Chiefs @ Broncos Notebook

DENVER - NOVEMBER 14: Wide receiver Jabar Gaffney #10 of the Denver Broncos celebrates his 40-yard touchdown reception against the Kansas City Chiefs during the first quarter at INVESCO Field at Mile High on November 14 2010 in Denver Colorado. The Denver Broncos defeated the Kansas City Chiefs 49-29. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

Notes of Interest, Intrigue and Insight from Sunday's matchup.

On the first offensive play of the game, Gaffney dropped a perfect strike from Orton.

This is significant for me, in light of how the rest of the game turned out, because, if any of you were like me, you saw Orton's frustrated look and Gaffney's body language after the drop, and thought to yourself, "Don't do this to yourselves, Broncos!"  The Broncos have taken themselves out of almost every game this year, and too often they have done it early, under no stress from opponents.

Over the next seven plays Denver would twice more make mistakes, including failing to pick up a defender on a playaction bootleg that forced Orton to throw the ball away, and Demaryius Thomas also having a perfect pass glance off of his hands without getting hauled in.

Rewind to two weeks ago, and Denver starts the process of folding under that fateful burden.  But on Sunday, they would take a 7-0 lead.  This wasn't perfect football.  They had the chance early to beat themselves, to make this game far harder than it needed to be.

They refused, and that made all the difference.

 1st Quarter

  • On that first drive, almost every play was a running formation, and when Denver wasn't actually running, they were giving a playaction fake. Additionally, Moreno's one good run came out of the only passing formation, with Orton in the shotgun. This was McD's "pass to set up the run" comment from earlier in the week.  The final play of the drive, while not a playaction, unfolded out of a wildcat look, with Moreno lining up to take the shotgun snap.  This commitment to a particular attitude vs. the Chiefs is a terrific stabilizer for the offensive psyche, and probably helped to offset any potential mistakes in the early going.
  • On the third play of the drive, after Gaffney's drop and a quick strike from Orton to Royal for 9 yards, the Broncos would face 3rd and 1, and for their first actual running play from scrimmage, they would take the upback handoff, and Larsen would convert the third down easily.  The Broncos would have only 15 yards on two running plays on this drive, but already the KC defense was having to adjust for the run.  Terrific playcalling.
  • Speaking of that third down conversion by Larsen, the score would be 35-0 before Denver would face another 3rd down on offense.
  • Yet another miracle catch from Lloyd left me speechless.  His ability to contort his body and get both hands on the ball is amazing.  He made two perfectly placed Chiefs defenders look like they weren't even there.  We need to have a Brandon Lloyd day here on MHR or something....
  • Moreno's 14 yard run was a terrific playcall, against a blitz look by the Chiefs.  KC would bring the DB off the corner, and Orton took full advantage, pulling the TE away from that side (which proved the corner would be coming) and giving the shotgun handoff to Moreno behind a pulling Chirs Kuper.  Denver had a great understanding of the Chiefs' blitz packages throughout the game, and made them pay frequently.
  • On the TD pass to Moreno, Moreno's effort at the goalline shouldn't be discounted, but Orton may have been the star of the play.  After stepping up as the pocket collapsed to the right, he managed to work through his entire progression before taking Moreno as the dumpoff, and despite scrambling, he managed to place a perfectly catchable ball for Moreno.  Orton was seeing the field as clearly as I think he has since the Patriots game last year.
  • Prater would be only so-so for the day, and his short kickoffs were symptomatic of that.  Multiple times throughout the day, the Chiefs would start outside their own 20 yard line, including their first three drives.  The temperatures were cold, and the wind was kicked up a few times through the day, but Prater never fully adjusted. 
  • On defense, the starting LB corp looked like this:  Hunter, Mays, Woodyard, Haggan.  Backups and out of place players at every position.
  • Speaking of Mays, the Chiefs obviously felt like he was the weak link in the defense, bcause they started the game out almost exclusively trying to take advantage of him.  In their first 6 plays (including a play blown dead for an illegal motion penalty), 4 times they targeted Mays (and a fifth time Mays made the play from the opposite side of the formation).  First they isolated Mays against Copper, then they ran Charles at Mays, then twice in a row they tried to isolate Mays in the flat against Jamaal Charles.  On the first attempt, an illegal formation cancelled the play, and on the 2nd attempt Charles was wide open against Mays but Bannan disrupts the play before Cassell can find him.  At this point, for me, the jury was out on Mays.  It looked like he was responding to the pressure by backing up from the line, which is death for an ILB.  I was worried about the situation, to say the least.
  • On Denver's second offensive drive, after a great zone run by Moreno, Thomas once again makes another mistake, this time lining up improperly before the snap.  Luckily, Orton caught it, and corrected DT before getting the snap off, and DT would catch the ball for the first down and then some.  Again, mistakes will happen in a game, unless you get more than your fair share of luck, so responses to the mistakes are critical.  Orton showed a critical level of awareness and focus throughout this game, and this was yet another example.
  • The playcalling on the second drive continued to be ingenious.  Clady pulling to block for a WR screen.  Isolating Larsen to seal off the NG (46 stood him up btw).  Multiple 3 step drop adjustments to beat the KC blitz from the safeties, something KC would try multiple times throughout the game, and would have zero success with.  More playaction was called, and Royal had some great running on a reverse, which kept the run/pass in balance.
  • The OL moved KC defenders throughout the first half.  There was clear domination in the trenches, and all of the playaction meant that the OL rarely had to play on their heels, despite the high number of passes executed.  Great calls to keep the OL on the initiative, and speaking of OL, Quinn was sighted making several nice blocks early as well, including setting Moreno loose to the outside on another big run by sealing off the big DE, with what I can only call a vicious block.  On that same run, Moreno broke an Eric Berry arm tackle.
  • The TD play on that drive was something else, from both a playcalling and scheme point of view.  To start off, Larsen lines up as a WR, and DT lines up as a TB.  The play itself called for a fake flip to DT, a lookoff to Larsen, and finally, Orton finds Lloyd on a slant route between two befuddled DBs and behind a flatfooted ILB.  I honestly think it was plays like this that had Haley pointing at the end of the game.  His guys looked lost.
  • A 3 and out on the next defensive series provided the perfect complement to the two early scores.  Denver stood up against some wishbone trickery (DJ sniffed out the play), a power run over RG (Renaldo Hill sniffed it out and snuck around a Moeaki block to make the tackle), and survived an overthrow of Chambers, when Chambers managed to get position behind Perrish Cox.
  • So far Denver has overcome a few mistakes, and sustained two yardage eating scoring drives, so what is the plan now?  To step on some throats, obviously.  First play from scrimmage calls for a fake reverse, toss back to Orton, who looked for Lloyd (who should get an oscar for how he sold the reverse part of the playfake), but ultimately threw a hot potato to Moreno on the checkdown.  Great hands and presence by Moreno to manage to hang onto the heater form a visibly pumped up Orton.
  • After a successful zone run by Moreno, the Broncos once again looked for the big play dagger.  What was beautiful about this play was that this was a maximum coverage play by KC.  They were expecting this, and STILL couldn't cover it.  To start with, Lloyd pulled three coverage guys his way, on a double move crossing route underneath, while Gaffney managed to get behind 3 DBs over the top.  Orton's perfect placement, and Gaff's willingness to lay out made it practically indefensible, and despite the challenge, it stands.
  • This next series of defensive plays is important, because I think what a lot of people saw (or thought they saw) informed a lot of the defensive evaluations for the rest of the game.  To start with, Haggan opened the drive with a sack on a Brian Dawkins delayed blitz.  Good stuff, and Haggan's delay over the A-gap allowed Thomas to pull the first double team (it started as a triple team), and Vickerson to pull the guard out of Haggan's way.
  • On the second play of the series, Mays hits the receiver before the ball arrives, and at that moment I knew Mays was going to be OK.  Yes the PI is not desirable, but he was adjusting to being targeted by getting even more aggressive, rather than backing off.  This helped Mays have a good game, from the perspective of being intimidating around the line of scrimmage.
  • On the third play, we got the first "Beating of Champ" of the day, but it shows up as an "acceptable risk" when we view the context of the whole play.  The Broncos switched Dawkins to the opposite side and ran the same blitz as before, only this time it was picked up cleanly.  The Chiefs had the perfect call against it, with deep comebacks in each third of the field.  The corners started the play off-screen, indicating a 3-deep coverage, where they prevent anything over their head, and that natural buffer was critical to allowing Bowe to come back to the football relatively uncovered.  To Champ's credit, he made the tackle immediately, which is the only caveat for that defense:  they may make the catches underneath you, but DO NOT miss the tackle.
  • On the fourth play, we see a confluence of both Mays' and Champ's plays.  First, it is a playaction fake, which pulls the aggressive Mays into the LOS.  The play call is the same blitz as before, though Dawkins never comes, once he sees the playaction.  Champ is once again covering a deep third, but Bowe isn't his guy on this play, he is one of the LBs responsibility, but all the LBs are crowded up to the line.  Kudos go to Champ for getting back upfield in time to make the tackle immediately. 

2nd Quarter

  • On the fifth play, Bailey is reading the QB in the shotgun, and drifts back in a zone, while Bowe runs a quick out to the sideline.  Watch Renaldo Hill underneath, and look at how he can't decide which player to cover in his own zone, choosing to stay at home over the slot guy.  It was a good read by Bowe to find a safe place to sit down against a zone coverage. 
  • On the sixth play, Bailey moves to man coverage in the slot, while Dawkins comes on an edge blitz again.  The adjustment here is that Denver chooses man instead of deep coverage, partly because of the running formation from the Chiefs.  The pass ends up being to the FB, underneath Champ, but on this play, Mays stays home and cleans up the FB himself, at the LOS.
  • Finally, on the last play of the drive, on 3rd down, the Chiefs bunch up trips on the left side of the formation, and try to rub out two defenders on the play, including Champ.  Marcus Thomas manages to flush Cassell away from playside, and Haggan pulls him down for the sack, but the key to the play?  Champ was able to stay with his guy vs. the rub, and with two defenders already deep, no one was able to get open on the play.  My advice on Champ?  The same as it is for evaluating any DB:  Don't Rely On First Impressions.
  • Broncos open their next series with 3 straight running plays, getting a first down.  Moreno steps out of a tackle and leaps over a defender, and then Ball gets solid yards on a crossing draw play, so the playcalling innovation is still at a high level.  Probably has something to do with how a lead opens up an offensive playbook...
  • Some individual efforts are worth noting on the drive.  First is Orton, who has a flash of deja vu to last season in KC, when he goes to make the throw to Gaffney, and Derrick Johnson pops up from underneath.  This time however, Orton double pumps, freezes Johnson, and squeezes the ball behind him for the completion.  His smile after the play probably came from Clady taking Tamba Hali out of the play by cutting him down, which opened up the throwing lane and exposed Johnson lurking underneath.  This was a neat play all around, though it didn't look like much at first glance.
  • Demaryius Thomas also gets a special mention here for his efforts in using his natural size and strength to do what Brandon Marshall never could, and that is to create opportunities with the WR bubble screen.  I am a big proponent of screens, especially in the spread offense, and screens come down to timing of the call, and the players making the play.  It has been frustrating to see these plays stuck in the mud over the previous season, but the personnel on the field now seem to be making the most of them.  DT gets upfield fast, but does it in a way that helps set up his blocks.  For good measure he capped this particular one off by running through two defenders, before taking a big shot on his way out of bounds, extending for the goalline.  I'm sure it hurt, but it is a good kind of butt hurt.  ...That sounds terrible.  Forget I said it.
  • Okay, listen up, because one of the drawbacks to the swamp package on the goalline may be present here.  We DO NOT want the swamp to be the only form of efficient playcalling at the goalline.  As versatile as it is, we don't want teams only having to prepare for Tebow at the goalline, because that playbook is simply too small right now.  Orton came to the goalline in a heavy run formation and tried to run the fake, but some sort of miscommunication led to both Graham and Gronkowski ending up in the same place, and bringing about 6 KC defenders with them.  Why Orton threw that ball I have no idea, and he was lucky not to have it picked off.
  • The first swamp call resulted in a timeout call (which was later confirmed to be because McD didn't know if the tackle-eligibles had reported their numbers to the ref, so he called the TO to be safe).  This unique variation called for Larsen to line up behind center, with Tebow behind him, and Larsen cheats to run side at the last second.  Kuper cleans house with a pulling block to that side, Graham throws a critical sealing block, and Tebow rides in on a gravy train with biscuit wheels.

The Rest of the Game

  • From this point on, things get to be pretty routine, despite the fact we are only halfway through the 2nd quarter.  KC is tending towards playaction and shotgun, and frequently go into their 2 minute offense, forcing Denver to play a lot of base calls on defense, which almost universally 2 and 3 deep coverages, with some blitzes from Haggan and Dawkins mixed in.
  • The blitzes actually start to feel pretty vanilla, which is a funny thing to say about blitzes.  It feels like Wink decided to keep some aggressive elements in play, but put a lid on the playbook at the same time.  That is good gamesmanship if he did.
  • Haggan and Mays continue to make their presence known with multiple pressures from Haggan, and with Mays exhibiting an astute recognition of passing plays and crossing routes.
  • The foul on Mays was BS, if for no other reason than the refs need to get that whistle blown sooner, if they want play to stop.
  • The first near turnover Denver forced in the game was from Vickerson punching the ball out of Charles hands on a draw play.  As proof that Denver didn't have all the luck in this game, note that the ball made a miracle bounce right back to Charles, after it slipped between the legs of Jason Hunter, who missed his chance for a scoop and score.
  • Another sign that Denver likes what they were seeing out of Mays and the defense, despite two penalties to that point for over-aggressivenes, Haggan too ended up drawing a penalty, this time for striking a defenseless player.  We can argue ticky tacky on the foul if we want, but at this point, anyone who can guess what the league will and won't call these kinds of penalties for would be an intellect of staggering genius.  If Haley was upset because of what he felt was dirty play throughout the game, or an overly physical tack by the Broncos defense, well, at least he can say that the refs had his back.  The physical is good, but hopefully the Broncos can get it a little bit more under control.  No need to let the refs influence things any more than they already have....
  • The TD return for 6 was a thing of beauty, particularly watching the offensive players pour off the bench to celebrate with the defense.  A couple players, including Decker and Jones were running right alongside Hunter all the way down the sideline.  Kuper was one of the first players down to congratulate the defense.  It is clear that there is no schism within this team (wait a minute...where was Prater on the celebration?? :/...jk) and they all well understand what kind of position that they have been putting eachother in all season.  We already know that when one guy fails, the whole team suffers.  This moment shows us that when one guy succeeds, this whole team is with him.
  • Over the next three quarters, Cox, Jones, Dawkins and Bailey would all be on the short end of the good KC gains, and Champ in particular would get targeted in the endzone.  I feel for Champ, because he clearly wasn't playing his best ball at that point in the game, despite his great start, and no one of his caliber will ever feel okay about giving up TDs, whether they are "garbage" scores or not.  I have confidence in his professionalism, however, and believe he will properly contextualize those plays, and forget they ever happened.  Let me be clear:  we won by twenty points...Champ didn't do anything wrong.  But he can still suffer if he doesn't properly internalize the closing quarters of this ball game.  When the Broncos NEED him at his highest level, he will need to be able to reach it.
  • Give me a break on the statue of liberty play.  The Broncos weren't even remotely fooled, and on the following play, with maximum pressure, the fake reverse wasn't close to fooling Denver either.  Unfortunately Cassell gets the ball out against the pressure, and somehow, Charles was open despite everyone staying disciplined.  Denver may have given up the TD, but Wink's guys were well prepared, and not straying from their assignments.
  • Despite easing off on the gas pedal, Orton was in the ZONE all game long.  In the 2-minute drill at the end of the half, his presence of mind to escape the rush, yet still fling the quick shovel pass to Buckhalter for a short gain was a great example of this.  The big question for Orton is whether he can get into that mindset in critical pressure situations, when the scoreboard is exerting its weight on you, not just the DL.
  • Oddly, at the end of the first half, Denver ran their 2minute offense...maybe THAT is what pissed off Haley.  Who knows.  I like the choice of Denver to try to kick the FG, unless the wind truly was a factor, in which case, a punt would have eliminated any chance at momentum for the Chiefs.  If Prater had hit it, it would have been huge, given the game he was having.  All three phases in perfect harmony, with allstar efforts across the board.
  • Really disliked the reults of the FG attempt, the kicking team did NOT look prepared to defense the return, another strike against the oft-maligned Priefer.  Great play by Kern Colquitt though to stay off a block and clip the returner, but amazing play by Walton to hustle his big body downfield and make the tackle from behind to prevent the full 7 points from going on the board.  In a closer game, those points on a momentum swing like that, at the end of the half, with the other team getting the ball back to start the second half could result in anywhere from a 9 to 17 point swing...  THAT is a scary thought.  On the plus side, Prater came out after the half, and did a much better job of getting depth on his kickoffs.
  • I will talk more about Tebow's first TD throw when I break down more swamp packages later this week, but I have to say, watching the team and Orton rally around Tebow, celebrating with him, that the day when Orton and Tebow are going head to head is the furthest thing from this teams mind.  Whatever power the acquisition and use of Tebow has to create a divide in the Broncos lockerroom, it is effectively being cut off at the pass.  I credit both team and game management, but also the great goup of guys that has started to come together in orange and blue.  This team's prioriteis are definitely in order.
  • I have about 4 more pages of notes I could lay on you, w/ great plays by Vickerson, Champ, Bannan, Dawkins and others.  The Goalline stand is worth mentioning, including the QB sneak that was stopped on the 1st, 2nd and 3rd effort, and Champ batting down a ball on the slant (there are some things that you just shouldn't try against Champ, and a slant (dart actually) at the goalline is one of them).  The offense out on the field again to congratulate the D was another big moment.  Larsen getting 14 more yards on another upback handoff.  all great things, but I think I will leave you with sort of a defining moment of the game.  On play action, with immaculate blocking and a perfect pocket, Orton places a perfect ball for Lloyd, and the catch Lloyd makes...  there really aren't any words to describe it.

That play, and this game as a whole, are probably the most terrible thing about these Broncos.

Because there may not be anything worse than hope.

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