Peyton vs. Perfection

It's the Game Of The Year so far: the prolific Denver Broncos vs. the stingy Kansas City Chiefs. Can Peyton Manning and company hand K.C. its first loss?

By
Andy Benoit
· More from Andy·
Peyton Manning's Denver Broncos have the NFL's highest scoring offense, while the Kansas City Chiefs lead the league in least points allowed. (Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)
Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos have the NFL’s highest scoring offense, while the Kansas City Chiefs lead the league in least points allowed. (Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)

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 It hasn’t been great in recent weeks, which is to be somewhat expected given that anchor Ryan Clady (IR) has been replaced by Chris Clark.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

How Demaryius Thomas fares against the Chiefs secondary will help tell the tale Sunday night. (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
How Demaryius Thomas fares against the Chiefs secondary will help tell the tale Sunday night. (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

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.

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Graphic-B

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.

Graphic-C

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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…

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23 comments
RichBich
RichBich

Peyton is no spring chicken. He won't have the stamina to withstand the pass rush pressure even if the rush doesn't result in a lot sacks.

MannySilva
MannySilva

All good and thoughtful comments, I don't think that people understand Alex's mind set. I have been watching from the start and he seems to rise to the occasion when necessary. He did it in 2011 seven times. He is really cool under pressure. Remember there is never been any other QB in SF to do that not even the great Joe Montana.

gary41
gary41

Denver is #1 in passing for both QB & receivers.  Manning has zero mobility and the running game is not used much.  KC is rather ordinary offensively, but very balanced.  The game could come down to key defensive playmaking.  Denver is #4 in giveaways, where KC is #1 in turnover differential.  KC is #1 in sacs and #1 in stuff percentage and #1 in 3rd down efficiency.   Whether they will be able to continue an aggressive pass rush against one of the best QB's, with so many very good receivers, is difficult to know, but this strategy worked for the Colts.             

FredFlintsone
FredFlintsone

Chiefs are 24th in league vs run, no pass rush, difficulties scoring. No turnovers could be 48-10 ugly

TPorter
TPorter

Of course Manning is hurt, he is playing a decent D. If they hit him early he will fold like a paper bag.

RescuedfromESPN
RescuedfromESPN

Manning's injury will impact the Bronco's chances to win. His footwork will not be at 100%, and against a tough defensive line like the Chiefs he will be under pressure to get the ball out early. However, he should be able to pull through and have the Broncos win, my final is 17-14. However, the chiefs should win the rematch in arrowhead by about 6-7 points.

retro-grouch
retro-grouch

The two most likely scenarios for a Chiefs victory involve the Broncos playing without one or more key starters.  

Losing Manning might possibly change a thing or two about the Broncos execution on offense but another overlooked secondary lynchpin is Knowshon Moreno.  The struggles of Denver's young running backs have created a situation in which Moreno may have no fully effective backup.

The Broncos can run 90% of their offense with Ronnie HIllman but his fumbling issues have made him inactive on Sundays for the last several weeks.  

It's not clear what the Broncos offense would look like with rookie running backs under center 100% of the time.  There's the no-huddle signal calling, there's the complicated pass protection schemes, there's the timing for chip blocking and the route discipline.  How much do they know?  No outsider knows the answer to that question but it seems obvious that the Broncos would rest Moreno more if they had that option.


retro-grouch
retro-grouch

Manning is going to come out looking to punch the Chiefs in the mouth and see if they can cover ALL of his targets.  The pass rush generally only becomes a factor after about 1.5 seconds so if the bump coverage isn't perfect then the train is leaving the station.  That first impact between the leagues best units will have a huge influence on the course of the game.   

If the Broncos score quickly then they can pick and choose between revving the offense and grinding the clock.  Conversely, if the Chiefs defense can put some big first quarter hits on Manning, especially with turnovers and points, then the Broncos may be forced to adjust the fundamentals of their offense, doubling Poe and keeping skill players in blocking roles.  They might be forced to abandon their favorite "posse" personnel package and go with two or three tight ends.

The problem for the Chiefs is that the Broncos don't have to blow up the scoreboard to win this game.  Del Rio's defenses tend to be very good at scheming for limited weapons and the Chiefs' weapons are among the most limited in the league.  Conversely, the Broncos could go conservative with their three tight end package and still be very dangerous because all those tight ends can catch.  

The Chiefs almost have to get touchdowns from their defense or return game to win.

MannySilva
MannySilva

Tim,  Smith is cool under pressure and is a fourth quarter player. If Denver is close in the 4th qt. then the favor goes to the Chiefs, they play under control and can keep the ball away from Denver. Fatigue at that altitude may be another factor. The chiefs seem to be prepared for that with their conditioning. We will see. 

trangthetroll
trangthetroll

Good analysis... I agree for most part. You can throw all the stats out the window...this game will come down to execution...who plays as close to mistake free football as possible. Cooper and Smith have to have their best games of the season. Berry, with help,hopefully will keep thomas in check. Hali and Houston HAVE to re-ignite the non blitz pass rush. Poe/johnson and company have to keep the run game in check as well as the underneath. Generate takeaways is key.

I think Alex Smith knows exactly what he needs to do, and more importantly, I think andy reid knows exactly what he needs to get Alex to do to win this game. They need to use the fullback and one of the tightends to brutalize the denver defensive edges.....with Not just charles but davis and grey. They have got to get bowe going in the intermediate routes, along with Fasano and McGrath..just to open up the field a bit. I fully expect Alex to play his best game this week...sort of a rebound and put up a couple passing touch downs. I see Jamal having one rushing touch down, and the defense putting up a touchdown. A field goal or two is possible.. giving the chiefs 28-36 points. 

Defense playing best game,... denver scoring 28 or less.

MannySilva
MannySilva

I think Peter doesn't watch the whole game, what he missed, was the drives were stopped by penalties and dropped passes. You must remember Smith knows how to sling it when he has to and that may show up on Sunday. 

RichBich
RichBich

@MannySilva - Yes; and Peyton is becoming more frustrated and cranky with each game he plays. During the Charger game, he was yelling at the refs.

blynder
blynder

@retro-grouch 

Ball and Hillman have been very disappointing - particularly Hillman, who has had a year in the system and shouldn't be putting the ball on the ground.  Ball still has the "I'm a rookie" thing to fall back on.  Another back to consider - CJ Anderson.  He might not be as powerful as Ball or as fast as Hillman - but he's been somewhat reliable.  I wouldn't be surprised, if the Moreno dude goes down; we see more of CJ Anderson.


MERRILL2310
MERRILL2310

@trangthetroll I agree with your game plan but no way will the Chiefs put up 28 points against the Broncos D. They are barely putting up 20 points a game and the Broncos D is better than the stats indicate. I see this being 24 -17 Broncos. I will be at the game in Arrowhead and that one will be much closer. As for this game The Broncos will win easily if they don't turn the ball over 3 or more times.

Shyzaboy
Shyzaboy

@MannySilva There is a byline to the right of each headline. Peter King doesn't write all the articles. This one was by Andy Benoit.

That said, I'm hoping we'll see some more offense from the Chiefs this week. There have been too many nail-biters this season...

TimLynch1978
TimLynch1978

@MannySilva Smith is terrible.  If he doesn't start taking more risks, the Broncos will win by three touchdowns.  I've watched and rewatched every Broncos game and have also watched over half of the Chiefs games...

The Broncos will get at the very minimum of three touchdowns and two or three more FGs, so where are the points going to come from if Smith continues his Captain Checkdown routine against one of the best coverage linebacker groups in the league and a unit that held LeSean McCoy to 70 yards rushing and also near the top in the league against the run?

Chiefs fans don't want to admit it, but even with a great defense they won't be able to stop the Four Horsemen from getting their catches and touchdowns.  The Chiefs offense needs to be able to come and play ball and so far they are regressing into something frighteningly bad.

kisersosay
kisersosay

@TimLynch1978 @MannySilva Fear not Tim (The Banner) Lynch... When the LB's are sitting tight on the short routes is when Smith will open up. Of course you think the Broncos will stop the Chiefs offense and that the Broncos will score their points on the Chiefs defense. Maybe it will work out that way at Mile High but then again maybe not. Even if it does they play at Arrowhead in two weeks where the Broncos could only muster 17 points last year.  Funny there is that magic 17 points again.  If they split chances are the third game will be a Arrowhead.  Sounds like fun to me....

MERRILL2310
MERRILL2310

@blynder @kisersosay @TimLynch1978 @MannySilva I will be at the game in arrowhead. It will definitely be a closer game that I expect tomorrow nights game to be, but bottom line is if the Broncos don't turn the ball over no team in the league can score with them. We only lost to Indy because we had 4 turnovers, 1 in the end zone and 1 as we were about to get the go ahead touchdown from the 2 yard line.

blynder
blynder

@kisersosay @TimLynch1978 @MannySilva 

What did the Chiefs score in that game at Arrowhead last year?  Arrowhead is a TOUGH place to play; always has been. Denver isn't exactly an easy place to play either.  If Denver's D shows up in Arrowhead like it did last year, (yes, certainly we can all agree that Alex Smith is NO Brady Quinn) 17 points will be more than enough.

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