By: Aly Trost, Sports Radio 810
The Kansas City Chiefs (4-2) take on their AFC Western Conference rival the Denver Broncos (2-4) under the lights at Mile High Stadium in a quick turnaround on Thursday Night Football.
While the Chiefs are hoping to rewrite the script after a pair of uncharacteristic back-to-back home losses, the Broncos are riding the momentum wave of two straight wins, after dropping their first four games of the season.
This game might have looked like an easy win for the Chiefs early on. But a poor run defense, inconsistencies with protecting and producing on offense, injuries to key players, such as defensive tackle Chris Jones, left tackle, Eric Fisher, linebackers Anthony Hitchens and Dorian O’Daniel and wide receivers Sammy Watkins and Tyreek Hill (amongst others) and far too many penalties have all contributed to an unexpectedly flawed record for the Chiefs going into Week 7.
Now, as the Chiefs prepare to try and extend their 7-0 unbeaten streak against the Broncos to eight, all while remaining healthy in the process, here are three key make or break matchups to watch for.
Chiefs offensive line vs. the Broncos defensive line/pass rush
The Broncos defense may have started off shaky early on, tallying zero sacks and zero takeaways in Week’s 1-3. But a shutout 16-0 win over Tennessee on Sunday (seven sacks, three INTs, 10 QB hits and nine tackles for loss) says that this team is finally clicking under new head coach Vic Fangio, a veteran with 20 seasons of NFL and collegiate experience as a defensive coordinator.
When looking at the Broncos defensive line, there’s one player they’ll need to be especially aware of: outside linebacker Von Miller.
The 30-year-old Miller, who right tackle Mitchell Schwartz has done a good job stifling in the past, isn’t showing any signs of regression in his ninth season. The seven-time Pro Bowler leads the team in QB hits with seven, has 2.5 sacks and has 14 solo tackles so far this season.
Schwartz had an equally challenging task against Houston defensive end J.J. Watt last week, helping end his three-game sack streak and hold him to just one QB hit on Mahomes.
If Schwartz can maintain that same level of success, with some help from the rest of the offensive line against Denver’s other defensive weapons (DE Derek Wolfe, two sacks, 16 combined tackles, four QB hits; DE Demarcus Walker, three sacks, 12 combined tackles, three QB hits) the Chiefs offense should be able to get things going in the passing and rushing game.
Chiefs run defense vs. Broncos running backs
It’s no secret that the Chiefs run defense has struggled this season and, as punishment, teams are exploiting them for it. It’s likely that this week won’t be much different unless the Chiefs – who have conceded an average of just over 190 yards on the ground in the last four games – are able to turn things around by playing more aggressively, completing tackles and figuring out a way to keep opposing teams from extending drives and controlling the time of possession.
With the combined talent of the Broncos two starting running backs, Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman, though, it won’t be an easy task for the Chiefs who currently rank 30th against the run per rushing attempt and 27th in rushing touchdowns allowed.
Lindsay, the speedster who – at just 5’8″ – has been exceptional at creating space and finding the holes between the tackles, rushing for 397 yards in 84 attempts, averaging 4.7 yards per carry and tallying four touchdowns, is tracking to have his best statistical season — giving opposing defenses a headache in the process.
The Broncos’ other weapon at running back is Freeman, who’s been equally dangerous with 284 yards in 66 attempts (4.3 yards per attempt).
Both backs rank top-12 in the AFC in rushing.
What makes Lindsay and Freeman even more dangerous, isn’t just their contribution in helping the Broncos average 116 yards per game on the ground, it’s their receiving abilities out of the backfield. Aside from Denver’s leading receiver, Courtland Sutton, the Lindsay-Freeman duo has combined for 40 receptions and 292 yards, adding some consistency to the passing attack for the Broncos.
The Chiefs will need to be sound at the line of scrimmage, making sure Lindsay and Freeman can’t find any gaps to breakthrough, while the secondary will need to be prepared to make tackles in open space should the Chiefs recurring theme of missed tackles continue.
Chiefs run offense vs. Broncos run defense
Much like their run defense, the Chiefs rushing offense has struggled to move the chains in the last couple of weeks — putting up less than 100 total rushing yards combined in their games against Indianapolis and Houston.
After allowing an average of 149 rushing yards and 11 total touchdowns in their first four games, Denver cleaned up their rushing defense in their last two games — holding the Los Angeles Chargers and Titans to rushing zero touchdowns and just 74 total rushing yards combined.
The Chiefs will need to rely on the rushing game to not only help the offense stay on the field but to take some pressure to make big plays off of Mahomes as well — especially when it comes to the time of possession. For reference, the 20:12 minutes the Chiefs held the ball for against the Texans is the lowest total for a home team since time of possession became a stat in 1977.
Kansas City has the talent, with starter Damien Williams, veteran LeSean McCoy, “Mr. Consistent” Darrel Williams and rookie Darwin Thompson making up the backfield, but they’ll need to be utilized and put in positions to find success to make an impact.
Considering the Chiefs rank 24th in rushing offense and 26th in rushing attempts (123), they’ll need to get the run offense going sooner rather than later if they want to get back to their high-scoring ways.