While Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, and Travis Kelce make up the scariest passing attack in the NFL, it is their defense that scares me most this year. If 2020 is about evaluating Drew Lock and growth for the Broncos’ young offense, Kansas City will be quite the test. They have pieces up front to get to the quarterback and guys like Tyrann Mathieu to capitalize on mistakes.
To get an idea what lies ahead I reached out to Arrowhead Pride’s Craig Stout, their resident defensive expert.
1st and 10
The Chiefs’ defense will always play second fiddle to Mahomes’ aerial circus, but they are really good this year. The pass defense in particular has me worried. How have they done so well with the issues at cornerback to start the season?
Stout: Steve Spagnuolo has typically done more with less at the cornerback position than most defensive coaches, and that’s because it’s a very friendly scheme to the boundary defenders.
Tyrann Mathieu, Juan Thornhill, and Dan Sorensen clog the middle zones, and Mathieu in particular is scary in a “robber” role for most quarterbacks. That helps to take away the middle of the field and force more throws to the boundary or short of the sticks. When offenses become more one-dimensional in where they’re willing to attack, it makes cornerback leverage easier on the outside and forces more timing-based throws, rather than relying on longer-developing route concepts.
The Chiefs just got Bashaud Breeland back in the lineup, and look to have athletic rookie L’Jarius Sneed — who started Weeks 1-3 and looked terrific — back soon off of IR. With the Chiefs pass-rush looking spry thus far this season, we might actually see the Chiefs get better than their currently-third-ranked pass defense.
2nd and 7
How do you expect Steve Spagnuolo to call this game? What should Broncos’ Country expect on passing downs?
Stout: Expect aggression out of Spagnuolo from the first snap of the game. Spagnuolo has called the fourth highest blitz percentage on passing downs in the league, and has incorporated a significant run blitz package into his defense over the last two weeks.
The defense disguises looks well and has a diverse pressure package, which has led to a lot of free rushers this season and some significant quarterback hits. Spagnuolo isn’t afraid to drop his nose tackle into the slant window when rushing five players to take away the hot read, and he plays a lot of trap coverage to the blitzing side of the field to take advantage of quarterback tendencies.
The approach isn’t the “throw the kitchen sink at them” one that Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale uses, but more of a hyper focused blitz package with man-match and trap zone coverages on the back end.
Spags came out with a blitz heavy script to limit the Bills vertical passing game. Even their PA shots -- and the flea flicker below -- had pressure.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) October 20, 2020
Field CB blitz, two man route from BUF. Hitchens processes quickly and lays a big hit on Allen, Thornhill contests the vertical. pic.twitter.com/LYaXZzhXo5
3rd and 3
Chris Jones and Frank Clark are no joke. Garett Bolles has never played better, but the rest of the Broncos’ line is only just starting to find its footing and will probably play without Dalton Risner. What are they in for Sunday?
Stout: Chris Jones is typically a problem in the passing game — he’s an elite interior pass rusher, and that’s difficult for most teams to defend — but last week against Buffalo was a clinical performance. Jones lived in the backfield for much of the day and had a ridiculous 26% pressure rate on his passing downs. He took advantage of a shaky interior offensive line, and Josh Allen was uncomfortable for most of the day because of it.
Frank Clark also had a quieter, but quality day against the Bills with a 16% pressure rate. Clark will line up on both sides of the field, kick inside on a passing down, and aligns as a wide nine rusher all in the same drive, and offenses have to keep an eye on his alignment. He is tasked with a lot of containment rushes and edge-setting in the blitz-heavy scheme, but really gets the opportunity to tee off in later-game four man rushes. If the Chiefs extend a lead and the Broncos have rely on a pass-heavy script this week, Jones’ and Clark’s shifting alignments and rush ability could give a depleted offensive line some fits.
On live charting (aka, I could have made a mistake), the Chiefs didn't play any base defense this week.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) October 20, 2020
Bills spent most of the game in 10 and 11 personnel. When they DID go 21 or 22, the Chiefs stayed in nickel/dime. https://t.co/VfjPgpYB3g
4th and 1
It looks like the run defense has had issues this year. How can Pat Shurmur capitalize? Have they been more susceptible to gap or zone runs?
Stout: Thus far this season, it hasn’t appeared to be one more than the other that have damaged the Chiefs. They have given up some big runs to gap schemes — the Devontae Booker run against the Las Vegas Raiders springs to mind — but have some penetrating defensive linemen that have made plays inserting behind pulling blockers.
Conversely, the combo blocks in zone schemes were especially damaging in the first two weeks, but Spagnuolo has countered with Derrick Nnadi and Mike Pennel on early downs to hold the point of attack and keep the linebackers clean. In truth, the damaging runs for the Chiefs have simply been to the outside.
Kansas City has defended the interior fairly well, and Anthony Hitchens in particular has had several good performances in a row. However, the Chiefs don’t have a particularly rangy linebacker on the field unless they’re in their base defense, where rookie Willie Gay Jr. gets WILL linebacker snaps. Frank Clark sets a particularly hard edge, so offenses tend to avoid him in the run game, but the other side of the field has been vulnerable to stretch runs in 2020. Since Denver is already comfortable attacking the boundary with their running game, I’d expect that Shurmur could find success in that avenue this week.
Derrick Nnadi continues to make an impact from the NT position for KC, and had a great game this week.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) October 20, 2020
BUF with a pin/pull leaves Nnadi 1v1 with the RG. Extends and gets eyes in the backfield while flowing with the play. RB commits, and he sheds to make the tackle. pic.twitter.com/72bm8b3ycX
What’s your prediction for the game?
Stout: Divisional games are difficult. Yes, Andy Reid and the Chiefs have typically run through the AFC West as of late, but there’s rarely a “gimmie” on the divisional schedule.
I expect a run-heavy attack out of the Broncos early to try to take a little bit of the air out of the game, and I expect it to find some success. The Broncos weapons match up favorably with the Chiefs cornerbacks, but Drew Lock will need solid protection to take advantage downfield against the Chiefs safeties. The Chiefs are second in the league in pressure rate and against a beat-up offensive line, I expect that to continue through Jones, Clark, Taco Charlton, and Spagnuolo’s diverse pressure packages. The Denver defense will likely go where their safeties take them as well. With the Chiefs likely missing Sammy Watkins, Kareem Jackson and Justin Simmons will be tasked with containing the speed of Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. If they can do that, this game could stay close well into the second half.
Alas, I’m going with my Kansas City Chiefs to do enough through the air — both on offense and defense — to come out on top in this one, 28-17.
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