The Kansas City Chiefs are fresh off a big victory — and have a couple of playoff teams on the horizon. Meanwhile, the Denver Broncos are going in a different direction; they’ll likely miss the postseason. While the Chiefs certainly won’t overlook this team in Sunday’s night’s game — especially on this side of the ball — they’ll have to stay focused to avoid a dip in play after a big win.
I typically cover the bulk of the opposition’s personnel — but as I have in previous seasons, I’ll just cover the changes from the last time these two teams played. With that in mind, let’s dig into the Broncos’ personnel — and a concept we may see on Sunday. Then we’ll discuss how the Chiefs defense can try to slow them down — and further their AFC West lead.
The Broncos are largely the same team that the Chiefs saw in Week 7. They still have their excellent weapons — Phillip Lindsay, Melvin Gordon, Noah Fant, Jerry Jeudy, Tim Patrick, and K.J. Hamler — and they’re still led by Drew Lock after he missed a week on the Reserve/COVID-19 list. The offensive line is still intact — albeit a bit richer after left tackle Garrett Bolles signed a new contract extension last week. The Broncos are still struggling to block on the right side of their line, so the Chiefs may be able to kickstart their four-man rush a little bit more on Sunday.
The only semi-significant change since the last time these two teams met is the absence of tight end Albert Okwuegbunam. He suffered a torn ACL in the Broncos’ Week 9 game against the Atlanta Falcons — just as he was becoming more integrated into the offense. Earlier this year against the Chiefs, Okwuegbunam caught all seven of his targets for 60 yards, leading his team in both categories.
The offensive concept: Pin-and-pull blocking
DEN has leaned on a bit more pin-pull blocking schemes as of late in the run game.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) December 4, 2020
TE kicks out, RT pins. LG pins. RG, OC, and RT are free to pull around the frontside gaps, taking out the S and the LB. Big hole blown open with blockers in front leads to a massive gain. pic.twitter.com/UTca0lCPdC
The Broncos have some athletic offensive linemen, but not all of them excel with anchoring and driving blockers off the line. As a result, Broncos offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur has incorporated more pin-and-pull runs, attempting to catch opposing defenses off-guard — and getting his athletic linemen out in space.
Against the Miami Dolphins, Shurmur went to this concept several times, rattling off some explosive runs against a very good defense. The concept is simple: if there is a defender to the offensive lineman’s inside shoulder, he blocks down. If the defender is head-up or outside, the offensive lineman pulls out in front of the play. It requires mobile players with good vision to pick up blockers in space — which the Broncos have in spades.
The last time the Chiefs met the Broncos, Denver utilized a lot of inside zone; Lindsay was able to cut back against defensive ends who had lost contain. This time around, the Chiefs are a little bit healthier at the position, so we may see more pin-and-pull runs to counter Steve Spagnuolo’s adjustments.
That said, the Chiefs could still find success through their penetrative defensive linemen. Chris Jones and Tershawn Wharton have both shown the ability to regularly get behind the line of scrimmage. If there’s are missed downblocks on the front side of plays, that could result in some tackles for loss. With his quick play identification skills, Derrick Nnadi could also find himself making an impact as a front side defender; he could get himself upfield against a single blocker and impede some of the pulling lanes for the Broncos’ offensive linemen.
The bottom line
The Broncos offense has dynamic receiving weapons, good running backs and a creative offensive coordinator. They’re perfectly capable of lining up and stacking points if the Chiefs defense can’t get a consistent pass rush — or keep proper run fits.
I fully expect Spagnuolo to bring ample pressure early in this game — much like he did against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. While Lock is a more-mobile quarterback who can slip out of the pocket to avoid the rush, the Chiefs defensive line should be able to hold rush lanes against an offensive line that is worse than the one they just played. Lock has also struggled with some blitz pickups — as has Denver’s rookie center — and it could lead to some prime chances for game-altering sacks and pressures.
The Broncos could still find some explosive plays — particularly through Lindsay, Gordon and Fant. In the middle of the field, all three are matchup problems for the Chiefs. Another week with poor tackling from the defense could make difference between a fourth-quarter Chad Henne appearance and Patrick Mahomes going the distance.
If this is a close game, Denver’s running game could also be a factor. Lindsay and Gordon have repeatedly put up chunk yardage against the Chiefs; there’s little reason to assume that they won’t be able to do it again. While the defensive run fits have been better in 2020, they’ve still not been good enough to consistently come up with stops against a dynamic backfield like Denver’s.
This game falls at the feet of Drew Lock. Turnovers were a big part of the prior matchup; his second-quarter pick-six was when Chiefs started running away with the game. It came on a late throw after an Anthony Hitchens pressure — something that’s becoming more and more common among the quarterbacks the Chiefs have played this year. If Lock can take care of the ball, his running game and weapons are good enough to keep the Broncos in this game — at least for a little while.
That said, I expect Spagnuolo to have the blitz dialed up, forcing Lock to make good decisions for 60 minutes. Under that much pressure, it’s hard to do; even Tom Brady struggles with it. I think Lock will be under a constant barrage, leading to multiple sacks and a turnover or two. That should be all the Chiefs defense needs to help the offense topple a division opponent.