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Know the KC Chiefs' Opponent, Week 6: Key Facts About the Denver Broncos

The Chiefs will soon have a chance to put a stranglehold on the AFC West title, starting with a Week 6 duel against the Denver Broncos. Here's what's worth knowing.

Mere days after losing to a team he referred to as the “offseason champs,” Sean Payton and the Denver Broncos must pivot into a Thursday Night Football duel against the actual defending champions in the Kansas City Chiefs.

At 1-4, Denver enters the short week both under the pretense that a roster “teardown” is imminent, and on the wrong side of history. Dating back to 1990, only 11 of a possible 161 teams to open with that record have gone on to make the postseason. There’s also the matter of Kansas City’s Undertaker-at-WrestleMania-type record against them: Andy Reid’s Chiefs are a perfect 15-0 over the last 15 meetings.

Other than that, things are just perfect in the Mile High. Here’s what’s worth knowing ahead of Week 6.

One obvious factor: The Broncos’ “historic” defense

It’s difficult to start anywhere else: through five games, Denver's defense has been the worst in DVOA history. The quarterbacks they’ve faced have a combined zero Pro Bowl appearances [cue Patrick Mahomes's theme music]. 

On tape, there are bright spots. Patrick Surtain II has been the proverbial “Bugatti parked at the mobile home” meme, maintaining last year’s All-Pro form. On a team-high 22 targets, he’s allowed just a 54.5 completion percentage and 80.5 passer rating when targeted. The Broncos outside of him: a 72.8 completion percentage, 8.9 yards per target, and a 127.9 passer rating. There’s also the matter of Nik Bonitto, tied for the sixth-most sacks (5.5) in the NFL.

Individual brilliance notwithstanding, it hasn’t been enough. Denver’s quarterback rating allowed is a league-high (124.6), it’s also allowed 938 rushing yards (no other team has allowed even 800) and to their own acknowledgment, players are “out of place almost every time.” This pin-pull technique on Breece Hall’s counter run is one example.

There’s no easy fix coming against the Chiefs’ elite interior. Anchored by Isiah Pacheco, Kansas City’s running back room should be salivating over what should be a heavy dose of nickel personnel for Denver.

One subtle factor: Denver’s halftime blues

Russell Wilson’s quote regarding Denver potentially being 4-1 — admittedly a case of ‘coulda, ‘shoulda, ‘woulda — holds some credence. In three of Denver’s four losses, they went into halftime with a lead before Broncos Country's “ride” ended shortly thereafter. Few players have been impacted by Denver’s post-intermission struggles quite like Wilson has. To illustrate:

NFL quarterback first half vs. second half passer ratings. Sheet via Marlow Ferguson Jr. of Arrowhead Report.

Focusing on Russell Wilson's first and second half splits.

Among quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts, no other signal-caller has seen as big a discrepancy from the first half to the second half.

On film, the reasons are aplenty. Despite boasting both one of the NFL’s top offensive minds in Payton and above-average talent among their skill position players, there are situations in which receivers are running routes right on top of one another, or instances in Wilson’s time to throw — a league-high 3.15 seconds — sometimes leads to unnecessary plays.

In Sunday’s loss, the Jets’ adjustments were particularly noteworthy. All-Pro defensive tackle Quinnen Williams was at his best, wreaking havoc up the A-gap, forcing Wilson into more scrambles and off-platform throws. Though this is a strength of his, Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich's decision to put a “spy” out middle, poised to limit big gains proved vital. 

Wilson had 49 rushing yards against the Jets; 43 of them came in the first quarter, pre-adjustment. Consider how differently things looked pre-spy vs. post-spy:

Wilson, enjoying a strong individual season, is far from the Broncos' biggest problem, but it was of note. The bad news: Kansas City also has both an All-Pro defender capable of mucking up interior gaps and athletic enough linebackers required to keep Wilson at bay. Wilson should get his, but it’ll come with some difficulty.

The X-factor: Isiah Pacheco

Given his angry-at-the-ground running style and lack of elite volume through the air, analysts had some hesitance regarding Pacheco’s chances of an even better encore. Here’s all that the second-year back has done to start 2023:

  • 424 scrimmage yards, No. 13 among RBs, No. 23 in NFL
  • 99 receiving yards, No. 12 among RBs
  • 325 rushing yards, No. 13 among RBs

The second-year back now gets the opportunity to face the NFL’s worst run defense twice over the next 17 days — the Chiefs and Broncos play again on Oct. 29 — providing ample opportunity for him to further ascend the rushing ranks.

The aforementioned reasons make him a standout; Kansas City’s alignments will force Denver into lighter sub-packages, providing Pacheco opportunities at the second level. Teams have been quick to exploit this flaw in Denver’s approach with a league-high 35.3 rushing attempts against them over the last three games.

Kansas City, likewise, has the seventh-most attempts (31.0) over its last three. With Travis Kelce’s low-ankle sprain and a still-unproven receiving group, the Chiefs could focus heavily on the ground game.

Other statistics to know

Denver’s ranks:

  • No. 30 in total DVOA
  • No. 16 in offensive DVOA
  • No. 32 in defensive DVOA
  • No. 8 in special teams DVOA

Kansas City’s ranks:

  • No. 6 in total DVOA
  • No. 6 in offensive DVOA
  • No. 11 in defensive DVOA
  • No. 4 in special teams DVOA

Per Broncos PFF, running back Jaleel McLaughlin leads the NFL in missed tackles forced per rush attempt (0.41). As noted by CBS commentators, the lion’s share of his work has come to the right side of the formation, something Kansas City is likely well aware of. In his press conference, Payton talked at length about being more patient and consistent with the running game, which could surface given Wilson's ball security issues.

Despite the No. 8 special teams DVOA, Denver boasts an up-and-down unit. Marvin Mims, their 2023 second-rounder, has the NFL’s highest punt return average (23.3 yards) and kick return average (35.2). Their kickoff team, conversely, allows opposing offenses to begin drives at the 32.4-yard line on average — the second-worst in the NFL.

Score Prediction: Chiefs 33, Broncos 19