The Denver Broncos are coming off of two straight victories and fighting to climb out of the division’s cellar. The Kansas City Chiefs are reeling after two straight defeats that have put a noticeable dent in their lead atop of the AFC West. Fangio and the Broncos have an opportunity to shock the NFL world tonight and give some serious weight to their postseason aspirations after a short week.
Here’s what we’re looking for:
How does Scangarello exploit the Chiefs’ weaknesses?
Jeff: So far this year, the Denver offense has taken on some stiff defenses, but finally get one that is primed for them to take advantage. The Chiefs have been horrible against the run, and if Chris Jones is out, that’s even better news for the Broncos.
Last week the Texans played keep away in the second half, sustaining long drives and only allowing the Chiefs to possess the ball 3 times in the second half of last week’s game. Denver’s offense needs to take a similar approach and pound the ball in the run game, and utilize the play action pass to exploit the LBs who have been pretty poor all year.
JoRo: While the Chiefs secondary has undergone improvement since 2018, Kansas City may well be down to just one of their three primary cornerbacks tonight. Kendall Fuller has been ruled out with an injury and Breshaud Breeland is officially listed as questionable because of a family matter. Behind them on the depth chart are rookie 6th rounder Rashad Fenton and Morris Claiborne.
After a knee injury knocked him out of the second half of the Titans’ game, Emmanuel Sanders was a full participant in practice yesterday. It’d make a lot of sense to pepper in a few shot plays for Sanders and Courtland Sutton to test the revamped secondary, so I’m watching to see if that’s something Scangarello dials up that Flacco can pull off.
There’s also reason to believe Scangarello and Flacco may be able to find some success attacking the second level. Deshaun Watson completed 90% of his targets to tight ends for over 100 yards last week, so I’m curious to see if Noah Fant, Andrew Beck, and Jeff Heuerman are a factor. Kansas City has also had issues defending tertiary receivers, so it’s another game where DaeSean Hamilton could chip in for a critical catch here or there.
I have concerns about Joe Flacco’s ability to play mistake free football and make the most of the Broncos’ scoring opportunities. While Kansas City has allowed 28 red zone trips in 2019, only 50% of those have been converted into touchdowns. I’ve mentioned before how Flacco’s struggled in the red zone this year. He’s also had serious issues against pressure.
Luckily for the Broncos, the pass rush has fallen off since Dee Ford’s departure. The Frank Clark trade has not been the upgrade on the edge they were looking for so far, and Chris Jones will not suit up. Without him Kansas City’s pass rush really falls off and Flacco should be able to climb in the pocket if there’s heat coming off the edges.
To exploit Flacco it would make sense for Chiefs’ defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to try and dial up more blitzes in order to make the 12-year veteran uncomfortable. I’m anxious to see if Leary and the line can do a better job picking up stunts and extra rushers if they come. It’d be even more encouraging if Flacco identified the pressure early and found ways to get rid of the ball for positive gains.
One way for Scangarello to help protect his line and quarterback is by pounding the rock. Kansas City’s run defense is once again woefully porous this season. They’ve given up close to 400 yards rushing over the last two games and rank last in the league by Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards metric.
Last year Bill Musgrave only gave Royce Freeman and Philip Lindsay 20 carries, even as they averaged 6.8 yards a carry. If it’s anything close to that effective tonight I hope the Broncos’ new OC goes to the well ‘til it runs out of water.
Joe M: The Chiefs defense has been terrible against the run, but I wanted to know if that was a few long runs skewing their average ypc allowed, or a bunch of 5-10 yard runs. They are currently 30th allowed 5.16 ypc (DEN is currently 16th). To answer this question I looked at the variance on run distance. I pulled the data for the distance (yards gained) for every run against the Chiefs (a bad run defense), Broncos (a mediocre, but much improved run defense) and the Jets (a really good run defense).
As you can see the Chiefs and Broncos defenses have given up as the seem total number of runs that gain 2-5 yards. The key difference, and where the KC defense has been terrible, is the runs of 5-10 yards. KC has been giving these out like candy on Halloween night. Through six games KC has allowed 63 runs that gained 5-10 yards. Denver has allowed less than half that many (31). KC has also allowed 22 runs that gained 11 or more yards. Denver has only allowed 14 and the Jets have only allowed 11. Not surprisingly, KC has allowed the 3rd most long runs (11 or more yards gained) in the league. Only CIN (33) and CLE (24) have allowed more. CHI and NE are tied for the fewest allowed with six. The Broncos are tied for 17th.
Chris Jones is a big part of the Chiefs ability to stop the run (as limited as it is) and he out for this game. He missed the game against the Texans and they had 17 runs that gained 5 or more yards with him out.
Can Denver convert on third down? Can the offense sustain drives?
Joe M: The Broncos offense has been pretty bad at converting on 3rd and 4th down this season. Denver is currently 21st at converting on 3rd down (33.3%) and only managed to convert 2 of 14 against the Titans. The Chiefs defense is currently ranked 17th in 3rd down conversion stoppage (40.8%), but an inability to stop conversions particularly in short yardage situations was a significant contributing factor. The Colts had sixteen chances on 3rd or 4th down and while they only converted seven of those sixteen, six of those seven were on short yardage situations (and five of those six conversions were by run). The Colts had an eight minute, a six minute and a five minute drive against the Chiefs and that wasn’t at altitude.
The Texans did much the same. They converted on eight of sixteen 3rd or 4th down situations. Unlike the Colts, the Texans chose to throw most of the time with six of their eight conversions coming via the pass. The Texans had drives that lasted eight, six, five, five, four, four and four minutes as they had the ball on offense for almost forty minutes of the game. Much like the Jags did to us, the Texans possessed the ball for almost the entire second half of the game. The Chiefs possessed the ball for 5:54 of the second half with almost all of that coming on their lone scoring drive of that half which lasted 4:25. Their other two drives of the half were three-and-outs where they gained a total of -3 yards.
For the Broncos to have success I think we are going to need to get into third and short situations. While the Chiefs defense has been one of the worst in the league at generating pressure, they have done a decent job at stopping opponents from converting on 3rd and medium or 3rd and short situations.
How can the banged up secondary contain the Chiefs’ passing game?
JoRo: One of the biggest myths is that playing man coverage is the solution to the Chiefs. This narrative took on legs after the Colts’ defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus leaned on man match two weeks ago in Indianapolis’ 19-13 upset.
Like all good legends, it overlooks and skews a lot of facts. Indy went with man in large part because Tyreek Hill didn’t play and Sammy Watkins tried (and failed) to play through a hamstring issue. Man coverage is going to work a lot better when you’re defending an opponents third, fourth, and fifth receivers.
With Hill and Kelce both in the lineup, I’m curious to see if Fangio sticks to his typical coverage shells. The good news is Duke Dawson should be in the lineup, which means Parks will move back to a more limited role after playing 71% of the snaps against the Titans.
Jeff: As Joe alluded to above, there is this narrative floating around that the Colts and Texans found the “blueprint” for stopping the Chiefs offense, and that blueprint involves playing a lot of man coverage. Thus, conventional wisdom would follow that Denver and any team who plays them should follow suit.
However, like most things, it’s not that simple. First of all, as Joe also mentioned, Kansas City was short handed for those two losses. Second, a lot of the Chiefs offensive struggles were brought on by themselves, killing drives with penalties and not executing.
Certainly playing good man coverage can be effective against Kansas City, however, there are some downsides to playing it all the time, and ways the Chiefs exploit man coverage. Let’s take a look at a few of them below.
This wheel route to the back is a brilliant play and specifically designed to trip up man coverage. The tight man coverage here is what Kansas City uses against the Texans with the tight end coming up the field and essentially setting a pick, and then the slant coming underneath.
The dimebacker covering the running back now has to work through both of those players to get to his man, and as a result, the back is wide open.
Another thing Andy Reid does against man coverage is his patented screen game.
Kansas City draws defenders away from the boundary at the outset just by nature of the formation, with the 3x1 set. Now look at when the running back releases, most defenders have their backs to the ball and to the play, so it is harder for them to rally up for the tackle.
Denver will for sure have to be on the lookout for these screens on Thursday as the Chiefs are some of the best in the league at them.
Lastly, the Chiefs burn man coverage by creating mismatches on their weapons. Here they split Kelce out wide at the bottom of the image. Next, they motion the back towards the strong side, pulling the underneath defender out of the potential throwing lane.
The result is Travis Kelce 1-on-1 with the entire side of the formation to work with, which creates a big play.
This isn’t to say that man coverage never works, but Denver needs to be careful and can’t over-commit to it, as Kansas City has plenty of tools in the toolbox to beat it.
So what CAN work against Kansas City?
Here is something I noticed from the Texans that feeds into Joe’s point below. The Texans were able to get pressure on Mahomes when they were able to shut down his first read and make him hold onto the ball.
Travis Kelce is Mahomes’ go-to guy, and he’ll often look there first. The Texans essentially double covered Kelce at times by keeping a dimebacker/safety in the box ready to undercut his inside.
You can see in the example above, that’s where Mahomes wants to go with the ball, but the dimebacker makes him hesitate and hold the ball. Before he can come off his first read to find the open man on the flare route, the pass rush was on him, forcing a fumble.
Here it is another time.
This time, the safety has dropped down and is playing more of that robber role from their traditional safety spot. This was a successful tactic for the Texans and it allowed them to relatively contain Travis Kelce last week, and allowed the pass rush to get home.
With Kareem Jackson and Justin Simmons in the secondary, I can definitely see Vic Fangio mixing in some more robber style concepts for one of those guys to try and take away the easy looks over the middle, possibly force a turnover, but also force Mahomes to hold the ball and find his other reads.
Could the pass rush neuter the reigning MVP?
JoRo: If the Broncos can’t make Patty Melt uncomfortable, everything else is secondary. This is why Elway brought Vic Fangio on board: his guiding philosophy is to get after the quarterback with as few rushers as possible. If the secondary can prevent big plays, it will force Mahomes into methodical marches. The more chances the rush has to get after him, the better.
Lost amid the crying over sacks has been the fact that Von Miller has more pressures than all but three players in the NFL this season. Since Bradley Chubb’s injury Fangio has been moving Miller around even more to get him ideal matchups, and the Chiefs’ Eric Fisher and Andrew Wylie will miss the game. That leaves the Chiefs with backups at both spots on the left side of the line.
Mahomes’ ankle is bothering him and seems to flare up over the course of the game. With a short week of rest, there’s a very real possibility he won’t have the same escapability he used to beat the Broncos in their first matchup last year. After he went down on a second quarter pass against the Texans, Mahomes’ yards per completion were cut in half and he was clearly hampered.
If Andy Reid is concerned about protecting Mahomes from the pass rush, he could look to try and run the ball more. Barring a total collapse of Fangio’s revamped defense though, it probably won’t be effective. Since kickoff against the Chargers two weeks ago, the Broncos have allowed less than two yards a carry to opposing teams.
Jeff: Tying in with what I said above and with what Joe has mentioned, Denver will definitely have to be on the lookout for Mahomes escaping the pocket to create plays. Yes, he is hobbled with injury, but he is still extremely dangerous when he’s allowed to escape the pocket and play backyard football.
Just check out what he did to Indianapolis:
When asked about Mahomes ability to create outside the pocket, Vic Fangio said,
“With a guy like this, you have to defend two plays: the one they’ve called and then the one he might create. That makes it tough.”
These kinds of plays are exactly what he was talking about.
Denver has to stay disciplined in their rush lanes and not let Mahomes outside the pocket to create big plays.
Denver has a chance to claw their way right back into contention with a third straight win tonight. The Chiefs present the biggest test yet, but pass and they’re 3-4 with a potential tiebreaker over the current AFC West leader.
Pressure makes diamonds, will the Broncos shine?
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It’s tough sledding, but if Denver can find a way to knock off the Chiefs on Thursday, that puts them only one game back from Kansas City in the division and gives them a real shot to go into the bye week sitting at something like 4-5, with a lot of momentum on their side.
I’m not claiming it will happen, or that it’s even very probable, but Denver will have a great opportunity over the back half of this schedule to really see how they shape up against the majority of the top teams in the conference. A conference that, aside from New England and Kansas City, doesn’t really have a lot of clear standouts after that.
That’s two in a row, which feels pretty darn good to this fan. Add to it that we dominated the Titans defensively and you have good reason to celebrate, Broncos Country. Why? We’re just 2-4 at this point, right? Because it is growth, that’s why. We’re seeing an actual competent coaching staff for the first time in three years and this game was great evidence of it, especially on defense.
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21. DENVER BRONCOS The addition of Joe Flacco to the Broncos has made a marginal difference, improving their EPA per pass from 25th to 21st from 2018 to 2019. He ranks eighth among qualifying signal-callers in clean-pocket passing grade through Week 6, but his play under pressure is a different story. He ranks in the bottom 10 in passing grade when under pressure at 39.3.
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