The most anticipated game of the season to this point is upon us; the best offense versus the best defense with the victor earning first place in the AFC West. The Kansas City Chiefs are coming off a bye week and the Denver Broncos are playing at home, so neither team has a distinct external advantage.
Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning is hobbled with a high-ankle sprain, and the Chiefs have the best pass rush in the league, so the Broncos will have to do a good job in pass protection to win the game. Manning is like most quarterbacks—he is less effective when under pressure.
Even though left tackle Chris Clark continues to struggle as a replacement for the All-Pro Ryan Clady, the Broncos can still keep the Chiefs’ vaunted pass rush off Manning. The Broncos wouldn’t be the first team this season to slow down Kansas City’s rush.
The Buffalo Bills with Jeff Tuel at quarterback were actually the most successful at slowing down Kansas City’s pass rush just two weeks ago. According to ProFootballFocus (subscription required), the Bills limited the Chiefs to no sacks and just one quarterback hit.
The Chiefs have averaged over seven combined sacks and quarterback hits per game this season with only three games below that average. It should be no surprise to anyone that the Broncos lost the only game in which they have allowed more than seven combined sacks and hits on Manning.
The bad news for the Chiefs is that the Indianapolis Colts sacked Manning four times and hit him five other times and the Broncos still managed to score 33 points. The pass rush alone didn’t enable the Colts to beat the Broncos; they also won the field position battle and scored 39 points on offense.
Last week against the below-average defense and pass rush of the San Diego Chargers, the Broncos allowed six combined sacks and hits on Manning, and he aggravated his ankle injury. The Broncos won, but they also scored a season-low 28 points as the Chargers controlled the clock.
Although the pass rush alone won’t win the game for the Chiefs, it’s still a big factor in the game. If the Broncos don’t protect Manning, they are leaving themselves vulnerable to losing to the Chiefs at home and getting Manning hurt. Any injury more severe than a high-ankle sprain to Manning could be devastating to Denver’s season.
The Master Manning
To limit the Kansas City pass rush, the Broncos will have to deploy several countermeasures. The biggest weapon the Broncos have against the Chiefs’ pass rush is Manning himself.
The Broncos have allowed the second-fewest sacks in the NFL not because they have amazing pass blocking, but because Manning gets rid of the football so quickly. Manning’s average time to throw is the lowest in the league at 2.35 seconds and second-lowest in time to attempt at 2.31 seconds according to ProFootballFocus.
|Team Sack %||3.4||2|
|Time to Throw (seconds)||2.35||1|
|Time to Attempt (seconds)||2.31||2|
|Time to Sack (seconds)||3.37||30|
|Percentage of Passes in 2.5 seconds or less||61.0||5|
Even immediate unblocked pressure could take more than a couple seconds to get to Manning. The key to getting to Manning is excellent coverage with a great pass rush, and that’s a lot easier said than done.
Manning knows that if he doesn’t get rid of the ball quickly, he lacks the mobility to escape pressure. Manning’s average time to sack is the shortest in the league at 3.37 seconds, and that’s why 61 percent of the time the ball is out of his hands in less than 2.5 seconds.
With a bum ankle, you can expect that Manning will get the ball out quickly against the Chiefs. It’s quick decision-making that enables Manning to be a pocket passer, take so few hits and yet still be the best quarterback in football.
The Screen Game
We know that Manning will get the ball out, but that doesn’t tell use quite how he will do it against the Chiefs. One of the classic ways is to use screens. This isn’t a revolutionary way to deal with a rush, but it is still quite effective and was one of the ways teams have been effective against the Chiefs.
The Bills utilized screens against four-man pressure to slow down the pass rush with some success. The four-man rush is an important distinction to make because there are two types of pressure, natural pressure and blitz pressure. Since the Chiefs have two great pass-rushers and Manning is so good at beating the blitz, it would be a surprise to see them blitz Manning a lot.
Bills running back Fred Jackson picked up 22 yards on the screen pass as the Bills caught the Chiefs napping on first down. The screen game plays into Denver’s strengths, as screen passes are already a big part of what they do offensively.
Last week, wide receiver Demaryius Thomas took a screen pass 34 yards for a touchdown. The Broncos will also use bubble screens if the defense is playing off the line of scrimmage and the occasional screen to the running back.
With Manning’s intelligence and the talent he has on offense, screens are one of the great ways the Broncos don’t just slow down the rush, but take advantage of it. Expect the Broncos to use screens on early downs.
One of the ways the Colts beat the Broncos was by disrupting routes. By using press coverage out of Cover 1 or Cover 2 shells, the Colts slowed down Denver’s short passing game.
The Chiefs will probably attempt to use a similar strategy combined with their pass rush to try to slow down Manning. In most situations, just holding the Broncos to a field goal is a victory.
Rushing four and trying to disrupt routes at the line of scrimmage was exactly what the Chiefs tried to do to the Bills, and Tuel was still effective early in the game. The Chiefs were dangerously close to falling behind 17-3 before Sean Smith intercepted Tuel and returned it 100 yards for a Kansas City touchdown.
The short passing game was the reason the Bills were in position to take control of the game. Rub routes were just one of the methods they used, but they were also reason the game was tied 10-10 instead of with the Bills nursing a two-touchdown lead. Clearly the Chiefs made a halftime adjustment that made a huge difference.
The “rub” route is a two-man route in which one receiver uses another to create space against man coverage. Some people call these pick routes, as they are illegal if one of the receivers blocks instead of running a route.
The Bills used short, timing routes like this to move the chains against the Chiefs and ensure the pass rush couldn’t get to the youngster Tuel. For the most part it was effective until the Chiefs made some adjustments.
Wide receiver Robert Woods had to beat the jam of Smith to run a slant pattern on 3rd-and-3. The tight end ran an out route giving Tuel just enough room to fit the ball between the linebacker and Smith, who had to loop around the tight end on the play.
The Broncos love to use these types of routes to give their receivers space to operate, especially near the goal line. The advantage to them anywhere on the field is that they are quick passes that don’t enable the pass rush to be much of a factor.
There is some danger in the short passing game. When the pass rush is working and the defensive backs know it, they will start jumping short routes. That’s what happened to Tuel and the Bills in the red zone that ended up being a 100-yard interception return touchdown for the Chiefs.
Like the previous play, the Bills expected to have just enough of an opening for Tuel to fit the ball in for a touchdown. This route combination is nearly identical to the previous one, just on the opposite side out of a different formation with three receivers.
The extra receiver is going to run a post route and Tuel expects him to carry Smith to the back of the end zone. Had this been the case, the Bills may have scored a touchdown and taken a 17-3 lead.
Instead of covering the slot receiver, Smith settles underneath and is directly between Tuel and his receiver T.J. Graham. The result is a touchdown the other way for the Chiefs, but they aren’t going to get so lucky against Manning.
Smith can’t cheat like he did against Tuel against Manning and get away with it. Manning will use these routes, but as soon as the defense thinks they have them figured out, he’ll run a fake and take advantage of a defensive back trying to cheat (as Smith was able to do against Tuel).
In some situations, the Broncos could use extra blockers to keep the rush off Manning. Knowshon Moreno is known as a guy who can pass protect, which is part of the reason he continues to start ahead of rookie Montee Ball at running back.
If a running back or tight end were asked to help block Tamba Hali and Justin Houston off the edge, the Chiefs would have to bring pressure straight up the middle into the strength of Denver’s offensive line. Leaving a tight end in the game to block means that Julius Thomas isn’t available as a receiving threat, but this wouldn’t be something the Broncos would want to use heavily.
The idea behind this strategy is that Hali and Houston would have to beat two guys instead of one, giving Manning time to pick apart Kansas City’s secondary. A defensive back can only cover for so long, and Manning has three receivers who know how to get open.
The Bills were able to complete passes with only three receivers running routes. It’s not something they did a lot, but they did it in certain situations to give Tuel the time to find a receiver open down the field.
The running back often plays a key role in limiting a pass rush. The running back not only forces the defense to set the edge, but they can be an extra blocker in pass protection and get involved in the screen game.
The Cowboys and Bills had some success attacking the deep sidelines and forcing Kansas City’s safeties to cover a lot of ground, but both times the Chiefs were able to shut that down as the game progressed. It is a good idea in the sense that the defensive backs shouldn’t then be able to sit on short routes.
Superior execution is the key to any successful strategy, whether slowing down a pass rush or stopping the run. After all, there is nothing that groundbreaking about screens, extra blockers and short passing routes to slow down a pass rush.
Obviously, the better the offensive line performs one-on-one against the Chiefs, the fewer of these countermeasures the Broncos will have to utilize. The Broncos already have mechanisms built into their regular offense to keep the pass rush from getting to Manning, they just need to execute better.