Earlier this season, I broke down the Broncos passing game to highlight the short-to-intermediate route tree that caters to Peyton Manning’s ability at the quarterback position. It's a productive system that allows Manning to target multiple receivers out of various formation alignments.
But as we look ahead to the Chiefs-Broncos matchup in Denver, is there a defensive game plan Kansas City can lean on to slow down Manning and this prolific offense?
Let’s talk about the Chiefs pass rush, get into some game tape and break down three keys for the Kansas City defense as it preps for the prime-time AFC West matchup with Manning on Sunday night.
The Ability to Generate Pressure Up Front
I’ll get into some talk about situational pressure schemes the Chiefs can use to send five (or six) rushers at Manning, but the idea here is to match the ability of the front four with coverage in the secondary.
The Chiefs are nasty up front with Tamba Hali, Justin Houston, Dontari Poe, etc., in their sub-packages. That allows this defense to play Cover 1 (man-free), 2-Man (two-deep, man-under) or zone-based looks when it gets a push on the defensive line and collapses the edge of the pocket.
This Chiefs secondary has size, length and will break on the football with Sean Smith, Marcus Cooper and Brandon Flowers—man-coverage corners who mesh well with the safety combo of Eric Berry and Kendrick Lewis.
I like the matchup of the Kansas City secondary versus Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Eric Decker and Julius Thomas in the Broncos' 11 personnel (three wide receivers, one tight end, one running back). But there is no question it starts up front with the Chiefs' ability to rush versus a Broncos offensive line that has been suspect in their protection schemes this season.
What the Chiefs Can Learn from Jaguars, Colts Tape
I think the Chiefs' top call going into the game is Cover 1 given the skill set of their defensive secondary. But after watching the tape from the Broncos' matchups with the Jaguars and Colts, there are some schemes they can steal to add to the game plan.
Play some combination coverages
“2 Buster” is also known as a combination coverage (zone/man scheme). That’s what the Colts showed versus the Broncos to give Manning a unique look in the secondary.
The Colts are playing 2-Man to the open side of the formation versus the vertical concepts. It's a man-under technique with a deep half safety over the top and the Mike ‘backer matching to the running back on the swing route. To the closed side, Indianapolis is playing Cover 2 (zone) with the safety in the deep half, the cornerback sinking under the 7 (corner) route and the Will ‘backer dropping to the seam-hook technique (drive the smash route).
With Manning targeting Decker on the underneath smash route (Smash-7 combination), the Will ‘backer can reroute the tight end’s release, read the quarterback and drive downhill to make the play. Plus, this scheme allows the Chiefs to take away Welker in the slot when he wants to run the option route with a corner sitting outside in zone coverage.
2-Man is a smart call
The Colts played a lot of 2-Man across the board in the win over the Broncos. That allows the underneath defenders to sit inside, challenge routes and get hands on receivers with help over the top. Here’s a look at 2-Man versus Welker on the Hi-Lo concept (dig-shallow drive combo).
Because of the safety help, Darius Butler can drive to the hip of Welker and play this shallow drive route aggressively. That’s good defensive football right there.
Send situational pressure
Even with the Chiefs' ability to generate pressure with four, there will be situations on Sunday night that cater to blitz pressure (both zone and man). This is a look at a Colts safety blitz (man-pressure) with a stunt along the defensive front.
The Colts send free safety Antoine Bethea through the closed-side A gap and wrap Robert Mathis inside on a basic stunt. With the running back releasing on the rail/wheel route versus the Mike ’backer, the Broncos try to block this up with five-man protection.
Manning has to unload this ball versus A-gap pressure, and the quarterback misses down the field on the rail/swing route with the free safety driving top down to the point of attack.
Cover 2 can limit the inside vertical game
The Jaguars' defensive game plan reminded me of Lovie Smith’s defense when he was in Chicago: rush four and drop seven. The Jaguars were committed to playing Cover 2, and it allowed them to challenge the inside verticals (four verticals) versus the Broncos.
This is basic Cover 2 technique versus four verticals with the nickel sinking under Welker and Mike ’backer Paul Posluszny running the inside vertical seam. Get depth, read the eyes of the quarterback and break on the ball.
Posluszny reads this route perfectly, drives to the inside seam and makes a play on the ball. Simple? Sure it is—on a chalkboard. But it is still another option for the Chiefs to roll with because of their ability to rush four.
Three Keys to Slowing Down Manning
Here are three things I believe the Chiefs must do to limit the Broncos offense on Sunday night.
1. Shorten the depth of the safeties
This isn’t a vertical offense in Denver. And because of that, both safeties can cheat up their initial alignment. That gives them the ability to drive on the intermediate dig from the deep middle of the field or jump the 7 route from a deep half alignment—another way to challenge these receivers. If Manning does throw the deep ball, then read the release of the receivers and react.
2. Jam and Reroute Receivers
You would be surprised at how many opposing defenses allow these Denver receivers to get off the ball with a clean release. That can’t happen if the Chiefs want to impact the route stem. These defensive backs have to use their hands to win on the release in man coverage and reroute receivers in zone shells. Be physical and beat up these receivers. Don’t let them off the line.
3. Use “jump” and “cut” calls in the secondary
Play off the splits of the Broncos receivers. This allows the Chiefs to use “jump” and “cut” calls where the safety can drive downhill on a crossing route with the corner replacing him in the deep middle (or deep half) of the field. The Chiefs have shown this tape this season in their Cover 1 schemes.
Holding Denver to Field Goals is a “Win” for the Defense
If the Chiefs truly want to slow down this Denver offense, then holding Manning to field goals in the red zone should be a considered a “win” for the defense.
That’s where play action shows up, the run game, the tunnel screens to Thomas, the option routes to Welker, etc.
Manning is going to move the ball between the 20s, we know that.
But the ability of the Chiefs to play top-tier defense inside the red zone will have a major impact on this game considering the lack of explosive plays Alex Smith and the Kansas City offense have generated this season.
Let's see how this defense responds Sunday night in its biggest test of the season.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.