No one symbolized the improved play of the Chargers’ upgraded defense in their season-opening victory Sunday over the Las Vegas Raiders more than outside linebacker Khalil Mack, who seemed to be everywhere and nowhere all at once. He had three sacks and three tackles for losses.
Las Vegas never had an answer for him.
Good against Derek Carr and the Raiders was one thing. Good against Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs might be something else entirely.
“It doesn’t matter at all,” Mack said of taking a 1-0 record into the Chargers’ game Thursday against the Chiefs (1-0) at Arrowhead Stadium. “We’re going up against a championship-caliber team. You’ve got to bring your ‘A’ game every time if you’re looking forward to a championship.”
Asked for his appraisal of the Chargers’ defensive play against the Raiders, Mack offered a less-than-glowing review after watching video of the game.
“Not good, not good at all,” he said. “We left a lot of stuff out there.”
No question, the Chargers must tighten up defensively against Mahomes, who was named Wednesday as the AFC’s Offensive Player of the Week after completing 30 of 39 passes for 360 yards and five touchdowns in Kansas City’s 44-21 victory Sunday over the Arizona Cardinals.
Carr completed 22 of 37 passes for 295 yards and two touchdowns, including 10 passes for 141 yards and one touchdown to Davante Adams, on Sunday against the Chargers. Carr also was intercepted three times, including on pivotal back-to-back drives in the fourth quarter.
The Chargers’ pressure on Carr was important, but it will be even more so when they face Mahomes. After all, Mahomes excels in the pocket, but he becomes all the more dangerous while on the run, improvising as he scrambles. His receivers become more dangerous, too.
“Keeping him in the pocket and making sure we cover the guys we need to cover,” Chargers safety Derwin James Jr. said, offering a succinct summary of their defensive game plan going into Thursday’s game.
Renaldo Hill, the Chargers’ defensive coordinator, had a more expansive answer when asked how to contend with Mahomes and his top targets, including tight end Travis Kelce. Mahomes hit Kelce with eight passes totaling 121 yards and one touchdown against Arizona.
“It’s always tough with him,” Hill said of Mahomes. “Can we make him perform from the pocket and not extend plays? Because once he gets out the pocket, he’s a whole other animal. Obviously, he can make the throws from in the pocket, but when you have time to extend plays, and we talk about when we do face him, we tell our guys, ‘Hey, we have to cover not twice a lot of times, but three or four times because that’s how much he can extend the play.’
“It’s always challenging, but if we can do a good job of trying to condense the pocket and really make him work from there and see if our pass rushers can come alive, that would be ideal. We just have to make it tough on him. We know he’s going to make his plays, but we have to force him to get the ball off his hands right away.”
Just as Mahomes represents a big challenge for the Chargers’ defense, quarterback Justin Herbert represents an equally difficult test for the Chiefs’ defense. Herbert was sharp from the start against the Raiders, completing 26 of 34 passes for 279 yards and three TDs.
Herbert connected with nine receivers, and targeted 11 overall, during a 24-19 victory over the Raiders. He didn’t have Keenan Allen as a receiver in the second half after Allen suffered a hamstring injury. He also didn’t throw often to Mike Williams, hitting him just twice.
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“They are two of the special players in the league,” Chargers coach Brandon Staley said of Mahomes and Herbert. “They are as good as it gets. It’s exciting for the league when you have this many good quarterbacks all at once, and a lot of them are really young. The future of the league is really bright. It makes it really tough to cover them, but the future is really bright.
“These two guys being in the same division, both being young players, it’s great for the game. Any time you have rivalries within a division, and then two quarterbacks like this, it’s really good for the game.”
CHARGERS (1-0) at CHIEFS (1-0)
When: 5:15 p.m. Thursday
Where: Arrowhead Stadium
TV/Radio: Ch. 11, Amazon Prime Video/98.7 FM; 105.5 FM/94.3 FM (Spanish)