Don’t look now, but the Broncos are 3-2 in the post Joe Flacco era, and 2-0 since a certain rookie quarterback was added to the active roster. I will readily admit I did not expect Vic Fangio to find a way to slow down the Houston Texans last week and that the only way I saw Denver pulling it out was in a barn burner.
This week is looking even more daunting. Once again the Broncos are matched up against one of the best teams in the AFC and once again I’m having a hard time seeing how they’ll pull it out. The Chiefs are built to win in the modern NFL, and how Denver fares could provide some hints as to where Elway and the team goes from here.
1. Can the rookie find the mismatches?
2. Will Spagnuolo break the Lock?
3. Can Scangarello and Munchak exploit K.C.’s run D?
For as long as I’ve been a diehard fan of the NFL, I’ve known that total yards is a bull$#!+ way to rate team performance. Rarely has it accurately measured up to what the Broncos are going to square off against quite like this week’s Kansas City defense. By total yards, the Chiefs are 20th in the league and allowing 364.8 yards per game. Teams like Washington and the Browns are better.
Diving into the efficiency states like Football Outsiders’ DVOA provides a much cleaner look, as it illuminates which have been the hardest teams in the league for number one receivers to perform against and has really clamped down on tight ends.
Obviously that’s a pretty big deal, as the Broncos’ two best weapons in the passing game are Noah Fant and Courtland Sutton. As was the case last week, it’s going to be critical for the complimentary pieces in the passing game to step up and make the most of their opportunities.
It's gotten overlooked by most #Broncos Country, but the #Chiefs are one of the best teams in the league at taking away opponent's primary option in the passing game.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 14, 2019
Lock will need to find Patrick and Hamilton again. pic.twitter.com/wXKMkjM9Dv
That means Lock has to continue to show growth within the Broncos’ offense. Last week he mixed in some jaw dropping throws with a few concerning moments, leaving plenty of room for improvement even with such an impressive outcome.
One of the more intimidating things about this match-up is how the Chiefs’ defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has the pieces to throw pre-snap/post-snap confusion at Lock. For all of the promise he’s shown in the last two weeks, Lock still has a tendency to stick onto his primary read and stare down his receivers.
Spags will try to bait him into mistakes if that continues, and with Frank Clark, Tanoh Kpassagnon, and Chris Jones, he also has the kind of pass rush to really punish the rookie if he isn’t quick with his decision-making.
One big concern I have about the Chiefs is how they have both the pieces and scheme to really abuse the #Broncos inexperienced players on passing downs.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 14, 2019
Chris Jones (95) is going to be a huge problem. pic.twitter.com/FGOqzpJOIM
With news that Ron Leary will miss his second consecutive game, I took a quick look back through Austin Schlottmann’s first career start against the Texans and came away concerned.
Romeo Crennel didn’t hesitate to test him early and often with stunts aimed at forcing him to make quick decisions after the snap. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Spagnuolo does the same, especially with Elijah Wilkinson back in the starting lineup. Schlottmann showed issues with grip strength in the run game and pass game and was often slow to engage with his hands. This allowed his opponents to get into his body and made it difficult for him to win the rep.
Even before the weathermen were predicting a 100% chance of snow, it made a lot of sense for Rich Scangarello and the Broncos’ coaching staff to try to manage the down and distances with Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman. Now that they are, I’d almost guarantee it.
On paper, the Broncos’ run game against the Chiefs’ run defense looks like the one distinct advantage that favors Denver. However, it’s not so clear cut. Since the bye week, the Broncos’ run game has begun to slow down, as Brandon Allen and Drew Lock have led opposing coordinators to dare the young quarterbacks to beat them. At the same time, Kansas City’s front seven has started to solidify since the debacle against Derrick Henry and the Titans.
The Chiefs’ biggest issues with run defense have been along the right side in 2019, but with Andy Janovich on I.R. and backups starting at both right guard and tackle, it may be tough sledding. It’s going to be interesting to see if the play calling comes under fire for being “conservative” after the game if the rushing attack yield the kind of results Broncos’ Country hopes for.
It'd make a ton of sense for the #Broncos to try to protect Drew Lock with the rushing attack. So much so that I'd think Kansas City will gear up to stop it first and foremost. pic.twitter.com/ps5BIzNHwq— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 14, 2019
4. Who’s left?
5. Does Fangio have any more magic tricks to slow down Mahomes?
Have you seen the Broncos injury report heading into this game? It’s ugly. Both Adam Gotsis and Dre’Mont Jones have already been ruled out, which has led the Broncos to signing Deyon Sizer and bringing back Kyle Peko.
So the defensive linemen who will be playing Sunday are Shelby Harris, Mike Purcell, Jonathan Harris and Deyon Sizer (of CSU-Pueblo). Might not need a fifth. Hard to believe Kyle Peko and Dre’Mont Jones would be activated but this is an unusual week. #9sports https://t.co/IxqhdCWcvz— Mike Klis (@MikeKlis) December 14, 2019
Keep in mind that even prior to Gotsis’ injury Denver got gashed on the ground by the Texans. Generally speaking, when the inside linebackers and safeties combine for 37 tackles, it’s a bad sign, and such was the case last Sunday. A ton of credit has to go to Kareem Jackson on third down or the game could have easily snowballed in the Texans’ favor.
Going back through the tape from the Houston game and safe to say the 1st half would've looked a lot like the 2nd on defense for Denver if not for big plays by Kareem Jackson.— Jeffrey Essary (@JeffreyEssary) December 14, 2019
He nearly single-handedly stymied the Texans in the first half.#BroncosCountry
If the Broncos are going to stand a chance against the Chiefs, the back seven is once again going to have to carry the day. Even with Kansas City’s struggles running the ball for most of the year, I’d expect Andy Reid to test the Denver front early and often to combat the weather and try to protect his quarterback’s dinged up hand.
When they do go to the air, there’s going to be an enormous amount of pressure on the coverage players. They’ll need to carry their assignments for an extended period of time with Von Miller the only remaining pass rusher that Kansas City has to game plan for. Any and all contributions from Shelby Harris and especially the younger defenders like Malik Reed and Justin Hollins will be well received.
At the end of the day, the best defense Denver’s defense may have against Patrick Mahomes is mother nature. If the snow and wind get bad enough it may keep the deep crossing routes to Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, Travis Kelce, and Mecole Hardman at a minimum.
There is a 100% chance of snow Sunday, and now the second wave is also targeting our area for Monday. So, additional amounts are likely with that second wave. This shows the potential snowfall during the @Chiefs game tomorrow! pic.twitter.com/Fes6N7gBS3— Gary Lezak (@glezak) December 14, 2019
These past two weeks have felt an awful lot like I’m playing the pessimist, which isn’t my intention. Houston and Kansas City simply represent the two toughest opponents on the remaining schedule, while the Broncos’ injury situation has the roster looking like a M.A.S.H. unit.
For a team playing for 2020, it’s a good opportunity to see where the young players are. It just also leaves me in a situation where it’s hard to bet on a positive final result. At least right now this Chiefs game looks like a process over results kind of contest.
That said? 8-8 ‘til we aren’t.