This AFC West showdown between the Broncos and Chiefs is as good as it gets for football in November. No division rivals have ever squared off with fewer than two losses between them so late in the season. The Broncos (8-1) are scoring an obscene 41.2 points per game, by far the best in the NFL. The Chiefs (9-0) are giving up just 12.3 points per contest, also a league best. As Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton once taught us, something’s gotta give.
Broncos offense vs. Chiefs defense
1. Pressuring Peyton
A hot topic right now is Peyton Manning’s protection. It hasn’t been great in recent weeks, which is to be somewhat expected given that anchor Ryan Clady (IR) has been replaced by Chris Clark. The 28-year-old undrafted journeyman has given up a few critical blind-side hits, though he’s not the only culprit on this struggling line. Right tackle Orlando Franklin also has been caught flat-footed a few times. Manning, with precise pocket movement and rapid progression-read ability, is generally able to overcome shoddy protection. But two bum ankles—plus copious bumps and bruises on his 37-year-old-body—make eluding pressure a taller order these days.
The Chiefs know how to apply pressure. Tamba Hali and Justin Houston give defensive coordinator Bob Sutton the rare privilege of scheming with dynamic rushers from both edges. One of the two almost always faces one-on-one pass blocking. Both might see it frequently at the same time on Sunday night, as Manning prefers to go with a minimum five-man protection in order to have five eligible receivers at his disposal. (This is one reason why running back Knowshon Moreno catches so many short passes.)
Kansas City has been one of the most complex and successful blitzing teams in the NFL this season, particularly on 3rd-and-long when Sutton loves to play dime and send speedy corners and safeties after the quarterback. Though a sizeable chunk of Kansas City’s league-leading 36 sacks have come out of complex pressure packages, don’t expect Sutton to use a lot of them against the Broncos. Most defensive coordinators refrain from blitzing Manning. The Chargers had some success with it, but they only called for pressure in the second half after it became apparent that their defensive backs could not compete with Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker and Julius Thomas. Kansas City’s defensive backs can challenge those receivers.
2. The Man-to-Man Matchups
The closest any defense has come to slowing Denver was Indianapolis’s, when cornerbacks Vontae Davis, Greg Toler and Darius Butler stymied Manning’s receivers for most of the first three quarters in Week 7. (Injuries to Davis and Butler changed Indy’s fortunes down the stretch.) The Broncos know how to beat man coverage—they’ve mastered barely legal pick plays and intertwined crossing patterns—but they have yet to face a man-coverage defense as sturdy as the Chiefs’. At the same time, Kansas City hasn’t faced an offense with these types of weapons. The following individual matchups will likely determine the outcome of the game:
Outside: CBs Sean Smith and Marcus Cooper vs. WRs Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker
Smith is lanky and physical, though he’s been a bit shaky as of late. (Receiver Stevie Johnson was right when he said that Smith’s 98-yard pick-six against Buffalo was “lucky.” Smith was in position to make that interception only because Johnson had juked him so far sideways off the line of scrimmage.) When Smith plays with discipline, he’s one of the best boundary defenders in the game. But if he gets antsy against double moves—something Thomas and Decker perform extremely well—he could wind up in trouble.
On the other side, Cooper, a seventh-round pick of the Niners this past spring, is a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate. He has an innate sense for playing both the ball and the receiver in isolated coverage against vertical routes on the outside. He also has good closing quickness when working back to the ball, especially for someone who is 6-2. For all of Cooper’s merits, don’t be surprised if Manning still tests him early. The young corner did get beat twice due to missteps in his press-jam technique in Kansas City’s last game.
Inside: CB Brandon Flowers vs. slot receiver Wes Welker
Since Week 5, Flowers, one of the NFL’s best boundary corners, has been playing the slot in nickel and dime. So far, the results have been stellar. Flowers is a surprisingly good blitzer, and more importantly, he knows how to apply his physicality in the wider spaces that come with playing inside. Most corners, even elite ones, can’t do that. We’ll find out on Sunday whether Flowers really is a slot aficionado. He’s yet to face an inside receiver of Welker’s caliber.
Inside: SS Eric Berry vs. TE Julius Thomas
Berry has transformed from a liability to an asset covering tight ends—though he hasn’t been severely tested except for when he controlled Jason Witten one-on-one in Week 2. The Broncos have the most dynamic tight end in the AFC not named Rob Gronkowski. And their system does a good job getting Thomas open by design.
3. Building Offense
Contrary to popular belief, the Broncos don’t do many complicated things offensively. Instead, they do many simple things really well. One is called “building offense,” meaning they use certain plays early in the game to set up other plays later in the game. Defenders think they’re spotting something familiar, but they’re actually being set up to be exploited. The good thing about being a man-based defense (like the Chiefs) is you’re a less susceptible to this sort of deception because coverage defenders don’t see the ball or route designs to begin with; their focus is solely on their man.
This doesn’t mean the Broncos won’t try to build offense. Instead of doing it with a combination of two or three different routes, they’ll do it on a more individualized basis. We saw a great example of this with Demaryius Thomas scoring two touchdowns at San Diego.
Kansas City’s cornerbacks must concentrate on getting stops, not interceptions. If they start cheating against Denver’s routes, they’ll get burned by a twist.
Chiefs offense vs. Broncos defense
There’s a perception that Denver’s defense is iffy, maybe even porous. That’s only because its two bad performances happened to coincide with the team’s two most-watched games: Week 5 at Dallas, and Week 7 at Indy. Take out those contests and this group is allowing a respectable 21.6 points per game.
The Chiefs lack the same offensive firepower that the Cowboys or Colts have. Their system hinges on Jamaal Charles being able to turn the outside corner in the ground game, and converting a few screens into first downs. Their passing game is limited, mainly because Alex Smith is committed to doing whatever it takes to not lose games. So far he’s been successful in this regard, but in order for the undefeated Chiefs to be genuine Super Bowl contenders, he at some point will have to actually make plays to win a game. This doesn’t mean making a gutsy play late in the fourth quarter; it means having the fortitude to consistently take advantage of big-play opportunities.
Smith is nowhere close to doing that right now. The TV camera angles that get beamed into living rooms across the country might show Smith not throwing interceptions. What those camera angles don’t show, however, is him missing wide-open receivers at the intermediate levels. They also don’t show him abandoning plays before receivers have finished their routes. We can see this, though, thanks to the All-22 film.
As this game probably will prove, Kansas City’s defense can’t keep holding opponents to under 20 points while also creating points of its own each week. Kansas City’s offense (i.e. Smith) will have to get sharper.
Head over to Page 2 for a preview of Thursday night’s game between the Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans…