Challenging schedule awaits Chiefs in 2011 season

The Kansas City Chiefs made significant progress in Year 2 of

the Scott Pioli and Todd Haley regime. A middling franchise that

won just two games two years previously came from nowhere to finish

10-6, win the AFC West and reach the playoffs for the first time

since 2006.

That kind of improvement could be difficult to match this

season.

The Chiefs face a much more challenging schedule following their

breakout year, one of the unpleasant side effects of success. They

visit Indianapolis in early October, head to New England at the end

of November, face the Pittsburgh Steelers the following week, then

face a gantlet in December that includes a trip to the New York

Jets and a game against the Super Bowl champion Green Bay

Packers.

Good luck with that, guys.

”Each year is a new year. We’re not going to get anything

because of what we did in the past,” said Haley, who is growing

more comfortable in his third year as head coach. ”This is a new

year, it’s going to present new challenges – it already has –

obstacles and distractions and those kinds of things that can set

your team back, and we have to take all of those challenges head

on.”

One of the early distractions has been a reported locker room

altercation between first-round draft pick Jonathan Baldwin and

veteran running back Thomas Jones that left the Chiefs’ expected

No. 2 wide receiver with his right hand heavily bandaged three

weeks into practice.

Haley has been unwilling to discuss the situation, calling it

”family business,” but the injury appears significant enough that

Baldwin could miss the remainder of the preseason.

That’s a lot of lost time for a rookie, especially after the

lockout wiped away the offseason.

It also deprives quarterback Matt Cassel the opportunity to

build a relationship with one of his key targets not named Dwayne

Bowe. After all, Cassel may be the biggest reason Kansas City

experienced such success last season. He threw for 3,116 yards and

25 touchdowns against just seven interceptions, blossoming into one

of the AFC’s best quarterbacks and earning his first trip to the

Pro Bowl.

”You get another year in the same system under your belt, you

get out here and work hard every day, the nucleus of players we

have I’m very familiar with at this point,” Cassel said. ”Now

it’s just about making strides and making myself as good as I can

be.”

The offensive line charged with protecting Cassel has plenty of

question marks. Brian Waters, arguably the Chiefs’ best pass

protector, was let go in the offseason. Jon Asamoah is expected to

slide into a starting spot along with veterans Casey Wiegmann, Ryan

Lilja, rapidly improving Branden Albert, and either Barry

Richardson, Ryan O’Callaghan or newly signed tackle Jared

Gaither.

Jamaal Charles pairs with Jones to form a dynamic tandem in the

offensive backfield. Former All-Pro fullback Le’Ron McClain and the

versatile Dexter McCluster create even more options.

”Every day has been intense in practice,” Jones said. ”Guys

are going 100 miles an hour.”

That goes for the defense, too.

Safety Eric Berry emerged in the secondary and the Chiefs were

able to get cornerback Brandon Carr to sign his free agent tender.

They join Brandon Flowers and free safety Kendrick Lewis to form a

pass defense that has gotten better with each season.

While the Chiefs were not overly active in free agency, they did

make a splash by signing top pass rusher Tamba Hali to a five-year,

$60 million contract that guarantees him $35 million. He’s joined

in the linebacker corps by Derrick Johnson, but they’re the only

two stalwarts. Jovan Belcher, Brandon Siler, Andy Studebaker and

Cameron Sheffield are competing for playing time at the other

spots.

The three-man front is where the real questions remain.

Tyson Jackson, the third overall selection in the 2008 draft, is

being counted on to finally live up to expectations. Glenn Dorsey

has locked down the other defensive end position, while

ex-Baltimore Ravens tackle Kelly Gregg was signed to plug the

middle for a run defense that struggled in 2010.

There are capable backups along the line; the question is

whether any of them can develop into a solid contributor.

”It’s coming together good, but we have a lot of stuff we need

to work on,” Belcher said. ”We need to get better every time we

step on the field.”

That couldn’t be any closer to the truth.

”If we want to get where we want to get to,” Haley said,

”which is to be a great team and a team that plays in bigger games

than we played in last year, and has a chance to play in them most

years, like I said, we have to handle everything thrown at us this

year and continue to get better.”