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5 things we learned as the Chiefs beat the Broncos

What did we learn as Kansas City kept the AFC West’s top spot?

NFL: Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Chiefs improved to 8-4 on the season with a 22-9 win over the Denver Broncos on Sunday Night Football at Arrowhead Stadium.

Here are five things we learned.

1. The Chiefs’ defense started from the bottom — and now it’s here

NFL: Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

In October, Kansas City’s defense was still trending toward a historically bad season. You could play statistics roulette and dependably land on a figure that would convince you this unit was doomed. It was allowing over three points per drive — effectively giving every opposing offense the same scoring potential as the New England Patriots’ 2007 offense. It was allowing over seven yards per play — effectively giving every opposing offense the same per-play efficiency as the St. Louis Rams’ offense in 2000. Mercilessly, the list drags on.

Then the calendar turned to November — and the Chiefs’ defense turned over a new leaf. Nearly every starter has been credited with helping the turnaround — but on Sunday night, the player who was removed from the starting lineup of the defense became the definitive symbol of its return to prominence. In Week 5, Daniel Sorensen became a punchline against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday Night Football.

Exactly eight weeks later, his pick-six delivered the knockout punch against the Broncos on Sunday Night Football.

During the broadcast, NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth pointed out how the Chiefs and New England Patriots are among the NFL’s few organizations that sacrifice early-season defensive struggles for late-season dominance. Both teams throw a lot at their players from the jump — which makes it difficult to be good at anything early in the season, but easier to be good at several things later.

Through those early struggles, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo evaluated his personnel and tweaked his groupings and packages. It’s fitting that Sorensen’s interception came when he was aligned in the box — and Juan Thornhill’s came when he was aligned as a deep safety. Kansas City’s defense is figuring things out and peaking at the right time.

2. Physical football can still challenge the front seven

NFL: Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Despite another impressive performance overall, Kansas City’s defense let rookie running back Javonte Williams have his way. Williams took 23 carries for 102 yards and caught six passes for 76 yards and a touchdown. Per NFL Next Gen Stats, all but 10 of his rushing yards came after contact.

The running back shined during a 20-play, second-quarter drive that drained over 11 minutes from the clock. Behind the push of his offensive line, Williams gashed Kansas City’s defense with power running and yards after the catch in the short passing game. While Denver’s drive indefensibly sputtered and stalled due to poor play-calling, a better-coached team might have swung the momentum in its favor. You had better believe the rest of the AFC was taking notes.

Playing keep-away from Patrick Mahomes has largely been disproven as a viable offensive strategy, but pounding the rock for the purpose of wearing down Kansas City’s defense may have merit. The Chiefs’ offense spawned league-wide defensive trends that prioritize pass rushing, strong secondary play and speed over size. In some areas, Kansas City’s own defense is no exception. This makes the potential collision course between the Chiefs and Patriots — a team built to exploit these trends with its size and physicality — all the more interesting. You could potentially say the same of a matchup with the Indianapolis Colts or a rematch with the Tennessee Titans or Baltimore Ravens.

As the Patriots take on the Bills on Monday Night Football, it’s Kansas City’s turn to take notes.

3. Kansas City’s offensive issues are decidedly mental

NFL: Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

In Week 13, we saw more of the same struggles for Kansas City’s offense — but this time, there was no excuse. The Chiefs were coming off their bye week — which head coach Andy Reid has historically utilized better than most to fix mistakes and ready his team for clean football in the next game. Yet after the Chiefs again marched down the field and scored with their scripted plays, the rest of the night was characterized by errant throws, dropped passes and — even worse — another bobbled pass that resulted in an interception.

Denver head coach Vic Fangio — whom most consider the godfather of the Cover 2 shells pervading today’s NFL — mixed in a healthy dose of single-high safety looks against the Chiefs. Theoretically, that should have opened up opportunities downfield that the Chiefs love to exploit with their wide receivers. Yet Tyreek Hill finished with 22 yards receiving — followed by Demarcus Robinson with 20, Byron Pringle with 14 and Mecole Hardman with 12. Tight end Travis Kelce added a mere 27 yards in the intermediate passing game.

We didn’t need Week 13 to understand that mental lapses are one of the reasons for the Chiefs’ struggles on offense — but after Sunday night, I’m more convinced that those mistakes are the primary reason.

4. The Chiefs managed to squeeze a few more guys into their pass-catching committee

NFL: Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

All season, Kansas City’s third receiving option behind Hill and Kelce has varied week-to-week. One week, Hardman would fulfill the role — and then Pringle would take a turn. But in recent weeks, the running backs have thrown their hats into the ring to assume the roles of third pass-catching options. I find this interesting for a few reasons.

First, the receiving production is coming from Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Darrel Williams. Edwards-Helaire was expected to be more involved in the passing game this season, but Williams — who was projected as the change-of-pace back — has made strides as a receiver, too. In Week 10 against the Las Vegas Raiders, Williams hauled in all nine of his targets for 101 yards and a touchdown. Against the Broncos, Williams led the Chiefs with 60 receiving yards.

The ways in which Kansas City’s running backs are getting involved in the passing game are also interesting. Against the Raiders, Mahomes threw a jump ball to Williams in the end zone, which the running back caught over the outstretched arms of safety Johnathan Abram for a 38-yard touchdown. On Sunday night, Mahomes and Williams again connected for a big play. This time, Williams improvised on an out route — turning upfield and catching a Mahomes pass along the sideline for a 38-yard gain.

Edwards-Helaire’s longest reception of the night came on a screen pass that the running back took for 29 yards. However, his most impressive reception arguably came in the third quarter. Split out wide, Edwards-Helaire went in motion toward the formation, burst into an out route at the snap, caught the ball and turned upfield for a 6-yard gain. The Chiefs like to deploy Hill in a similar fashion.

While the involvement of the running backs in the passing game may be an indictment of the receiving corps’ consistency, it also underscores opportunities for the offense to expand in the future. Whether it’s this year or next, the Chiefs will eventually settle on a reliable receiver rotation — and when they do, their running backs will still be weapons in the passing game.

5. Fangio coached like the Chiefs’ offense would wake up — but Reid didn’t

NFL: Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The growing emphasis on analytics by NFL coaching staffs has led to an increased propensity to try for fourth-down conversions. That’s especially true when a team is facing a high-powered offense that projects to score a lot of touchdowns. Against the Chiefs, the Broncos attempted six fourth-down conversions — half of which were successful. A few of the attempts were in desperation near the end of the game, but three of them occurred during Denver’s 20-play drive before halftime. Down 10-3 and driving, the Broncos twice converted on fourth down before turning the ball over on downs in the red zone. Rather than settling for a short field goal, Denver attempted to tie the game — but failed when Willie Gay Jr. and Melvin Ingram snuffed out a Williams run in the backfield on fourth-and-2.

Clearly, the Broncos thought they needed to reach the end zone to keep up with the Chiefs. But Reid was less confident in his offense. When the Chiefs took over possession at their 9-yard line with 1:09 left in the half, Reid elected to run the ball twice before attempting a pass on third-and-long. Kansas City would punt the ball back to Denver before the end of the half.

Later in the game, Reid would once again put his trust primarily in his special teams and defense. After Pringle single-handedly caused (and recovered) a muffed punt, the Chiefs were facing fourth-and-2 at the Denver 8-yard line. Rather than keeping the ball in the hands of his superstar quarterback — or running it up the middle behind one of the best interior offensive lines in the league — Reid opted to send Harrison Butker out to hit a chip-shot field goal.

As the postseason push intensifies, it will be interesting to see if (and how) opposing coaches evolve their view of Kansas City’s offense — and if Reid’s view changes, too.

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