KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) Donald Stephenson and Geoff Schwartz might as well consider themselves starters the way the two Chiefs offensive linemen have been pressed into service this season.
In an ideal world, Stephenson is supposed to be the backup offensive tackle, Schwartz the reserve offensive guard. But a series of injuries to just about everybody on the Chiefs’ already-suspect line has resulted in each of them playing in every game this season.
Not just on special teams, either.
In fact, Stephenson had to make a spot start at right tackle when No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher was dealing with the after-effects of a concussion. Schwartz did the same at right guard in the opener when Jeff Allen was ailing and at left guard when Jon Asamoah was out.
Stephenson has played in seven games on offense, Schwartz in five.
Now, with Fisher again dealing with a shoulder injury and Asamoah hobbled by calf spasms and a shoulder injury, Stephenson and Schwartz might just make up a retooled right side of the Kansas City offensive line when the San Diego Chargers pay a visit on Sunday.
“Luckily, those guys have gotten a lot of reps this year,” Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith said. “They’ve both played, and when they’ve come in, they’ve played well. I think everyone is expecting for them to come in and we won’t skip a beat.”
It’s not as if the offensive line has been the strength of the Chiefs. They’ve given up 29 sacks this season, putting them in the bottom third of the NFL, and have been a big reason why Kansas City has struggled to score touchdowns rather than field goals in the red zone.
Last Sunday at Denver, the Chiefs had first-and-goal at the 2-yard line. Jamaal Charles was stuffed, fullback Anthony Sherman managed a yard, and Charles was stuffed again, forcing Kansas City to kick a field goal that closed the gap to 17-10 at halftime. The Broncos went on to win 27-17 and take control of the AFC West.
“I mean, you know what? I think the next guys have to step up,” Smith said, “and we have great depth up front. We have some guys ready to go, and that’s the way it should be. We hope to get those guys back that were banged up, but that’s the nature of football. You have to be able to battle through injuries, and you have to be able to step up and fill the void.”
Still, the offensive line is perhaps the position group where continuity is most vital. The five players have to be in synch so that they’re able to pick up blitzes, handle the myriad of twists and stunts, and change protections as the defense changes its packages.
That’s why the best offensive lines are often the ones that are simply the healthiest. They have had an entire off-season and training camp to grow accustomed to playing with each other.
Of course, rarely is that the case by Week 11 of an NFL season.
“Everybody is a professional and doing their job, and they have to step up,” said left tackle Branden Albert, who’s also been banged up. “Each game is important. We all know what the situation is, late in the season, November and December. And we have to show up and play.”
Offensive coordinator Doug Pederson said Thursday that Fisher and Asamoah would likely be a game-time decision Sunday, though it appears that Asamoah is likely to play. He’s at least been a limited participant in practice, while Fisher has been held out of afternoon workouts.
Even if neither of them can go, Pederson feels good about the depth behind them.
“As you look at the fourth quarter of the game the other night, Donald Stephenson goes in and we don’t really lose a beat there,” Pederson said. “We can move some guys around. Geoff Schwartz is there. We have some veteran guys who we feel very comfortable in what they can do.”
Stephenson and Schwartz both said they’re ready to play against the Chargers, just as they’ve been ready to step in all season. After all, it’s the reason they were brought in.
“You know, it’s one of those things, me and Geoff prepare like we’re starters, so when we go in, there’s no surprise about what we need to do or how we communicate,” Stephenson said. “So on Sundays when you need to be thrown out there, it pays off.”