The Kansas City Chiefs are 9-0, but their biggest test of the season comes Sunday night in Denver against the 8-1 Broncos. First place in the division is on the line, and a win would put the Chiefs in position to host at least one playoff game.
Over the last two seasons, the Broncos are 21-5 with Manning under center including the playoffs—the best in the NFL over that span. Beating Peyton Manning and the Broncos isn’t an easy task, but it’s also far from impossible.
There are a few keys to beating the Broncos, and they aren’t as much complicated as they are difficult to execute under normal circumstances. If the Chiefs can slow down Manning and give their offense a chance, and if the offense can take advantage of those opportunities, the Chiefs should win the football game.
Get After Manning...Obviously
Manning is not invincible or mobile, and he’s like a lot of quarterbacks who aren’t as good when they are under pressure. If the Chiefs can hit Manning, they can win the game.
With Manning nursing a high-ankle sprain, this is probably the most important key to the game. Manning doesn’t move very well to start with, so at least forcing him to move in the pocket could disrupt the amazing timing he has with his receivers.
Unfortunately for the Chiefs, it’s not going to be as easy just because they have one of the best pass rushes in the league. Manning is great at protecting himself, and no quarterback in the league gets rid of the ball quicker.
According to ProFootballFocus (subscription required), Manning’s time to throw while in the pocket is 2.35 seconds—the shortest in the league. Manning also makes up his mind quickly as he’s second in the league in time to attempt at 2.31 seconds, and 61 percent of his throws are within 2.5 seconds.
|Manning's Pocket Stats|
|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|
The Chiefs will have to focus on the other 39 percent of the time that Manning hangs onto the ball a bit longer. Manning is 30th out of 30 eligible quarterbacks in time to sack at 3.37 seconds, making him a sitting duck in the pocket.
Manning has completed just 61.6 percent of his passes under pressure this season according to ProFootballFocus. The idea is to force just a couple more incomplete passes to throw the Broncos off schedule.
Just a couple more punts or drives ending in field goals rather than touchdowns will make a huge difference against the Broncos—if the Chiefs can also execute in other areas. It’s hard to imagine the Chiefs winning the game without pressuring Manning.
To be successful, the Chiefs need to exploit left tackle Chris Clark and left guard Zane Beadles in pass protection. In order to create problems for the Broncos, the Chiefs should consider bringing both Tamba Hali and Justin Houston off that side at the same time.
Clark was a backup until taking over for Ryan Clady, and there has been a noticeable drop-off. It’s no surprise that Robert Mathis exploited Clark to the tune of three sacks, one hit and one hurry in Denver’s only loss this season.
Beadles has actually been more consistently bad than Clark, creating another opportunity for the Chiefs. Interior pressure can be more disruptive than edge pressure and can get to Manning quicker, cutting off his ability to get the ball to his receivers and tight ends.
Beadles has also struggled more against 3-4 defenses than 4-3 defenses, having his worst games against Baltimore, Indianapolis and San Diego in pass protection. One of Kansas City’s defensive ends, either Tyson Jackson or Mike DeVito, is going to have a favorable matchup; he needs to make the most of it.
The Chiefs also might consider forcing Beadles to deal with nose tackle Dontari Poe. It’s obviously a very important game for Kansas City’s excellent front seven.
If the Chiefs don’t disrupt Manning’s receivers at the line of scrimmage, and they get free releases, Manning will find them. It doesn’t matter how quickly the pressure comes when Manning is getting rid of the ball quickly.
The officials will not call pass interference on every down—especially in a prime-time game—so the Chiefs can use that to their advantage just like the Indianapolis Colts did a few weeks ago. Jam wide receivers Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker at the line of scrimmage and make sure the linebackers are giving tight end Julius Thomas a good bump at the line of scrimmage instead of a free release.
Officials will often let defensive backs get away with contact past five yards as long as they are looking back at the quarterback, so Kansas City’s defensive backs need to have an internal clock when in man coverage. The Chiefs shouldn’t be afraid to let their defensive backs initiate a little contact down the field.
The Chiefs have played quite a bit Cover 1 this season, but Cover 2 would enable the cornerbacks to play underneath routes more aggressively. Cover 2 Man with the cornerbacks in press coverage is a good base defense, and the Chiefs can throw in wrinkles like “2-Buster,” which has one half of the field in zone and the other half in man, and “2-Trap,” which has one cornerback drop like it’s Cover 3, only to sit and drive on the flat route.
There isn’t much Manning hasn’t seen, and he will figure things out, which is why the Broncos have scored 113 more points in the second half over the last two seasons than any other team. By being physical at the line of scrimmage and allowing the defensive backs to be aggressive, Manning can know the coverage and still not be able to complete the pass.
Win the Opportunity Battle
One of the classic ways teams have tried to beat Peyton Manning is simply by keeping him off the field. Limit Manning’s opportunities to score and your team might have a chance to win the game.
It will be very hard—even for the best defense in the league—to keep the Broncos from scoring, but a bad defense in San Diego held the Broncos to their lowest point total this season last week by controlling the clock. San Diego held the ball for over 38 minutes but lost by eight, and that was only because of two late touchdowns.
The Chiefs aren’t going to win the game by outscoring the Broncos with their offensive firepower like the Dallas Cowboys almost did, so the ball control game is one solution. Without their six defensive touchdowns, the Chiefs are scoring just 19.2 points per game.
Even if the Chiefs were to have an average game offensively and get a defensive score, they would still have to hold the Broncos to a season-low in points scored. It’s possible, but it’s also asking a lot.
A smart strategy is to control the clock by running the ball. Keep the clock moving and use every second of the play clock to limit Manning’s time on the field. A fast-paced offense isn’t the way to beat the Broncos because it’s very difficult to outscore them.
The Chiefs are currently ranked fifth in the league in time of possession according to teamrankings.com, so they have the ability to milk the clock. In this instance, the Chiefs are going to have to milk the clock more early in the game and not just when they are trying to secure the win late.
The reason controlling the clock didn’t work for the Chargers was that they left too many points on the field. The Broncos scored early, and the Chargers went on a nine-play drive lasting over nine minutes that only resulted in a field goal.
Down 14-6 in the second quarter, the Chargers went on an 11-play drive that lasted about five minutes, but they had to settle for a field goal again, and they missed it. The Broncos scored quickly and went into the half up 21-3.
Had the Chargers maximized their opportunities and put the ball into the end zone when they were close, they would have gone into the half with a 17-14 lead or better—a totally different game. The Colts maximized just about every opportunity to score and won the field position battle in the process.
When the Chiefs get opportunities to score, they can’t settle for field goals. Unfortunately, the Chiefs are 26th in the league in red-zone touchdown scoring percentage this season at 48.28 percent according teamrankings.com.
The Chiefs are even worse scoring touchdowns in the red zone on the road with a league-worst 35.71 percent touchdown scoring percentage. The Broncos have scored touchdowns on 81.82 percent of their trips to the red zone at home this year, the best in the NFL.
It’s imperative that the Chiefs play good defense, but sometimes the best defense is also a good offense. In this case, that means taking advantage of any and all opportunities and limiting those of the opponent.