The Kansas City Chiefs defense had a good performance against the Buffalo Bills last week, albeit a penalty-ridden one. With the Denver Broncos up next on the schedule, the Chiefs defense will once again need to defend the run well and protect against the multitude of vertical shots the Broncos will take.
With that in mind, let’s dig into the Broncos’ personnel — and a concept we may see on Monday. Then we’ll discuss how the Chiefs defense can try to slow them down — and continue their dominance over this AFC West foe.
Drew Lock returned from a Week 2 injury as the Broncos starting quarterback last week against the New England Patriots. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur has taken the top off of the offense, and Lock has the longest intended air yards of any quarterback in the NFL as a result. Lock’s limited snaps this year haven’t been particularly productive, as he’s completed just 53% of his passes and has just one touchdown to two interceptions.
The Broncos have a three-headed rushing attack, and it has been led by Melvin Gordon in 2020. Gordon has put out his typically solid production, rushing for 4.3 yards per carry and scoring three touchdowns on the year. Gordon is dealing with an illness and had a DUI arrest last week, bringing his full usage into question.
If Gordon can’t go, the Broncos will likely lean on Phillip Lindsay, as they did last week. Lindsay is a solid stretch runner and good third-down back. Royce Freeman has maintained a backup role for both players and has averaged almost a touchdown a game against the Chiefs in his career.
Denver has overhauled their wide receiving corps since the last time these two teams met. Courtland Sutton — their top target — has missed the season due to injury. Fortunately, the Broncos have found Tim Patrick as an option they can utilize in a similar manner to Sutton. They also spent significant draft capital at the position, led by first-round pick Jerry Jeudy. Jeudy is an exceptional route runner that can create easy separation out of his breaks.
Denver also drafted KJ Hamler in the second round — a true deep threat that can take the top off of a defense. DaeSean Hamilton and rookie Tyrie Cleveland also may factor into the game plan out of 11 personnel.
The Broncos have invested draft capital at the tight end position in three of the last four drafts. Noah Fant leads the group as a true “move” tight end, in the vein of early-career Travis Kelce. Fant is a terrific athlete and good route runner that holds a matchup advantage over most middle of the field defenders. While he’s not much of a blocker, Nick Vannett and Jake Butt have been for the Broncos. Shurmur is comfortable in three-tight end sets with that group, giving good run/pass flexibility. Finally, rookie Albert Okwuegbunam rounds out the group after seeing his first NFL action last week.
The Broncos offensive line has been poor thus far this year. Left tackle Garrett Bolles has made big strides in 2020, but the players they brought in this offseason have struggled. Graham Glasgow and Demar Dotson are responsible for the right side of the offensive line and have been poor blocking both the run and the pass. Dalton Risner is the typical starter at left guard, but he’s playing at less than 100% and may even miss the matchup. If he can’t go, Austin Schlottmann will fill his role. Finally, rookie center Lloyd Cushenberry — a player that us in the KC Draft Guide liked — has struggled to adapt quickly to the speed of the NFL without the typical offseason.
The offensive concept: Two-back orbit motion
DEN used orbit motion to get even numbers frontside out of their two-back sets.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) October 22, 2020
Motion -- and pass fake to the flat -- make a light dime box even lighter and freeze the DE from attacking the dive. OL are hat-on-hat, and man coverage turns DB's. RB is easily into the third level. pic.twitter.com/gwpGuuoCvR
While the Broncos have preferred to implement single-back sets with Gordon this year, I think some of the more interesting alignments have come from two-back sets involving Lindsay and Freeman. Denver utilized the two together on occasion last year — particularly against the Chiefs — and were able to find some space in the run game due to misdirection. With Gordon out last week, Shurmur called back to that two-back set to get a light box against the run.
Defenses tend to defend these more dynamic two-back sets with a sub package, and the Patriots were no different by playing their dime formation. Lindsay is an agile enough athlete to be used in an orbit motion, circling the backfield before returning to the flat which he originated. That motion takes the safety — in man coverage — out of the box with his back to the play.
By implementing this motion, the already-light personnel gives an even lighter box for Freeman to run into. Lock’s fake to the flat on the orbit motion freezes an unblocked defensive end, and that gets blocking numbers to the frontside of the play. The defense can’t get off blocks, and Freeman is into the third level. It’s a terrific design by Shurmur that capitalizes on defensive tendencies — tendencies that the Chiefs defense has as well.
The bottom line
The Broncos have some legitimate weapons, a potential franchise quarterback and a decent offensive coordinator. They have every reason to be able to stick in this game on this side of the ball. Vertical passes, stretch runs and dump-offs to speedy receivers could absolutely give Steve Spagnuolo and the Chiefs defense fits.
The Chiefs defense has played the pass well outside of one game this season, so it should be expected that they’ll perform well again here. Certainly the vertical passing game of the Buffalo Bills last week was more dangerous than the one the Broncos could present. Lock has struggled with downfield accuracy and holds the ball the third-longest of any quarterback in the league. Conditions are ripe for Spagnuolo to dial up blitzes and Juan Thornhill to patrol the back end for some floated passes. Even in situations where the Chiefs rush four, the quality of the Broncos offensive line could allow Chris Jones and Frank Clark to pressure the quarterback.
The Broncos have not ran the ball particularly well this year either, but they have found success on stretch runs. That is a situation where the Chiefs could find themselves in trouble, as their sub package linebackers struggle to beat running backs to the edge. The Chiefs typically ask their defensive ends to set a hard edge and force a cutback. With that position severely depleted due to Taco Charlton and Alex Okafor’s injuries, the Chiefs will be digging deeper into their depth to ask players that haven’t been active this season (Demone Harris) or don’t typically play the position (Chris Jones) to execute the assignment.
If the Broncos can lean on their outside run game, Spagnuolo may catch himself with an extra box defender and less over-the-top help in the hopes of an early-down stop. The Chiefs will have to be hyper aware of the Broncos heavy play-action passing offense in those situations, lest receivers end up running wide open like the Las Vegas Raiders matchup.
I think the pass rush will still be strong — Jones is a matchup nightmare on the inside — and I expect the Chiefs safeties to make life difficult for the Broncos vertical passing game. If Kansas City can stop the run early like they have the past two weeks, the defense may get the cushion it needs for Spagnuolo to dial up some heavy blitzes — and turn the ball over in the secondary.