The Kansas City Chiefs have dropped two straight games. The defense — particularly against the run — is reeling. Unfortunately, a short week against a divisional rival is on the docket. Even more unfortunately, the Denver Broncos are excellent at running the ball.
Let’s dig into the Broncos personnel — and a concept we may see on Thursday night. Then we’ll discuss how the Chiefs defense can try to slow them down — and hopefully right the ship going into a mini-bye week.
General manager John Elway took another stab at the quarterback position this offseason by trading for former Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.
Flacco has not been particularly good, throwing at least one interception in every game after the opening weekend. He’s also had two games where he did not throw a touchdown — and only one game with more than one. In Flacco’s last two games — both victories — he threw for fewer than 185 yards a game and threw two interceptions for every touchdown pass.
The Denver rushing attack is where their offense can get scary.
Phillip Lindsay has followed up his strong rookie campaign with a very good sophomore year. He’s explosive on stretch runs — and can be a home run hitter between the tackles, too. When hitting the hole, his acceleration will make teams pay for poor gap discipline — something from which the Chiefs have suffered.
Royce Freeman is also in his second year in the league. He is the perfect back to rotate in with Lindsay. Freeman has great vision and can pick up tough yards between the tackles; he’ll abuse open cutback lanes much like Marlon Mack did against the Chiefs. Freeman is also trusted as be a pass blocker and receiver, adding another element coming out of the backfield.
The Broncos have a solid wide receiver tandem in Emmanuel Sanders and Courtland Sutton. Sutton seems to be Flacco’s favorite target in this offense. He can stretch the field with his speed — and also has the length to go up and get the ball in the red zone. He could be a matchup problem against a depleted Chiefs secondary.
Sanders is questionable coming off of an injury but is still a dangerous deep threat. He’s a solid route runner; the Broncos will get him open in the middle of the field with deep digs opposite a Sutton fade. DaeSean Hamilton rotates in when the Broncos go with a three-wide receiver set.
First-round pick Noah Fant leads the Denver tight end group. He’s more of a move tight end than a blocker; the Broncos will often split him out wide. In 12 personnel, Fant sees plenty of isolated looks with trips to the opposite side. The Broncos will try to find a poor matchup against a Chiefs linebacking corps that has struggled in coverage. Jeff Heuerman is the Broncos’ primary blocking tight end.
Former first-round pick Garrett Bolles has been better with the Broncos this year than he was during his first two years in the league — but he’s still not been great at left tackle. Right tackle Ja’Wuan James has missed the past several weeks with a knee injury and is questionable for the game against the Chiefs. If he can’t go, backup Elijah Wilkinson will continue to start in his stead.
Connor McGovern mans the center position for Denver after taking over for Matt Paradis midway through last season. Ron Leary has been a stalwart on the Broncos line for the past couple seasons. He mans the right guard position after starting at left guard last year. Rookie Dalton Risner starts at left guard and has played well thus far — particularly in the run game.
The offensive concept: Condensed slot motion
DEN likes to get condensed looks early in the game with their good blocking WR's.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) October 16, 2019
Under front on D, X and Z WR's climb to seal block. Slot motion freezes the MIKE and the WILL. OL attempts to climb, 1T resets and prevents LG climbing to S. Lindsay bursts through open gap for 8. pic.twitter.com/9Wr0yNCitf
The Broncos running game is pretty darned good — especially over the last two weeks. The Chiefs run defense is not — and this concept could absolutely kill them this week.
Lining up in 11 personnel and a condensed formation, the Broncos send their slot receiver across the formation on the snap. The offensive line is blocking like a typical zone run, and the Tennessee Titans defensive linemen do well to prevent the blockers from releasing and climbing to the second level.
But the Broncos have shown this look on tape, handing the ball off to the receiver on the jet motion. That forces the Titans linebackers to take the cheese on the fake — and sucks the MIKE linebacker to the weak side C-gap. The X and Z receivers fire off the snap and climb to the second level, sealing the slot and boundary cornerbacks.
With the Titans in an under front, the B-gap is empty. The slot motion pulling the MIKE out of position leaves an easy read for Lindsay, and he accelerates through the hole behind the seal blocks of the left guard and left tackle. The guard can’t fully disengage from the defensive tackle and climb to the safety, so the safety is able to make a stop to save a much larger gain.
While this play seems simple to defend — the MIKE should have stayed home, trusting that the back-side defender will make the play — motion like this has given Chiefs linebackers all kinds of trouble this year. All too often, Damien Wilson and Anthony Hitchens have bit on fakes like this one, allowing massive gaps to open up for the offense.
Furthermore, on this play, the nose tackle on this play does well to re-set and force the double-team, not allowing the guard to disengage. In contrast, the Chiefs defensive line has been inferior at the point of attack, allowing blockers to climb to the second level easily. If Hitchens or Wilson take the cheese on the motion man and the defensive line struggles at the point of attack, the Chiefs could find themselves trying to chase down a talented back like Lindsay in the open field.
The bottom line
For the Chiefs front seven, this is a bad matchup on the ground.
Lindsay and Freeman are talented backs — and the Broncos want to run the ball. They won’t be shy about matriculating the ball down the field, handing off 35 times and leaning on their defense to get the job done. Vic Fangio is old-school that way; he will definitely depend on his ability to get it done in the trenches.
That said, the Broncos don’t move the ball particularly well through the air. Flacco has struggled — and has taken multiple sacks by simply holding the ball too long. He wants to get vertical — looking for the shot play from play-action — which should give Juan Thornhill a chance to patrol deep and make a play on the ball.
With Kendall Fuller (and potentially Bashaud Breeland) out for this game, this might be the first time we really get to see Tyrann Mathieu play regularly in or around the box. I’d expect Mathieu to play as an apex defender underneath in three safety looks, leaving Daniel Sorensen to follow Fant around in the passing game. Mathieu’s presence — and Hitchens’ return to organize the front seven — might offer a little bit more help against the run than we saw last week.
The Chiefs defense knows what they’re up against — and also what Flacco and company can offer through the air. This is a week that we could see the Chiefs sell out a little bit more against the run while the game is close — and if the point differential increases, perhaps get to the quarterback a bit more.