The Kansas City Chiefs’ offense could stop playing football at halftime and would still be tied for 12th in the NFL in terms of points per game. That’s just silly to digest.
Everyone sees how great the Chiefs’ offense has been this year but to put it to numbers compared to the rest of the NFL is simply unbelievable. This week, the common theme in the national and local media has been how to defend the Chiefs’ offense and Patrick Mahomes. The consensus is that no one really knows: there are theories out that are logically sound but no one has been able to implement them.
Will the Denver Broncos be the team to finally find a blueprint to solve this mystery or will they be another 30-plus point sacrificial lamb?
Craig and I (Kent is still watching Pat Mahomes’ throws from Week 1, or something) got down into The Laboratory and started digging through Denver Broncos film to determine who they are on both sides of the football.
Denver Broncos defense
Like just about every NFL team in 2018, the Broncos spend most of their time in nickel or dime packages rather than a traditional/heavy/base defense. Against the Chiefs, assuming they follow their trends, the Broncos will continue to keep that as their base defense getting both their third cornerback (Adam Jones or Isaac Yiadom) and third safety (Will Parks) on the field often.
The Broncos present a unique and new challenge for the Chiefs this year as they are predominantly man-to-man team. Up to this point, the Pittsburgh Steelers played the most man coverage against the Chiefs, and that was more as a “change-up” to their zone defense to throw Mahomes off his game. The Broncos, on the other hand, are going to run a ton of man coverage and challenge the quarterback to throw into tighter windows. The shells behind the man coverage do change up from a single-deep safety to a split safety look, with the splits being a good chunk heavier to the former.
In man coverage, the Broncos’ cornerbacks look more comfortable pressing at the line of scrimmage than mirroring and playing off-coverage, but they will mix up various techniques between press-man, press-mirror, press-bail and off-coverage.
Unlike years past, the Broncos cornerbacks aren’t lockdown guys that don’t need help over the top and scare opposing quarterbacks. Chris Harris Jr. is still very good but is being forced into less favorable matchups compared to years past, Bradley Roby has been up and down all year and Jones or Yiadom haven’t been able to repeat Roby’s success at nickel cornerback. Outside of Justin Simmons, their safeties and inside linebackers struggle to run with athletes and are really hoping to deny the ball long enough for the pass rush to get home.
Their pass rush is still very talented off the EDGE but may lack the inside threat they expected Derek Wolfe to turn into. They move their EDGE rushers around from play to play, but Von Miller spends most of his time on the offense’s right while Bradley Chubb gets most of his snaps on the left. Shane Ray has had a bit of resurgence this year but is still mostly used as a rotational rusher.
Be on the lookout for some snaps with Chubb playing on the interior with Ray outside of him as the Chiefs try to spread the field.
The Broncos play sound defense versus the run with their defensive line taking up blocks and space allowing their linebackers to flow towards the ball. Their linebackers are big and strong and are willing to meet blockers and fill gaps quickly but aren’t the rangiest bunch.
Chubb and Miller do a good job keeping contain and there often isn’t huge running lanes available. The second level and oftentimes box safety play run-first, which has been a big change for the Broncos of two years ago when the run defense was a major weakness.
How the Chiefs win
Being the first team the Chiefs are facing with heavy man-to-man principles, this game is a wild card from a schematic standpoint. Rest assured, Andy Reid has quite the package of plays he hasn’t shown yet based on this.
The expectation should still be for the Chiefs to spread the field, throw the ball early and often and attack all levels of the field. The horizontal passing game should play a slightly larger role this week as defenders have to cover the entire field rather than spaces.
Look for route combinations and alignments that cause chaos, for the Chiefs to manipulate the second level and for matchups to be isolated when they favor the Chiefs. The Chiefs may not have a ton of running room early in the game but as it stretches into the second half, the lanes will open up as the box lightens.
Mentioned slants should be in the gameplan this week, well here we go. Quick slant, good snag by Watkins, and lowkey Watkins is one of the best runners with the ball at WR. pic.twitter.com/oXFKlAbEWw— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) September 23, 2018
Clutter is your friend
Normally, defenses would prefer multiple players being in the same space rather than offenses, but when done on purpose with a goal in mind, it can be a huge benefit for the offense.
Seen on the slant touchdown above, the rub by the slot wide receiver gives Sammy Watkins extra space at the catch point to collect the ball and square upfield for extra yardage. When defenses go man to man with their coverage, they open themselves up to these rubs and pick type routes by the offense.
Look Chiefs' fans, Von Miller in coverage too. Man vs the RB, gets frozen a tick by the TE rub, easy pitch and catch for Flacco and no one else is home for Den with the clearout by the WR. pic.twitter.com/r4Kv92cBpt— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) September 28, 2018
Beyond simple picks and rubs, the Chiefs should utilize Reid’s background in the West Coast offense and spread the field horizontally and use a variety of mesh concepts to get that extra couple of steps.
Playing man vs bunch/tight formations is difficult and Denver counters that by playing off-man coverage. 10 yards into the route, both WR's have won leverage, CBs are leaning back and out to not get crossed and maintain their leverage. Both WRs break back inside cleanly. pic.twitter.com/iN5jNTlReT— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) September 28, 2018
Another way to create that chaos is through alignment.
When an offense goes with tight or stacked formations, there is a natural rub on the defensive backs off the line of scrimmage, as they have to fight through their own teammate/s and other receivers.
To counter that, teams will either switch their assignments based on release and often have one defensive back playing in off-coverage, which allows good wide receivers to take advantage and manipulate their leverage. When working from such a tight split, there is a lot of field the off-cornerback has to cover, giving up a two-way go to the wide receiver rather easily.
Make the second level move
Normally, RPOs are designed to beat zone defenses as they pull players who are watching the ball out of their assignments. To combat that, teams have shifted to man coverage against teams that favor RPOs, and in the cyclical world, offenses have not adjusted to man coverage vs RPOs.
Tagging a slant onto the traditional bubble RPO when facing man coverage has been one of those adjustments. Rather than trying to read a second-level defender, against man, the goal is to manipulate a box defender (often inside linebacker) that must flow with the running back whether a run or pass is called. This player is then taken out of position to help any other cornerback that may have lost leverage which leads back to the slant.
As a cornerback, a slant is an incredibly difficult play to defend in man coverage based on the amount of field there is to cover. When all inside help is lost, a cornerback has to be jumping the slant route to even have a chance. Look for the Chiefs to dial back up these man-beater routes attached to RPO looks that pull the help defenders out of the equation.
Additionally, another ideology against man coverage when an RPO is called is to turn the play into pure play-action and attack over the top. A slant-and-go or any other double move will give the cornerback the idea of another quick pass out of the RPO when the goal in its entirety is to attack over the top. It’s hard to run a pure RPO offense against man coverage, but there are ways to still manipulate the defense.
Exploit your matchups
The matchups are easily determined against man coverage and when there is a WR-CB matchup that favors the offense, the Chiefs need to give their guys a chance.
Denver's secondary isn't what it used to be. Harris is very good but doesn't get to play in his ideal matchup every week anymore, Roby has been forced into a starter role, and no one else is proficient in man at this point. Hold their pass rush back and receivers will win. pic.twitter.com/PbN0qSulkJ— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) September 28, 2018
Whether attacking a safety tasked with man coverage or the nickel cornerback, there is going to be a clear mismatch on any given play that favors the offense. It won’t always result in a vertical win but when you have the speed and weapons the Chiefs do, this kind of play is possible or even likely every play.
The Broncos will mix and match their shells on the back-end, with a single deep S being the most common but running out some split S looks. The deep S on the "weakside" of the passing strength often plays a bit shallower at robber depth but MOF is still open. pic.twitter.com/HRS6v4RFh9— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) September 28, 2018
Anytime the Broncos decide to go middle of the field open (MOFO) and put a linebacker on coverage vs. either of Kansas City’s tight ends, that’s a massive mismatch right down the seams. After the Steelers game, this shouldn’t be something seen frequently. To avoid the one-on-one matchups on the outside, Denver will have to cycle to split safety looks as well.
Attack even boxes
At some point, playing man coverage will result in more resources being poured into the pass coverage rather than run defense. Inside linebackers will stay home a little longer, defensive linemen will turn into safeties on the field who play deep/out of the box and split safety looks will be the norm. As the defense morphs into this more conservative, protect-over-the-top defense, the box gets lighter and the numbers become favorable for the offense.
Get numbers in the box vs Denver and give your RB the 1 on 1 with the S. Denver has quality IDL and LBs but no one that is going to destroy a run game if the numbers are even. Chiefs run game through the first 3 Quarters is heavy on RPOs and eventually defenses will play all pas pic.twitter.com/xrMb98pUik— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) September 28, 2018
Even when the defense is clearly spinning a safety into the box late, the numbers still favor the offense and should present a pure one-on-one of running back vs. safety as long as blockers are executing. Whether the running back wins the matchup or not doesn’t matter when five-plus yards are regularly picked up before contact.
To this point, teams have played zoned against the Chiefs, allowing them to keep numbers in the box while attempting to defend the pass. With man coverage preferred by the Broncos, they won’t have the same luxury.
The Denver Broncos defense presents a unique and new challenge to the Kansas City Chiefs offense, but it isn’t anything that should catch them by surprise.
It’s a basic defense from a schematic perspective that asks for high levels of execution that haven’t been met on a consistent basis at this point. The game will challenge Mahomes‘ ball placement and decision-making but there shouldn’t be too many looks or situations that he’s confused as to what he is seeing. The run game may start slow like weeks past but should have the opportunity to pick up in the second half.
The key to the offense winning is going to be the ability to exploit one-on-one matchups, whether that be by design with rub/pick routes or by pure talent. The use of RPOs to manipulate the help defenders and the ability to attack the even-numbered boxes only assist in generating those favorable matchups.
The Chiefs are one of the few teams in the NFL equipped to beat man coverage in every possible way at every position on the field, making this an extremely dangerous game for the Broncos defense.