For all intents and purposes, this was the play of the game.
The Chiefs trailed the Broncos by four with a little over three minutes left in the fourth quarter Sunday, and the Broncos had the ball on a third-and-goal at the Chiefs’ 6-yard line. A touchdown would put the game out of reach, so there was no doubt Denver quarterback Peyton Manning was definitely going to turn to one of his best plays.
Considering the success Manning had had throwing the ball against the Chiefs all day — he finished the game 21 of 26 for 242 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions — it seemed obvious he would throw the ball.
The Chiefs, of course, knew this. Given the success Manning had enjoyed picking apart the Chiefs’ defense with pick routes designed to create separation for receivers, when the Chiefs saw three targets line up to the right of the offensive line — a prime formation to run a pick out of — their antennas were immediately raised.
“We knew what the situation was, the time, down and distance and all that,” cornerback Marcus Cooper said. “We figured out it was coming. So we just went out and played it.”
Indeed. The pick came, and receiver Emmanuel Sanders briefly popped open near the sideline. He caught the ball, just short of the goalline, but was wrestled short of the end zone by cornerback Chris Owens and safety Husain Abdullah, who read it all the way.
Denver was forced to kick a field goal that put them ahead by what turned out to be the deciding score, 24-17, with three minutes and 30 seconds left. But the defense had come up big when needed, against a concept that had riddled them for the better part for two seasons, and they knew it was a reason for optimism going forward the moment it happened.
“That was huge,” cornerback Sean Smith said. “They had a good feeling when were gonna come out and play some tight man coverage. That’s something we always talk about: be alert for when playing this offense.”
If the Chiefs forgot about the importance of that, Denver reminded them from the start. Throughout the course of the game, the Broncos ran pick after pick at the Chiefs, who talked all week about the importance of communicating and using physicality to disrupt the timing of the Broncos’ receivers.
“It’s something we have to deal with, being the team we are,” Cooper said, referring to the Chiefs’ reputation for playing man coverage. “You know (the Broncos) practice that and they work at it hard. They perfected it.”
But after struggling to defend picks over the second half of last season, when the Chiefs lost six of their last eight games, the secondary is confident it is making slow but steady progress in this area. Manning picked them apart often, but Cooper blew up at least one pick himself, and their defense of the third-and-goal play described earlier couldn’t have been more timely.
“We’re definitely more open with our communication,” Smith said. “There were some plays we could have played different technique or go through all the what-if scenarios but we all went out there and fought hard.”
The problem for the secondary is that when Manning wasn’t picking them apart, he was throwing to his targets and (successfully) letting them make plays for him, despite sticky coverage. Tight end Julius Thomas, for example, beat safety Eric Berry for a touchdown on a perfectly-placed fade route. And 6-foot-3 receiver Demaryius Thomas did the same in the end zone over 5-foot-9 nickelback Chris Owens.
“You’ve got to give them credit,” Smith said.
Plays like this, Smith said, make it easy for them not to get too caught in the fact the Chiefs managed to hold Manning and the Broncos to only 24 points, after they allowed 35 and 27 points last season.
“At the end of the day, we lost,” Smith said. “We’ve got to get back to work. We can’t sit here and say, ‘Well, we did good against Peyton.’ That doesn’t mean anything to us.”
Smith, however, did say that he felt the secondary made improvement from week one, when they allowed Jake Locker to complete 22 of 33 passes for 266 yards and two touchdowns to week two, even if Manning’s numbers don’t reflect it.
Cornerback Ron Parker, who came in and replaced starting safety Eric Berry, who was hurt in the first half, added that the way they defended one of the Broncos’ staple pick plays during the game’s biggest moment is proof that improvement is being made.
“Oh yeah, we always can take something positive from that,” Parker said. “We got a stop when we need it. We’ve just got to find a way to come up with the ‘W.’”