This week, the Chiefs get their first matchup that isn’t against a supremely explosive or incredibly innovative offensive scheme. The Broncos are a good football team that moves the ball well on the ground but with less dynamic players and play-calls. They just line up and get the job done.
This week, like every week, I’ll be heading down to the Laboratory to take a look at what the opposition’s offense looks like, some matchups and tendencies that they like to exploit and what the Chiefs defense can do to try to stop them this Sunday.
The Broncos offense
The Broncos went out this offseason and acquired free-agent quarterback Case Keenum, fresh off of a career year for the Minnesota Vikings in 2017.
Keenum is an accurate quarterback who also attempts throws in tight windows, trying to throw players open. He’s still getting integrated with the rest of the players on this offense, with some up and down moments this season, but he’s done a good job managing the game and moving the ball.
At running back, the Broncos are led by two rookies: Royce Freeman and Phillip Lindsay, with veteran Devontae Booker in the mix. Freeman has filled the traditional “lead back” role thus far after being picked in the third round. He’s a dangerous runner between the tackles and reads the gap well in their zone running schemes. Lindsay is more of the third-down back role, but his usage has increased on early downs, with great effect.
The Broncos suffered a major blow at tight end this week, with Jake Butt suffering an ACL injury in walkthroughs. Jeff Heuerman, more of a blocking tight end, will try to pick up the slack, but the Denver offense utilized a fair bit of two-tight end sets that they’ll have to throw out until another tight end gets up to speed.
Chiefs fans will be familiar with the Broncos wide receiver group, featuring Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas. Both have been productive receivers for many years, and they continue to be quality receivers in 2018. Rookie addition Courtland Sutton has found a role already on the offense, and he’s used his big frame to make contested catches.
The Broncos offensive line is an athletic group on the interior, led by left guard Ron Leary and center Matt Paradis. Right guard Connor McGovern is still a young player with not a ton of starting experience. Right tackle Jared Veldheer is a nine-year veteran, coming back to the AFC West from the Arizona Cardinals after years with the Oakland Raiders. 2017 first round draft pick Garett Bolles rounds out the offensive line at left tackle. This is a good run blocking group, helping Denver to the No. 3 rushing offense in the NFL in 2018. They have some struggles in pass blocking, and Bolles is coming off an especially poor game last week, racking up multiple costly penalties and allowing pressures.
How to defend
The Chiefs have had some problems defending cutbacks in the run game so the Broncos counters will be something to watch this week. This is a solid design out of 21 personnel with the WR motioning across to freeze the EDGE. Good sell by the RB as the OL block down. pic.twitter.com/yx9U6FM7l5— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) September 29, 2018
While the Chiefs have had some success defending the run this year, they’ve had trouble against cutbacks and counters, losing backside contain. The Broncos like to use these counter runs to get the defense to flow to the play side, before cutting back and following a pulling blocker through an open gap.
Shown above, the Broncos sell the run to the strong side with all of the offensive line blocking down, selling the look of a zone run. Thomas has motioned to the weak side of the formation, and the edge defender kicks out to read the pass off the snap. Freeman takes steps initially toward that side of the line, and the defense reads him and flows to the ball. Butt pulls across the backside of the formation, looking for work. However, the action was sold well enough that Freeman walks into the end zone untouched alongside Butt.
The Chiefs have to make sure their backside defender stays active in the run game, and that their linebackers and safeties stay true in their run fits. Collapsing on the flow of the play is important against the Broncos zone run game, but having a weak-side defender flow through a backside gap can protect against cutbacks this week.
If you're not aware of Denver RB Phillip Lindsay, you need to be. He's quick, with great acceleration and a top gear to get through the defense quickly. Here, Seattle blows coverage on Lindsay in the flat, and he's able to turn on the burners to cut through the secondary. pic.twitter.com/8oJXHplnqh— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) September 29, 2018
While Freeman was drafted as the lead back this past year, Lindsay has the game-breaking ability that can really damage a defense.
The above play is a busted coverage by the Seattle Seahawks, but it showcases Lindsay’s speed when he has the ball in his hands. It’s a simple flat route in which the coverage linebacker gets caught up in traffic inside, and that’s all the gap that Lindsay needs. He dashes up the sidelines, and the Seahawk defenders all either take poor angles or can’t catch Lindsay, who looks like he’s moving at twice the speed of the pursuit.
Lindsay hits the hole like he's got rocket shoes. Here, he takes a delayed draw and is able to get to full speed at the drop of a hat. He's got good balance and navigates some of the second level tacklers while not losing much speed, bursting into the secondary. pic.twitter.com/CeoFLi3vhl— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) September 29, 2018
While Lindsay shows good speed, he also shows fantastic balance. After hitting the hole with amazing speed from a delayed draw, he’s able to keep his balance with speed through the second-level tacklers, navigating a fine line through traffic. He sets up the safety from two steps out, then makes a jump cut to clear the third level and rips off a huge gain.
Lindsay is a true talent with the ability to turn a single missed gap assignment or tackle into a major gain. He’s a one-cut-and-go style runner, while allows him to hit the hole at full speed and beat linebackers to the gap. If the Chiefs defensive line can help set the linebackers up to create a unified front this week, they can keep Lindsay corralled in the run game. In the passing game, they’ll need to make sure to key off of him and not allow easy completions in the flat that he can break open against the Chiefs slower inside linebackers.
Keenum vs. pressure
Keenum has had several poor INT's this year, throwing into tight coverage off his back foot. Here, the Ravens bring a 4 man rush, and the IDL gets pressure up the middle. Rather than shift in the pocket, Keenum leans back and throws a poor ball for a backbreaking INT. pic.twitter.com/o88DCJoJ3c— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) September 29, 2018
While Keenum typically reads a secondary well, he has made some very poor decisions this year under pressure. This is a simple four-man rush that gets pressure directly up the gut of the offense. Keenum has room to move out of the pocket, but instead opts to throw into the zone defense, trying to split the two linebackers. He doesn’t have the arm talent to zip it into that tight window off of his back foot, and the pass is intercepted by the underneath defender. Even if it wasn’t intercepted, the boundary hook defender would have laid a massive hit on the tight end.
Keenum didn’t do his receiver any favors there, and he pays the price with a red-zone interception while trying to lead a comeback.
Keenum gets jumpy and makes poor decisions, even if teams only SHOW pressure. Here, the Raiders show blitz, Keenum shifts protection, and the RB is responsible for the EDGE defender. Keenum's internal clock is hurried, even w/o pressure, and he makes a poor throw for an INT. pic.twitter.com/9XcOeCRkKu— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) September 29, 2018
Keenum has struggled to read and react to some of the looks teams have thrown at him this year. The Raiders show pressure from their inside linebackers on this play, and he shifts protection, with the running back covering the backside edge defender. The linebackers, showing blitz, drop into coverage, making it a four-man rush. Keenum still rushes the throw, even though the blitz isn’t coming, and he forces a ball into double coverage. The safety makes an easy interception, keeping the Broncos from putting points on the board in this red zone trip.
The Chiefs can force poor decision making by Keenum simply by showing pressure and dropping defenders in their pass rush, alongside the positive results from pressure through the middle of the defense. Keenum has forced the ball across the middle of the field into tight coverage, both in man and zone coverages, especially in the red zone. Having Ron Parker, Anthony Hitchens and Eric Murray tight against middle of the field routes can result in some much-needed turnovers for the Chiefs defense this week against a quarterback that’s willing to give the ball away.
The bottom line
The Broncos are a fine offense, but they’re not quite to the level of the teams that the Chiefs defense have faced off to this point in the 2018 season. They run the ball well and can take the air out of the game by pounding the rock and chewing up clock.
However, the Chiefs spent the 2018 offseason completely revamping their run defense for games such as this. A stouter, faster front than in previous years matches up well with the Broncos offense. While they’ll allow some yards around the edges of the defense, the Chiefs defense in the early stages of the game will be very strong in its interior.
Keenum won’t test the defense vertically in the same way that they’ve seen out of several offenses this year, and that should help for a defense that has had some struggles keeping a lid on the top of the secondary. While Keenum has done well picking apart some zone defenses, the Chiefs can definitely lean on their man defense this week to shut down the Broncos wide receivers, as the tight end position won’t offer the same threat as the previous three weeks.
This game screams the ability to be controlled by the Chiefs four-man rush. The Broncos are 25th in the league in pressure rate, per Football Outsiders, with a pressure allowed on 32.8 percent of the passing snaps this season. Even though the Chiefs weren’t able to find much pressure in the first two weeks, last week showed the ability to get home with their front four. I’d expect pressure from Dee Ford, Justin Houston, and a big game from Chris Jones this week.
I feel like the game script will start very similar to the rest of this year, with the defense holding early, the offense getting up big and the opposition having to play catch up.
The Broncos haven’t proven to have the same ability to move the ball and put points on the board this season, so this week looks like a much more comfortable game for the Chiefs defense.