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The Good, The Bad, and the Elway: Are the Broncos a quarterback away from beating the Chiefs?

How close are the Denver Broncos to beating the Kansas City Chiefs, really?

Denver Broncos v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

A forewarning, I don’t consider the Broncos 16-22 loss to the Chiefs encouraging. Yes, they have the best quarterback in football and came into the game with a full compliment of weapons. They also had a shaky offensive line battered by injury and Covid along with very susceptible run defense. So much so, that the cliché recipe for beating Patrick Mahomes looked attainable long before kickoff. As pessimistic as I tend to be, I wrote about it.

At least by the numbers, the Chiefs aren’t even the best team in the NFL right now. They’re 4th. Losing to a team 10 times in a row can make them look immortal, but the Raiders had already given Kansas City a black eye this season.

So no, I do not believe losing to the Chiefs on Sunday night was encouraging. This isn’t to say there was nothing positive to come out of the game. After all, they were four blown opportunities away from beating the defender Super Bowl champions. This doesn’t mean anyone deserves a lifetime contract, just as it does not mean anyone deserves to be fired. As always, I try to be objective when I’m working through the game. Vic Fangio definitely erred in the fourth quarter when the Broncos faced a third and four. This smudge does not erase a gameplan that held the Chiefs to 22 points without Von Miller, Bryce Callahan, Jurrell Casey, and various others being far below 100%.

What follows are my notes as I went back through the tape. Some of it’s purely based on what I saw, others just thoughts or musings as I dug through the wreckage of the 11th straight loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.

Offense

  • Outside of Melvin Gordon’s 65-yard run, he still averaged a healthy 4.7 yards per carry. His three worst carries came down to a nickel blitz catching him in the backfield, a blown block, and a miscommunication between tight ends.
  • Gordon had most of his best runs off of zone concepts, but it was his 3rd and 4 carry in the fourth quarter that left me so confused about the Broncos’ decision to pass on 3rd and 3 at midfield. The Broncos are currently the second best team in the league in Power Situations and the way Gordon ran over red jersey’s most of the night, I thought he’d be unstoppable in short yardage.
Melvin Gordon was a freight train Sunday night.
Melvin Gordon was a freight train Sunday night.
  • For the better part of the night, Gordon’s worst nemesis was the grass. I don’t know how they grow it in Missouri, but the NFL could stand to look into it. The way players were slipping and sliding all night has to be a safety issue.
  • While health is undoubtedly part of the equation after he gutted through knee pain, backside pursuit was part of the problem for a bunch of Phillip Lindsay’s runs. The Chiefs brought extra bodies when he was in the backfield.
  • In the first quarter the Broncos attempted eight passes and half of them had some form of shift, motion or play action. The others were a screen, a third and 10 miss, Lock’s first interception, and a gorgeous throw to Noah Fant down the left sideline.
  • The tendency became even more pronounced after the first quarter. By my count, every pass on the Broncos’ first touchdown drive started off a fake to the running back. 12 of the 16 passes that happened outside of the two minute drives at the end of each half involved some form of motion or play action. Both disappeared in the “must-pass” situations where Lock completed two of eight passes for nine yards and the game-clinching interception.
  • Vision is a criminally underrated skill. Both Melvin Gordon and Phillip Lindsay do a really nice job helping their blockers by manipulating pursuit angles or adjusting to maximize their help on the second and third levels.
  • I’m close to positive Pat Shurmur has dialed up a Yankee concept in every game he’s had a quarterback this season. He just loves it. As a two route concept with extra protection, it’s also a great concept for Lock. The Broncos dialed it up in the third quarter against the Chiefs and Lock hit Patrick for 21 yards.
This should look familiar.
This should look familiar.
  • I expect the Broncos to give Patrick a 2nd round tender in 2021. If they lose him, keep an eye on Tyrie Cleveland. He’s only played 47 offensive snaps and has just two catches to show for it, but his physicality as both a blocker and ball carrier stand out. It wouldn’t surprise me if he turns into a core special teamer and fan favorite down the road.
  • While Austin Schlottmann performed admirably, losing Graham Glasgow definitely hurt the Broncos passing offense. Chemistry among the offensive line is absolutely critical for protection to thrive against opposing pressure schemes, and Steve Spagnuolo isn’t the kind of coordinator to ignore a weak link on a critical 3rd and 7 in the fourth quarter.
On passing downs Spagnuolo routinely dialed up the heat to disrupt the Broncos offense.
  • It’d be very encouraging to see Lock find more consistent success on real passing downs. In particular, I’d like to see growth in terms of conceptual understanding of the play design and a better job progressing through his reads. Additionally, If he can improve at pocket management it’d have a waterfall effect on his numbers.
  • Immediately after the game I expressed my issues with the Broncos’ decision to pass on 3rd and 3, because I thought a run would better set up a critical 4th down if it came to that. I still believe a run would have been the better decision, but Shurmur gave Lock and the offense a chance. The rush had an impact on Lock’s form and the pass was off by just enough that Hamler had to reach to get it. As high as I am on the Broncos’ 2nd round pick, catching the ball outside his frame isn’t a strength.
It ain’t playing the blame game to suggest both Lock and Hamler could have performed better on this 3rd down.
  • On Monday, Benjamin Allbright refuted a report from Pro Football Network that said:

Despite the Broncos struggling to a 4-7 start to the season, Allbright was quick to dismiss the possibility of Fangio losing his job. He expects changes to be made on special teams and the team to draft another quarterback to compete with Drew Lock, who has regressed in his second season as the starter. Pauline pointed to the QB position, both in terms of Lock’s injuries and the extraordinary circumstances that led to Kendall Hinton starting, as factors that will work in Fangio’s favor. He’s heard the same as Allbright – Fangio is safe.

While we’re still so far away from the end of the season things could change quickly, it hints at the fact Elway will roll with Lock as his unquestioned starting quarterback once again in 2021. In recent weeks I’ve seen Broncos fans begin to float names like Matthew Stafford, Carson Wentz, Sam Darnold, but all of them will cost draft capital. If Elway’s already opposed to drafting competition, he’s not about to send out any real assets for a veteran. Most likely, it’s another Jeff Driskel type: a hapless bum who Lock can look good when compared to in training camp.

The vast majority of quarterbacks who have gone on to real success in the NFL make a big jump between their first and second year in the NFL. Lock’s struggles this season put him in some dubious company, and DNVR’s Andrew Mason did a great job highlighting how he stacks up. The hope has to be that the beginning of Lock’s career has been so weird and Covid-19 and injuries disrupted the 2020 Broncos so thoroughly that perhaps he could still hit a year 3 bump. This is why we’ll continue to see the “he was basically a rookie” rationale. Let’s hope it’s true, even if it’s nowhere near a certainty.

Defense

  • The Chiefs could have easily had 3 more touchdowns in the game. Two of them were some combination of karma and stupidity, but the first was one I found worth digging into.

After watching it over a number of times, I reached out to Coach Vaughn, who writes at Blitzology. After speaking with him and my Cover2Broncos co-host Jeff Essary, this is where I landed on it.

In the first quarter the Chiefs dialed up a deep over against the Broncos’ Cover 6 and the rush by Chubb and Reed threw Mahomes off just enough to miss a wide open Tyreek Hill, who got open because moving the running back to the right side screwed up the coverage rules.

The Broncos could have kept their nickel corner on Hill, but the back motioning to that side late and flaring out, changed the coverage rules on the fly. The Broncos could have kept their nickel corner on Hill, but the coverage rules meant he stayed underneath while Johnson picked up the number two vertical. This wouldn’t have become an issue if the quarters side of the defense wasn’t occupied with the tight ends, but they were. Ideally the backside helps with Hill becoming the new #3. They simply can’t because Travis Kelce. Kelce being vertical means the safety is going to give help on any inside break while the corner’s top priority in that spacing is the outside break.

It’s a fantastic design, and as tends to be the case with Kansas City, there isn’t a perfect solution. The Broncos were lucky to escape it unscathed.

The Chiefs are a nightmare because they have an insane combination of personnel, scheme, and execution.
Bradley Chubb and a little luck saved a TD here.
  • While Vic Fangio’s punt on 4th and 3 late in the game was historically awful, running back through the game it’s pretty clear the Broncos have the right system in place if they’re going to try and battle Patrick Mahomes for the foreseeable future. This is most pronounced in the redzone, as Reid can’t rely on his receivers stretching the field vertically to open holes in the coverage.

Facing 3rd and 9 in the third quarter, the Chiefs come out in a 2X2 set. On the snap Mahomes looks left to find neither Sammy Watkins or Travis Kelce is going to give him six, barring a level of physicality neither possess. Bradley Chubb gets past Eric Fisher, and the quarterback never has time to find Tyreek Hill in the corner of the endzone. He elects to make something happen with his legs, where Jeremiah Attaochu finds him.

Bradley Chubb was a secret star of the KC game.
Bradley Chubb was a secret star of the KC game.
  • I wrote this at about noon yesterday: “Broncos Country has been so wrapped up in everything else that’s gone wrong that A.J. Bouye’s play has gotten a pass. While he’s physical and battles at the catch point, he’s had some issues flipping his hips out of his backpedal and breaking down in space. He’s also going to turn 30 and carries a monstrous cap hit with no dead money tied to it. I’m very curious to see if he plays well enough to stick around in 2021.”

Since the Broncos brought back De’Vante Bausby after his stint with Vance Joseph, I’ve wondered if he’d be an upgrade at right corner. This isn’t because Bausby’s been a worldbeater so much as Bouye’s been shaky. With a 2021 cap number in excess of $13 million in 2021, it didn’t look like a bad idea to give the younger, and probably cheaper Bausby a shot.

If everything about the medical professional misleading A.J. Bouye and others is true, it’s a huge bummer. I don’t have any sort of personal qualm with Bouye seeking what may have been something as benign as treatment for the various ailments that crop up during a football season. In the end, it doesn’t matter if that’s what it is if the NFL doesn’t budge on their stance.

As it stands, we can only roll with what we know. Bouye looks likely to miss 6 games over the next two years, was already in a sort of “bubble” situation due to his large contract carrying no dead money, and will be 30-years old with two years between he and really strong tape at the beginning of next year. The Broncos may not cut him outright because Fangio believes in him, but I’d be surprised if they do not do as little as approach him about changing his salary number.

  • There have been rumblings that the 2021 salary cap will be higher than expected. If so, Elway has no excuse to let Justin Simmons or Shelby Harris leave town. None.