Since the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos last met, both teams have undergone a lot of changes. The Chiefs offense has had plenty of ups and downs while they’ve tried to get back into rhythm. Meanwhile, the Broncos defense has been getting more of a Vic Fangio mentality.
Given how the first game went — Patrick Mahomes’ injury and 900 sacks with Joe Flacco starting at quarterback — there may be little from that game that will tell us much about Sunday’s matchup.
Both teams will be coming off at least a couple of wins, entering the game with a lot of confidence — and different tendencies, too. The challenge for the Chiefs offense will be to continue trying to reestablish their identity against a defense that is playing much more tightly — and with a lot of different looks.
In the past, the Broncos played man-to-man against the Chiefs, allowing their talented secondary to trade blows with Chiefs receivers. That’s what they did during most of the Week 7 game; it was in the Chiefs-can’t-beat-man-coverage part of the season. But since then, the Broncos have been playing a lot more zone coverage. Fangio has always run a varied defense — and the Broncos are finally starting to use everything in his bag of tricks.
Let’s take a look at the Broncos’ defensive personnel — and a concept they’ve been using to great effect the last few weeks.
Star edge rusher Von Miller has been playing fewer snaps down the stretch as he works through some injuries. The Broncos rotate rookie Malik Reed and Jeremiah Attaochu as their other edge rushers.
This season, Shelby Harris leads the defensive line. He’s having a fantastic season as a run defender and a quality interior pass rusher. Harris is joined by a pair of stout run defenders — Adam Gotsis and Mike Purcell — and a rotation of younger players in Fangio’s versatile defense. Unlike past seasons, the Broncos aren’t relying on pure one-on-one talent to generate pressure. Instead, Fangio’s scheme — which allows for multiple fronts — generates confusion for opposing offenses.
Todd Davis and A.J. Johnson lead the linebackers; each of them plays nearly every snap. Both are competent all-around linebackers who can play on all three downs — but although Johnson is trending in the right direction, neither are dynamic, game-changing players. The biggest thing the linebackers have going for them is Fangio’s scheme, which gives them the ability to sometimes get free rushes on the quarterback.
Like the rest of the team, the Broncos secondary is turning over a new leaf. It’s now led by safeties Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson, who both offer a skill set that on any given snap allows them to play deep, near the line of scrimmage or in man coverage. Chris Harris is still a very good cornerback; Isaac Yiadom joins him in the backfield. The Broncos’ fifth defensive back is Will Parks. That’s about as deep as they go — so the Chiefs could very easily put them to the test.
Handling Broncos pressure concepts
The Broncos aretaking after new HC Vic Fangio more and more as the season goes on. Multiple coverage shells, versatile fronts, and more pressure.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) December 13, 2019
Nickel Fire Zone Blitz on this rep w/o any replacement coverage. Match 3 Buzz behind the pressure handles the bunch exchange. pic.twitter.com/uarGIfdGC5
The Broncos have fully adapted some of the zone blitz looks that Fangio favored while with the Chicago Bears. They still mix in plenty of man coverage, but they rely on match coverage a lot more often — favoring Cover 3 with a Rip/Liz call, allowing them to be more flexible with their extra pressure. This play shows a Fire Zone blitz that breaks some tendencies that might catch offenses off-guard.
The most predominant zone blitzes come from a more traditional 3-4 look — or with a defensive lineman dropping into coverage — rather than this 4-3 nickel look. The Broncos still achieve the overall goal of five-man pressure with three deep defenders and three underneath — but without sacrificing a better coverage player for a defensive lineman.
Dealing with the trips bunch to the boundary side of the field — either by dropping a defensive end to that side or asking the weak side linebacker to cross the formation and wall off the middle of the field — would open up windows for a quick pass.
Lately, what the Broncos have tried to do with their blitz package is to force quick throws — with Jackson or Simmons spinning down into the curl/flat zones and making plays on the ball (or receiver) at the catch point. The last two weeks, the Broncos are averaging over five cornerback blitzes per game — while also bringing other pressures from their linebackers and safeties.
How to attack
The Los Angeles Chargers and Houston Texans did a good job of avoiding much of the Broncos’ blitz pressure — but they were playing into the Broncos’ plan. The Chiefs will have to make some hot-read throws underneath — forcing the Broncos to make tackles in space — but when Mahomes can identify pressure before the snap, the Chiefs will have to take some shots. The speed the Chiefs can put on the field against thin coverage — both underneath and deep — should leave plenty of opportunities for big plays.
The bottom line
Vic Fangio has the Denver Broncos playing much better defense. More blitz packages and zone coverage are a big part of the improvement. They do a good job mixing in different kinds of coverage shells and blitz packages, making it hard for offenses to get a read on what the Broncos are doing on any given play. They favor a lot of defensive back pressure and zone blitz looks to generate confusion and manufacture pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
The Broncos are trying to play it safe behind their blitzes with a lot more zone coverages — but as we saw in the play above, the exchange from the safety to cornerback on the corner route wasn’t completely clean; there was a window to be exploited. When the Broncos send this kind of pressure, Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, and Mecole Hardman should get a few chances that could result in big gains.