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The Broncos can beat the Chiefs in Week 13

11 things to look for in the Denver Broncos’ Sunday night game with the Kansas City Chiefs.

All three times the Broncos have met the Chiefs since Vic Fangio became head coach, they’ve come off two straight wins and looked as if they were catching Kansas City at an opportune time. Each and every time the offense gave the ball away at inopportune times which led to blowout losses. All three times the defense played better than the final score. The good news is this game won’t feel like groundhogs’ day. Losing to the Saints without a quarterback last week and losing Bryce Callahan to Injured Reserve already leaves the approach to this game unique in its own right.

Here’s what I’m looking for tonight.

Defense

1. What will Fangio do to make Mahomes uncomfortable?

2. Will it work?

3. How does Shelby Harris look?

4. Can the secondary hold up their end?

5. Who stands out in the run game?

As the NFL becomes familiar with a quarterback over his time in the league, opposing coordinators build a profile for how to make them uncomfortable and combat what makes them thrive. So it’s telling that only three offenses have been blitzed less than the Chiefs. Almost to a man, every team in the league has tried to beat Mahomes by rushing four and playing sound on the back end. It simply begs disaster to take players out of coverage against these receivers with this quarterback ripping the cord.

If you watched the Bucs game last week instead of suffering through the worst passing game since 1982, you saw what Tyreek Hill can do against single coverage.

What makes the Broncos’ defense such an interesting matchup is that they can generate heat with just four and they aren’t afraid to send more. Every week Fangio tries to force an opponent to play left handed. What stands out about his gameplan from week 7 is that he wasn’t afraid to blitz Mahomes, even if it meant a potential do-or-die scenario. It mostly worked. By his standards, Patrick Mahomes had a bad afternoon the last time he faced the Broncos. The Kansas City offense got blanked on third down and it remains the least efficient day the passing game’s had this season.

The Broncos manipulated a slide away from Chubb, which left him free to hit Mahomes. It could have cost them dearly.

As Fangio’s adjusted to life without Von Miller, he’s gone back to his roots and brought in more fire zone pressures, simulated pressures, stunts, and man coverage than we’ve seen in recent years. There’s been bumps in the road such as the Falcons game, but it’s mostly worked. The Broncos are currently a top 10 defense in the league by DVOA and far stronger against the pass than run. With a little luck and help from the other side of the ball, it could be enough to spring an upset.

The Chiefs interior offensive line is their biggest weakness on offense and if Bradley Chubb can find one on one reps against someone like Nick Allegretti, it’d be a big win for the pass rush. Life without Callahan may leave Fangio leaning towards safe pressure, but with Shelby Harris making his return after what sounds like a scary battle with Covid-19, the Broncos’ Don of defense may need to take matters into his own hands.

In week seven the Broncos paid a price for slowing Mahomes as they got gouged on the ground. Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Le’Veon Bell had 14 carries and stuffed for no gain or a loss on just two of them. It wasn’t a huge surprise given the way Fangio built his gameplan around respecting the Chiefs’ weapons. It was disappointing when four defenders missed a tackle to give a rookie running back his second touchdown.

The Broncos need to do a better job gang tackling to win round 2 with KC.

It’s completely unreasonable to expect the Broncos to stop Andy Reid completely. If they can make Mahomes work the field for long drives, prevent leakage after the catch and prevent big runs, they’ll be in business. The hope then has to become Justin Simmons, Bradley Chubb, or someone else can come up with a turnover, big stop, or turn multiple scoring opportunities into field goals.

The Broncos have allowed just 21 red zone touchdowns on 40 trips this year, currently the fourth lowest rate in the whole league. If they hold to form, the offense will have some opportunities to shock the world.

Offense

7. Can the Broncos re-purpose their Dolphins’ gameplan?

8. If Lindsay’s a go, how does he look?

9. Will the pass pro hold up?

10. Who wins their matchups in the passing game?

11. Is Drew Lock “the guy”?

The Broncos identity as a run-first team has always lurked beneath the surface, even if situations have made it less than obvious. They’ve rushed for over 100 yards in all but two games this year. When faced with a dangerous blitz scheme and strong secondary, Shurmur bludgeoned the Dolphins with a gameplan built around pin-and-pull and a dab of trap, counter, and duo concepts. Because Miami’s secondary plays so much man coverage, the Broncos would bring a receiver into the formation to drag a cornerback into the box where they become easy prey for pulling offensive linemen.

Odds are the Broncos’ run game doesn’t lean so hard on pin-and-pull this week as Kansas City has the kind of defensive line to really muck it up with penetration. That and Lindsay’s knee means there could be a lot more zone runs mixed into this week’s gameplan. That doesn’t mean the running game should be ineffective, however. The Broncos came within 23 yards of 200 against the Chiefs in week seven and found consistent success rushing right for most of the contest. The yards came on a variety of concepts including power, counter, wide, inside, and outside zone.

As he did against the Dolphins, it will be important for Shurmur to lean into play action concepts to take advantage of the Chiefs’ second level defenders. If Steve Spagnuolo answers with additional heat off the right side, it will critical for Drew Lock to dump it down to his outlet receivers. He did a really solid job of this against Miami, which helped keep the offense on track and minimized obvious passing downs where Flores’ amoeba fronts could cause issues. One such play left Nick Vannett space to operate and his catch and run set up a Melvin Gordon touchdown. Naked bootlegs off of play action also helped Lock the last time Denver faced Kansas City.

Inevitably, the Broncos’ second year passer will be forced to play quarterback. It isn’t fair to ask for perfection in these situations, but Lock has to avoid backbreaking mistakes in these situations. Denver faced 16 second or third and 10+ yards in week seven. Lock completed eight of 11 passes for 71 yards, four first downs, an intentional grounding penalty of nine yards, and a Kansas City touchdown on these plays.

One way Shurmur could try and help Lock in these situations is by deploying empty personnel. This helped Lock quite a bit during his rookie season as stretching the defense out made it harder to hide blitzers or where the holes in coverage were. This year defenses utilized more simulated pressures as a way to combat empty protections rules. For example, they’ll drop an edge rusher and bring a nickel off the other side, which manipulates the slide away from a free rusher. The Broncos young offense showed encouraging progress against these looks in the Dolphins game. They’ll need to re-discover it after a lost week against the Saints.

The Chiefs’ defense has been one of the more aggressive units this season and have leaned into their pressure scheme as the months have gotten colder. With how much Lock has struggled against the blitz and simulated pressure, it’s a certainty he’ll see a heavy dose of both tonight. If he can weather the storm, the Broncos have a chance.

Drew Lock doesn't have to be a hero, but he can't become the scapegoat.
Drew Lock doesn’t have to be a hero, but he can’t become the scapegoat.

Final Thoughts

If ever there was a perfect “upset of the season,” it’d look a lot like this. The Broncos are banged up and just lost a game with a receiver playing quarterback while the Chiefs look unbeatable. Cris Collinsworth can’t write a better script.

While unlikely, the ingredients are there for a perfect storm in Kansas City. The last time Denver had a functional offense they looked they were rounding into a ball control offense that attacks the right side with an improving gap scheme while the Chiefs have trouble stopping the run and concede a ton of plays underneath. Even without Shelby Harris, Fangio found a way to pummel Tua Tagovailo and held the Saints to their worst passing game of the year.

One game does not make a season. Beating Kansas City would still leave the 2020 Broncos at 5-7 with four games to play. Huge games against Josh Allen, Justin Herbert, Brian Burns, Joey Bosa, and company still remain. Win, lose, or draw, the Broncos will wake up Monday morning with a month of football left to play. Even still, knocking off the bully in the backyard could change everything. It’d be the signature victory since Super Bowl 50. Hope would blossom anew in Broncos’ Country. A young quarterback would have critical win to boost his confidence. A battered coaching staff would have their springboard into the new year.

Let’s all hope the Broncos score the biggest dub since Peyton Manning retired.