier and being a full participant all week at practice, Ware will return this week against the Panthers.

Last week against an underrated Jaguars defense, the Chiefs running game managed 22 carries for just 62 yards, which was an average of 2.8 yards per carry.

Now heading into a game against one of the league's best defenses—particularly against the run, where the Panthers lead the NFL in allowing an average of just 3.3 yards per carry—Ware, Charcandrick West and the offense are planning on staying disciplined with their commitment to the run.  

"That's always important," Chiefs co-offensive coordinator Brad Childress explained. "I think to stay in those normal downs, you know, first-and-10 we call a regular down—it could be a run or pass, then you get to second-and-6, then you're in a normal down because it could be run or pass.

"That's opposed to staying in those second-and-longs, and then more importantly, third-and-longs. Your first two downs have to be good, substantial downs for you."

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One thing Childress said the Panthers do a great job of against the run is getting everybody involved.

"Their safeties do an excellent job of fitting the run," Childress added. "They play their gaps and they play them hard. They can be in your backfield from a deep alignment, they hold their alignments until the very last second on the play clock and [McDermott] does a great job with those guys." 

That said, one thing we've seen from Ware from the time he first stepped on the field is a commitment to making it difficult to bring him down. The effort and relentless nature he brings to each and every carry has been a catalyst for the Chiefs offense on multiple occasions this season. 

A few broken tackles and "truck sticks," and the next thing you know, the entire team is riding his momentum.

"I think he's anxious to get back in there and play," Childress added of Ware.

3.       Will this be the week rookie Tyreek Hill takes one back?

With two return touchdowns being called back this year because of penalties, not to mention a handful of others that were one shoestring tackle away from six points—the question each week has been, "Will this be the week Tyreek Hill finally gets loose and takes one back?"

Hill leads the AFC by averaging 16.7 yards per punt return, which, if he maintains that number over the second half of the season, would be the best season in franchise history.

Maybe the most impressive thing about that average is that Hill has done it without the outlier of a one long return touchdown skewing those numbers. He has four returns of 20-plus yards but doesn't have that 75-yarder that would hypothetically make his average look better.

The whole Chiefs punt return unit has been consistent this year and they face a Panthers coverage unit on Sunday that's allowed 14.4 yards per return, which is the second highest in the NFL this season.

The Panthers have allowed two returns of 50-plus yards, one of which was returned for a touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings.

Maybe this is the week.

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4.       Witnessing the continued emergence of linebacker Dee Ford

This time last year, former first-round pick and third-year player Dee Ford had 1.5 career sacks and was constantly answering questions regarding his inability to have made an impact up to that point.

Ford consistently stressed work ethic, inner confidence and the time needed to develop, which, a year later, has been the story of the Chiefs' season through the first eight games.

Ford ranks third in the NFL with nine sacks and has found a knack for making plays in the biggest of situations. He's helped lead a defense that's answered questions of what it would look like with a few key players missing from last year's unit—particularly All-Pro Justin Houston.

"We weren't going to have him," defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said of Houston. "It made all of us – coaches, players, whatever – work hard, try to develop different players. Those are also great opportunities for players because you get multiple reps – not only in games but in practice.

"Obviously, that can be beneficial if you take advantage of it, and I think we've had some guys who have done that."

While watching from the sideline thus far, Houston likes what he's seen from Ford.

"I think he's doing a great job," Houston explained. "His talent – you can't coach that. His get off, he has amazing get off, his talent—skills are there. He's a great player."

So far this season, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has been sacked 21 times, which ties him for seventh most in the league.

There have been plenty of headlines made by Newton recently regarding flags being thrown, or lack thereof, on hits to him directly—both inside and outside of the pocket. He's made it a topic of conversation on every sports show in the country, and just like we've seen from Alex Smith over the past three-plus years, Newton isn't afraid to leave the pocket and take off running.

"He's probably the most unique quarterback in our league, maybe one of the most unique players," Sutton said of Newton. "His talent level as a passer is outstanding, and he's obviously a legitimate running back and he's as good as any running back in our league and he's probably bigger than any running back in our league, so he gives you all kinds of issues and problems, but they've done a great job building a system that could probably only be run by him."

5.       How will Alex Smith fare against the Panthers secondary?

For all of the success the Panthers have had this season against the run and even getting to the quarterback, the statistics show that this is a defense that's been susceptible to the pass through eight games.

The Panthers have allowed 286 yards passing per game this season, which ranks as the most in the NFL.

"They've had some issues on the back end in that secondary—you know they lost (cornerback) Josh Norman, who was a very good player in his own right," Childress explained of the Panthers secondary this year, as Norman signed with Washington during the offseason. "They were playing with two rookie cornerbacks and I think they were playing a little bit more man (coverage) early on, and they got beat in some of that man-to-man.

"You've seen that kind of come down a little bit (recently), where they're front zone players or deep third players, and so I think they kind of struggled with who they were—they weren't who they were last year—but they're developing that personality with their new personnel."

After missing last week's game because of fact that he entered the NFL's concussion protocol twice against the Indianapolis Colts, Alex Smith is in line to return on Sunday against the Panthers.

Smith, who said he's "pumped and excited" to return to the field, faces a Panthers defense that's not only been susceptible to the pass this season, but they've particularly struggled to defend it when sending extra players at the quarterback.

The Panthers defense has the highest quarterback rating against them against the blitz this season at 118.41.

So taking into account the fact that Smith is one of the most cerebral quarterbacks in the league and someone who tends to put the ball in the right place at the right time, the moments in which the Panthers blitz and send extra guys and how Smith responds is something to watch on Sunday.

It's also worth noting that veteran receiver Jeremy Maclin won't play on Sunday because of a hamstring injury.

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