KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Matt Ryan, Tony Gonzalez and the rest of the high-powered Atlanta Falcons offense surely must be salivating when they imagine visiting Kansas City today.
Has nothing to do with the barbecue, either.
The Chiefs could be stumbling into the the season opener against one of the NFL’s prolific attacks without four defensive starters and six guys on the depth chart.
Top pass rusher Tamba Hali is suspended for Week 1 for an unspecified violation of the NFL’s substance-abuse policy. Safety Kendrick Lewis is out with a shoulder injury, and cornerback Brandon Flowers (heel) and linebacker Derrick Johnson (ankle) have been limited in practice.
If they can’t play, Atlanta could have a field day.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” said Ryan, never one to rock the boat. “They’ve still got some talented players on that defense. We still have to play well.”
Just not as well as they would have.
Andy Studebaker, a former Division III defensive end, is slated to start in place of Hali, who was second in the AFC with 12 sacks a year ago. Abram Elam will take over for Lewis, who started all 16 games a year ago, but nobody is quite sure who will spell Flowers and Johnson if they can’t go.
Flowers’ backup, Jalil Brown, has been dealing with a groin injury, which means Jacques Reeves could be pressed into service for the first time since the 2009 season, when he was with Houston.
Johnson’s backup, Jovan Belcher, also was dealing with a groin injury this week.
“I got what I got,” Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel said, “and I’m going to battle with who I got.”
Despite all the platitudes coming out of the Falcons, it’s clear that they relish the chance to catch the Chiefs without several starters – and one of them in particular.
“It goes without saying that Hali is a great player. He’s one of the best in the league,” Ryan said. “I’m sure they’ll make adjustments in terms of the scheme and personnel to try to create some of what they’re going to miss without him, but they’ve still got a talented defense.”
The Falcons certainly counter with a talented offense.
Ryan threw for a franchise-record 4,177 yards with and career-high 29 touchdowns last season, with only 12 interceptions, his rating of 92.2 also a career best. The former AP Offensive Rookie of the Year also had the most passing attempts (571) and completions (357) in team history.
It helps to have a slew of guys to run and catch the ball.
Roddy White caught 100 passes for 1,296 yards and eight scores, but somehow missed out on his fourth straight Pro Bowl last season. His complement on the opposite side of the field, second-year pro Julio Jones, had 53 catches for 959 yards and eight TDs, while running back Michael Turner is coming off his second consecutive 1,300-yard season on the ground.
And of course, there’s a 12-time Pro Bowl tight end making his Kansas City return.
Gonzalez was drafted by the Chiefs and played his first 12 seasons at Arrowhead Stadium, in many ways redefining his position. But when he was dealt to the Falcons in 2009, he never received a proper sendoff from Chiefs fans, and he’ll likely receive that standing salute when he begins what he’s already said will be his final year in the place where it all began.
“I’m sure it will be an emotional time for him,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “He has a lot of good memories. I don’t know how many guys there are on that roster right now that he played with, but he’s going back to where he’s played whole lot of ballgames.”
Gonzalez conceded it’ll be “a little weird,” but he’s also desperate to finish his career with at least one playoff victory. He was shut out with the Chiefs and so far in Atlanta.
“That was another reason that went into me coming back,” he said. “That’s the goal. That’s my ‘why’ for this year. That’s the reason you go out there and put it all on the line.”
The Chiefs have playoff aspirations, too, despite all their injuries.
They upgraded the offensive line by signing Eric Winston, bolstered the ground game by signing former Browns bruiser Peyton Hillis, and quarterback Matt Cassel worked tirelessly in the offseason to refine his throwing motion, hoping to rediscover the form that once lanced him in the Pro Bowl.
Kansas City is also welcoming back three key players from injury.
All-Pro running back Jamaal Charles, Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry and tight end Tony Moeaki each tore the ACL in their left knees by Week 2 last season, and wound up spending the rest of the year going through grueling rehab. They only participated in light offseason workouts with the team, but the goal all along has been to have them ready to go for the Flacons.
Despite everything else that’s gone wrong for Kansas City, that part has gone right.
“It’s going to feel real great. I’m excited to be on the field again, especially with my teammates,” Charles said. “I just can’t wait until the opportunity comes.”
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