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Five Things to Watch: Chiefs vs. Panthers

The Kansas City Chiefs take on the Carolina Panthers Sunday night in North Carolina

Here are five things to watch for in the Chiefs upcoming game against the Carolina Panthers:

1. Playmaking Tight Ends


What we all saw in training camp practices from second-year tight end Travis Kelce is what everyone else got to witness in the preseason opener against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Kelce showed game-changing ability with his 69-yard touchdown reception late in the second quarter, when he outran defensive backs to the end zone.

At 6-foot-6, 260 pounds, Kelce could put himself as the front-runner to be Alex Smith's favorite new target with another big performance on Sunday.

Along with veteran Anthony Fasano, Kelce and fellow second-year player Demetrius Harris have been one of the big talking points of camp.

Chiefs tight end coach Bob Melvin spoke after practice of how much these players have to absorb in this offensive scheme.

"They have probably the most dynamic set of alignments and shifts and motions of anybody here," Melvin said. "So they've got to be offensive linemen sometimes during protection. They've got to be wideouts too because we get them out wide and we get them matched up on corners and safeties.

"So there is an awful lot of work they have to do mentally before the play."

A good performance from the tight end group on Sunday, particularly Kelce, would help answer one of the big questions of the offseason.

Who is going to help out Charles and Bowe in the passing game?

2. Defensive Backs – Big Plays


One of the other takeaways from the Chiefs first preseason game was the big plays from the Bengals offense.

They averaged 5.6 yards per carry and picked up three passing plays of at least 20 yards, including one memorable 53-yard bomb from quarterback Andy Dalton to standout receiver A.J. Green.

Green was able to get past cornerback Ron Parker and behind safety Daniel Sorensen.

With the Chiefs defensive scheme utilizing a lot of press-man technique on the outside, big plays are going to happen. It's the nature of the scheme.

Making sure these plays only happen every once in a while is key.

Sunday will be a good test for this defense to shut down a receiving group in Carolina that no longer features five-time Pro Bowler Steve Smith, who is now with the Baltimore Ravens. The Panthers spent their first-round pick on former Florida State receiver Kelvin Benjamin.

The 6-foot-5, 240-pound Benjamin presents a great opportunity for the cornerbacks to work on pressing big, physical receivers on the outside.

Chiefs defensive backs coach Emmitt Thomas spoke after practice about what he wants to see improved upon from the game against the Bengals.

"Get better at the line of scrimmage and our coverage," Thomas said. "We played a little lax in the first game. (We didn't) really get on top of the receivers. This game, we're going to press a lot and get them on top of the receivers."

When asked how they would go about doing that, Thomas broke it down.

"Start with their feet first," Thomas said. "And then hands. And that's all it is. Look at the core of the receiver, move your feet, use your hands and be physical up there. You got to stop him. You got to get in the weight room and get strong so when you pop him, you move him and make him have to restart. That's the only thing about press. You got to make the receiver change his route."

Watch for the battles on the outside as cornerbacks Ron Parker, Sean Smith and Marcus Cooper, who have all been rotating with the first-team defense, get after the Panthers receivers on the outside.

3. Quarterback Alex Smith


The team will only go as far as the quarterback will lead them. Last year, that was a good thing for the Chiefs as Smith helped lead the biggest turnaround in franchise history.

Coming into this game on Sunday, Reid already said Smith would play the entire first half against the Panthers.

Smith wasn't happy after the offense stalled in the red zone in one of his three drives against the Bengals, which altogether totaled just 10 plays. But it was the lack of execution on third-and-short on two occasions that really bothered Smith.

"Couldn't convert on the third and one, couldn't convert on the third and two," Smith said. "You put yourself in good situations and as an offense that's what you want to be. You have to be able to execute there."

One thing to watch in the upcoming game against the Panthers is how Smith and the first-team offense execute on third down.

Another area to watch with Smith is downfield passing, something quarterbacks coach Matt Nagy talked about after practice.

"We're just continuing to stress with him some downfield throws," Nagy said. "I think you saw that as he learned the offense last year, the last five, six, [or] seven games, I think you started seeing that. Now at camp, let's see what we can and can't get away with so when the game time comes, we know where we're at."

The offense is always going to have a lot of eyes on it anyway, but these two areas might be the best to focus on against the Panthers.

4. Offensive Line


It's not a secret anymore that the Chiefs are likely going to begin the regular season with the youngest offensive line in the NFL.

The average age of the current starting offensive line for the Chiefs is 23.8 years old, while the average age of a starting offensive line last season across the NFL was 27.2 years old.

The Chiefs are leaning on fourth-year veteran Rodney Hudson, along with two third-year players in Jeff Allen and Donald Stephenson, to help lead this group.

Most of the talk has been about last year's first overall draft pick Eric Fisher moving back to his natural position of left tackle. But while that is no doubt a key to the season, rookie sixth-round pick Zach Fulton has become one of the bigger stories of training camp.

Offensive line coach Andy Heck isn't surprised that Fulton has made his way to the first team.

"I wouldn't say surprised," Heck said. "The guy came from a quality program and he's played against first rounder's week in and week out there in the SEC. He's had some great coaching along the way. So, he's a guy who has football knowledge, football IQ, and on top of that, the thing that we like about him is he's a hard worker."

With Alex Smith playing the entire first half against the Panthers, the first-team offensive line will have an opportunity to play together and hopefully find some success.

With one of the best players in the entire NFL in Jamaal Charles running behind the youngest offensive line in the NFL, the focus is on this group to come together sooner rather than later.

Top images from the Chiefs Training Camp at Missouri Western State University.

5. No Injuries

Again, the most obvious key to the game is to walk away without any major injuries.

With two starting defensive players already ruled out for the game in right defensive end Mike DeVito, along with safety Eric Berry, rookie safety Daniel Sorensen and defensive end Jaye Howard will once again be given the opportunity to show they can play with the first-team defense.

Reid said after practice on Thursday that DeVito "will get some work next week" and Berry is just resting his heel, which has been a lingering issue.

These are your five things to watch for in the Chiefs game on Sunday against the Panthers.

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