One would think with the Broncos sitting at 7-1, 2-0 in the division, and the Chiefs sitting at 3-5, that this week’s game at Mile High would be guaranteed a Broncos win, right?
Not so fast, folks.
No, this isn’t because the Broncos took a tough loss to the Indianapolis Colts. It’s because the Chiefs really aren’t that bad of a team and haven’t dropped off that much with the loss of Jamaal Charles for the season. Even if you took the Broncos’ weaknesses and made them strengths, the Chiefs are still in a position to challenge the Broncos because they are doing some things well.
Rather than rehash much of what we already know about the Chiefs, let’s go over a few things to keep in mind this week.
1. The Chiefs can still run the ball effectively. Charles may be out for the season, but Charcandrick West has been very good in his absence. He’s averaged 4.6 yards per carry and is helped by an offensive line that is one of the better lines at run blocking. So the Broncos will have to play good run defense again and find ways to contain West. Not having DeMarcus Ware in the lineup will make that tough, given how good Ware is at run D, so Shaq Barrett will need to demonstrate he can stop the run as well as he can rush the passer.
2. The Chiefs are mostly healthy. Offensive guard Ben Grubbs missed the team’s Week 8 game against the Detroit Lions with a neck injury and it continued to bother him during the bye week. He will likely be listed as questionable this week. Defensive end Mike DeVito missed three straight games before the bye because of a concussion and will be questionable, too. DeVito had one sack against the Broncos in the Week 2 outing, but he’s a rotational player, so the Chiefs may not miss his presence that much. Grubbs, though, is a starter, so if he were to miss this week’s game, that would make a difference. Otherwise, the Chiefs aren’t dealing with significant injuries to key players not on IR.
3. The Chiefs passing game has been respectable but their pass protection is not. As much as we make fun of Alex Smith, his hesitancy to attack downfield really isn’t the biggest problem with the passing game. Nor is it the lack of receivers, as Jeremy Maclin has played well when he’s taken the field and Chris Conley emerged with 10 receptions in the three games prior to Kansas City’s bye week. The Chiefs’ real issue with the passing game is the offensive line has struggled in pass protection. Smith has been sacked 28 times in eight games. Denver, of course, sacked Smith five times in the Week 2 outing, but remove those and Smith has been sacked more than three times per game. Given the O-line’s pass protection struggles, blitzes should be more effective this week, but the Broncos don’t want to overdo it.
4. The Chiefs defense is solid but not a standout. Give credit to the Chiefs for what they did against the Broncos in Week 2, but throughout the season, the defense hasn’t been consistent. The Chiefs are ranked 13th in Football Outsiders DVOA, slightly better against the pass than the run. The Chiefs have multiple players who can rush the passer. Justin Houston leads the team with 5.5 sacks, but one can’t overlook what Allen Bailey (4.5 sacks) and Tamba Hali (3.5 sacks) have done. Derrick Johnson is a solid coverage linebacker and they will have Sean Smith back, meaning the Chiefs should be better in the secondary. On the other hand, because the Chiefs are slightly below average against the run, this game may indicate just how far the Broncos have come in running the football, provided the offensive line executes. Also, rookie cornerback Marcus Peters may have three interceptions, but he’s had several instances of blown coverages. The real key is for Peyton Manning to identify when Peters does slip in coverage and not just pick on him because he thinks the rookie can’t make plays.
5. The Chiefs are not out of the playoff hunt. Denver is the only AFC West team Kansas City has played this season. A 5-1 run in the division would likely get them in the playoffs, especially when they have several winnable games remaining. Thus, the Chiefs will certainly see Sunday’s game as a chance to get back into the playoff mix.
What this means is Denver needs to bring back the level of execution it had against Green Bay. Even with Ware out with back spasms and Aqib Talib suspended, it’s still possible for the Broncos to get it done. Let’s look at a few things to consider regarding what the Broncos may do.
* Return to C.J. Anderson getting more of the snaps. The main reason for this is because Anderson is healthy while Ronnie Hillman has recently dealt with a thigh injury. Hillman can still be worked into the mix, but it’s better to give him more snaps off so he doesn’t overextend himself. One thing to remember about Hillman is he is most effective when running around the ends, while Anderson does better work up the middle. That’s why it makes sense to start with Anderson because the Broncos will probably want to attack the middle to start. Then, when they switch to attacking the ends, they can work Hillman into the game. Adding Juawn Thompson when working the middle could also help.
* Vernon Davis may see more snaps. Really, Broncos fans should have understood that Davis wasn’t going to get a lot of snaps in his first game as a Bronco. Not only does he need to get familiar with the offense, he missed a couple of games with a knee injury and should be worked slowly into the lineup. But he should see more than the nine snaps he took against the Colts.
* Expect to see plenty of Kayvon Webster, who will get more snaps with Talib out. It’s also likely you’ll see Omar Bolden worked into the cornerback rotation, after he has almost exclusively played special teams this year. Bolden makes more sense to rotate at cornerback because he has experience. Lorenzo Doss is still learning his way and, while he’ll get special teams snaps, don’t expect him to play a down for the defense. (Speaking of Bolden, I believe he should be the punt returner, as his overall performance against the Colts showed he can handle those duties well.)
* Kenny Anunike might get called upon for the linebacker rotation. That hasn’t happened yet, as he has been limited to special teams so far. But it might be a good time to put him for a couple of snaps on defense to see how he handles it. The best time to do that, though, is when Von Miller is in the game. If the Broncos do need to rest Miller, it’s better to have Barrett and Lerentee McCray together. That’s not an ideal pairing, mind you, but at least McCray has seen more defensive snaps this season. The one thing the Broncos do want to avoid is putting McCray in coverage.
And some good news for Broncos fans: Per Football Zebras, Gene Steratore will referee the game. So we’ll get one of the better officials for this key AFC West matchup.
As with the Colts, this matchup should favor the Broncos on paper, but it’s a closer matchup even on paper. I think the Broncos can pick up a win even with a couple of key players sidelined, but it’s going to require the Broncos to execute well.