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Five things to watch as the Chiefs play the Broncos

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On a short week, the Chiefs will travel to Denver and take on their division rivals for the first time this season.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Thursday Night Football game this season could not have come at a worse time for the Kansas City Chiefs, as they will be nowhere near full strength in the matchup with the 2-4 Denver Broncos.

Both teams are currently trending in opposite directions. The Chiefs have lost two straight since their hot start — while the Broncos have bounced back with two consecutive victories. There have been a ton of memorable games at Mile High between these two teams in recent history — and there’s no reason to believe this will be any different.

I looked at five components of the game to pay attention to as you watch:

1. Physicality

Houston Texans vs Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

S-O-F-T

The word soft has been applicable to the Chiefs in their most recent performances. It shows in multiple aspects of the game.

Their tackling ability may be the most prevalent example. There has been an inexcusable amount of missed tackles by the defense. Off-ball defenders whiffing on an open-field ball carrier. Defenders in the box allowing running backs to carry them for an extra two or three yards. After averaging 6.5 missed tackles through two weeks, the Chiefs have averaged 10 missed tackles a game since Week 3.

The team’s receivers have struggled to deal with more physical coverage. It is not a coincidence that the poor performances began when the opponent started to play man-to-man more often. Wide receiver Demarcus Robinson has been invisible in the box score lately because he has not been able to separate from tight coverage. Tight end Travis Kelce may be facing overly-physical coverage — but he needs to handle it better and overcome it.

Football is a physical sport. There’s no way around it. The Chiefs have become a finesse style of team — but that cannot come with the sacrifice of physicality. If this team is going to turn it around, they will need to show more aggression and toughness — and that needs to start in Denver.

2. Slowing down Phillip Lindsay

Denver Broncos vs Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images

The Broncos’ offense has not been very successful this year. They have the 26th scoring offense, the 25th amount of total yards and rank in the bottom half of the league in all major passing categories.

The one positive they have is their effectiveness when running the ball. Second-year running back Phillip Lindsay leads their backfield with 397 yards and four touchdowns on 4.7 yards per attempt. Chiefs fans are probably familiar with Lindsay from his performances last season: he accumulated 164 rushing yards and two scores with a rate of 5.47 yards per carry in his two matchups with the Chiefs.

Lindsay and his backfield teammate, Royce Freeman, are used in the pass game frequently. They are the only running back duo to have 19 or more catches each this season — and they are tied with each other for third on the team in targets. They have been hard to bring down this year too.

The Chiefs defense will be facing another tough challenge — stopping the opponent’s run game. Linebacker Anthony Hitchens will be returning from the groin injury that kept him out of Week 6 — but the defense will still be missing defensive linemen Chris Jones and Xavier Williams. A better effort from the run defense would fuel the rest of the team to have a bounce-back performance.

3. Containing Von Miller

Denver Broncos v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

The Chiefs offensive line has received a lot of blame for the recent struggles. Although it does deserve some flak, it performed admirably in Week 6 against the talented pass-rushing duo of edge defenders J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus. The O-line only allowed one sack and two quarterback hits — although one of them appeared to re-aggravate quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ ankle once again.

It won’t get any easier in the Thursday night game in Denver. All-Pro outside linebacker Von Miller has not been as productive this season as he has been in the past — but he is still 11th in total pressures among edge rushers and seventh in quarterback hurries. Miller had a slow start to 2019: he only accumulated two total pressures in the first two games combined. Since then, he has averaged 6.5 pressures a game — including an absurd rate of 4.8 quarterback hurries a game.

He has needed to step up in the absence of second-year pass rusher Bradley Chubb. Chubb tore his ACL in Week 4 — and the Broncos have responded by moving Miller around the defense more. Before Chubb’s injury, Miller was coming off the right edge of the offensive formation 100% of the time. In the past few weeks, he has gone against the left tackle on 34% of his game snaps.

In the recent history of playing Denver, the Chiefs have been able to hold Miller in check. He has only gotten half of a sack total in the past five matchups. It will be vital that the pass protection is able to continue that trend. If Mahomes can be kept clean, the Denver secondary should be exploitable.

4. Red-zone battle

Houston Texans v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

One weird trend for the 2019 Chiefs offense has been its lack of success in the red zone. They have converted only 52.2% of their red zone opportunities into touchdowns; that percentage is the 20th-best rate in the NFL. In the early portion of the season, this deficiency was masked by big touchdown plays that came from 20-plus yards out — but lately, it has become prevalent that the team settles for too many field goals.

The Broncos defense has only allowed eight touchdowns on 19 opponents’ trips to the red zone — good for the third-best rate in the league. Not only have they not given up a touchdown in the red zone the past two weeks, but they also have not given up an offensive touchdown at all in that span.

On the flip side, the Broncos offense has struggled to score in the red zone. They own the 25th-ranked red-zone conversion percentage. This is an opportunity for the Chiefs defense to take advantage of the area of the field they have been the most productive this year. They have the eighth-best red-zone rate with only 50% of their opponents’ opportunities turning into touchdowns. Four of the 10 turnovers they have forced this season have come inside the red zone.

5. Passing to the running backs

NFL: Houston Texans at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

There have been 19 total rushing attempts for Chiefs running backs over the past two contests. Fortunately, they have still been able to contribute through the air: the position has totaled nine receptions, 104 yards and a touchdown. The team should continue to utilize the running backs against Denver.

The last two Broncos opponents have targeted the running back 29 times total to result in 24 catches and 126 yards. The majority of that production came from the Los Angeles Chargers and their running back Austin Ekeler. Chiefs running backs Damien Williams and LeSean McCoy should be able to replicate Ekeler’s speed and quickness in the open field that gave Denver linebackers fits.

Look for head coach Andy Reid to scheme it up and get his running backs in favorable matchups. Reid loves using the screen game — but this week should include even more designed passes for backs to get them in open space.