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Friday before football Sunday: What to watch for in Chiefs-Cardinals

Patrick Mahomes and Kyler Murray have not lost in an NFL regular season opener

Syndication: Arizona Republic David Wallace/The Republic via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The 2022 NFL season kicked off Thursday night with a bang as the Buffalo Bills cruised past the defending Super Bowl Champion Rams by a final score of 31-10 at Sofi Stadium in Inglewood, California.

It was a fairly one-sided football game between two teams with championship aspirations headlined by Josh Allen’s four-total touchdowns and Matthew Stafford’s three interceptions.

As we fast forward to the highly-anticipated return of NFL football Sundays, 14 games will be played and the Cardinals will have a very big test to start their season as they face off against a powerhouse Kansas City Chiefs football team at home at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.

The Cardinals are 2-0-1 in season openers in the Kliff Kingsbury era as they head into 2022 with their franchise quarterback Kyler Murray locked in on a five-year $230.5 million extension. Andy Reid’s Chiefs are also perfect with a 4-0 record in season openers with Patrick Mahomes as their starter. This would be Kingsbury’s first time coaching against Mahomes, his former quarterback at Texas Tech, in the regular season.

Arizona ranked eighth in total offense and 11th in total defense in 2021. The Chiefs on the other hand had the third-best offense but the sixth-worst defense last season.

The football world should be in for a treat with this matchup between two high-octane offenses.

Here are five things to watch for in the Chiefs-Cardinals game:

Syndication: Arizona Republic Michael Chow/The Republic / USA TODAY NETWORK

1. Cardinals’ receiver depth to be tested

The Cardinals will already be without All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins as he serves the first of his six-game suspension. Now, it looks as though 2021 second-round pick Rondale Moore will be out Week 1 as he undergoes an MRI after suffering a hamstring injury during practice. Zach Ertz is dealing with a calf injury making him a game-time decision heading into the season opener.

Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, the Cardinals trade acquisition from the Ravens, will be Kyler Murray’s top target as the duo hopes to replicate the success they had together in their Oklahoma days. If Ertz is out, expect Maxx Williams to be a big part of their offense in rotation with rookie second-round pick Trey McBride. Cardinals’ preseason MVP Greg Dortch is primed to receive a bulk of the slot duties if Moore is unable to play and 2019 second-round pick Andy Isabella should have opportunities to stretch the field as well. They will be playing against the Chiefs 27th-ranked pass defense from last season as Kansas City replaces the departed Charvarious Ward (49ers) and Tyrann Mathieu (Saints) with rookie Trent McDuffie and veteran Justin Reid.

Kansas City Chiefs v Chicago Bears Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

2. A Tyreek Hill-less Chiefs Offense

“Since 2018, Hill accounted for 38.3% of Kansas City’s targets of 20 or more air yards. Over that span, no player had more targets (118), receptions (50), yards (1,875), or touchdowns (19) on deep passes than Hill,” according to Sharp Football Analysis.

His impact on the Chiefs’ offense cannot be understated as Mahomes’ former go-to receiver. With Hill traded to the Dolphins, All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce will be counted on more than ever before. Kelce was second on the team in receptions (92), receiving yards (1,125), and tied for the team-lead in touchdowns (nine). Their offense will feature two new starting receivers in JuJu Smith-Schuster from the Steelers and a big-bodied speedy target Marquez Valdes-Scantling from the Packers. Even with Hill gone, Cardinals’ cornerbacks will have their hands full especially with Antonio Hamilton (IR) out and newly-acquired Trayvon Mullen questionable to play due to a toe injury. Byron Murphy is coming off a career-year with four interceptions but is slated to move to the boundary Week 1 to pair with Marco Wilson considering Mullen has not practiced all week. Cardinals could use recent waiver claim Javelin Guidry or rookie seventh-round pick Christian Matthew in the slot cornerback position.

Arizona Cardinals v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

3. Star backer Isaiah Simmons and his green dot as the defensive play caller

Simmons received the green dot meaning he will be relaying all the play calls from defensive coordinator Vance Joseph to the team. There is a strong possibility Simmons will be used all over the football field and not just as an inside linebacker just like his flexible roles as a versatile weapon at Clemson. We could see him in the slot, at safety, and maybe even on the edge. Being able to effectively communicate with his teammates and read the field is the next step in his NFL career that should transcend his production to even greater heights.

Statistically speaking, Simmons is coming off a breakout season with 105 tackles, 1.5 sacks, an interception, four forced fumbles, and seven passes defensed as he started all 17 regular season games in 2021. He is essentially a captain or a captain-to-be as the expectations remain high for the former No. 8 overall selection. There is no better time to test himself than Sunday when he has the ultimate test of slowing down a dynamic Patrick Mahomes-led Chiefs offense. I expect a shootout between the two teams but a big play or two defensively could determine the outcome of this football game.

Houston Texans v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

4. Cardinals’ defensive line has much to prove as with their pass rush

General manager Steve Keim has opted to remain with the same defensive line group from last year minus Jordan Phillips and Corey Peters. J.J. Watt remains one of the most disruptive defensive linemen in the NFL when healthy but he seems to be dealing with another injury as a calf strain makes him questionable to play Sunday. Opposite him is Zach Allen, who is coming off a breakout season with 48 tackles, four sacks, and an interceptions. He is coming along as a pass rusher but hopefully the added to bulk to his frame this offseason has him holding up better against the run this Sunday versus Clyde Edwards-Helaire as the Cardinals ranked 20th in that category last season.

2020 fourth-round pick Rashard Lawrence will be the Cardinals starting nose tackle but he has yet to play a full regular season in his two years in the NFL so far. 2019 seventh-round pick Michael Dogbe and 2020 fourth-round pick Leki Fotu have flashed at times but are far from proven depth pieces with 63 tackles and three sacks combined (five seasons worth) in their careers. According to Pro Football Focus, their top three DL depth players of 2022 produced 10 total pressures last year. Expect to see various defensive formations between 3-4 and a 4-3 with Markus Golden and Dennis Gardeck as the outside linebackers or edge rushers as they accommodate for their lack of defensive line depth. Isaiah Simmons, All-Pro Budda Baker, and ascending safety Jalen Thompson should all be utilized in some sort of role as a blitzer in certain packages with Chandler Jones now playing for the Raiders.

Houston Texans v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

5. Home-field disadvantage?

Arizona was successful on the road (8-1) last season but struggled to win football games at home with a 3-5 record. Whether it was nerves that got the best of the Cardinals at home, overconfidence, or something else is anyone’s guess but they need to reverse this disadvantage now. The biggest key whether it is winning at home or away is by establishing the run game and there is not better players to do it than Pro Bowl running back James Conner and dynamic franchise quarterback Kyler Murray leading the way. Conner led the team with 18 total touchdowns and 1,127 scrimmage yards in 2021. Murray had 423 rush yards and five touchdown runs last season. Maybe the Cardinals will have a true committee approach with Conner paired with either Eno Benjamin or former Chiefs’ RB Darrel Williams.

The Cardinals signed Will Hernandez and traded for Cody Ford to add that much-needed mean streak and toughness to the interior of the offensive line that should benefit the run offense tremendously. DJ Humphries, Rodney Hudson, and Kelvin Beachum should be good to go on Sunday but starter Justin Pugh remains questionable with a neck injury. The Chiefs have a respectable front seven led by Chris Jones, Derrick Nnadi, and Frank Clark. They also have some young stars in the making in Nick Bolton, Willie Gay, and rookies Leo Chenal and George Karlaftis. Their unit ranked third-worst in the NFL in sacks (31) last season.

Kansas City Chiefs v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Overall, the Cardinals have much to prove in the pass rush category considering the fact they have a stout offensive line led by Joe Thuney, Orlando Brown, Creed Humphrey, and Trey Smith. One player the Cardinals will be watching closely 2021 first-round pick inside linebacker Zaven Collins, who is coming off a disappointing rookie campaign, as they hope he turns into a successful pick. A fun fact about the Cardinals is they allowed the second-fewest yards to tight ends last season, which speaks to the quality play from Simmons and company last year as they prepare to cover Chiefs’ All-Pro Travis Kelce on Sunday. Both teams have ample talent to make this a high-scoring game led by two dynamic quarterbacks in Kyler Murray and Patrick Mahomes.