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Opponent Scout: Denver’s running back duo can open up its offense

In recent weeks, the surging Broncos have been aided by a strong running game.

NFL: Denver Broncos at Dallas Cowboys Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

In this weekly series, I break down the Kansas City Chiefs’ upcoming opponent by examining their strengths, weaknesses and tendencies — and how those things affect their matchup with the Chiefs.


Fresh off a bye week, the Chiefs will host their long-time division rival Denver Broncos for another Sunday Night Football game at Arrowhead Stadium. At its end, the winner will stand alone atop the AFC West.

Overview

Denver has gone up and down this season to get to 6-5. Two of their last three games have been wins over the Dallas Cowboys and Los Angeles Chargers.

The Broncos average 20.7 points per game — the NFL’s 23rd-ranked rate — and have the 20th-highest total yards per game. The offense excels mainly in the running game: the team averages 4.5 yards per carry, which ranks 11th-best. Denver ranks 23rd and 26th in third-down conversion and red-zone conversion percentage. The team is ranked 15th in offensive DVOA, 13th in rushing DVOA and 12th in passing DVOA.

Defensively, Denver has only allowed just 17.8 points per game — the league’s third-lowest rate — and ranks ninth in yards per game allowed. Opposing passers have had a passer rating of 82.7 against the Broncos, the league’s fourth-best mark — and the team’s sack rate ranks eighth. But it ranks just 28th in third-down conversion percentage allowed — and in defensive DVOA, the team ranks 25th overall, 18th in passing and 26th in rushing.

Offense

With quarterback Teddy Bridgewater running the Broncos’ offense, the game plan must effectively complement his limited skill set. In its recent stretch of success, Denver has been able to do that with a strong running game.

Running backs Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams — a rookie — have made the most of Denver’s above-average run blocking; in the last three games, the team has rushed for an average of 144 yards per game. The duo has taken 100% of the running-back snaps in that span.

Denver will use heavy personnel sets with multiple tight ends or backs to commit bigger bodies to the run game. They’ll primarily rely on off-tackle, zone runs — and Gordon and Williams have been excellent at reading the flow of the blocking and exploding through seams. Williams has proven to be an exceptionally difficult ballcarrier to tackle.

Thanks to the strong rushing attack, Bridgewater is frequently getting into play-action passes — whether it’s a quick pass to one of their athletic tight ends in the flat or a chunk-play attempt to a wide receiver downfield.

Right now, the Broncos’ wide receiving trio of Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy and Tim Patrick is as good as it gets in the NFL. Each player can win deep and make a contested catch downfield; Jeudy couples that with incredible route running and quickness.

Sutton is the primary deep target, seeing 12 more passes of 20-plus yards downfield than any other Bronco. Patrick wins more at the intermediate level on crossing routes and sideline-comeback routes. Jeudy and tight end Noah Fant take up the bulk of the shorter throws with their yards-after-catch ability.

But when his receivers aren’t getting open, Bridgewater does tend to hold on to the ball too long — or fail to avoid pressure by maneuvering in the pocket.

It’s not all on him; the Denver offensive line is inexperienced — and that shows up the most in pass protection. Broncos’ quarterbacks are being sacked at the league’s eighth-highest rate.

Defense

Denver’s consistently-successful defense isn’t as intimidating as it has been in the past —losing future Hall of Famer Von Miller during the season hasn’t helped — but under defensive-minded head coach Vic Fangio, it’s a fundamentally-sound group that can be expected to execute a well-designed game plan.

The unit doesn’t tend to change personnel to match the opposing offense; no matter if the offense has lighter or heavier personnel on the field, the Broncos want to have their nickel package lined up against it. The five defensive backs include cornerback Kyle Fuller as the slot defender and safeties Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson as moveable chess pieces.

Denver can keep the extra defensive back on the field at all times because Fuller and Simmons can (and will) fill a running lane as box defenders beside the two linebackers.

Before this year’s trade deadline, the Broncos struck a deal to acquire former Los Angeles Rams’ linebacker Kenny Young. In their nickel sets, he and Baron Browning — who wasn’t a Week 1 starter — have become the team’s preferred duo. The athleticism and playmaking ability of both players has been apparent.

Browning’s comfort in coverage — and being able to read a quarterback’s eyes while in zone coverage — has made him the sole linebacker in dime personnel; Young’s quick-twitch movement (and ability to get downhill) pop more when he is a run defender or a blitzer.

In the back end, Denver is exceptionally talented. Simmons, Jackson, and Fuller are the veteran leaders of the group — and as an outside cornerback, rookie Patrick Surtain II has been a difference-maker. His three interceptions are second on the team to Simmons’ four — but both have 11 passes defended, which ranks as the sixth-most this season.

Fangio will play a variety of coverage schemes — he showed a reliance on man coverage against the Cowboys — but he has traditionally trusted his players in zone, allowing safeties to have their eyes on the quarterback and make plays on the ball.

The bottom line

The Chiefs will need to trust their run defense to slow down Denver’s rushing attack — but in doing so, they can’t commit too many resources; the Broncos’ receiving corps is finally getting healthy and can take advantage of intermediate and deep opportunities to counter a defense overcommitting to the run. If Kansas City’s pass rush can pressure Bridgewater, that can often be all it takes to prevent him from executing a play.

On offense, Kansas City should be careful about testing the Broncos’ secondary. The Denver front seven is much more susceptible than the back end, so I’d like to see the Chiefs trust their running game to be efficient — thereby allowing the more significant pass plays to come naturally. Against Denver’s coverage defenders, forcing throws is a bad idea.