The Denver Broncos have a tall task on Sunday Night as the team travels to Arrowhead Stadium to take on the Kansas City Chiefs. Beyond the infamous 11-game losing streak, the Broncos are historically 3-19 when playing on the road in Kansas City in the month of December while teams that Andy Reid presides over are 19-3 when coming off of a bye, as the Chiefs are now.
The Broncos are going to need a bit of luck in order to walk out of this week’s matchup with a victory and first place in the AFC West. How can this happen beyond mere good fortune? There are a multitude of areas where the Broncos need to execute in order to come out victorious against a 10-point favorite Chiefs.
Don't be a Slave to Tendencies
Kansas City will seek to break some of Denver’s current, long-running tendencies. For example, the Broncos have a 48-to-52 pass-to-run split on first down with the league average being a true 50/50 in 2021.
However, one would think that with how much the Broncos run the ball on first down, they'd be more successful. Alas, Denver is ranked 27th in the NFL in first-down rush success rate at 32.2% and while putting up a poor -0.159 EPA per play. Football Outsiders’ DVOA also backs up the struggles of the Broncos’ first-down rushing offense, ranking it 28th in the NFL at -26.3.
On the season, the Broncos like to run on first down but they don’t seem to be very successful in doing so. On the other hand, while the Broncos have not passed the ball on first down at a high rate, they have been fairly successful doing so when they've elected to.
Denver ranks fourth in the NFL in EPA per dropback at 0.194 and No. 9 with a 26.4% DVOA on first-down pass attempts. There is a bit of a juxtaposition between the Broncos' high first-down pass EPA vs. their dropback success rate which ranks 17th in the NFL at 41.2%.
This likely indicates that while the Broncos don't pass often on first down and the results can be hit or miss, if they are passing on first down, it's likely to take an aggressive shot downfield resulting in a fairly explosive play.
This isn’t just about how much Denver has struggled to run the ball on first down this season or a campaign to get OC Pat Shurmur to consider passing more. Sometimes situations call for a bit of conservatism in play calling.
Slow-Developing Pass Plays
In Weeks 9, 10, and 11, the Broncos were not only starting a conservative, ball-protection quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater but were also forced into playing an assortment of backup offensive linemen who have shown to be far less consistent pass protectors than the starters.
Calling a high volume of slow-developing passing plays when your offensive line can’t hold up in protection is a recipe for disaster, especially in games where Denver’s defense and running game were dominating as they were versus the Dallas Cowboys and Los Angeles Chargers.
Coming off of an extra week to prepare with the bye and given the success of the Broncos’ rushing attack over the last three weeks, one would expect Kansas City to come into Sunday’s game and scheme to take away the run game while trying to force Denver to pass the ball. This isn't likely to be as concerning of a task with Garett Bolles and Bobby Massie set to return at the starting tackles spots, but the questionable status of left guard Dalton Risner that could throw a wrench in the Broncos' pass protection.
While Netane Muti and Quinn Meinerz have flashed dominating snaps in the running game, each have put out a concerning rate of whiffs in pass protection. On the season, Muti and Meinerz have a pass blocking grade of 32.8 and 49.9, according to Pro Football Focus, compared to Risner at 64.4. This is of even greater concern given Denver will be going up against one of the best interior defensive linemen in football in Kansas City's Chris Jones.
Break the Tendency: Throw on First Down
In order to win on Sunday night, the Broncos cannot let Jones beat them while still being aggressive with the passing game on first down. Not only because this would break a few of Denver's tendencies so far this season in first-down play calls, but also because the Chiefs are dreadful against the pass on first down in 2021 to date.
The Chiefs' DVOA on first down against the pass is a putrid 34.5% this season, ranking 30th in the NFL. Against the rush on first down, though, Kansas City’s defense has the 10th-best DVOA at -20.1%. Quite the dichotomy.
Comparing EPA per play on first down versus the pass and run for Kansas City, the metrics tell a similar story. Against the pass on first down, the Chiefs give up 0.259 EPA, ranking 31st in the NFL. Kansas City's success rate against the pass on first down, meanwhile, is 51.9% which ranks 26th in the league. The Chiefs’ rushing defense on first down? 10th in rush EPA per play at -0.117.
Further hampering the Broncos on first down, and further pointing to why Shurmur must go against his tendencies and call passing plays, is the loss of Melvin Gordon this week, who has been ruled out with a hip injury. This will result in Javonte Williams getting the lion's share of the carries.
While many Broncos fans are excited for Williams to receive the nod as the bell-cow on Sunday night, the rookie has been extremely boom-or-bust this season. With 16% of Williams’ first-down carries going for zero yards or less and 59% of his first-down rushes gaining three yards or less (both worse than Gordon), the rookie will need to be more consistent and not put Denver behind the sticks when he does get first-down carries.
So far in 2021, the Broncos have been hyper-conservative in play-calling on first down. Some of this is due to injuries on the offensive line while a good bit is on the safe and limited style of football Denver is playing with Bridgewater under center. However, with the data showing how poor the Broncos actually are at rushing the ball on first down, juxtaposed with how bad the Chiefs are against the pass on first down, the stars are aligning for Denver to figure out a way to throw the ball and take shots.
If the Broncos can do that on Sunday night, the offense might be able to do enough to give the team a true shot at winning as a large underdog against the back-to-back AFC Champion Chiefs.
Follow Nick on Twitter @NickKendellMHH.
Subscribe to Mile High Huddle on YouTube for daily Broncos live-stream podcasts!