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Chiefs vs. Broncos: how the Chiefs offense beats Denver

The Broncos gave the Chiefs offense difficulty last time. Here’s how the Chiefs can flip the script.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Chiefs should be flying pretty high at this point in the season.

Coming off the big Sunday Night Football shredding of the Cincinnati Bengals, they now turn their attention to a rematch with the Denver Broncos. Against the Bengals — like most of the season — the Chiefs offense was clicking on all cylinders, and looked as unstoppable as ever.

But so far this season, the defense that gave the Chiefs the most trouble for 60 minutes was the Denver Broncos. Normally a game like this could be considered a trap game — as it comes after two high-profile, primetime football games against playoff-contending teams, but since the Broncos have been the only team to hold the Chiefs under 30 points this season, there should be plenty of motivation for the Chiefs to play well.

Having the Broncos come into Arrowhead should spark some energy, but the Chiefs certainly will have to execute at a more consistent level than in their first meeting. While being one of Patrick Mahomes’ more impressive games of the season, the first Chiefs-Broncos game isn’t a recipe for success this time around, as it asked the young quarterback to make one incredible play after another while on the run.

So down in The AP Laboratory, I spent some time looking back at the original game plan against Denver, and focusing on what the Broncos were doing to slow down the Chiefs.

Basic game plan

The plan of attack for this game should be nearly identical to the Chiefs and Broncos first match-up:

  • Use alignment and clutter to generate separation for receivers
  • Move the second level with RPOs or misdirection
  • Attack favorable matchups — even in tight coverage
  • Let Kareem Hunt eat against “even” boxes

Read the full Advanced Scouting Report here.

Adjustments that need to be made

In order for this game plan to work, the Chiefs will have to make some adjustments in either coaching or execution.

In the first matchup, the Chiefs’ timing appeared to be substantially affected by the Broncos pass rush. Mahomes was often flushed (or was scrambling) from the pocket as receivers broke open, and the receivers were unable to uncover quickly. There a few big plays in the running game, but there wasn’t a consistent threat to move the sticks on the ground. And until late the in the fourth quarter, the Chiefs consistently struggled to find success with the favorable matchups they were getting.

Kareem thriving outside the hashes

Kareem Hunt had a massive game against the Bengals last week and played very well against the Patriots the week before. A ton of that success on the ground was from outside runs — not just the outside zone runs, but also Bucksweeps, off-tackle power runs, and even pitch plays. Hunt has quickly become one of the top running backs on outside runs — thanks to his quick decision making, silly balance, and great body control to turn the corners and accelerate quickly.

In this play — similar to quite a few snaps against the Bengals — Hunt gets out to the edge with two pulling offensive linemen in front of him. One is used to kick out an unblocked edge player, while the other works into the second level. Hunt does a great job working off the inside hip of the kick-out block and then works outside of Kelce’s block.

The Chiefs should continue the use of these sweeps and other outside runs, forcing Broncos linebackers to run to the sideline, and Denver’s defensive backs to tackle Hunt in space.

Trust the tight end mismatch

In the first meeting, Travis Kelce had a big second half to help the Chiefs come back — but even in the first half, his issues were much more about his execution rather than Denver slowing him down. Kelce should be in line for another big game — like he always has against Denver — as they struggle to find a real solution to slowing him down. Demetrius Harris presents another mismatch opportunity when the Broncos try to slow him down with linebackers.

Here — ignoring the false start/not false start slow get-off he had — Harris is matched up with an inferior athlete. Harris takes an inside release and easily works back outside and vertically on the slot fade. While the linebacker has decent position, Harris clearly has a step on him going downfield. This same matchup should be exploited in the next game — and hopefully, Kelce will bring more of his A-game early on.

The Chiefs HAVE to generate more separation

This is easy to say, but in the last meeting, Chiefs receivers — outside of Tyreek Hill — did a terrible job of creating their own separation. Losing Sammy Watkins to injury early in the game definitely hurt their cause, as Demarcus Robinson and Chris Conley were blanketed most of the game. Whether via coaching and more man-beating route concepts — or by players simply being better — the Chiefs have to generate more space against the Broncos tight man coverage than they did last time.

The Chiefs have used mesh concepts similar to this one, but if their receivers are not winning their single matchups early in the game, they need to dial up their inner Sean McVay and run more of them against Denver. Robert Woods caught about six passes on these short/intermediate crossers and drags from these mesh concepts. If Watkins and Hill aren’t winning, Andy Reid needs to start scheming these easy passes.

Heavily rely on slants, drags, and mesh concepts if the receivers are struggling like they did in Week 4 meeting with Denver.

Understanding their fronts

Denver brought good pressure from the slot in the first game, often aligning two or three players over a tight end — or tightly aligned wide receivers — in an effort to disguise what kind of defense they were playing.

In addition, they would crowd the line of scrimmage with multiple linebackers and defensive backs to show pressure from five, six, or seven players, and mix up who was dropping into coverage and who was rushing the passer.

It wasn’t extremely complicated, but it was enough confusion that Mahomes’ clock was shorter than normal — and when the first read wasn’t what he expected. it tricked him into scrambling. On more than one occasion, Mahomes left a clean pocket expecting pressure that was shown, but didn’t actually come.

Denver also sent the pressure plenty of times, too. At the start of the game, this really threw off the Chiefs’ offensive plan. On this particular play — with Denver running Cover 0 — Hill gets single coverage on a nine route. Against the coverage, it’s certainly a viable option — except the cornerback is playing press-bail technique.

As soon as Mahomes sees the cornerback retreat off the snap, he has to come off that read. To the right — the passing strength of the formation — there is a big cushion for all three receivers. As soon as the cornerback bailed on Hill, Mahomes should have come back to the right to look for other options with soft coverage, as they are running in/back breaking routes.

The bottom line

After seeing how both teams were playing up to that point, most people expected the Chiefs to roll into Denver on Monday Night Football and come away with a big victory. Instead, it turned out to be a nail-biter.

This time around, the Broncos and Chiefs are both coming off of impressive performances, and are looking to chain together big wins. If the Chiefs are able to remain healthy through the game, they should have plenty of success — and have no problem going over the 30-point mark.

The Chiefs should continue to run an offense heavy on RPOs, forcing the linebackers to stay home, and allowing Kareem Hunt to get out towards the sideline and turn upfield. If Sammy Watkins plays the entire game, it gives the Chiefs a reliable second wide receiver against man coverage — against which pure ability is often needed to break free. If this doesn’t work, Reid should run a lot of mesh concepts that create natural picks.

That said, the biggest thing that will help the offense be more productive is Mahomes being comfortable with Denver’s pressure fronts and slot blitzes. Correctly identifying them — and knowing who is the hot receiver — will help. So will recognizing when the pressure drops back, so he will know he can let routes develop.

Normally I don’t try to boil these reports down to If Mahomes can be great - because he has been, and that’s not the most exciting read every week.

But this is a huge game for him. It’s a defense that has now seen twice. His performance in Denver earlier this year was very, very good, but they forced him into playing the kind of hero ball you don’t want to rely upon for an entire game.

As long as he can process the fronts quicker — like he’s done in more recent weeks — this should be another high scoring affair for the Chiefs offense.

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