A quick turnaround to Thursday Night Football brings a tough, tough test to the Mile High City for the Denver Broncos.
After winning two straight games and appearing to be fully on track on both sides of the football, the Broncos welcome a tough Kansas City Chiefs team to Empower Field at Mile High. That said, this is a great time to be facing the Chiefs as Kansas City is banged up offensively, missing left tackle Eric Fisher, quarterback Patrick Mahomes is clearly not healthy, and Sammy Watkins is hurting.
Kansas City has lost two straight games — both at home — so maybe it’s a good time to get on the road to take on a divisional foe.
The Chiefs present a number of problems on offense with Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, and a few other low-profile names to work with. The key to the entire attack, though is…Kelce?
Yes, Kelce, not Mahomes, Hill or anyone else on that offense, is the overall key to success. Sure, Mahomes is the reigning NFL MVP and arguably the best quarterback in the game today, but Andy Reid’s offense doesn’t open up the way it does with Mahomes under center without a dynamic, versatile weapon in Kelce on the field to provide the Chiefs with a matchup nightmare for defenses.
Since coming into the NFL in 2013 as a third-round draft pick, Kelce has been nothing short of spectacular as a dual-threat tight end. He’s a tremendous in-line blocker when called upon, and can line up all over the formation and run a full route tree.
A Willing Blocker
Due to his receiving abilities, the Chiefs don’t call on him often to block much anymore, but when he does he’s terrific. Watch this rep in the fourth quarter against the Detroit Lions in Week 4 as a pass blocker.
Kansas City moves him left to right across the formation to get him in better position to wall off the edge against a Lions defensive back. Watch Kelce’s feet here. That’s insane from a guy his size. He’s able to mirror the defensive back and stay in front of him the entire time, providing protection for Mahomes.
Now, Mahomes has his arm hit on the play by a separate defender, causing the pass to fall incomplete down the field, but what a rep that is from Kelce. You won’t find many better than that from a tight end in today’s game.
As a receiver, Kelce simply can’t be guarded. Teams can try, but there’s really no shutting him down.
Against Indianapolis in Week 5 on Sunday Night Football, the Colts did a great job holding him to just four catches for 70 yards on 10 targets. Four for 70 seems like a lot, but aside from two early catches, Kelce was quieted until the fourth quarter.
What Indianapolis did was spy him with a safety or slot corner everywhere he went, lining up guys rookie safety Shakail Taylor, rookie corner Rock Ya-Sin and veteran corner Pierre Desir on him throughout the game. Rarely did Indianapolis ask a linebacker to cover Kelce.
The Chiefs did a nice job scheming up some easy targets for Kelce though.
This was Kansas City’s first play from scrimmage, which was an RPO with Mahomes and LeSean McCoy, and a backside slant from Kelce in the slot. That’s an easy play to get guys into a rhythm.
However, that was about it for Kelce on the day. The Chiefs tried to isolate him with go routes and crossing routes, but Indianapolis was physical with him throughout routes.
They got away with some plays that should have been penalties, but that’s what you have to do with Kelce: be physical with him and get inside his head.
A Monster in the Middle
The middle of the field is where Kelce will absolutely dominate, though, especially if you have linebackers and safeties that are easily distracted with eye candy in front of them.
Watch the swing route here by RB Darryl Williams draw the attention of the one Lions inside linebacker, while the underneath crossing route by Watkins draws quick attention from the other. That allows Kelce to slip up the seam and settle into the vacated zone.
Once the Lions linebacker that eyed Watkins realizes what’s happening, it’s too late, leading to a first down catch for Kelce.
Making Mincemeat of Linebackers
While you want to be physical with Kelce, you can’t have defenders trying to jump routes. Kelce is a terrific route runner for the position and is able to create ample separation on nearly every route.
Detroit safety Tracy Walker bites hard on this head fake inside, allowing Kelce to slip outside on the corner route for the easy catch. You’ll rarely see a tight end turn a safety around like this on a route, but that’s Kelce for you.
Beware the Crosser
The main staple of Kansas City’s attack though, especially for Kelce, is crossing routes with a slight rub in the middle.
Two weeks in a row I saw a variation of this play from the Chiefs. In Week 6 against Houston, the Chiefs ran it properly, getting a rub on second-year safety Justin Reid in coverage on Kelce, allowing Kelce to pull away for the big play on the over-route.
Against the Colts, the Chiefs tried to execute this but because of press coverage opposite Kelce, the Chiefs weren’t able to get the timing down on the rub over the middle.
Expect to see this at some point on Thursday night.
How Denver Wins
When it comes to stopping Kelce, as I said earlier, you really can’t. You can contain him, though, with the right scheme.
The last time Vic Fangio saw Kelce was back in 2015, which was Fangio’s first season as defensive coordinator with the Bears.
In that game, Kelce was held to three catches for 35 yards. Now, to be fair, Kelce in 2015 wasn’t the Kelce we know now, nor was Mahomes his quarterback. That said, Fangio knows how to scheme up a defense to slow down Kelce.
Here’s hoping the Broncos put only defensive backs on Kelce in coverage, get physical with him at the line and early in routes, and above all else: tackle well after the catch.