The Kansas City Chiefs are coming off back-to-back losses at home for the first time in four seasons. Now they face a quick turnaround with a road game against the Denver Broncos on Thursday Night Football.
Following their offensive struggles against the Indianapolis Colts two weeks ago, the Chiefs’ offense came out swinging early against the Houston Texans, looking unstoppable for over a quarter. Then — after another Patrick Mahomes ankle flare-up — all the promise was sucked out of the offense; it quickly turned into a wing and prayer.
If the Chiefs are to survive a short week against a Broncos team that is starting to find a bit of a groove, they will need to find ways to be successful on offense to help out their struggling, tired defense.
Like other teams the Chiefs have faced, the Broncos will likely continue to play a lot of man coverage, challenging the Chiefs to pick up their blitzes and stunts — the same hurdles the Chiefs offense has had to overcome in recent weeks. Wide receiver Tyreek Hill’s return last week helped to chip away at the former problem. When left tackle Eric Fisher and left guard Andrew Wylie return, it should help solve the latter one.
But let’s look beyond the broad stokes, focusing on the Broncos defense and specific matchups the Chiefs could exploit.
The Broncos front line has undergone a little bit of a shift in their style of play — one that was only exacerbated when defensive end Bradley Chubb was lost for the season.
Edge rusher Von Miller is joined by rookie Malik Reed, but it’s the players between them that are the change of pace. Mike Purcell, Derek Wolfe, and Shelby Harris provide a good rotation of stout players that can bully offensive lines and shut down the running game. Rookie Dre’Mont Jones provides an interior pass rush when he’s on the field. As a whole, this defensive line has gained some physicality — but it’s come with the cost of a slightly slower pass rush.
The linebacker group is led by Todd Davis — and essentially followed by Todd Davis. In the last few weeks, Alexander Johnson has appeared to be coming on, but has yet to be put under the bright lights and isolated as a player. Both Davis and Johnson are competent all-around linebackers that can play on all three downs, but neither are dynamic, game-changing players who would be well-suited to defend a high-profile offense like the Chiefs.
Following Chubb’s injury, the Broncos secondary returns as the strength of the defense — with the play of cornerback Chris Harris and safety Justin Simmons leading the way. Harris is still an elite player who has given Tyreek Hill as much trouble as anyone, while Simmons is one of the few defenders in the league capable of almost matching Travis Kelce’s size and athleticism. Kareem Jackson takes the other safety spot, providing good coverage deep and in man. The rest of the secondary is a rotation of cornerbacks — or safety Will Parks — who have seen their fair share of troubles with penalties and being beaten in coverage.
Using running backs as receivers
Given that Andy Reid is the Chiefs’ head coach, this sounds like an obvious concept — but this is a game that should really feature the running backs as primary receiving options.
The Broncos’ pass rush is sound, creating a slow burn on which Miller can piggy-back his speed rush. The Broncos’ tight man coverage — combined with their well-timed zone calls — limit predictable downfield throwing windows; over the last few weeks, opposing quarterbacks have struggled to get the ball out cleanly and on time.
But teams have been able to successfully counter by using running backs in the passing game — not just making sure they take checkdowns when they are available, but also drawing plays designed for their running backs at all depths of the field.
Something the Chargers had success attacking Denver's defense with was using their RBs in the passing game.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 16, 2019
The jet motion gets the LB and S to react a second late and no one is picking up the quick swing out out to the RB. Den rallies quick but surrenders free yards to the RB. pic.twitter.com/mqyKxuHFUT
Under first-year head coach Vic Fangio, the Broncos have been defending the pass a bit more top-down. We’ve see a lot of two-deep safety looks with bracket coverage on premier targets — along with wall techniques being used by cornerbacks when they know they have help. In other words, multiple coverage defenders are focusing on taking away deep passes — which is allowing some underneath routes to go unchecked until it’s too late.
On this play, the Los Angeles Chargers cause a slight bit of hesitation with the jet motion — but even without it, any potential coverage player is in for a long run to defend the quick swing pass. The Broncos do a good job swarming to the ball quickly — approaching at perfect angles — but they also surrender free yards without anyone manning up on the running back or immediately buzzing into the flat.
This doesn’t end at swing passes to the flat. If the protection is competent — and the wide receiver can occupy both a corner and safety — this can easily be turned into a vertical threat.
Even when settling into zone coverage, the Broncos are late to ID a RB getting out into the flats as the CB is carried vertically.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 16, 2019
Even if a LB is to flash into the flat, the Chiefs have turned a late rotation like that against a team with a wheel round up the SL. pic.twitter.com/G8PjqC1k8c
Fangio has brought a little more zone and off-coverage to Denver — and against the Chiefs offense, they should throw most of that out the window. But even then, they falter at covering the flats too often.
On this play, there isn’t a single defender within 15 yards of the running back out in the flat — or even someone with eyes on him. The pass is completed elsewhere, but this play is free yards to the running back — without even having to make a play in the open field.
If the Broncos try to bait the Chiefs into looking for this quick flat route by drop-stepping before flaring out to the flat, the Chiefs have shown a tendency to flare the running back up the sideline on a wheel route. Since the athleticism of the Broncos linebackers pales in comparison to that of the Chiefs running backs, they can’t play catch-up in the flats. Instead, they’ll have to top the plays — or risk getting burned.
The Broncos run a ton of man coverage already and should continue that trend against the Chiefs. When the Chiefs get Williamsx2 or McCoy with a LB on them they have to take advantage.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 16, 2019
Especially on plays the Broncos are crowding the LoS dual reading so close to this much traffic pic.twitter.com/BZsoCDTbQg
The Broncos play lots of man coverage against every opponent — and with the Chiefs’ struggles against man, they should see a ton of it.
When the Chiefs spread out the field out and can still force two linebackers to stay in, one of them will be forced into coverage on a running back — and the Chiefs should take full advantage.
In some situations, the Broncos like to crowd the line of scrimmage with their linebackers showing an interior gap blitz. Most often they’ll be dual-reading the running back (if in the backfield) and pick him up as he leaves.
If the Chiefs can take advantage of the Broncos putting their linebackers near so much traffic, they’ll be forcing them to carry running backs not only horizontally but vertically. The linebackers are reading the running back — trying to force them to stay in to protect the quarterback — but the Chiefs should be able to find success by being aggressive from the snap, attacking this look with running backs in space.
The bottom line
The use of running backs in the passing game is nothing new to Chiefs fans — or anyone who has followed Andy Reid over the years. Even this year — with maybe a slightly lower emphasis on running backs in the passing game — there have been times when they have been effective weapons.
The Chiefs will have to deal with the same issues that have been plagued them the past few weeks, but the return of Tyreek Hill should help with some of those problems. The Broncos will run a variety of effective coverages but have a habit of missing running backs in the flats in key situations, requiring their linebackers to cover a lot of ground from disadvantageous positions.
The Chiefs should also be able to find success attacking the Denver linebackers in coverage — both in space and vertically.