ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It took a few weeks and some heavy lifting in a 27-17 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs this past Sunday night, but the Denver Broncos have clawed their way back to the top of the AFC West.
Quarterback Peyton Manning had has ninth 300-yard passing game and was not sacked as the Broncos' defense collected three sacks of its own while keeping the Chiefs from getting running back Jamaal Charles going at his usual pace. Charles finished with 78 yards rushing to go with minus-6 yards receiving.
And after a long look at the video from Sunday night’s win, here are some thoughts on the team’s offense:
It’s always been, and always will be, a matchup league. Those with the talent and smarts to consistently create the matchups they can take advantage of win games and influence people. And when Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, an aggressive sort who is respected around the league, elected not to flip his cornerbacks to match on the Broncos receivers wherever they lined up, specifically to keep Sean Smith on Demaryius Thomas, Manning and Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase could create the matchups they wanted against the Chiefs' man coverage simply by moving Thomas to the spot of choice. And, as a result, it was Chiefs rookie Marcus Cooper, a seventh-round pick by the 49ers last April who the Chiefs claimed off waivers just before the start of the regular season, who found himself at the other end of Manning’s gaze. So instead of having Thomas, who most often lines up to the offensive left, or the open side of the formation, where he would always be across from Smith, Kansas City’s best combination of size/speed to match up with Thomas, the Broncos often put Thomas to Cooper’s side. The Chiefs played it straight up, leaving Smith on the defensive right, including Thomas’ 70-yard catch in the first quarter with Cooper trailing on the play.
Having worked under both Nick Saban and Mike Martz in his career, Gase knows the value of Saban’s muscle-up, by-the-numbers approach on offense as well as Martz’ go-for-it flare for big plays and aggressiveness. But sometimes, say when his quarterback is wearing a brace on his right ankle, Gase shows more of his Saban side. The Broncos had a season-high 36 rushing attempts against the Chiefs, but the majority of those came out of their three-wide receiver look with 21 of them coming when Manning was in the shotgun. That meant the Broncos were running against the smaller personnel of Chiefs' specialty packages, mostly the dime (six defensive backs). The Chiefs' front still handled things much of the time -- the Broncos finished at just 2.9 yards per carry, a number interim coach Jack Del Rio said "needs to be better." The Broncos did try to run at Chiefs safety Eric Berry plenty in the run game. Berry routinely moves down to a weak-side linebacker position when the Chiefs are in the dime and the Broncos aimed a smattering of run plays right at him with mixed results.
The Broncos showed the ability to spread things out and clear some defenders out of the middle of the field when they are in a heavier look on offense as well. On Montee Ball's 1-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, the Broncos had three tight ends in the formation with Ball and C.J. Anderson in the backfield. Before the snap, Anderson moved out and lined up wide left as a receiver. Tight end Julius Thomas then motioned from left to right, lining up wide right. The two moves took two defenders out of the middle of the field. And tight end Virgil Green moved from the right side of the formation to the left so Green and tight end Joel Dreessen were on the outside shoulder of left tackle Chris Clark. Ball then plowed into the end zone to the left.
With Manning’s ailing right ankle and the Chiefs' physical front seven, the Broncos were in the shotgun, traditional or the shorter pistol version, a season-most 65 times Sunday, including penalty snaps. Manning’s ability to get the ball out quickly and a consistently high-quality effort from the offensive line enabled the Broncos to keep Manning clean. The Chiefs came into the game leading the league with 36 sacks, but are now No. 2 after not adding to the total. The Chiefs also rushed Manning with four or fewer rushers on all but six of Manning’s dropbacks in the game, which meant Manning saw at least seven players in coverage on all but six dropbacks as well.
The Broncos had their first two pass plays for negative yardage against the Chiefs since their win over the Oakland Raiders in Week 3. Against Kansas City, Manning had a completion to Wes Welker go for a 1-yard loss and had another completion to Ball for a 1-yard loss.
There are currently five position players in the NFL who have at least nine receiving touchdowns. The Broncos have three of them in Julius Thomas, Demaryius Thomas and Welker.