3TFO: Chiefs @ Broncos, Week 11
Well, we’ve finally arrived at the game that the football world has had circled on their calendars. Of course, unlike Denver’s Sunday night game against the Indianapolis Colts, this date has only been circled for a few weeks. While many expected the Broncos to be one of the best teams in the league, few could have imagined they’d be trailing the Kansas City Chiefs after Week 10…with an 8-1 record. New Chiefs’ Head Coach Andy Reid has taken a team that picked first in the 2013 NFL Draft to one that is on pace to pick last in the 2014 draft.
This game features enticing matchups that should go a long way towards answering some burning questions: Will Alex Smith consistently complete—or even attempt—big-time throws in pressure situations against a top team? Will Von Miller (+16.6 in just 197 snaps; tops among 4-3 OLBs) make the PFF Page of Fame in his matchup against rookie offensive tackle Eric Fisher (-13.9; 69th among OTs)? Finally, will one of the Colquitts be in a better position to lay claim as the best punter in the family?
Though some of these aspects could determine the winner of the game, let’s not kid ourselves. The matchups that make this primetime battle so fascinating are the ones we’ll see when Denver’s record-setting offense takes the field against Kansas City’s record-setting defense. Here are three areas to focus on.
Peyton’s Offensive Weapons
There is no denying that the performance of Peyton Manning—his +24.2 rating leads all QBs—is the primary reason Denver is considered by many to be the best team in the league. However, only 50.2% of Manning’s passing yardage has come before the catch (25th-lowest in the NFL), down from 60.2% in 2012 (tied for sixth-highest). This drop could be the result of many factors, including over-compensating for his injuries and a banged-up offensive line, or simply a change in offensive philosophy. But, when you have wide receivers like Demaryius Thomas (third in WR yards after catch per reception at 8.0), Wes Welker (+10.6; eighth among WRs) and Eric Decker (ninth-best PFF WR rating at 104.4), you don’t necessarily have to wait until they’re over 20 yards down the field to throw them the ball.
The Chiefs, though, bring a productive group of defensive backs to this matchup. Playing almost exclusively at left cornerback, standout rookie Marcus Cooper’s +9.1 coverage grade trails only Darrelle Revis and Alterraun Verner, the starting cornerbacks on our Midseason All-Pro Team. Right cornerback Sean Smith has allowed just one reception every 15.9 cover snaps, also trailing only Revis and Verner. Welker could be matched up with Brandon Flowers most of the time. Though Flowers (-6.0 coverage) isn’t performing at the Top-10 level we’re accustomed to, his 10.2 Cover Snaps per Reception and 67.2 passer rating allowed rank a respectable 12th among slot cornerbacks (min. 25% of snaps).
But, along with Welker, what separates this version of the Broncos’ offense from last season is tight end Julius Thomas. In his first season with any significant action, the third-year player leads all tight ends with 2.94 Slot Yards per Route Run and ranks fourth in our tight end receiving grade at +7.7. Safety Eric Berry (+7.5 coverage) and linebacker Derrick Johnson (+5.7 coverage) have performed well in coverage this season, but they have yet to face a tight end this good catching passes from a quarterback playing at the top of his game.
Chiefs OLBs vs. Broncos OTs
While Kansas City’s secondary has covered well, their jobs are made much easier by the pass-rushing prowess of outside linebackers Justin Houston (+21.5) and Tamba Hali (+14.8). These PFF Pro Bowl favorites rank among the four best 3-4 outside linebackers in overall ratings and Pass Rushing Productivity. Their performances become even more remarkable when, unlike some of their part-time counterparts with similar pass-rushing production, you consider they’ve consistently pressured the quarterback while playing a full load of snaps.
Despite the attention given to a few missed pass blocks by Orlando Franklin and, in particular, Chris Clark’s sack/fumble allowed to the Colts’ Robert Mathis, Denver’s bookend tackles have exceeded expectations given the circumstances. Sure, they benefit from Manning’s quick release and decision-making, which leads to a league-low average time of 2.35 seconds to throw in the pocket. But, some credit must be given to the blockers up front when first-year starter Clark ranks seventh in Pass Blocking Efficiency (96.1) and Franklin, battling injuries, actually leads offensive tackles in this category (97.2), allowing just 11 total pressures in 318 pass block snaps.
Don’t be surprised to see Denver duplicate the high play-action rate they used against other teams with productive edge rushers to protect their tackles and keep the Chiefs’ dynamic duo at bay. Against Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, Manning used play action on 35.6% of his dropbacks, the second-highest rate in Week 1; his 34.8% rate against Washington’s Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan was the fourth highest in Week 8.
Dontari Poe vs. Manny Ramirez
As our readers know, Dontari Poe has begun to justify his 11th overall slot in the 2012 NFL Draft, improving from the 38th ranked DT/NT last year to the ninth-ranked through nine games this season. Poe has been particularly effective against the run, grading at +10.0, good for third in the league.
This run dominance gives him a slight advantage over the Bronco he’ll be lined over the majority of the game, center Manny Ramirez. The seventh-year lineman out of Texas Tech, facing doubts outside of the organization that he was the starting center all offseason, has validated his in-season extension by grading as the second-best center in the league at +9.5. While his pass blocking has been outstanding, Ramirez is not quite as effective against the run, ranking 11th in this category.