In Week 14, the Chiefs will play the Denver Broncos for the first time this season. Here’s what to know about Kansas City’s division rival.
Denver is in the first year of a new era, headed by first-time head coach Nathaniel Hackett and quarterback Russell Wilson. After getting out to a 2-1 start, Denver has lost eight of their last nine games to stand at 3-9.
The Broncos average 13.8 points per game, which is the league’s lowest scoring average since the 2012 Chiefs; the offense has scored only 14 touchdowns in 12 games. They come in at 23rd in net yards per passing attempt and 28th in yards per rush. They have the league’s third-lowest third-down conversion rate and second-lowest red-zone touchdown rate. Denver is currently 28th in Offensive DVOA.
But defensively, Denver allows the NFL’s second-fewest points per game. The team has surrendered a league-low nine passing touchdowns. It gets off the field on third down, ranking third in allowed-conversion rate; in the red zone, it allows the league’s lowest percentage of touchdowns. The Broncos have the seventh-best defensive DVOA.
Nothing has looked easy for the Broncos’ offense this year. Whether it’s the performance of the quarterback or the inexperience of a first-year head coach calling plays, the unit struggles to get into a consistent rhythm.
Since losing stud running back Javonte Williams to a season-ending injury earlier this season — and releasing veteran Melvin Gordon — 32-year old Latavius Murray has taken the majority of the backfield’s load. He is averaging 4.6 yards per rush on 30 carries he’s had since Gordon’s departure.
Russell Wilson has the 3rd most batted down passes in the NFL this yr— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) December 8, 2022
It's something the Chiefs have been great at all year, so it's a good mismatch to take advantage of. Carolina was doing it effortlessly pic.twitter.com/UeNHIjKsIX
When the Broncos try to get their quick passing game going, Wilson’s limitations in the pocket can sometimes make it a non-starter. He has the league’s third-most batted passes — and that doesn’t account for the dropbacks where he doesn’t quickly throw over the middle because he can’t see it well.
Denver’s receiving corps isn’t helping much. In recent weeks, injuries have forced the Borncos to depend on wide receivers Kendall Hinton and Brandon Johnson to make plays. Per coach Hackett, Courtland Sutton — the team’s best wideout — is not expected to play against the Chiefs.
The Broncos' offense has been very unproductive, but Wilson's strength is throwing the deep ball -- and they have some big-play threats in Sutton, Jeudy, and rookie TE Greg Dulcich— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) December 8, 2022
They've found some space in recent weeks on a few deep shots pic.twitter.com/bdwUhccXUD
As has been the case throughout his career, Wilson looks the most comfortable when he’s letting it rip downfield. Four of his eight touchdowns this season have been on throws of 20 or more air yards. Rookie tight end Greg Dulcich has emerged as a threat to get vertical, catching two deep targets over the last two games.
One of the biggest reasons Russ isn't playing at the same level as before is an apparent drop in athleticism/play making— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) December 8, 2022
You rarely see him get out of pressure this year pic.twitter.com/BxBYkwPZTI
But there’s one thing that doesn’t look like the Wilson of old: his inability to scramble or make throws out of the pocket. A noticeable drop in his quickness and burst has combined with bad offensive line play for the offense to allow the NFL’s fourth-most sacks. His ability to create was always a way that he could mask some of his deficiencies as a player — so without it, results have been disastrous.
On the flip side, Denver’s defense has done everything it can to try and overcome the offense’s low production. If the Broncos had managed to score 20 points in every game this season, their record would be 9-3. And that’s a low bar: 20 points a game would be the league’s 24th-ranked scoring offense.
Their defensive front has taken a hit since trading away former first-round pick Bradley Chubb, leaving a mixed bag of playmakers like defensive lineman Dre’Mont Jones and outside linebacker Baron Browning. The two lead the team in sacks, combining for nine this year.
Denver's front has not been good at generating pressure by itself, especially since trading away Bradley Chubb— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) December 8, 2022
They make up for it with creative pass-rush schemes that involve their athletic LBs; they are frequently blitzed on pass downs pic.twitter.com/Qu5IvUFeni
To make up for the lack of straight-up pass rush, Denver has been blitz-heavy; only three teams blitz on a higher percentage of their plays. On passing downs, it’s where they will utilize linebackers Josey Jewell and Alex Singleton as heat-seeking missiles, creating unique alignments to send them for free shots at the quarterback.
You’ll also see rookie outside linebacker Nik Bonitto in these spots. He’s a dynamic pass rusher who went in the second round of this year’s draft.
The strength of Denver's D is in the back end. Their off-ball LBs and safeties swarm to the ball and have sideline-to-sideline range, making plays in the run and pass games pic.twitter.com/Jklq1lVDPy— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) December 8, 2022
The two off-ball linebackers are part of a back end that swarms to the football, tightening both passing and running lanes with great pursuit and effort by safeties and cornerbacks. Pro Bowl safety Justin Simmons will consistently fly down from a two-deep alignment and contribute to tackles in the box or in the flat. So will veteran Kareem Jackson — although he tends to stays deep between the two starting safeties.
Among a talented group of Denver DBs, Patrick Surtain II may be the most impressive— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) December 8, 2022
He does a little bit of everything, whether it's staying sticky in man coverage, breaking hard on passes, or being a contributor in run defense pic.twitter.com/MZfgjVNAtc
On the perimeter, the Broncos have a young phenom in cornerback Patrick Surtain II. He has (and uses) 6-foot-2, 210-pound shutdown cornerback size — but all the way across the field, he also shows off stickiness in coverage. He is very quick to drive on passes and be physical at the catch point — and can also be physical on any runs to the outside.
The bottom line
The Broncos’ offense has been inept all year — and if they’re without Sutton this weekend, they’ll be missing their best skill-position player. They’ll lean on their 32-year-old starting running back — and in the passing game, will go as far as their offensive line and quarterback can take them.
The Denver defense may have a new coaching staff, but many of the same players who have given Kansas City fits in previous years are still there. In order to win, I expect that the Chiefs’ passing offense will have to really lock in.