Al Pacino said “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer”, and that’s exactly what I did Wednesday as I traveled to St. Joseph, Missouri to attend Chiefs training camp. The Raider Nation has tremendous dedication and support for their team, but understanding how they match up against familiar foes within the division is taking it to another level, so I went inside Chiefs training camp to bring you an unbiased opinion of what the 2012 Kansas City Chiefs bring to the table.
Rejuvenated, a word I would use to describe the 2012 Chiefs squad who had their season derailed by injuries in 2011. They are returning a lot of weapons on both sides of the ball in 2012 and added a few key off-season acquisitions including right tackle Eric Winston, running back Peyton Hillis, and yes former Raider cornerback Stanford Routt. It wasn’t long ago that the Chiefs won the AFC West despite the fact that Oakland swept the division in 2010. After an up and down 2011 campaign that had them destroying Green Bay’s hopes for perfection in week 15, and also losing 5 games by 27 points or more, they will look to get back on track in 2012.
On the offensive side of the ball, Jamal Charles is showing no lingering effects from the torn ACL he suffered last year, and this season he is joined in the backfield by Peyton Hillis who appears to once again have something to prove after a 2011 season in Cleveland that left much to be desired. Charles wasted no time in team drills taking his first carry off right tackle and showing his burst to get to the second level. Hillis seemed to feed off Charles’ energy throughout most of the team session as he showed no hesitation getting up field and lowering his pads to finish off runs. He was also targeted more than you would expect in the passing game as well, although most routes were either in the flat or screen plays. If both backs can stay healthy this season, it will be a tough combination to stop on a consistent basis.
Dexter McCluster is working exclusively with the wide receivers this year after spending time at both running back and wide receiver in his first two seasons. It appears the Chiefs will look to create mismatches whenever possible with Dexter’s quickness in the slot. They will try to force opposing defenses to cover Dexter with a nickel corner in hopes of weakening the run defense. If they get a linebacker matched up on him in coverage, they will look to exploit it. You will struggle to find any linebacker who would be able to match McCluster’s quickness in coverage, but Raiders linebacker Philip Wheeler probably provides as good of chance as your going to find. It will be an interesting match up to keep an eye on throughout the season.
Of course, if you plan to consistently win in this league, you must have consistent play from your quarterback. That is something the Chiefs have been unable to get from Matt Cassel to this point in his career. Practice revealed much of the same from Cassel as he struggled to be on target with his throws at times. While running a two-minute drill Cassel missed high on consecutive throws, with the latter being a sure touchdown to Jon Baldwin had the throw been on target. He will have to improve if he plans to help his team take that next step. With Dwayne Bowe still amidst a holdout, Baldwin is getting his chances as the “X” wide out and looks comfortable there. He made a few nice plays before hurting an ankle getting tangled up with cornerback Jalil Brown on a comeback route. After missing a few plays though, he was able to return to practice and appeared to be fine. One young player that seemed to stand out a little was rookie wide receiver Brandon Kinnie out of Nebraska. He made a very nice adjustment on a back shoulder throw along the sidelines and then had a nice leaping catch for a touchdown later in practice.
Ricky Stanzi looked sharp for the most part and connected on a few nicely thrown deep passes, one of which was against cornerback Stanford Routt. It would appear that Stanzi has a leg up on Brady Quinn for the backup quarterback spot as Quinn did little to impress, although it was only one practice. I don’t think either posses any immediate threat to Cassel, but you can bet the Chiefs are trying to evaluate if Stanzi can develop into a starter in the future. He has a way to go still , but he seems to have a smooth throwing motion to go along with decent accuracy.
While it is worth noting that Stanford Routt was running with the second team defense Wednesday, I wouldn’t look too much into it. It’s likely the coaching staff just wanted to get a look at Javier Arenas and Jalil Brown against the starters to see how they would hold up. Brown did have one nice pass breakup on a pass intended for Baldwin, but Arenas struggled to stay with Steve Breaston at times. Routt certainly did not look like a guy fighting to keep his job by any means as he was content playing mostly off coverage giving the receiver 1o-15 yards of cushion. However, to his credit, he was one of the last players to leave the practice field after staying a little later to help some younger players with technique. Brandon Flowers was held out of practice with a heel injury and was likely getting treatment during practice as he wasn’t out on the field.
One player who had no problem grabbing attention was safety Eric Berry who was animated throughout the entire practice. It is no secret that he plans to be a staple in the Chiefs defense and was playing very close to the line of scrimmage on most defensive sets. He showed off his anticipation and quickness while jumping a Matt Cassel slant route and taking it the other way for a would be defensive touchdown that got both sidelines hollering. Much like Charles, he seems to be 100% recovered from his torn ACL and ready to go this season.
The hit of the day was delivered by linebacker Andy Studebaker who stoned fullback Shane Bannon at the pylon during goal line drills which was followed by roars of approval from the players and fans. While Romeo Crennel may seem quiet and focused at times on game days, he was very energetic and motivating especially towards the end during goal line plays. I get the feeling you didn’t see much of that during the Todd Haley days in Kansas City.
Overall, I think this Kansas City team will go as far as Matt Cassel will take them. It will be important for Cassel to not try and do too much this year, and take what he is given. This Chiefs team has a defense capable of keeping them in games even when their offense is struggling and they certainly have plenty of weapons on offense capable of scoring. Cassel needs to play an Alex Smith type role and just focus on making smart decisions and the Chiefs will be a tough out this year.
Of course, all bets are off once you step foot into the Black Hole!