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Chiefs at Broncos: 11 things to watch for

Is this the end of the Fangio era?

At 8-9, they Denver Broncos have already secured their fifth straight losing season and a sixth straight season without a postseason bid. Meanwhile the Kansas City Chiefs are chasing the top seed and a first round bye in the AFC playoffs, a huge boon if Andy Reid hopes to coach in a third straight Super Bowl. With painfully little at stake in Denver, this game looks like it could turn ugly fast.

The game doesn’t have to be a buzzkill just because Drew Lock won’t beat the Chiefs for the first time since Peyton Manning, however. With young players across the roster finding their way into meaningful playing time for the season finale, the contest represents the last chance to get a look at guys like Caden Sterns, Jonathon Cooper, and Quinn Meinerz in real game action before the long offseason.

Here’s what I’m watching for today.

Special Teams

1. Will we get one last McMahon disaster?

For the third straight year it looks like Tom McMahon will be relieved of his duties as special teams coordinator after the season comes to a close. Since John Elway hired him for Vance Joseph’s staff in 2018 he’s been an abject disaster, and the fact George Paton and Vic Fangio kept him around for the 2021 season proves that the “no death by inches” talk was just that. Talk.

Beyond McMahon’s general incompetence, the big thing to keep an eye on today is how Brandon McManus and Sam Martin perform after they tested positive for Covid-19 on Monday. The Broncos met with Colby Wadman on Friday, which suggests there may have been some concern about Martin’s availability today.

Beyond the questions about legs is the shoddy performance with every other unit. The Broncos are one of the three worst special teams in football by the numbers, and they’ve had some spectacular fails this year. A leverage penalty on Dre’Mont Jones helped to cost them the Steelers game. They’ve allowed a field goal block and multiple punt blocks. They gave up a 102-yard kickoff return touchdown to Jamal Agnew in week 2 and Andre Roberts burned them for 101 last week. They also gave up a 44-yard punt return against Devin Duvernay back in week 4. Meanwhile Diontae Spencer’s already muffed punts against Kansas City and the Chargers.


2. Who plays?

3. Can the Broncos create pressure without blitzing?

4. Does Jones finish the season strong?

5. How does Browning (and Griffith?) hold up in coverage?

6. Is Sterns and Simmons the future at safety?

Due to Bradley Chubb’s early injury, Von Miller’s departure, injuries to the linebacker corps., the Broncos defense has been extremely dependent on Fangio’s pressure scheme to generate a pass rush for most of the year. It was the biggest question looming over the defense ahead of the first game in Kansas City.

Thanks to Andrew Wylie playing out of position at right tackle, some uncharacteristic gaffes from Mahomes and his receivers, and sound coverage by the Broncos, Fangio’s defense held the Chiefs under 20 points. Backups at six of the seven spots on the back end of the defense make it doubtful they can do so in round two.

Kareem Jackson was placed on Injured Reserve this week, ending the 33-year-old’s season and potentially his career with the Broncos. His absence means Caden Sterns will receive the second start of his career after looking promising in the Broncos first game against the Los Angeles Chargers. After looking like a fifth round steal in the preseason, Sterns’ spent most of the year playing in the Broncos’ dime personnel. There’s reason to believe he earns himself the first crack at Jackson’s vacant spot in 2022 with a strong performance today. It won’t be easy, Reid’s a master at creating favorable matchups in the passing game, and it’d make sense to test the rookie by isolating him on Tyreek Hill or Travis Kelce.

Patrick Surtain II and Ronald Darby were ruled out on Thursday, which means the Broncos’ former Bears will be manning the boundary corner spots. Nate Hairston landed on the Covid-19 list, so it will fall on Jamar Johnson, Michael Ford, or Michael Ojemudia to man the nickel snaps against a Chiefs offense that plays two thirds of their snaps with three receivers on the field.

Shelby Harris is questionable for the game with an illness on top of the ankle injury he’s been gutting through for weeks. With zero doubt about his return for 2022, it could make sense to shut him down and give McTelvin Agim an extended look against a talented Chiefs interior. The 2020 third round pick’s only played 90 defensive snaps this year, despite showing promise as a pass rusher.


7. Who plays?

8. Will Pookie and Gordon get rolling?

9. Who shows out in the passing game?

10. Does the line hold up in pass pro?

11. Can Drew Lock secure a future in Denver?

Since Drew Lock became the Broncos’ starting quarterback following Teddy Bridgewater’s scary concussion, the Broncos offense has scored 33 points. What’s left of the defense means it could take 40 to keep up with Patrick Mahomes today. With Dalton Risner and Graham Glasgow on Injured Reserve, they’ll need to count on Netane Muti, Lloyd Cushenberry, and Quinn Meinerz to slow down Chris Jones, who looks second only to Aaron Donald among all defensive tackles in football.

The Chiefs defense under Steve Spagnuolo has the talent to shut down the best version of this Broncos offense, but the recipe for success is an obvious one. The Broncos offensive line was able to pave the way for Javonte Williams and Michael Boone to rush for 137 yards last time around, with Quinn Meinerz serving up some comically dominant blocks. If Pat Shurmur wants to make the most of his offensive personnel he’ll try to protect his backup quarterback from obvious passing downs, as Spags has proven his ability to rattle Lock with his pressure packages.

What may hurt the Broncos chances even more is how Lock’s insertion into the starting lineup coincided with the running game’s collapse. Through the first 14 games of the season Pookie and Melvin Gordon combined to rush 344 times for 1584 yards, averaging over 4.6 yards per tote. Over the last two weeks the duo’s carried the ball 38 times for a paltry 81 yards, averaging just over 2.1 yards per carry.

While I have no doubt Williams’ knee injury has sapped some of his explosiveness over the last two weeks, the bigger issue with the run game seems to be opponents lack of respect for Denver’s passing attack. At this point, opposing coordinators have a gameplan for Lock: heat him up and he’ll give the ball away more than he’ll beat you deep. Unless Lock can make the Chiefs pay for a blitz heavy approach it could be yet another slog on the ground.

Barring a huge letdown performance from the Chiefs or career games from a slew of defenders, this game looks like it will be as competitive as Drew Lock can make it. Can the third year pro hold his own in his 21st start? With reports surfacing that he could be trade bait going forward, is there anything he can do to alter George Paton’s plans for the quarterback room this offseason?

Final Thoughts

After 30 years under the ownership of Pat Bowlen and the stretch since under his Trust, it’s hard to overstate how fundamentally different the Broncos could look by training camp next year. This is the Broncos’ final game before an offseason filled to the brim with uncertainty:

At present the only certainty seems to be Paton, who signed a six year contract last year. With the leadership vacuum around him, it will be his choice to make or break up any part of the roster and coaching staff. It’s a sole responsibility he’s never had, which makes him unpredictable. Let’s hope he’s up to the task.