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11 things I’m watching for in the Broncos’ first game with the Kansas City Chiefs

In games against the Broncos Patrick Mahomes has already faced off against three different Bronco quarterbacks. Case Keenum came closest to ending the Chiefs’ winning streak in 2018, but ultimately failed to connect with Demaryius Thomas down the sideline in the closing seconds.

The Broncos haven’t beaten Kansas City since Week 2 of Peyton Manning’s last year in the league. Five years is a really long time in the NFL. The current skid is only two games short of tying the longest losing streak Denver’s ever had against Kansas City.

They have got to find a way to turn things around against Patrick Mahomes.I think I’m in good company when I say it’d sure be nice if Drew Lock can stop the QB carousel and elevate the passing game so Andy Reid actively treats these games like the rivalry games they’re supposed to be.

It won’t be easy, but here are the things I’m looking for.

Special Teams

1. Will McMahon stay out of his own way?

The Broncos have questions about who will return kicks since Diontae Spencer is dinged up. Fangio said it would be a rotation between Bryce Callahan, Tyrie Cleveland, Tim Patrick, and Phillip Lindsay would return kickoffs.

Callahan’s played 99% of the Broncos’ defensive snaps this year, while Patrick’s logged just under 80% on offense. I understand why a coach is going to be coy, but it makes little sense to ask your leading receiver or only veteran cornerback to risk injury.

Believe it or not, the Broncos have found a way to field a competent special teams unit for the better part of their first six games. They’re currently the 15th best unit in the NFL by DVOA after a rocky start to the season thanks in large part to Brandon McManus’ heroics.

Sam Martin’s been boring for the most part, which is great. That said, I can’t help but worry about the punt team after last year’s fiasco.

Defense

2. Withstanding Travis Kelce.

3. Can the linebackers hold up in Reid’s funhouse?

4. To blitz, or not to blitz.

5. How will the Broncos make Mahomes uncomfortable?

6. What does Fangio give up to defend the run?

Kansas City quarterbacks were surgical when they looked at Kelce last year, completing 18 of 21 targets for 146 yards. After both games hot take shock jocks made a point to cry about the Broncos’ linebackers, namely Todd Davis. The matchup looks so bad that I made a point to ask Arrowhead Addict’s Travis Steffen if there’s anything the Broncos can do:

Knock him off of his stem and disrupt the timing. Also, while Kelce has gotten better about it, the consistent physicality and knocking him down within the first five yards can get in his head. If the Broncos are willing to get less pressure by chipping with their defensive line or devote coverage to stack him, it can be done.

Bradley Chubb and Malik Reed are both capable of chipping at the line, but Josey Jewell has been a downgrade from Davis in coverage to this point. Alexander Johnson’s played better, but is going to have trouble with Kelce’s short area quickness.

When you add in the ways Reid will mix in RPOs with receivers in jet motion as well as play action, it isn’t fair to expect either to serve as more than a speed bump against Kelce.

Reid has a history of abusing linebacker keys when he faces the Broncos. Odds are it continues today.

It’s no secret Fangio’s turned up the heat since Von Miller and Jurrell Casey landed on Injured Reserve. Jeff Essary found the linebackers are on pace to blitz 264 times this year, more than triple their 2019 rate. The good news is so far, it’s worked as the Broncos remain a top 10 team by pressure rate. The bad news is blitzing Pat Mahomes is a bit like playing Russian roulette: pull the trigger too many times and it’s going to get messy.

If the Broncos are going to upset Kansas City they’ll need to get some pressure in spots also without compromising the coverage. The injuries and opt out up front make this one of the more favorable matchups today. This is one area we could see Le’Veon Bell make an immediate impact as he’s among the best pass protecting backs in football.

The Chiefs have Mike Remmers to hold down their right tackle spot minus Mitchell Schwartz, but they’re counting on Nick Allegretti, Daniel Kilgore, and Andrew Wylie on the interior. Allegretti will make his first start. Bradley Chubb and Shelby Harris need to capitalize.

Harris needs to help collapse the pocket for Denver to have a chance.

All this talk about Mahomes and the passing game ignores Reid’s newfound commitment to the ground game. Part of it’s by design as teams have routinely played light in the box for fear of Tyreek Hill over the top, but Clyde Edwards-Helaire’s been as advertised. He’s elite in a phone booth with good contact balance. He’s also a natural receiver out of the backfield.

If the Broncos’ pass rush gets too overzealous or the down and distance sets it up, Kansas City won’t hesitate to dial up a number of screens. Reid’s the best in the game at designing them.

No one does a better job using misdirection than Andy Reid.

Offense

6. Can the line hold up?

7. Will Lock do enough to help the pass protection?

8. How does Shurmur help his personnel?

9. What does the Gordon/Lindsay backfield duties look like?

10. Can the Broncos win in short yardage?

11. Is Drew Lock the guy?

After struggling for most of the first month of the season, the Broncos’ offensive line made promising strides against the Patriots. It’s important to level that with a little perspective, however. Their front went through a cap purge before 2020 began and they lost Adam Butler in the second quarter. Bill Belichick also didn’t blitz anywhere near as often as Todd Bowles or Keith Butler did.

The protection will land back in the frying pan this week against Steve Spagnuolo, who dials up the heat at the 4th highest rate in the NFL. He’ll also call run blitzes to try and get ahead of the sticks. I found Lock’s play in the face of pressure really encouraging last week. He’ll need to build on it by doing a better job of identifying where the pressure’s coming from and finding his hots when the protections outnumbered.

Lock can’t hesitate to check down this week or he’ll play right into the Chiefs’ hands.

Frank Clark, Chris Jones, and Tyrann Mathieu get the publicity on the Chiefs’ defense, but they wouldn’t be a top four pass defense if their corners were huge liabilities. They won’t hesitate to give Lock a variety of looks and try to trap him into a bad decision.

I was critical of Shurmur for how much he leaned on isolation routes in the high red zone last week, but it made sense given the Patriots’ willingness to play man to man and favorable matchups with Albert Okwuegbunam on a much smaller Jonathan Jones. They won’t see as much man coverage this time around, but the mismatches could be there with Noah Fant’s return to the lineup: none of the Chiefs’ linebackers have been especially adept in coverage this year.

One way the Broncos could help their young offense, attack a Kansas City weak spot, and potentially freeze Mahomes is with their running game. Today’s the first time since week one that both Melvin Gordon and Phillip Lindsay will play. On Cover 2 Broncos we discussed how Lindsay’s return led to more gap runs. It has to happen again: The Chiefs biggest issues on defense center around stopping the run in short yardage.

Run where Chris Jones ain’t, and you should find success.

Final Thoughts

The long week and Covid wrecking havoc at the last minute certainly helped, but last week Lock outplayed Cam Newton as the Broncos scored on their first six drives of the game and hung on late. Odds are he can’t throw two picks on back to back drives and expect his defense to bail him out this time around: Kansas City has scored 24 or more in all but one game this season. Field goals won’t be enough.

There’s no doubt about it, this is a really bad matchup for the Broncos: they’re a blitz heavy defense that is stronger against the run than pass while Kansas City has the ultimate weapon against blitzes and the personnel to abandon the run if need be. Lock’s play against the blitz could be the ultimate X-factor and it’d be encouraging if he shows growth in the snow.

Win or lose, let’s hope its fun.

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