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How the Chiefs defense beats the Broncos offense

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The Nerd Squad breaks down the Broncos offense — and a concept we might see on Sunday.

Kansas City Chiefs v Denver Broncos Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

The Kansas City Chiefs head into Sunday’s game against the Denver Broncos with the AFC West won and a playoff birth clinched. A massive victory against the New England Patriots last week has the makings of a bit of a “trap” game for the Chiefs. Luckily for them, a new coaching staff, attitude and a new quarterback to study should help keep the Chiefs defense locked in this week.

As we do every week, we’ll take a look at the Broncos personnel and a concept they might use. We’ll then break down what the Chiefs defense can do to slow the Denver offense.

The personnel

Denver Broncos v Houston Texans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Unlike the second matchup against the Oakland Raiders, the Broncos have made fairly significant changes in personnel since the last time the Chiefs played them.

Drew Lock now leads this Denver offense, making his third start of the year. Lock absolutely lit up the Houston Texans‘ secondary last week to the tune of 309 yards and three touchdowns while completing 81.5% of his passes. Lock is mobile and has a strong arm, taking deep shots while making it difficult to bring down in the pocket. He struggles a bit with pressure and tends to stare down his receivers, leaving the Chiefs with a few openings to attempt to force rookie mistakes.

Emmanuel Sanders departed to the San Francisco 49ers at the trade deadline. DaeSean Hamilton and Tim Patrick have gotten the wide receiver targets in his absence. Still, the Broncos have opted for more heavy personnel instead of leaning on the wide receiver corps — outside of volume target to a dangerous weapon in Courtland Sutton.

That heavy personnel has featured Noah Fant more often, as well as rookie fullback Andrew Beck. Fant can stretch the field and is a dangerous player with the ball in his hands. The Chiefs would be wise to match up a cornerback with Fant, as he’s more of a wide receiver than a traditional tight end. Beck has gotten a lot of run lately in the Broncos 2-back pistol looks — more on that below.

Right tackle Ja’Wuan James played in last week’s Texans game, returning from a knee injury. James only played 53% of the offensive snaps and has not practiced thus far this week. The Chiefs saw backup tackle Elijah Wilkinson in their first meeting, and they racked up nine sacks on the day. Right guard Ron Leary has also missed practice this week with a concussion. Austin Schlottmann would fill in if he were to miss Sunday’s contest.

The offensive concept: 2-back pistol play action

Since the last time the Chiefs and Broncos met, the Broncos offense has adopted more 2-back pistol looks. These looks will use one of their tight ends in the backfield or their fullback alongside their quarterback. Philip Lindsay or Royce Freeman will align behind Lock.

The 2-back pistol has many of the benefits of the offset-I in that the running back can get a running start (unlike a typical shotgun alignment), and he still has a lead blocker in the backfield. It also affords the quarterback the benefits of not aligning under center — fewer drop steps, quicker visibility and less immediate pressure. The alignment also gives the offense the ability to run a less predictable read-option, given that the running back can attack each gap without a drastic change of direction, and the quarterback can easily release to either side of the line.

The Broncos will run the ball out of the pistol often, and Lindsay, in particular, seems very comfortable in the system. Defenses have to crash quickly to stop him from hitting the hole into the secondary quickly. That’s when Denver likes to utilize their play-action game.

The above play is a prime example of the Broncos manipulating a base defense in the passing game. Lined up in 21 personnel, Lock runs play-action to the weak side, leaking Lindsay to the Texans’ best coverage linebacker. The Texans have a box safety aligned with the tight end, and the fake causes him to pause before recognizing the tight end blocking. He green dog blitzes to attack the quarterback, but the delay puts him behind the play.

The boundary receivers are able to release vertically, clearing the cornerbacks. This allows the fullback to leak out of the backfield, clear the lesser coverage linebacker and break on the out route with plenty of separation. The play-action and extra blocker give Lock just enough time to see the route open, and the offense hits on a big play.

The bottom line

This Denver Broncos team has a completely different offense than the last time these teams met. Sure, they still lean on their run game. Their passing concepts are still either short or very deep. But their alignments, route distributions and ability to get to those spots on the field has changed dramatically.

Steve Spagnuolo will have a lot on his plate this week with the packages that Denver can run. The Broncos certainly won’t be as dynamic out of the pistol formation as the Baltimore Ravens offense he helped limit earlier this year, but Lock won’t be the statue in the pocket Joe Flacco was in the first meeting. Even though Denver doesn’t have a multitude of threatening weapons at their disposal, they have enough in Lindsay, Sutton, and Fant — one at each level of the defense.

Where the Chiefs can find success is by throwing the kitchen sink at Lock. A shaky offensive line struggled to pick up the Chiefs blitz packages in the first matchup. It could be even worse if Denver’s right tackle and guard are both missing this week. Lock tends to stick on a read when his rhythm is off, and pressure will force him to toss balls to covered receivers far too often. If the Chiefs defensive backs can get their heads around to locate the ball, there might be some interceptions at the ready this week.

Spagnuolo might counter his blitz packages by dropping eight players into matching zones as well. Lock is still growing in his field vision, and Spagnuolo has shown a knack for dropping players where quarterbacks tend to push their reads this year. There’s a high probability Spagnuolo could pull a little something extra from his bag of tricks this week and try to jump an extra route or two to make something happen.

If the Chiefs play the gap sound defense against the run they did against Denver in their first meeting, Lock is going to have to throw the ball to counter the scoring output of the Chiefs offense. Even though he’s talented and has a bright future in front of him, putting the ball in his hands this week could play exactly to the strengths this Spagnuolo defense has shown late in the season.