Explaining the KC Chiefs third down struggles on offense against the Broncos
A closer look at the film on the Chiefs third-down concerns against the Broncos.
Another game played in wet weather conditions, but the overall outcome was still the same. After handling the Buffalo Bills in Week 6, the Kansas City Chiefs dominated the Denver Broncos in the snow. The 43-16 win would lead you to believe that the offense had their way with the division rival, but the unit was actually the one that struggled most of the game.
Instead, the special teams unit and defense were the ones putting up points early in the game. A 102-yard kick return for a touchdown by Byron Pringle and a pick-six from Daniel Sorensen gave the Chiefs a touchdown from all three units. Both of those touchdowns also came in the second quarter.
Kansas City drove down the field on their opening drive with some outstanding plays. Mecole Hardman was involved early on some designed plays, including a beautiful corner route that he could haul in with one hand along the sideline. Another highlight-reel worthy play came on the touchdown by Clyde Edwards-Helaire as he bounced off defenders to force his way into the end zone.
Following that first drive touchdown, the Chiefs offense could not get back into the end zone until the fourth quarter. The following drive was only one play, due to the fumble by tight end Nick Keizer to give the Broncos the ball back. After that, it was a series of punts and field goals from the offense most of the game. In fact, a team that has been a top-3 offense in third-down efficiency through the first six weeks of the season was unable to convert a single first down in Week 7. So what happened?
When looking back at the third-down plays from Sunday afternoon, there’s a lot to take away. The first thing that stood out was that the Broncos came with a good game plan to attack Patrick Mahomes. As you have heard by now, the so-called “blueprint” to beat Kansas City is to get pressure with four or fewer rushers and drop everyone else in coverage.
We’ve all seen Mahomes dice up defenses when facing blitz packages, but if you need to refresh yourself, go back and watch the game against the Baltimore Ravens. Since that Week 3 matchup, defenses have been following the game plan of forcing Mahomes to take the passes in the shallow portions of the field. To be effective, defenses have to get pressure with those four rushers and keep their eyes on Mahomes not to allow him to work magic with his feet.
Denver has the horses to generate pressure consistently on opposing quarterbacks. According to Football Outsiders, the Broncos rank fifth in the NFL in pressure rate. The impressive part of this was that they not only have been without star edge rusher Von Miller in 2020, but they were able to slow down the offense even while sending extra defenders.
The Broncos were able to pressure Mahomes on third downs by confusing Mahomes and the offensive line with their pre-snap looks. In the play above, there are two linebackers shaded just outside Kansas City’s tackles. By not showing their true intentions until the ball is being snapped, Mahomes cannot slide protection to one side to help his line.
As you can see, the linebacker on the offensive line’s right side begins to blitz before dropping back into coverage. The two down linemen for the Broncos crash to the interior, forcing three of the Chiefs blockers to that area. With the linebacker to the left of the offense blitzing, it leaves Eric Fisher with two defenders. He makes the correct decision to take the blitzing linebacker, who has a quicker route to Mahomes.
Once Mahomes sees the free rusher, he attempts to dump the ball off to Le’Veon Bell, running to the flat. Unfortunately, Bell wasn’t looking back for the pass yet, which led to Mahomes taking the sack.
Just two drives later, the Broncos attacked with a similar play. Again, the linebacker to the line’s right comes downhill as if he is blitzing before dropping back into coverage. While the play didn’t result in a sack this time, it did end up in an incompletion and a big hit on Mahomes.
While this play didn’t happen on third down, it played a part in the first drive of the second half going three and out. The Chiefs dial up a beautiful play concept that showed real potential for Hardman. Lined up on the left boundary, Hardman attacks the off-man defender with a nasty stop-n-go route that created enough separation for a possible touchdown over the top. Unfortunately, Keizer was left one-on-one with Malik Reed, resulting in a sack on first down.
There are very few tight ends in the league that can be trusted one-on-one with a talented edge rusher. Keizer is an former undrafted free agent in his second season out of Grand Valley State. He had a rough game, but this play, in particular, was asking a lot from him.
Judging off of the route combinations in the play above, it seems that Mahomes is looking to get Kelce the ball over the middle on this 3rd-and-9 situation. The three receivers all work vertically, pushing most of the defense back into the end zone. Kelce is unable to get leverage on the linebacker before looking back to Mahomes. Denver gets pressure around the right side, forcing Mahomes to move outside of the pocket.
Working his magic, he can get the ball near the goal line to Edwards-Helaire, who can’t hang on to the ball. Multiple things play into this dropped pass, including a tight window, Mahomes having to launch the ball to get through the window to his rookie running back, and the weather conditions couldn’t have made it easy to make this catch. However, it’s still a pass that Edwards-Helaire needs to make if he wants more opportunities in the passing game.
If there’s one thing that the offensive line has struggled with the last several years in pass protection, it’s picking up well-executed stunts and twists. Most of the day, the offensive line had done fairly well at picking up those stunts along the interior. Denver attacked the Chiefs empty protection with five rushers but looping their defensive tackles around to the opposite B gap.
Kilgore doesn’t have anyone lined up over him, so his job is to help the guards in this play. Not expecting Shelby Harris to come crashing inside, his eyes were on Dre’Mont Jones, who was lined up over Andrew Wylie. Nick Allegretti works to pass off Harris to Kilgore, but the time it took for him to make the handoff and pick up Jones was too long, leading to quick pressure on Mahomes up the middle.
The Broncos also took advantage of several new faces along the offensive line. That was especially true when the Chiefs offense went empty protection, leaving no running backs or tight ends to help pick up extra rushers. While it looked like the offensive line getting manhandled most of the game, several of these plays were due to the Broncos putting together a good game plan to attack these looks.
It also falls on Mahomes if the running backs are not on the same page for several of the hits that Mahomes took. If Mahomes is expecting more rushers than blockers, that makes him accountable for the free rusher. His job is to throw it to his hot read, either to the running back, working into the flat, or Kelce running a quick play over the middle. Unfortunately, the offense just had a rough outing against another divisional opponent.