I almost can’t believe it, but the 2020 NFL season is finally here. 

After an offseason unlike any other, the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs will kick things off this evening in a matchup against one of their vanquished playoff foes, the Houston Texans. Each team looks slightly different than when we last saw them on the same field, but with the notable exception of DeAndre Hopkins (now a member of the Arizona Cardinals), the star contributors on each side remain in place. (And some of them — including both Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson — have been paid quite handsomely.)

So, as Andy Reid and company get set to defend their claim to the Lombardi Trophy, let’s break things down. 

How to watch

Date: Thursday, September 10 | Time: 8:20 p.m. ET
Location: Arrowhead Stadium (Kansas City, Missouri)
TV: 
NBC | Stream: fuboTV (try for free) 
Follow: CBS Sports App

When the Texans have the ball

With Hopkins now in Arizona, there is no question that the Texans’ offense will have to make some dramatic changes this season. Hopkins has been a target monster, averaging 166 looks per year from 2015 through 2019, on a team that threw the ball an average of 553 pass attempts per year. Any time you lose a wideout who accounted for 30 percent of all targets, things are going to shift quite a bit. 

In Hopkins’ place, the Texans now supplement Will Fuller with Brandin Cooks, Randall Cobb, and returning No. 3 wideout Kenny Stills. It’s an interesting group. Cobb is a pure slot guy and will likely play almost exclusively on the inside (he was in the slot on 92 percent of his snaps last season with the Cowboys, per Pro Football Focus), which in this game should mean consistent matchups with Tyrann Mathieu, who often bumps down into the slot from his safety position (46 percent last season). Fuller is an absolute burner who can take the top off any defense but can’t stay healthy, and Cooks is … well, pretty much the same but with a bit less explosiveness. Stills has the speed of Fuller and Cooks but with the flexibility to play in the slot as well. 

That trio will see a lot of Charvarius Ward and Rashad Fenton — neither of whom has a big reputation but both of whom emerged as consistently above-average contributors last season. Without Bashaud Breeland early in the year, there will be pressure on Ward and Fenton to maintain the gains they made a year ago.

The issue for the Texans is that because they are mostly deep threats, they generally take longer than some other wideouts to get open. That means the offensive line has to hold its protection a bit longer and Watson has to hang onto the ball a bit longer, which plays into his penchant for taking sacks. (His sack rate is 9.2 percent for his career, and it’s never dropped below 8 percent in any of his three seasons.) With Chris Jones and Frank Clark bringing pressure up front, that’s not necessarily the ideal recipe for success. It’s notable, though, that Houston’s offensive line — now bookended by Laremy Tunsil and 2019 first-round pick Tytus Howard — did show improvement last season and that the Chiefs as a whole did not do a particularly good job of pressuring quarterbacks for most of last year. 

Kansas City’s most obvious defensive weakness last season was its relative inability to stop the run, where they ranked 26th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA. The Chiefs ranked 28th in Adjusted Line Yards against, as well as 26th in success rate in power situations (third or fourth downs with two or fewer yards to go, plus goal-to-go situations) and 30th in the percentage of runs stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage (14 percent). Of course, most opponents did not get much of a chance to run against the Chiefs, as they ranked second in the NFL in average time spent leading in games, per Football Outsiders. 

The Texans replaced Carlos Hyde with David Johnson, who was part of the pathetically-insufficient return in the Hopkins trade. Johnson has simply not shown the same level of explosiveness over the past few years as he did during his magical 2016 season, and he was essentially benched in favor of Kenyan Drake last year. Duke Johnson, on the other hand, has been one of the most explosive and elusive backs in the league for his entire career, yet the Texans, like the Browns, generally refuse to give him the ball all that often. The Kansas City defense was occasionally vulnerable to running back receptions last season, and that’s where the Johnsons should find their most success in this game, considering the Texans are fairly likely to trail for a majority of the time.

While the Houston offense should still be able to find success more often than not (including this week), it will generally be due to the individual brilliance of Watson, which papers over a host of different issues. 

When the Chiefs have the ball

Woo boy are the Texans not set up to stop this Kansas City offense. J.J. Watt is generally one of the more unstoppable rushmen in the league, but he’ll likely be matched up with star right tackle Mitchell Schwartz for much of the evening, making his job considerably more difficult than usual. Whitney Mercilus is a fine secondary edge rusher, but he seems unlikely to dominate a game. Houston ranked second-to-last in pressure rate last season, per Pro-Football-Reference, and that is a recipe for disaster against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. 

Not that pressuring Mahomes leads to all that many mistakes anyway, but when throwing from clean pockets last season, he had a league-best 134.2 passer rating, per Pro Football Focus. That was nearly 10 points better than the next closest qualifier (Drew Brees). Part of the reason for that, of course, is that Andy Reid consistently schemes Mahomes into wide-window throws. Mahomes threw only 12.2 percent of his passes this season into tight coverage last season, per NFL.com’s NextGen Stats, the third-lowest rate among 39 qualifying quarterbacks. Given his ridiculous skill set, that is almost unfair. 

Not getting pressure on Mahomes would be bad enough, and adding in Reid’s ability to give him easy throws would be bad enough, but the Texans’ secondary is also unlikely to be up to the task of dealing with Kansas City’s receivers. Bradley Roby is a solid slot corner, but Gareon Conley went to injured reserve and behind him are Vernon Hargreaves and Lonnie Johnson, who ranked 106th and 111th in passer rating allowed on throws in their direction last season, among 114 qualifying corners who played at least 200 passing snaps, per Pro Football Focus. 

That group has to deal with Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, Demarcus Robinson, and Mecole Hardman on the perimeter. That is the fastest and arguably most explosive group of receivers in the league, with three of those players running the 40 in 4.46 seconds or faster, and with Hill (4.29) and Hardman (4.33) blowing even that figure (posted by Watkins) out of the water. Houston allowed 58 pass plays of 20 yards or more last season, the eighth-worst figure in the league. The Chiefs had 59 such plays on offense, but remember, Mahomes missed several games. In 2018, they had 76 of them. 

Houston’s defense is not much better set up to deal with Travis Kelce and/or Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Linebackers Benardrick McKinney and Zach Cunningham are solid players, but the Texans ranked just 26th in DVOA on passes to opposing running backs last season, with backs averaging 56 receiving yards per game against them, per PFF. Kelce is also just a matchup nightmare for pretty much anybody — even a good safety like Justin Reid. He is basically impossible to cover due to his combination of size, speed, and athleticism. 

We’d spend time breaking down the Kansas City run game, but it almost doesn’t matter. The Chiefs throw the ball more often than any team in football until they establish a big enough lead to justify running it. Given their considerable advantages in the pass game, they’re likely to do exactly that in this contest. 

Prediction: Chiefs 36, Texans 24

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here