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GIF Horse - Chopping down the Chiefs

What will it take for the Broncos to upset Kansas City?

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NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Kansas City Chiefs
Denver doesn’t need to stop Mahomes, but they can’t win if they don’t find a way to slow him down a little.
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

I can’t remember the last time Broncos Country has been so down while their team had a winning record, but here we are. It’s not completely surprising given that Denver has beaten two teams that look ready to compete for the top of the draft in close fashion while losing a game in all facets to a Ravens team that looks ready to contend for the playoffs. There are a few positives to glean from the Baltimore game, but there’s hardly time for morale victories with Kansas City on the horizon. Let’s dive in.

The Good - This rookie class looks special.

Ravens were ready for Woods coverage calls from the start, but Bradley Chubb got home.

Through 3 weeks Bradley Chubb has been a monster so far. He has put up pressure in spades and should only improve as he further acclimates to opposing offenses. His play hasn’t resulted in a ton of individual numbers so most casual fans and media outlets haven’t noticed, but he’s been really impressive.

Courtland Sutton is beating people with sheer talent. Wait ‘til he figures out the nuances of the position.

If you were paying attention back during the draft, Denver was looking hard at Will Hernandez but pivoted to a raw receiver out of SMU when the Giants took the apple of their eye. Since then Courtland Sutton has done nothing but look like the heir apparent to Demaryius Thomas as the too big, too fast monster. What’s really exciting is that he’s still just figuring it out. Barring injury, he should only get better as the year goes on.

While Lindsay’s gotten all the love, Freeman has quietly been a very steady producer for the Musgrave offense.

The Thunder back in the Broncos backfield, Royce Freeman did just about all he could with the chances provided to carry Denver to victory Sunday. He routinely flashes the kind of power, vision and burst that had me so high on him for my first GIF Horse.

The Bad - In a word? Keenum.

He had pressure in his face, but this is a bad read and terrible decision.

The play above effectively ended the comeback attempt and while the situation demanded a sense of urgency Keenum would have been better served throwing this away. Easier said than done of course with pressure coming up the middle, but Keenum doesn’t have the kind of arm where a throw off his back foot is ever a good idea.

It’s easy to point to the interception, but that alone fails to capture the struggle.

Week 3 Quick Reads | Football Outsiders

Inside the Baltimore 30, Keenum went 2-of-5 for 13 yards with no first downs, one interception, and one sack-fumble. From the two-minute mark of the first quarter to the seven-minute mark of the third, he had a stretch of 16 straight dropbacks without a first down. In that time, he went 6-of-13 for 41 yards with three sacks and a fumble.

As optimistic as I was going into the season, it’s fair to start to wonder if the questionable play will elevate or if Keenum is what he is.

So far Keenum in 2018 is not even playing as well as TS did in 2017’s first quarter of the season. He could improve, every quarterback has iffy play from time to time but many of the interceptions have been bad decisions. Hardly the most efficient way to spend $20 million.

Now as bad as that is, there’s a hidden bit of good beneath Keenum’s struggles: this offense has a lot of talent. Musgrave doesn’t need the QB to beat the world, he just has to make smarter decisions with the football and let the playmakers do the rest. Case showed with the Vikings he could potentially do that. If he wants to retire a Bronco as he said before the season started, it’s time he played within his capabilities. Take the check downs when they’re there and throw the ball away if the alternative is disaster.

Denver Broncos 3rd and long: pecked to death by the Baltimore Ravens - Mile High Report

The Broncos offense has converted on eight of 18 3rd and long situations (44.4%). Contrast that with the 49ers who have only converted one of 19 (5.3%). For comparison, our offense converted a total of 29 third and longs during the 2017 season (24.8% conversion) which was in the bottom half of the league. The 2017 offense also turned the ball over six times on 3rd and long and allowed eight sacks in those situations. While our offense has allowed two sacks on third and long this season, none of the five interceptions have come on third and long plays.

The Ugly - Denver’s 3 fatal flaws 3 games in.

This is what happens when stopping the run > defending against the pass in 2018.
  1. Baltimore’s tight ends caught 4 of the 5 passes thrown their way Sunday and could have done more damage if the game had been closer. Su’a Cravens’ absence has stopped being a convenient excuse for the woeful defense against tightends. Woods has to do more without compromising the rest of the integrity of the defense, but it remains to be seen if he can.
  2. Play action has also been a huge issue in every game so far this year. There are times this is combined with number 1, as in the play above. It isn’t just one player, which is a sign there’s a coaching issue. Since Joseph and Woods have come to Denver, the Broncos D has become a sandpit for opposing running backs, but it’s a passing league. Teams will gladly trade the running game for wide open receivers.
The Broncos secondary lacks the talent to simply line up in Cover 1 and win every down.

I’m already running out of ways to say Joe Woods needs to mix up his coverages. It was a key last week following the Raiders game and that noise will only get louder the longer Denver’s defensive coordinator throws an over-matched secondary into man coverage time and again. Harris has said it, Joe Flacco basically said it. Joe Woods and Vance Joseph need to adjust.

Before the Baltimore beat down, Denver’s hogs looked like one of the better units in the league. They were the only team in the league to have a line ranking among Football Outsiders best in Adjusted Line Yards and Adjusted Sack Rate. Then Suggs and Wink Martindale’s zone blitz’ exposed the unit as a work in progress.

Keep in mind that Keenum’s struggles spill over into the sack rate a great deal, but as the tweet above illustrates: Bolles will still have his fair share of really bad plays, even if you forget his bear hug holds.

The good news? It sounds like Chiefs edge rusher Dee Ford could be limited or absent Monday night. If he can’t go it will be a combination of rookie Breeland Speaks and second-year outside linebacker Tanoh Kpassagnon manning his spot.

Denver’s going to need to score points to keep up with KC, so any little bit helps.

Keeping up with Kansas City

Play designs like this with the talent KC has on offense are all but impossible to stop.

Every Broncos fan I’ve talked to since the season started has said some version of “the league will figure out the KC offense.” That may be true to an extent. Reid has always been harder to defend in September than November. At the same time, Reid has never had an offense with as much raw talent as his 2018 Chiefs.

Nothing fancy, just 3 verticals to the left here.

The problem defensive coordinators are currently having with Mahomes and the Chiefs is there’s too much speed on their offense to defend. Reid has always stressed defenses horizontally, which is a big part of the success Alex Smith had. Last year they began to push the ball downfield more and that’s continued into this season.

There are 3 different receivers open during parts of this play. That’s insane.

What’s changed is that between Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, and Travis Kelce, Kansas City has so much speed that few if any secondaries can truly bottle them up. Then you add Mahomes’ arm and willingness to go deep? It’s a lethal combination.

As I alluded to for Horse Tracks yesterday, the Broncos are among the worst teams in the league against deep passes, tight ends and throws to the middle of the field. They aren’t going to stop Mahomes. The question is: can they slow him down enough to keep up?

When Mahome’s been taken down he often has underneath options he never saw.

There is little doubt Mahomes will become more adept at finding his check downs when faced with threatening pass rush, but his affinity for bombs has left him susceptible to blind spots.

Mahomes is always looking for the home run, which leaves him missing singles and doubles at times.

Now it’s not as if he hasn’t found the hot reads more often than not. He has, but if there’s a hole in his game that can be exploited that seems to be it. It could be incredibly frustrating for fans but Woods may be wise to move closer to an Oakland game plan where he gives up the underneath in order to force Kansas City to complete a million passes rather than one. It will require a few wrinkles sprinkled in to keep the Chiefs off balance, but that would provide Von Miller and the Orange Rush more opportunities to cause an errant throw.

Don’t be surprised if Mahomes winds up in empty as a way to combat this. Reid and the Chiefs used this to devastating effect against the Steelers and has sprinkled it into every game so far. The pass rush has to get home if they see it Monday.

Houston looked like his old self at times last week.

On offense the game plan should be simple. Keep Justin Houston quiet and play keep away ball. It won’t be easy, as they’re better than they’ve been given credit for so far. Kendall Fuller and the secondary has done an admirable job minus Eric Berry while Chris Jones has flashed along the defensive line. Where the Chiefs are weakest is their run defense out of sub packages and defending against the pass in the intermediate areas. It’d be wise for Musgrave and the Broncos to fully utilize their run game out of 11 personnel groups

That means grinding out the clock with Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman as well as managing the down and distance to stay on the field. Keenum could quiet his critics if he does just that.