NFL Preview - Kansas City (0-0) at Baltimore (0-0)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Kansas City Chiefs' effort to start a new era on a winning note will face a major roadblock on Sunday, as new head coach Todd Haley and his team travel to meet the Baltimore Ravens and their ferocious defense.
Haley, hired in February immediately following a stint as Arizona Cardinals offensive coordinator that resulted in a surprising Super Bowl appearance, will have an opportunity to prove his play-calling mettle against one of the top defenses in the business. The head coach upped the ante in that regard last week, when he fired offensive coordinator Chan Gailey and took over complete control of the attack's design.
While Haley will be the one sending in the plays, the person on the receiving end of those instructions remains something of a mystery.
The Chiefs dealt a second-round draft pick to acquire Matt Cassel from the New England Patriots in February, subsequently signaling their confidence in him by signing the former USC backup to a six-year, $63 million contract including $28 million in guaranteed money. But Cassel suffered an MCL strain in the team's third preseason game, against the Seattle Seahawks, and he is officially listed as questionable on the Week 1 injury report.
If Cassel can't go, the likely starter for the Chiefs would be Brodie Croyle, who has gone 0-8 as the Kansas City starter over the past two seasons and has been plagued by injuries and inconsistency since entering the league.
Whoever takes the reins will be trying to get the Chiefs halfway to their entire 2008 win total on Sunday. Kansas City was 2-14 in its third season under the since-deposed Herm Edwards, the team's worst record in its 49-year history.
The homestanding Ravens, meanwhile, enter 2009 in a much different place.
Baltimore was 11-5 in its first foray under head coach John Harbaugh a season ago, reaching the AFC Championship for the first time since 2000 before bowing out to the eventual champion Steelers.
The major changes for the Ravens have occurred on the defensive side of the ball, where esteemed coordinator Rex Ryan has taken over head coaching duties with the New York Jets, and taken with him former Baltimore starters like linebacker Bart Scott, safety Jim Leonhard, and end Marques Douglas.
Former linebackers coach Greg Mattison was elevated to coordinator following Ryan's defection, and will be charged with maintaining the profile of a defensive unit that finished top three in the league against both the pass and rush a year ago.
On offense, the most notable additions are along the offensive line, where free agent center Matt Birk (ex-Vikings) and first-round right tackle Michael Oher (Ole Miss) will make their formal debuts with the team on Sunday.
Kansas City has a 3-1 lead in its all-time series with the Ravens, but lost its first-game all-time to Baltimore when it dropped a 20-10 home decision during the 2006 season. The Chiefs won the previous three meetings, all in Baltimore, most recently a 27-24 win there in 2004. Including wins at Memorial Stadium over the Colts in 1979 and 1980, the Chiefs are 5-0 in Baltimore since losing there for the only time in their history, in 1975.
The Chiefs' Todd Haley and Ravens' John Harbaugh will be meeting each other, as well as their counterpart's respective teams, for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL
None of the Kansas City quarterbacks played particularly well in the 2009 preseason, when the Chiefs scored an NFL-worst 42 points, scored two offensive touchdowns, and managed nary a victory. Whether Cassel (3693 yards, 21 TD, 11 INT with the Patriots) or Croyle (151 passing yards) takes the snaps, the objective will be getting the ball outside to the team's well-regarded wide receiving corps, which includes Dwayne Bowe (86 receptions, 7 TD), Mark Bradley (30 receptions, 3 TD), and ex-Seahawk Bobby Engram (47 receptions with Seattle). The ability of those players to get out of their breaks could be difficult, as the Chiefs feature a work-in-progress o-line that surrendered 37 sacks last season. The state of that group doesn't necessarily bode well for the Kansas City running game either, though Larry Johnson (874 rushing yards, 5 TD) will take the ball in an effort to get back to his former Pro Bowl form. Johnson came up shy of the 1,000-yard mark during a 2008 season in which he missed four games, but the former Penn State star did manage a healthy 4.5 yards per rush.
The piece of the Baltimore defense under the most scrutiny won't even wear a helmet on Sunday, as Mattison must prove his leadership abilities to be equal to his predecessor Ryan. Easing the former linebackers coach's transition will be a talented group that welcomes back lynch pins Ray Lewis (117 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 3 INT) and Ed Reed (41 tackles, 9 INT) and middle linebacker and free safety, respectively. Newcomers on the defense include cornerback Domonique Foxworth, who will line up opposite incumbent Fabian Washington (31 tackles, 1 INT), while tackle Kelly Gregg and strong safety Dawan Landry (10 tackles) return to the lineup after injury-marred 2008 campaigns for both. As for current injuries, top pass rusher Terrell Suggs (68 tackles, 8 sacks, 2 INT) is not on the injury report after sitting out the preseason with back problems, though space-eating tackle Haloti Ngata (55 tackles, 2 INT) is regarded as questionable with a knee injury.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco (2971 passing yards, 14 TD, 12 INT) comes into Week 1 fresh off a strong preseason, which was preceded by a rookie year that went as well as anyone could realistically expect. The strong-armed Delaware product will be working behind an o-line that has a chance to be improved via the addition of Birk and Oher. Flacco's targets will remain essentially the same, with Derrick Mason (80 receptions, 5 TD) and Mark Clayton (41 receptions, 3 TD) on the outside and Todd Heap (35 receptions, 3 TD), who is seeking a return to his former elite level, working over the middle. Clayton (hamstring) did not play in the preseason but is not listed on the team's injury report for this week. Baltimore coordinator Cam Cameron used a running back-by-committee approach for much of last season, but in 2009, second-year- pro Ray Rice (454 rushing yards, 33 receptions) is expected to become the lead back. Last year's leading rusher, Pro Bowler Le'Ron McClain (902 rushing yards, 11 TD), has been placed in a more traditional fullback role, and Willis McGahee (671 rushing yards, 7 TD) is working as Rice's backup. The Ravens were fourth in NFL rushing offense a year ago.
The ability of the Chiefs to remain in games this season will be predicated largely on the ability of new coordinator Clancy Pendergast to get the most out of his defensive group. Kansas City made some significant changes here in the offseason, scrapping the 4-3 in favor of a 3-4 and adding veterans like outside linebacker Mike Vrabel (62 tackles, 4 sacks with New England), safety Mike Brown (73 tackles, 2 INT with Chicago) and No. 3 overall draft pick and rookie end Tyson Jackson (LSU) to the mix. The pass rush, led by Vrabel and converted end Tamba Hali (54 tackles, 3 sacks), will be key, as the Chiefs finished last in the NFL last season with a paltry 10 sacks. On the back end, Brown is the distinguished voice of a group that includes fellow safety Jarrad Page (84 tackles, 4 INT) and cornerbacks Brandon Flowers (69 tackles, 2 INT) and Brandon Carr (73 tackles, 2 INT). Flowers (shoulder) is regarded as questionable for Sunday, and if he can't go, fourth-round rookie Donald Washington (Ohio State) could get the call. Against the run, where the Chiefs finished a miserable 30th in the league a year ago, Jackson and holdovers Glenn Dorsey (46 tackles, 1 sack) and Tank Tyler (41 tackles) anchor the line, while the nondescript Demorrio Williams (58 tackles) and Corey Mays (8 tackles with Cincinnati) look the starting inside linebackers.
Apart from the Baltimore defense, there are not a lot of lead-pipe cinch fantasy plays this week, but there are some decent choices nonetheless. For Baltimore, Rice should get the touches necessary to put up a decent fantasy total, and guys like Mason, Heap, and kicker Steve Hauschka could be worth taking a flier on. Kansas City's best bet is probably Bowe, who will put up a better total if the Chiefs are playing most of this game from behind, as expected. Otherwise, probably not wise to start any Chiefs against the Baltimore defense.
The Chiefs scored the fewest points in the NFL during the preseason, and while that's not necessarily a clear indicator of anything, there's little to suggest that Kansas City will suddenly be able to run up and down the field against a Baltimore defense that remains strong at its core. Whether Cassel or Croyle takes the snaps, look for the Ravens to go after him, and look for the green Chiefs o-line to crumble under the constant pressure Baltimore brings. On the other side of the ball, the Ravens probably won't have their way either, but Flacco should be good for a smattering of big plays, and figures to get blessed with some short fields that will be of assistance.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 23, Chiefs 6
09/10 15:33:11 ET