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6 things we learned from the Denver Broncos prime-time loss to the Kansas City Chiefs

The Broncos couldn’t finish and the Chiefs won 22-16.

NFL: Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Kansas City came into tonight with the scariest offense in football and an aggressive defense built to pressure an opponent into reckless mistakes, while Denver spent the better part of the lead up talking about Kendall Hinton. Laura Lock became a talking point as she rushed to defend her son from criticism. It was among the more bizarre weeks I’ve ever seen watching the Denver Broncos, and it set the stage for a letdown game by the Chiefs.

The Broncos almost capitalized. Here’s what we learned.

The Chiefs brought heat all night.

As Mile High Report’s Joe Mahoney pointed out earlier this week, Drew Lock has been one of the worst quarterbacks in the league against the blitz this season. Even before tonight, the Chiefs under Steve Spagnuolo had begun to lean on their pressure packages as their four man rush has been lacking. So it should come as no surprise Kansas City brought extra rushers time and again.

Shurmur sprinkled in some Miami magic.

Outside of the first two drives, the Broncos offense was quite successful against the Dolphins in week 11. This happened in no small part because Miami’s defense was susceptible to the pin-and-pull concept. I wondered how much the Broncos would lean back their gameplan against the Chiefs because Kansas City’s defensive front does a better job penetrating than Miami’s.

To Shurmur’s credit, he went back to what worked the first time Denver met Kansas City. The Chiefs entered tonight as one of the three worst teams in the league defending the run off right tackle and end, and Denver took advantage. The Broncos leaned on power, counter, and zone runs to give the backs space to operate in the second and third level.

Another thing I was happy to see the Broncos continue to build on from the last time they had a quarterback was their play action game. Lock is clearly more comfortable moving out of the pocket and did a solid job taking what was available the last time he played. Play action also helps to create easier reads and helps to mitigate his issues managing the pocket.

Coming into the game today, the Broncos had run just 15 screens this year by Pro Football Focus’ charting. That’s last in the league by a country mile. The Falcons came in second before today with 30. By my count, Shurmur called two tonight.

The Chiefs missed a number of big plays.

I don’t say this to discredit what Vic Fangio and the Broncos defense were able to accomplish, but Pat Mahomes had more misses tonight than I’m used to seeing. Andy Reid too. There were at least two touchdowns left on the field in the first half.

In the second quarter Mahomes found Tyreek Hill in the endzone. A.J. Bouye brings him down, Hill gets up, and the Chiefs proceed to punt. Only the ball never touched the ground. It should have been a score, but no one on Kansas City told Reid to throw a flag. Not even Hill.

The Broncos’ two minute drive hints at the plan for Drew Lock.

For most teams in the NFL, a two minute drive is a series of obvious passing downs as the quarterback tries to both manage the clock and take what the opposing defense gives him underneath. Over the course of this 2020 season we’ve seen Shurmur and the Broncos move away from that and run something resembling their normal offense. This is done in part as a way to keep Lock out of the two situations where he’s had the most trouble: against the blitz and making reads from the pocket. Cris Collinsworth hinted at this overarching strategy during the broadcast when he mentioned that the Broncos had “deemphasized the passing game.”

It almost worked. The Broncos started their last drive of the first half with 2:14 left on the clock and called four runs and four passes. Lock missed three of the four, but managed to find Noah Fant on a screen to get into field goal range. But after Brandon McManus missed, Patrick Mahomes threw the ball four times and the Chiefs got a field goal out of a drive that started with just 28 seconds on the clock.

The Broncos defense came to play.

The Broncos defense and especially the run D has fallen off their early pace as injuries and Covid-19 took a bite out of their defensive front, so it was awesome to see how much even a recovering Harris could make tonight. In the first half the Denver defense held Le’Veon Bell to just three yards a carry and came up huge in the redzone. Harris probably saved a touchdown at the end of the first half.

I expected the Broncos defensive line to get some pressure as the Chiefs’ interior offensive line has had its own rash of issues. I just didn’t know if it’d be enough with Mahomes pulling the trigger. For almost three quarters of the game, it was, and it wasn’t just Harris, either.

The whole line came to play, and it showed up most in the critical moments. Until there was just 1:13 left in the third, the Chiefs had just one third down conversion and 12 points to show for all their firepower on offense. Even in the fourth quarter they continued to battle, which gave the offense the ball back down 16-19 with a little under 10 minutes left in the game.

The offense blew its chance at the upset.

Yes, some breaks went their way, but if your defense forced Andy Reid into three punts and four field goals, they did their job.

The Broncos lost this game because the offense didn’t fully capitalize on their opportunities. Drew Lock threw an interception on the first drive of the game. Brandon McManus missed a long field goal after Noah Fant didn’t turn a third down screen into a first down. A blown two-point conversion.

While the Broncos punted twice in the fourth quarter, the second time was particularly egregious as they’d made right up to the 50-yard line and needed just three yards to convert the sticks. Maybe I’m too deep in the analytics at this point, but as I watched it happen I couldn’t help but wonder why Shurmur didn’t call a run on third down. Melvin Gordon was stuffed just twice to that point, odds are even if he doesn’t pass the sticks Fangio could then make a decision on fourth and very short.

Even after all those misses, the Broncos offense still got the ball back with a little over a minute left on the clock, down six. It’s the situation every aspiring quarterback dreams of as they’re throwing passes in their backyard. Only it ended in ruin.

I don’t mean this as indictment of Lock, who played better than I expected. It’s simply a statement of fact. You can’t miss shots if you’re going to beat Patrick Mahomes when he has his full complement of weapons, and even if he’s missing Clyde Edwards-Helaire, you can’t miss five.

It’s encouraging the Broncos found a way to hang around and put a scare in the defending Super Bowl champions, but if you come at the king, you need to make every punch count.