Chiefs vs. Broncos Game Preview: Scheme Spotlight, Matchups to Watch, and More
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The Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) and Denver Broncos (7-9) meet at Mile High Stadium in Denver on Saturday afternoon (3:30 pm CST).
Here’s what you need to know:
As the Chiefs gear up for the very first Week 18 game of the NFL regular season, it’s hard to focus on much of anything but the looming playoffs. KC should be locked in as they are still playing for a chance at the No. 1 playoff seed and/or to maintain their No. 2 playoff seed. The game certainly matters to the Chiefs, and they should approach it as if it does.
That said, given the talent disparity between the teams — and the Denver Broncos’ inactive list — the emphasis may shift to a little bit more of a long-term focus. Whether that’s getting key players early rest, putting things on film for teams to watch leading up to a playoff matchup, or getting back in the groove on concepts they seem to have lost touch with. That last point is where I want to focus on this week’s scheme spotlight.
Reconnecting on the Vertical Shots
It’s hard to believe, but this was the last outside deep shot completed by the Chiefs on a pure vertical release. The Chiefs haven’t peppered 20+ yards and outside the numbers in general this season, but when they have it’s often been on Corner routes or crossers. In terms of running a Nine/Go route or a Fade route, Week 6 against the Washington Football Team was the last time they connected on one of these plays.
That sounds ridiculous with a team that has Patrick Mahomes’ arm talent, a vastly improved offensive line, and a plethora of enticing vertical passing options, but this is where they are. Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes much prefer to attack over the middle of the field or routes breaking into the sideline — instead of carrying toward the end zone — when targeting these areas of the field. Mahomes has missed some throws, but the far bigger issue has been receivers simply being unable to consistently generate throwing windows over the top.
To counter some of these woes, the Chiefs have had to get a little creative with how they get into these outside-the-numbers vertical shots. Having Tyreek Hill in the slot or a condensed alignment and then running an Out-and-Up or even trying to catch the defense with a fake wide receiver screen.
Being great at throwing these sideline throws isn’t paramount for this offense but defenses do have to respect it enough to take it away. One of the issues the Chiefs ran into during their middle-of-the-season struggle was teams simply daring them to throw these types of throws. Teams stopped playing as many two-high safety coverages and instead inserted an extra player into the middle, intermediate area of the field to defend where the Chiefs want to attack.
The Chiefs don’t have to turn into the Cincinnati Bengals attacking up the sideline, but teams are giving them favorable looks. Once they start to connect on a few of these shots, that should force defenses to begin honoring that area of the field again rather than just flooding the middle of the field.
Matt Lane @ChiefinCarolinaThis team has always trusted DRob in iso spots… https://t.co/QHVcLQ4Eoi
Attempting a few of these deep shots against the Broncos, who will be without starting corners Patrick Surtain II and Ronald Darby, could go a long way in putting the game away early. Kyle Fuller should be in line to see a lot of outside reps at cornerback for the Broncos, and early in the season that was the exact area of the field he struggled to defend, which ultimately led to his benching.
Connecting on a few of these shots has an even bigger impact on the playoffs. Forcing upcoming opponents to recognize the outside vertical threat still exists and to defend it should only make an offense that seems to be on the verge of being completely “back” that much more effective.
Eric Bieniemy Has It Right
There are themes in the Chiefs’ 7-1 stretch in the second half of the season that we aren’t spending enough time talking about.
This team didn’t dig themselves out of a hole overnight — they’ve made small incremental improvements after their 3-4 start. It hasn’t been just drastic swings and changes. They’ve got back to the basics in some areas — especifically on offense.
In the first eight games of the season, the Chiefs lost nine fumbles. In the last eight games, they’ve lost three. Simply protecting the football better has gone a long way in the team’s ability to sustain offense, put more points on the board, and put games away.
Keeping the ball off the ground has been huge — both fumbles and drops. Last week the latter contributed, in part, to the Chiefs loss and their inconsistencies in the second half. When Eric Bieniemy took to the podium this week he was asked about how the Chiefs can sustain success offensively.
“Keep stressing fundamentals,” he said. “We want to make sure that our guys understand the little things that it takes to help us to be the best team that we can possibly be.”
Ball security is a foundational piece to offensive success. The Chiefs are emphasizing the building blocks, and it’s helped them create consistency and improvement as they’ve gone on.
As they look to put away the Broncos and, at worst, secure the two seed in the AFC, continuing to focus on fundamentals will lead to good things in the month of January — and hopefully February. Ball security has been crucial in this team’s resurgence.
Here’s to a clean — hopefully shortened by a blow out — performance from the Chiefs’ offensive starters.
Matchup to Watch: Javonte Williams vs Chiefs LB’s
The last time these two teams met, Broncos rookie running back Javonte Williams put on a show. He racked up 178 yards from scrimmage in his first and only “start” of the year, showcasing an explosive rushing style and soft hands in the passing game. He also showcased one of his best assets: breaking and forcing missed tackles.
Williams has always had a knack for slipping the grasp of the defender, and the Chiefs found that out the hard way. KC’s defense missed nine total tackles on the day, leaving a lot of yardage on the field. While the Chiefs maintained a multi-score lead for most of the day, the game was shortened and the Broncos stayed within arm’s reach until the fourth quarter. Much of that was because of Williams’ effectiveness — particularly when he was able to wrestle free from the grasp of the Chiefs defenders.
The Chiefs linebackers have come on strong in recent weeks, and it’s been led by a healthy Willie Gay Jr. and rookie Nick Bolton. Both have grown into their roles as the year has gone along and have gotten increased run as nickel linebackers. Bolton has been a steady presence who doesn’t miss many tackles when squared up to the ballcarrier — something that’s easier said than done against an explosive back like Williams. Gay doesn’t have that same problem, as he can utilize his range to close the distance and beat the back to the spot. However, he has a tendency to overrun the ballcarrier and miss tackles — especially out on the edge of the defense.
Those issues haven’t been backbreaking for this defense during their resurgence (although one could argue last week’s 10 missed tackles were crucial), but an improvement would be welcomed going into the playoffs. While this matchup is a tough one to rebound against, these linebackers have a chance to put in a strong performance and build into the playoffs by bringing down one of the best young backs in the league.