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Chiefs vs. Broncos: How the Chiefs defense beats Denver

Come down to the Lab to find out how the Chiefs can stop the Broncos’ offense this week.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

It’s the end of the week at Arrowhead Pride, so that means we’re moving on from last week’s good performance against the Cincinnati Bengals and looking forward to this Sunday’s second matchup between the Denver Broncos and the Kansas City Chiefs!

These teams faced off already in Week 4, and the Chiefs defense struggled to tackle and execute, allowing a pretty poor offense to control the game. The defense was bailed out by a stellar performance from the offense, but the Broncos game was a breaking point for many Chiefs fans.

Luckily, for the Chiefs, the problems in the first matchup were by and large due to poor performances by the players on the field, with Reggie Ragland, Anthony Hitchens, Allen Bailey, and Ron Parker being targeted in the run game. In the last three weeks, each of these players has shown improvements and an ability to work with the rest of their teammates.

Coming off the best performance of the year for the defense against a pretty good Bengals offense, the Broncos offense shouldn’t offer a stiff test. As I’ve covered the Broncos and their tendencies in a post recently, this week we’ll take a look at what’s changed in Denver’s personnel in the last three weeks and what the Chiefs can do to improve on their performance.

The Broncos offense

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Case Keenum has managed to throw at least one interception in every single game this year while throwing less touchdowns than picks. Quite simply, he’s been a game manager for the Broncos, but he hasn’t done a particularly great job of it.

At running back, Royce Freeman has had a stellar year thus far, leading the second-ranked rushing offense in yards per carry. However, a high ankle sprain late in last week’s Arizona Cardinals game has him ruled out for this week’s matchup. In his stead, third-down back Phillip Lindsay will shoulder the load with Devontae Booker. Neither is nearly the runner between the tackles that Freeman is.

Tight end Jeff Heuermann led the Broncos in receiving yards and tied for targets during the last matchup, and has been slowly integrated more into the passing game. As with last time these teams met, wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas lead them on the outside with Courtland Sutton developing as a deep threat.

Two major changes on the offensive line come at left guard and right tackle, with Max Garcia getting the start at guard, and Billy Turner replacing an injured Jared Veldheer at right tackle. The unit has allowed a lot of pressure this year, ranking 26th in pressure rate according to Football Outsiders. They’ve also allowed over two sacks a game to go with those pressures. The last time these teams faced, the Chiefs racked up four sacks, even with their poor defensive performance.

How the Chiefs can improve on their performance

Tackling between the tackles

It seems quite simple to just target “tackling” as a point of improvement from the last meeting, but it was easily the worst performance of the year in that regard. The Broncos had four runs that should have been tackled for loss or no gain that ended up going for 10 or more yards.

Over the past three weeks, the Chiefs defense has improved vastly in that regard, even if the overall performances haven’t always been positive. Against a team like the Broncos, who find most of their success on early downs — ninth in the league at attaining a new set of downs on first or second downs, according to SBNation’s NFL analytics — tackling well puts them into third down situations, where the Chiefs rank third and the Broncos rank 21st.

Improved tackling coupled with some lighter backs who are a little easier to bring down, the Chiefs front seven could find themselves with some success this week in lighter boxes.

Matchups in coverage

The last time these two teams played, the Denver Broncos not only ran the ball well, they also got the ball out quickly against a defense playing 40 percent off-man coverage. The Chiefs defense was largely beat underneath, with Keenum getting the ball out in an obscene 2.08 seconds per throw on average.

If I’m Bob Sutton this week, I’m switching it up.

I’d lean on another man-heavy game, but I’d bring the press in Arrowhead. Keenum was able to get into a rhythm early due to the short passing game, especially targeting Parker and Eric Murray against Heuermann, Orlando Scandrick against Sanders and Sutton, and Justin Houston against Booker and Lindsay.

The emergence of Jordan Lucas in the past three weeks has allowed the Chiefs a little more coverage flexibility up front. As we saw last week against the Bengals, Sutton isn’t afraid to bracket a team’s No. 1 option and leave Lucas in man coverage against a tight end. If Sutton chooses to roll help over the top of Scandrick’s man this week, it can allow him to play more aggressive at the line of scrimmage and take away shorter routes, knowing that the Broncos’ speed won’t hurt the defense.

Finally, last week’s dime packages for Dorian O’Daniel should pay some major dividends this week. Since the Broncos are without Freeman, healthy doses of Lindsay and Booker should be expected in the passing game. As neither have the same ability to break tackles and read blockers on interior runs that Freeman does, screens and rolling running backs into the flats to create space can be expected from the Broncos offense.

The last time these teams faced was the first real look we got at O’Daniel with the first-team defense, as the lone off-ball linebacker in the Chiefs NASCAR pass rush package opposite Booker. Sutton trusted O’Daniel to match up with Joe Mixon this past week, so asking him to cover Booker and Lindsay out of the backfield shouldn’t be a stretch. Expect to see more of the dime and more O’Daniel this week as he grows into the game.

The bottom line

The last time these two teams faced, the Broncos were able to move the ball and put the Chiefs in an early hole — something only the New England Patriots have been able to do to this point. That’s good company to be in, if you’re a Denver fan.

Unfortunately, the things the Broncos were able to do well (run between the tackles, across the middle with tight ends) will be limited due to some changes for both teams in the past three weeks.

It cannot be overstated how huge of a loss Freeman is for the Denver offense this week. His ability to read the correct gap, make players miss and punish second and third level defenders is demoralizing for a defensive front. Denver is then able to utilize the smaller, quicker back in Lindsay to run at some tired legs. Without the initial set-up of Freeman, Lindsay isn’t quite as effective — particularly, between the tackles.

The Broncos were able to pick on Parker and Murray in man coverage with Heuermann to gain some chunk yardage on early downs, setting the team up for easy conversions. Since that game, Lucas has come on strong and seems to be the preferred man coverage defender against the opposition’s tight ends and pass catching backs. Utilizing his ability to press and speed to close on routes will be key to take away a security blanket for Keenum and allow the pass rush to get home.

Speaking of the pass rush, a backup right tackle against the Chiefs best pass rusher in Dee Ford should result in some serious fireworks this week. Ford’s been on a hot streak, and a game at home against a backup — with a quarterback that takes a lot of sacks — should have him licking his chops. I predict a multiple sack game from five-five this week.

Quite simply, the Broncos offense doesn’t scare me without Freeman and in the cozy confines of Arrowhead. The Broncos offense hasn’t had to face at tough road atmosphere, with their away games being against the Baltimore Ravens, New York Jets, and the Arizona Cardinals. Make no mistake, this is the first real test of this offense’s ability to communicate and stay with the snap count in a raucous environment.

On top of that, I think the Chiefs got one of Denver’s better games the last time these two teams played. It was on a big stage away from home, and the defensive errors compounded a good gameplan from the Broncos. At home, the Chiefs defense has executed better, tackled better and has managed to hold the opposition to under 17 points a game.

With the Broncos missing some key starters and the Chiefs finding their identity with some young players, I expect another great performance on the defensive side of the ball this week.

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