The Denver Broncos were flying high after a 3-0 start which featured an explosive offense not seen since the Elway era.
The lowly Kansas City Chiefs hardly seemed to have the potential to upset this burgeoning juggernaut. Unfortunately for the Broncos, football is more than just offense. The Chiefs ran all over a weak Denver defense, and Jay Cutler showed he still has some small steps to take to develop into a great quarterback.
The woeful Broncos defense has now given up more than 30 points in three of their four games. In Football Outsiders' advanced statistics, the Broncos' defense ranks 29th. For the first three games, they were weaker against the pass than the run, but Sunday last year's poor run defense was in full effect.
The Broncos have a fundamental problem with their defense. Their most explosive pass rusher is right defensive end Elvis Dumervil, but the undersized Dumervil is useless against the run. So Dumervil often sits on running downs, but that hampers the pass rush. Meanwhile, new defensive tackle Dewayne Robertson missed Sunday's game, further weakening a mediocre defensive line.
The Chiefs attacked the left side of the Denver defensive line consistently with a rejuvenated Larry Johnson. Aware of the weakness on that side, the Broncos overcompensated, leaving cutback lanes open to the backside; Johnson's two biggest runs were designed to the left, but he cut back and found enormous holes.
Struggling on defense, the Broncos found themselves in a third consecutive shootout. This time, however, turnovers proved to be their undoing. Two first half fumbles led to 10 points for Kansas City, yet the Broncos were only trailing 16-13 in the third quarter before Cutler threw interceptions on consecutive throws.
Both of Cutler's interceptions highlight the weakness in his quickly developing game: He has a tendency to stare down his primary receiver and force balls into tight coverage. In particular, Cutler seemed to struggle against zone coverage. If his primary receiver was covered, his solution was to try to throw the ball through defenders.
Often, Cutler's primary receiver is Brandon Marshall, an emerging superstar. Cutler, however, is becoming too dependent on him, and both of his interceptions were passes intended for Marshall. In the three games Marshall has played, Cutler has thrown more second down passes to Marshall than all other receivers combined. The emergence of Eddie Royal may provide some balance, but the rookie is largely an underneath receiver. He has gained only 12 first downs on 27 catches.
Cutler also plays a much more contained football game when Denver is winning and play-action is more effective. He averages 8.6 yards per attempt when winning, compared to a still good 7.4 when trailing. This mirrors last year when he averaged 8.8 yards per attempt when winning and 6.9 when trailing.
For Kansas City, the second consecutive week of impressive running by Larry Johnson is certainly heartening. Johnson single-handedly carried the team in 2006. After last year's injury, early returns looked disheartening: Through two weeks, Johnson averaged 2.8 yards per carry. The past two weeks, however, he has averaged 6.1. If the first two weeks were merely Johnson working back from an injury, the Chiefs have a chance to be competitive throughout the season.
Denver's fortunes would look very different if Cutler's fourth-quarter fumble against San Diego had been called properly -- They would be a 2-2 team looking a great deal like the Bengals of the past few seasons. Until that defense gets sorted out, the Broncos will rely on Cutler to be a superstar. Cutler is tantalizingly close to that level, but Sunday's game showed he might need a little help from his defense to get Denver to the playoffs.
Ned Macey writes for FootballOutsiders.com