The Kansas City Chiefs’ next opponent is a familiar one — but one that is currently dealing with an incredible level of dysfunction. On Monday, the Denver Broncos fired first-year head coach Nathaniel Hackett; the rare move happened immediately after a 51-14 loss to the Los Angeles Rams, which dropped Denver’s record to 4-11.
On top of that, the Broncos also relieved the special teams coordinator and the offensive line coach (two essential parts of a game-day operation) of their duties. To finish out the remaining two games of the season, Denver has assigned assistant Jerry Rosburg as interim head coach; Rosburg was hired in September to help with in-game decision-making.
It all adds up to not knowing exactly what to expect from the Week 17 matchup on the Broncos’ side — but these teams still did play only three weeks ago.
I looked at that game to figure out what there is to learn about the upcoming contest. Here’s what I came up with:
1. Countering the blitz
The Chiefs can use Week 17 as a live drill on defeating the blitz because the Broncos will be sending plenty of them.
The Broncos have the third-highest blitz rate as a team in the league, sending a fifth rusher on 34% of opponents’ dropbacks. In Week 14, Denver blitzed Mahomes on 48% of his dropbacks; to compare to his season rate, Mahomes has faced a blitz on 22% of his regular-season dropbacks.
Denver blitzed Mahomes on 48% of his drop backs last time they played. For the season, Mahomes faces a blitz on 22% of his drop backs— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) December 30, 2022
He'll get plenty of reps getting the ball out fast to beat it. He did it very well to begin the Week 14 contest pic.twitter.com/H2opF34tR6
In the previous matchup, Mahomes beat the blitz early in the game — getting the ball out of his hands quickly and putting the onus on receivers to make plays after the catch. Mahomes completed 21 of his 24 passes that were thrown nine or fewer yards away from the line of scrimmage; 10 of those receptions moved the chains.
The heavier volume of blitz looks will give Mahomes more repetitions knowing how to beat it quickly.
When the #Chiefs dial up a longer pass pattern & still face the blitz, it puts a lot on Mahomes to buy time & find ample space to throw it— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) December 30, 2022
Neither of these get completed v DEN, but he avoided sacks and gave his players chances. He'll have chances to complete these again Sunday pic.twitter.com/3lbXRYgyAh
When the play calls for a longer developing pass pattern, it’s up to Mahomes to buy himself time to get the ball out without disruption. We all know he’s amazing at doing so, but he doesn’t have to do it as much anymore with teams reluctant to blitz.
On these two plays, deep shots fall incomplete because the blitzed pressure forces a hurried or unwanted throw — but he does get the ball out and give his receiver a chance. His ability to avoid sacks and give these deep passes a shot against the blitz will be further tested this week.
2. The screen game
With a heavy blitzing team comes an opportunity to take advantage by hitting screen passes effectively.
Against the Broncos, the Chiefs completed seven screen plays — turning them into 59 yards and a touchdown; two others went for first downs.
With heavy blitzing comes a chance to get beat by screens— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) December 30, 2022
The #Chiefs hammered Denver with RB screens in Wk14, hitting more in that game than any other this season
This weekend could be a good dress rehearsal for the screen game before the playoffs pic.twitter.com/ODLDL7johL
Running back Jerick McKinnon was on the receiving end of four of those screens; that’s significant because no Chiefs’ running back has seen more than two screen completions in a single game this season. One gained 24 yards on third-and-10, then another scored a touchdown from 10 yards out on second and goal.
These are excellent plays for McKinnon — but this could be a good opportunity for rookie running back Isiah Pacheco to grow as a receiver on screen passes. He had a great rep in the screen game last week that earned the offense 35 yards, but he could use more experience. McKinnon looks very natural and comfortable doing it, so much so that he’d probably be fine delegating his snaps.
Not only can it keep the veteran fresh, but it could also make a screen pass that more unpredictable with Pacheco in rather than McKinnon.
3. Young cornerbacks
The Chiefs’ defense had a very strange performance during Week 14 in Denver. At times, they looked as dominant as they have all season — earning a season-high six sacks. At other times, they were allowing chunks of yards that equated to 28 points.
In Week 14, Jerry Jeudy gave the #Chiefs rookie CBs a lesson in a few different ways— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) December 30, 2022
This weekend, Courtland Sutton will be alongside him -- giving the young CBs a great challenge as they gear up for the dominant AFC WR duos they may have to face
Russ will let it rip too pic.twitter.com/mBmhxpyKXl
The one constant was the Chiefs cornerbacks' struggles to hold down wide receiver Jerry Jeudy — who ended up with 73 yards and three touchdowns on eight receptions. Each rookie had trouble containing the dynamic pass catcher: Joshua Williams got bested in positioning on an end-zone fade, Jaylen Watson trailed in coverage on one of Jeudy’s scores — and even Trent McDuffie got turned around and called for pass interference when covering Jeudy deep.
This week, Jeudy should be joined by wide receiver Courtland Sutton, who missed Week 14 with an injury. A duo of Jeudy and Sutton’s caliber could be compared to what the Chiefs will face in the postseason, and Denver quarterback Russell Wilson won’t be afraid to test the cornerbacks at every level of the field.
Last week, veteran cornerback L’Jarius Sneed shadowed the Seattle Seahawks’ No. 1 wideout DK Metcalf. It would be interesting to see if the Chiefs revisit that strategy as soon as this week, putting Sneed’s length and physicality on Sutton to leave Jeudy to the rookies.
The bottom line
It may feel like this game won’t benefit the Chiefs much, but the Denver players are familiar with Kansas City’s strategies — and the Broncos will be comfortable playing in a familiar game plan.
That said, that familiar game plan also gives the Chiefs a blueprint — first, on how to win this battle, and second, on how to learn from it and be better for the postseason.