In Week 7, the Kansas City Chiefs went on the road and beat the Denver Broncos 30-6 — but under different circumstances than the teams will face on Sunday.
The quarterbacks who played the majority of snaps for both offenses are not the same players who will be starting in Week 15. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes has recovered from the knee injury he suffered in the first game — and Denver has moved on to rookie quarterback (and Lee’s Summit, Missouri native) Drew Lock, who is the third signal-caller they’ve started this season.
Lock’s first start in Arrowhead Stadium is only one of the five things to watch this week:
1. Drew Lock’s homecoming
There will be plenty of Chiefs fans who will have mixed feelings watching this game.
The Broncos drafted former Missouri quarterback Drew Lock in the second round of the 2019 draft. After beginning the season on injured reserve, Lock was activated on November 30, immediately becoming the starter in Week 13. Since then, Denver is 2-0 — and Lock has impressed with a 72.7% completion percentage, five touchdowns, 8.1 yards per attempt and a 111.4 passer rating.
Lock has a different skill set than the Broncos quarterback the Chiefs faced in Week 7. Veteran Joe Flacco was a statue in the pocket and was no help to his pass protection; the Chiefs sacked him nine times — a season-high for both the Broncos offense and the Chiefs defense. Lock, however, has superior mobility; he should be better equipped to make throws under pressure.
But Lock may be vulnerable in another area. This season, Flacco only threw an interception on 1.9% of his attempts — and none against the Chiefs. Lock has thrown one in each of his first two starts, which is a rate of 3.6%. And in their last three games, the Chiefs have forced eight turnovers — seven of them interceptions.
Watch to see how Lock handles the Chiefs pass rush and how safe he is with the ball. For a young quarterback, one turnover could snowball into many.
2. Dealing with the opposing pass rush
Lately, it’s been weird to watch the Chiefs offense play.
On one hand, they have done enough to win every game since Mahomes returned from his injury. But on the other, it doesn’t look like the unstoppable unit we saw a year ago. One major issue has been the performance of the offense once Mahomes is under pressure.
According to PFF premium stats, Mahomes has put himself in a position to be pressured 3.5 times a game since his return to the lineup — more than twice as much as the 1.6 he recorded before his injury. It’s obvious that Mahomes does not have confidence in his pass protection to keep him clean in a tight pocket. He’s started to bail from good pockets, which has created unnecessary pressure.
But there’s a reason Mahomes is having a hard time trusting the line. They have been underperforming — even though all five of the starters are now healthy. The interior offensive line has not given the Mahomes the ability to step up in the pocket. With Broncos pass rushers Derek Wolfe and Shelby Harris coming from the interior, things won’t be easier in Week 15.
Watch to see how Chiefs interior linemen Andrew Wylie, Austin Reiter and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif fare against Denver.
3. Containing Courtland Sutton
Broncos second-year wide receiver Courtland Sutton has emerged as a dangerous downfield threat who is now gelling with the quarterback who could be throwing to him for the rest of his career. Sutton could be the best AFC West receiver the Chiefs will face in the coming years.
In Lock and Sutton’s two games together, Sutton has caught nine balls for 108 yards and two touchdowns. For the season, he leads the team in targets with 96 — 37 more than the next-closest teammate — and 448 more receiving yards than any other Broncos receiver. In the first matchup with Kansas City, Sutton contributed 87 yards on six catches.
Watch to see if the Chiefs cornerbacks are able to handle his big frame and skills at the catch point. Lock will not be afraid to sling it — and it’s obvious that Sutton will be his primary target.
4. Running back rotation
The snap counts for Chiefs running backs against the New England Patriots last Sunday were pretty surprising.
Veteran back Spencer Ware was signed to the team just a week ago. He still led the team in snaps with six more than teammate LeSean McCoy — but both McCoy and running back Darwin Thompson ended up with more touches than he did. So it’s clear that Ware’s main duty is pass protection. Down the stretch, his ability to block pass rushers will help him continue to see the field often.
Thompson had a few splash plays through the air, totaling four catches and 36 yards. His longest play was a 19-yard catch-and-run. He had another play that could have been big, running up the seam to get open. Unfortunately, pressure kept Mahomes from seeing him.
Watch to see how the snap counts shake out this week. Thompson still needs to get more involved — and we should expect to see Ware in passing situations.
5. Matching up with Denver tight ends
When a team drafts a tight end in the first round, he is expected to be a dominant force right out of the gate. While Broncos rookie tight end Noah Fant hasn’t dominated in his first season, he has emerged in the last few games.
In his last five games, Fant has topped the 100-yard receiving mark twice — and has also scored twice. During this span, he’s displayed athleticism after the catch, with receptions for 48 and 75 yards — the latter for a touchdown. As a whole, Denver tight ends have been a big part of the offense since Lock took over. Since then, they have 12 catches, 184 yards and two touchdowns.
Watch to see if Fant can continue this upward trend against the Chiefs. In the Week 7 contest, Fant caught only one of his five targets and had two of his three drops on the season. Safeties Tyrann Mathieu, Juan Thornhill and Daniel Sorensen will be tasked with shutting him down again.