This time last week the Denver Broncos 2018 season looked like it was circling the drain. Justin Herbert was on a lot of minds, people were taking bets on how long Vance Joseph had and questions of John Elway’s performance were quietly being raised.
Credit the Arizona Cardinals for this, they make a good rebound game. While turnovers and a dominant defensive performance pushed the contest out of hand quickly, it’s worth a look to see how Denver did at accomplishing the three keys I set out for them last week. All 3 will be important in Arrowhead.
Cardinals Key #1 Manage the Down and Distance
If we’re going to pick nits after a 45-10 win, here’s a good place to start. The Broncos had six 3 and outs against Arizona. In and of itself this isn’t a huge issue as the Cardinals do have a stronger defense than they get credit for, but calling plays like a receiver screen on 3rd and 2 is plays against the strength of the offense.
Cardinals Key #2 Make the Rookie Running Backs Astronauts
The Broncos accomplished this with Lindsay, who broke 3 different 10+ yard runs.
One area of concern going forward is the amount of times the Broncos backs got stuffed for no gain. When news broke of Leary’s injury I predicted that the line would take a step back and that does appear to be the case one game in. Again, the Cardinals D is actually better than conventional stats make them appear so this isn’t a huge concern this week but it bears monitoring.
The other problem going forward is the Royce Freeman injury, obviously. It looks like he’s day to day but even if he can go a bum ankle means he’ll lose a good bit of his lateral mobility. The hope here is Philip Lindsay, not Booker, carries a heavier load.
Cardinals Key #3 Hold up Against the Run, but Respect Play Action
There’s a reason Mike McCoy got fired, because he did the Broncos every kind of favor with his play calling. All season McCoy has routinely run David Johnson into the gut of opposing defenses and he called play action even less often than Musgrave, despite similar levels of success when he does.
Against the Broncos it was much the same. Rosen’s first pass was an empty set that gave the pass rush a key to get their hands up. One Todd Davis pick later and the rout was on.
By the time McCoy called the first play action pass for Josh Rosen, it was 28-3. The pass did gain 6 yards on first and 10. The second time was directly following the Case Keenum interception to Patrick Peterson when McCoy called a 2 route shot play. Rosen completed it for 16 yards but it was defended as well as you could reasonably hope for.
The next time the Cardinals ran a play action pass, the game was beyond out of hand and the pass rush had their ears pinned back. At that point it did more harm than good.
How did Keenum look?
Keenum made better decisions under duress than he had against the Ravens or Jets, which was a concern going in. Earlier this season there have been too many times where he’s tried to squeeze the ball or make something happen when it’s smarter to just move on to the next down.
More than once I’ve compared Keenum to Jake Plummer, who admittedly has a special place in my heart. One reason for this is that Jake the Snake only cared about one stat: winning. Like Keenum he wasn’t a world beating talent in his own right, but on his best days he mixed in just enough gunslinger to make plays the D left open to him. Gary Kubiak and Shanahan also did a masterful job of maximizing his strengths through the scheme, so calls like this from Musgrave were very encouraging.
The run action to Lindsay did enough to freeze both backers and get the line chasing, which gave Keenum the time he needed to setup and find Emmanuel Sanders, who was wide open because the safety inexplicably came down on the intermediate route.
It almost ended in disaster though. Billy Turner was slow enough out of his stance on the snap that Olsen Pierre goes completely untouched. A sloppier play fake or better defensive tackle destroys this play before it goes airborne.
Outside of the 64-yard touchdown Keenum was 13-20 for 98 yards and a pick that never should have been thrown. We’ll call the Cardinals game a step in the right direction, even if he still reverts to full Snake mode sometimes.
On to Arrowhead
Everything I said before the first game with the Chiefs is still applicable, so if you haven’t already read it you should. It’s fitting the game comes in week 8 because it is likely the biggest game of the Broncos season. Win this and Denver’s back in a realistic playoff hunt with another game in Oakland and both Chargers games left on the schedule.
Key #1 Slow down Dee Ford
As a unit the Chiefs defense is not good. Anyone who has watched a game this year can tell you that, but their pass defense isn’t bad, just average. Bob Sutton’s secondary has actually done a commendable job defending primary receivers (such as holding A.J. Green to 7 catches on 14 targets) and rank as one of the 10 best defenses at defending the middle of the field.
What drives that pass defense? The pass rush and specifically Dee Ford, who is tied for fifth in the league with 21.5 pressures through 7 weeks. In the first tilt between the two, Denver lost Jared Veldheer and Kansas City saw Ford play through a groin injury. He still caused all sorts of issues and is a glaring mismatch across from Turner. Musgrave needs to scheme to protect his right tackle in this one or Keenum’s going to spend all day running for his life.
Chips by Heuerman, Janovich and the backs should come early and often and force the rest of the Kansas City pass rushers to make plays. Justin Houston had a strong performance against Bolles in the first game, but he’s nowhere near the player he was earlier in his career.
Musgrave should also emphasize a quick passing game this week targeting the slot receivers, backs and tight ends. It wouldn’t be a shock if Courtland Sutton or Sanders has a big game because that’s a mismatch in Denver’s favor.
Key #2 Run the Damn Ball
Stop me if you’ve read this before, but Musgrave and the Broncos need to ride or die with the running game. In the first game with Kansas City Denver’s backs averaged 6.7 yards a carry. While the Chiefs defense is better against the pass than they get credit for, they’re dreadful against the run. They’re a bottom 5 team in every direction by Football Outsiders Adjusted Line Yards.
Leaning on the ground game will protect Keenum, manage the down and distance as well as shorten the game and make every drive Patrick Mahomes leads more important. If this turns into a shootout the odds heavily favor Kansas City’s aerial circus.
Key #3 Force Mahomes into mistakes
The Patriots called Cover 1 here with man coverage on the outside and a single safety over the top to help on deep passes. Patrick Chung dropped into a short zone because his assignment stayed in to give Mahomes time, while Dont’a Hightower dropped into the underneath zone and effectively bracket Travis Kelce on the crosser. By design the primary read on the play was the crosser because the play action would force the second level defenders to step up on the run, but Hightower dropped in time and Mahomes never saw him. What’s notable is that the pass rush didn’t influence the decision, and if he had looked, Mahomes had a streaking Sammie Watkins open in single coverage deep. He just didn’t see him.
Joe Woods and Vance Joseph can’t count on Mahomes giving them an unforced gift though. Mahomes doesn’t take many sack, but he’s made magic happen under pressure all season. He’s a special talent on the fly, but if he’s allowed to sit back and diagnose zone coverage he’s going to surgically cut the Fly Zone to pieces. Man coverage with a variety of blitz calls is the recipe for success Sunday.
Patrick Mahomes— Steve Palazzolo (@PFF_Steve) October 18, 2018
PFF Grade vs. zone concepts: 93.3 (1st)
PFF Grade vs. man concepts: 63.4 (25th)
Always some gray area when it comes to man/zone (there are plenty of hybrids), but this gets you in the ballpark
Lost in the glow of their 45-10 whooping of the Cincinnati Bengals was news that the Chiefs lost Jordan Devey to a pectoral injury, he’s a starting guard who has filled in at center in recent weeks because Mitch Morse has lingering concussion symptoms. Devey’s injury leaves Kansas City incredibly thin on the interior of their line after right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif was placed on injured reserve, he fractured his fibula and sustained injuries to his ankle ligaments against Jacksonville. If Joseph and Woods are smart they’ll test that depth early and often. The Broncos need to utilize stunts and twists as the new starters won’t have had much time to gel as a unit. This could also help Von Miller if it forces Mitchell Schwartz into either/or situations. The same could be said of Bradley Chubb if the scheme calls for attacks on Chiefs left tackle Eric Fisher.
To be perfectly honest, the Broncos could accomplish Key 1 and 2 and still lose. While it looked better against the Cardinals, Denver’s run D could prove problematic again this Sunday.
Lost in the AZ win is an adjustment by Woods to help the run D. The Jets and Rams murdered Denver's nickel D by running out of 11 personnel. So against AZ, they kept base D against 11p and just shifted Simmons over the slot.— Jeffrey Essary (@JeffreyEssary) October 22, 2018
Good tweak by Denver's staff. Wanna see more of this. pic.twitter.com/wfViRjXjai
The Broncos will be forced to use more nickel versus Reid’s offense because of the talent at wide receiver. The Chiefs offense is literally a pick your poison kind of set up so the best case scenario may very well look a lot like the Rams game, with Mahomes being stymied ala Jared Goff, but Kareem Hunt running wild. That’s still better than a quiet hunt but 400 yard, 5 touchdown game from the Kansas City quarterback.
Many Denver fans are in denial but there is no doubt that Patrick Mahomes is going to be the next face of the NFL. He’s a legitimate MVP candidate and is about as promising a young QB as I’ve seen. More and more it’s looking like the only way to beat the Chiefs in 2018 is have a strong game offensively and find a way to steal a possession or two.