Know Your Enemy
The last seven days have not been kind to the Kansas City Chiefs. On Thursday Night Football (NLFN), they lost to the only win-less team in the NFL; the Oakland Raiders. As humiliating as the loss was, what made it even more embarrassing was all of the press leading up to the game, calling the Chiefs the "hottest team in the NFL".
But to add insult to injury, the team recently announced that their Pro Bowl safety, Eric Berry, is suffering from lymphoma and will of course miss the rest of the season, and be out indefinitely, until he recovers. We wish him the best and pray that he'll beat this disease.
Berry leaves a team sitting at 7-4 and tied with the San Diego Chargers for 2nd place in the AFC West. When I look at this Chiefs team and all that they've accomplished in 2014, I have to hand it to Andy Reid for another stalwart coaching job.
To lose players like Derrick Johnson and Mike Devito for the season, due to injury, hurts. But the Chiefs also experienced an exodus of sorts in free agency, before the season started, as players like Brandon Flowers, Tyson Jackson, and Dexter McCluster departed for new environs.
But the departures didn't stop there. The most alarming losses came on their offensive line, as they lost three key starters from their 11-5 campaign of 2013; Branden Albert, Geoff Schwartz and Jon Asamoah.
They decided to go all-in on 2013's No. 1 overall pick in the draft, Eric Fisher, who had a very up-and-down and not very encouraging rookie season. However, John Dorsey and Reid have found a way to overcome their free agent losses and against all odds, are in the playoff hunt for the second-straight year. Hats off to both of them.
One of the first things that Andy Reid did when he joined the Chiefs last season, was make a trade with the San Francisco 49ers for quarterback, Alex Smith. It was a brilliant decision and not one without risk. I shudder to think what this team would look like without the steady hand and poise of Smith, however.
In his first season with the Chiefs, Smith led them to a 9-0 start and ended the season with 3,313 passing yards, 23 touchdowns and just 7 interceptions. He finished with a 60.6 completion percentage and a rating of 89.1 (QBR). As a former option QB at Utah, he also has some rushing chops, as he displayed with his 431 yards rushing and 1 TD.
Smith does an excellent job protecting the ball, sometimes to the chagrin of Chiefs fans, as he does not often challenge the defense down-field. He has only been picked off 4 times this season.
The Chiefs passing offense has been underwhelming this year. Shockingly, Smith has yet to connect with a wide receiver for a TD. With 2,211 passing yards and 13 TDs, he is on pace to throw for less yards and TDs than he did in 2013.
And yet, the Chiefs are the No. 13 ranked scoring offense in the NFL, averaging 23.7 points per game. That's middle of the pack, sure, but they would be in even worse shape, were it not for one Jamaal Charles.
Like last season, Charles has been the engine that drives the Chiefs offense. He has accounted for 962 yards of total offense and 11 total TDs. And he's done it, despite missing one full game, and most of their week 2 matchup with the Denver Broncos, which they lost.
His most impressive performance this season came in week 11 vs the Seattle Seahawks. In that game, he rushed for 159 yards and 2 TDs, averaging a whopping 8 yards per carry, leading the Chiefs to a victory. Currently, the Broncos field the NFL's No. 2 rushing defense, allowing an average of just 75.5 yards per game on the ground.
However, over the last two weeks, the Broncos have allowed 228 rushing yards. Between injuries at linebacker, a lack of discipline and inconsistent play on the defensive line, they have taken a step backwards in defending the run. But they'll need a return to form, if they hope to contain one of the league's superstar running backs.
Currently, the Chiefs leading receiver is Dwayne Bowe, with 44 receptions and 551 yards. But he's yet to find the endzone. For a time, Smith's favorite target was tight end, Travis Kelce. But over the last four games, Bowe has been targeted 31 times, to Kelce's 17.
However, in week 2, Kelce gashed the Broncos with 4 receptions for 81 yards. The Broncos have struggled to defend good tight ends this season, so don't be surprised to see Smith target Kecle on Sunday early and often.
Even though the Chiefs have a winning record and are in the playoff hunt, they have still struggled on the offensive line. There's no question that their free agent departures hurt them. On the season, Smith has been sacked 27 times; more than twice as much as Peyton Manning.
When Albert departed for Miami, the Chiefs moved Fisher over to his spot at left tackle, the position he was destined to play, from the moment he was drafted. He's been solid, but unspectacular thus far.
Fisher has allowed 4 sacks, 9 QB hits and 12 hurries. This has earned him a cumulative grade of -16.3 via ProFootballFocus. In week 2, he did not give up a sack, although he did allow 3 QB hits and 3 hurries. Depending on the flow of the game, DeMarcus Ware should be able to exploit the talented, but relatively inexperienced young tackle.
The Chiefs highest rated offensive lineman is center, Rodney Hudson (+8.5). He has been a stable force in the trenches and by far their best run blocker. Left guard, Mike McGlynn (-24.7), right guard, Zach Fulton (-14.7) and right tackle, Ryan Harris (-6.2) have all struggled to find cohesion as a unit. Sounds familiar, right?
There is no doubt that Charles is a weapon, but this offensive line can be exploited. However, for the Broncos to be truly successful in stopping the run, they'll need Brandon Marshall to clear concussion protocol and suit up.
Smith is one of the league's most mobile QBs and is great at avoiding pressure. The last few weeks have been quiet for Ware and Von Miller. If the Broncos can get out to an early lead and put pressure on the Chiefs to throw, I see Ware and Miller having great success in rushing the passer.
Charles might be the engine that drives the Chiefs offense, but it's the defense that ultimately determines the team's destiny. This unit is currently the NFL's No. 8 ranked defense. And if you take a look at the names above who no longer play in Kansas City, it becomes apparent that defensive coordinator, Bob Sutton, has engineered yet another masterful coaching effort.
For the Chiefs, it all starts at outside linebacker, as they sport one of the best pass rushing duos in the NFL; Justin Houston and Tamba Hali. Houston leads the league in sacks with 13 and Hali has contributed 5.
Houston is PFF's highest rated 3-4 OLB, with a staggering +32.0 cumulative grade. As seen above, Hali is no slouch either. He is currently the No. 13 ranked OLB, with a +8.1 cumulative grade.
The Broncos offensive line has only allowed 12 sacks on the season and they took a huge step forward last week vs the Miami Dolphins. Every O-lineman graded out in the positive via PFF, but they'll have to duplicate that performance, if they hope to beat the Chiefs on the road and maintain their lead in the division.
Inside, the Chiefs have three behemoths in Dontari Poe (+6.3), Jaye Howard (-3.0) and Allen Bailey (-1.3). Poe leads the way with 5 sacks, but Bailey has chipped in 4. Despite their size and production in the pass rush, they have struggled to defend the run, as the Chiefs are giving up an average of 129.4 yards per game on the ground; good for 25th in the NFL.
I foresee another productive day on the ground for C.J. Anderson, provided offensive coordinator, Adam Gase, remains committed to a balanced attack. The Broncos have built up some momentum from last week and must exert all efforts to do it again at Arrowhead.
The Chiefs two inside linebackers, Josh Mauga (+0.1) and James-Michael Johnson (-9.7) have struggled to stop the gap left by Johnson and former Bronco, Joe Mays. Mays was injured in the Chiefs final preseason game and was placed on injured reserve-with designation to return. He was activated on November 8th, but has yet to see a defensive snap.
When free agency opened this past March, one of the Chiefs first moves was to re-sign Husain Abdullah. Abdullah is one of the NFL's most underrated safeties. He has been a real difference maker for the Chiefs, especially in Berry's absence. With a +6.7 cumulative grade, he is PFF's No. 15 safety.
Berry only saw 369 snaps on defense, before his season came to an end. Now, Abdullah's been paired up with Ron Parker (-5.6). And when the Chiefs deploy their big nickel sub-package, Kurt Coleman (+1.6) comes in. As a whole, this safety unit is not one to underestimate. Manning will have to be very wise in looking off the safeties and not telegraphing his reads. Of course, Manning is one of the best in that regard, but on the road, as we've seen this year, all bets are off.
The Chiefs let Brandon Flowers go because they were confident in Sean Smith (+8.9) and Marcus Cooper (-9.4) at cornerback. However, Cooper has struggled and Phillip Gaines now starts opposite of Smith.
Smith has great size (6'3, 218lbs) and knows how to use it. He'll likely draw Demaryius Thomas, more often than not. That will be a great battle to watch. Where the Broncos can really get the most bang for their buck, however, will be with whomever is lined up against Emmanuel Sanders.
In week 2, Sanders was targeted 9 times, catching 8 balls for 108 yards. Expect similar production this week. The week 13 status of tight end, Julius Thomas (ankle) is currently in doubt. If he does manage to suit up on Sunday, he will also be a deadly weapon for Manning. In Thomas' two career games vs the Chiefs, he has scored a TD in each.
In Manning's tenure as a Bronco, he has yet to lose to the Chiefs. However, since Andy Reid came to town, the Broncos vs Chiefs games have always been closely contested and all three of the Broncos losses this year have been on the road. With how good the teams of the AFC North are playing, the Chiefs know that they can't afford another loss this late in the season.
They can still win the division, if they can find a way to beat the Broncos. If they fall short, their playoff aspirations could be in doubt. The Broncos are expecting the Chiefs best shot. If the Broncos win on Sunday, the road to a possible fourth-straight division crown will be much easier. Don't you love November-December football? It'll be a great game on Sunday Night Football (NBC).
Broncos 27 Chiefs 23
As usual, Brandon Perna has his own take on how this game will go down.