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Tale of the Tape: Stopping the tight end

Denver struggled to stop the tight end in the passing game on Monday night. We look at the tape to see what happened.

Denver Broncos v Kansas City Chief Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images

To say Denver didn’t fare so well trying to cover Travis Kelce Monday night would be an understatement. Kelce burned the Denver defense to the tune of 7 catches for 133 yards on 10 targets, for an average of 19 yards per catch.

On the surface that’s pretty pitiful. It’s like those memes that say “you had one job”. I feel as if that describes the Broncos defensive performance on Monday night; at least that what I kept saying to myself throughout the game. But there’s a little more to it than that.

What was the plan?

The issue is that Denver knew this was coming and supposedly had a plan for Kelce. Here’s what Vance Joseph had to say in his press conference leading up to the game.

how they use those guys makes it tough. Hill is a guy that’s tough because he’s everywhere. He’s a slot, he’s a ‘Z’ outside and he’s a halfback. That’s an issue when you’re facing Hill, you’re not sure where he’s going to be. If you’re in man-to-man coverage, you can have a corner in the box fitting the run game. That’s the issue with 10, not knowing where he’s going to line. As far as Kelce, it’s kind of the same thing. Who do you put on Kelce to have a fair match up? It’s tough because of how they use those guys.”

On who will be going up against Kelce

“Multiple guys. We have a plan for that and sometimes there will be two guys. It depends on the ‘DND’ (down and distance) and what the defense is called by [Defensive Coordinator] Joe [Woods]. We have a plan for him.”

Obviously the plan didn’t work super well. But, in the coaches’ defense, against Kansas City, you can’t lock onto one person in your gameplan because they can beat you other ways. This was the biggest problem I saw on tape on Monday night.

Trade offs

Denver had to be sound in all areas and Kansas City makes you defend the entire field, so dedicating special coverages or packages to Kelce could have been problematic.

Joe Woods alluded to this leading up the game.

“The thing when you play teams that have talent at multiple positions, you have to pick and choose what you’re going to do. If you turn all of your attention to one guy, now you have two or three other guys that are one-on-one or you create holes in you defense if you’re not as stout versus the run. We have to be very careful in terms of what we’re going to do. We do have a plan multiple ways in terms of trying to take care of him if he becomes an issue. He may have a few catches we just can’t let him have a big one.”

So Denver’s plan, from what I can tell, was essentially to defend him like they have other tight ends, and put more focus on being sound overall as a defense.

This had mixed results, as one could argue that Denver’s defense played well enough to win the game Monday night, especially given all the turnovers and bad field position from the offense.

Additionally, Denver held the Chiefs running attack at bay and shut Kareem Hunt down for only 46 yards on 22 attempts. He also gained 15 of those yards on one run, so for the rest of the night, Denver held him to 1.4 YPC.

They also held Tyreek Hill to 2 catches on 38 yards, on 6 targets.

Overall, Alex Smith completed 45% of his passes, for 202 yards and 1 touchdown.

This is the kind of bigger picture view we have to take when assessing Denver’s effectiveness as a defense. Even though it is very tempting (I certainly did it while watching this tape) to rail on the defense for failing at one particular aspect of the game.

With that said, that doesn’t stop us from critiquing that aspect and seeing what went wrong, while also discussing ways to make it better.

I just wanted to set that context before we dive into the film.

Play #1

Let’s get this one out of the way right away. This is exactly the kind of trade off we’re talking about. Kansas City splits both tight ends outside the numbers at pre-snap. Denver is in man free coverage (cover-1) and in order to maintain a solid box, and also keep corners on the outside receivers, Barrett follows one tight end (bottom of the screen), and Stewart mans up on Kelce.

I hate this matchup from the get-go. You see Smith look at Kelce three times pre-snap. Everyone knows where he’s going with the ball. I love Stewart, but he’s not a good matchup here.

Simmons is on the far hash likely because Tyreek Hill is in the slot on his side and you have to respect him deep.

Kelce runs a simple slant and go, and this is not even fair.

It’s also worth noting that Von Miller was on the sideline for this play, being spelled by Edebali. It is likely not a coincidence that several of the big pass plays that have happened this year have taken place when Von Miller was not on the field rushing the quarterback.

Play #2

This is one that I wanted to call out as a positive by Denver’s defense. Kelce is again lined up outside the numbers, but this time Denver is in a cover-3 so Roby is line up over him. Kelce runs a slant/flat combo with the slot receiver.

The player to watch here is Brandon Marshall in underneath zone coverage. He reads the QB’s eyes and breaks on the play with a good hit, and forces Kelce to drop it.

Play #3

This play design is one that Denver needs to figure out. If you recall my week 3 breakdown, Buffalo ran this concept against Denver with great success, and it is still giving them problems.

Denver is in cover-3 zone coverage.

This play is a cover-3 beater. I go into more depth in the Buffalo breakdown, so I won’t repeat that here, but essentially the fly/go route clears out the corner at the top of the screen, while the tight end comes across the field on a deep over route right into the vacated area.

The issue here, and it was this way on one of the big plays in Buffalo, is that Justin Simmons needs to break off his coverage and stay in his zone. Right now he’s carrying the deep receiver on the fly route through his zone, which is fine.

But he needs to pass him off to Roby who is responsible for that third of the field deep, and break on Kelce’s route at the 45 yard line.

So look above. You have Roby and Stewart in their deep zones ready to pick up the fly route, and Simmons is still running with him as well so that route is triple covered, and no one is on the biggest receiving threat on the team.

Harris is too shallow to do anything because he is watching the flat route, as he should, which is part of the offensive play design.

This one is on Simmons. I am ok with the coaches philosophy of covering everything else and not focusing solely on Kelce, if your normal coverages do their job; but running your normal coverage, not executing it well, and leaving the best receiving threat wide open as a result is a recipe for disaster.

Future adjustments

So where do we go from here?

Coach Vance Joseph has spoken about the upcoming matchup against the Eagles and the problems that Zach Ertz poses, coming on the heels of a big game from Kelce.

On Eagles TE Zach Ertz

“The same problems that the other guy posed us last week for us—‘87’ (TE Travis Kelse) in Kansas City. Those guys are tough matchups because they’re too big for corners and too fast for linebackers, and sometimes too fast and too big for safeties. We have to do a better job with those guys. We’ve played two of those guys—the Giants guy (Giants TE Evan Engram), the rookie. He hurt us a little bit, not much. Last week the guy had I think, seven-for-133, which is way too much—really four chunk plays. We have to figure out how to help our safeties and help our backers cover those guys better. They are matchup problems.”

The comment that stuck out to me is the thought about figuring out ways to help the safeties or linebackers cover the mismatches. Is that an actual adjustment that will be made, or just coach speak? Combine that with his further comments:

“We’re a man-free team because our corners. We have three corners that can play man-to-man against anyone in the league. That helps your pass rush and it helps the run game to load the box. Teams know that to find a soft spot in our pass defense, it’s not through those corners, it’s through our linebackers and safeties, which we all have watched this for three years, even when [Rams Defensive Coordinator] Wade [Phillips was here. It’s no secret. We have to do a better job of helping those guys versus the special tight end and special backs out of their back field.”

So if it’s been happening for three years, and coaches have been saying since then that they have to “do a better job” at covering those guys, shouldn’t they try something new?

Sadarine threw out a great suggestion in his No Bull Review the other day about matching up a corner like Talib on a big receiving tight end like Kelce or Ertz.

I chimed in on that post with some thoughts, and have been noodling on that ever since.

The most famous example of this was when Bill Belichick had Talib shadow Jimmy Graham all game in a 2013 matchup between the Patriots and Saints, when Talib played for New England.

So, I decided to go back and watch some of that tape just to see what I could see.

It was one of the coolest/craziest coaching decisions I’ve seen. Talib shadowed Graham nearly every play, and held him to zero catches on the day.

He lined up in the box as a linebacker.

He shadowed him over the top as a safety while a linebacker covered him underneath.

He followed him in motion and manned up with him downfield.

Wherever Graham went, Talib went.

I’m not saying Denver’s gameplan needs to be this extreme, and we’ve seen that there is merit to taking a big picture approach to gameplanning and shutting down the entire offense, even if that means allowing one player to put up stats.

However, it’s this kind of out of the box thinking that allows you to dream up new and exotic ways to take away the top weapons of the other team. I would love to see Denver try something like this against the Eagles this weekend to shut down Zach Ertz.

It will be interesting to see what adjustments, if any, the coaches make to improve on their performance last week.

That’s all I got for you! Let me know your thoughts in the comments.