A detailed look at the key players to watch for the Denver Broncos and the Kansas City Chiefs’ keys to victory leading up to their week 12 game at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Sports Authority Field. The game will air on NBC (Ch. 41 in Kansas City).
Coach: Gary Kubiak (80-71) is in his 10th year as an NFL coach, the last two with the Broncos. Kubiak, 55, is an offensive guru who was an NFL quarterback for nine years and knows how to win. He’s been part of four Super Bowl champions, including last season’s Broncos. Prior to his first head coaching stint in Houston, where he went 61-64 in eight seasons, he spent 11 years as the Broncos’ offensive coordinator, where he installed his version of the West Coast offense.
Offense: Rick Dennison, 58, is in his second year as Kubiak’s offensive coordinator in Denver and his ninth overall as an NFL offensive coordinator. The offense isn’t as no-huddle-centric as it was under Peyton Manning. It is now built around the zone running game, with lots of bootleg and play action. The Broncos rank 23rd in passing (227.3 yards per game) and 22nd in rushing (97.4). The Broncos have passed 55 percent of the time and have used shotgun formation on 38 percent of their offensive plays. The have used three-wide 41 percent of the time and two-wide 33 percent of the time as they’ve opted to use a traditional fullback (Andy Janovich) more (30 percent) than most teams. They’ve also used a smattering of versatile tight ends.
Defense: Wade Phillips, 69, is in his second year as Kubiak’s defensive coordinator and his 24th overall as an NFL defensive coordinator. Phillips prefers an upfield, attacking 3-4 defense predicated on pressure and man-to-man coverage. The Broncos’ defense is fast, aggressive and nasty. Denver ranks second in passing defense (194.3 yards per game) and 29th (123.7) in rushing defense. The Broncos rank fifth with 29 sacks and second in turnovers forced (20) behind the Chiefs. Despite their struggles against the run, Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith calls the Broncos elite. “Up front, linebacker level and secondary, these guys are really, really good,” Smith said. “They’re well-coached and they’re fast.”
Special teams: Joe DeCamilis, 51, is in his second year as Kubiak’s special-teams coach and 23rd overall as a NFL special-teams coach. Kicker Brandon McManus has converted 88 percent of his field goals, including a long of 55. McManus has drilled 34 touchbacks, but the Broncos also specialize in short kicks to the corner, which they use to neutralize some return games; they rank second in the NFL in shortest kick-return average (16.9). Punter Riley Dixon has dropped 14 punts inside the 20. The Broncos’ return units statistically rank slightly above average.
Four keys to a Chiefs victory
1. Stay ahead of the sticks
The Broncos have a very strong defense, especially against the pass, but they’re not invincible; teams with good running games can wear them down some. They don’t miss many tackles (53, the fifth-fewest in the league according to Football Outsiders), but they’ve given up the fourth-most rushing yards in the NFL and eight runs of 20 yards or more, third-most. Pounding the rock and staying ahead of the sticks will be crucial for the Chiefs to keep the Broncos from pinning their ears back and coming after Smith. “When you look at some of the games we’ve been in, when we’ve gotten behind and people committed to the run, we’ve had a hard time,” Kubiak said. This is not the team to get in third-and-longs against; the pass rush is elite, and the Broncos will even turn to a “NASCAR” package with four edge rushers on the field at the same time, causing havoc. The Chiefs don’t want, or need, any part of a pass defense that ranks fourth in the league in pressure rate at 22.5 percent, according to Football Outsiders. “If you become one-dimensional … that’s something they can break you down with,” Chiefs co-offensive coordinator Brad Childress said.
2. Win 1-on-1 and make some throws
Opposing quarterbacks have posted a league-low 71.0 passer rating against the Broncos, but Smith — who is averaging 5 yards a throw — is going to have to complete some tight-window passes to lead the Chiefs to victory. The Broncos generally play tight man-to-man coverage, and the Chiefs could target the receivers and running backs underneath because inside linebackers Brandon Marshall and Todd Davis have been thrown at in coverage this year. But the Broncos also mix in some “lurk” guys in coverage, which means the short stuff won’t always be open via typical man-beaters. That means Smith’s outside receivers will have to win some 1-on-1 battles, and he will have to give them a chance to make plays downfield. Also, the upfield nature of the Broncos’ defense could create some lanes for Smith to run through, if he dares. He needs to take advantage of whatever the defense gives him, but he had better get down quickly at the first sight of any trouble, because the Broncos will be hunting — especially after Smith’s head trauma against Indianapolis a month ago.
3. Understand your run fits and wrap up
Nose tackle Dontari Poe has been limited this week because of a back injury, but if he does play, he will need to have a big game. The Broncos do most of their damage running behind their ascending center, Matt Paradis, who creates running lanes. If Poe can dominate Paradis, it will take away one of the Broncos’ biggest weapons — the inside running game — and allow the Chiefs to attack the right side of the line, where the Broncos run far more than the left. If the Chiefs can shut that down, be disciplined on the back side of zone plays and tackle effectively — Denver has forced the sixth-fewest missed tackles in football, according to Football Outsiders — the rest should take care of itself. “The run fakes and the play-actions and the boots are all well-orchestrated,” defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. The Broncos’ offensive line is a little vulnerable to pressure; although they’re 13th in pressures allowed, they do lose some 1-on-1 battles and can also be beaten on stunts. They’ve surrendered 26 sacks, the fifth-most in the league. Quarterback Trevor Siemian is a rhythm thrower who wants to throw short-to-intermediate and can be disturbed by pressure. The Broncos have produced the second-fewest completions of 20 yards or more (23) in football, but if Denver’s running game gets going, those play-action fakes (18 percent of their plays) become more effective, and Siemian’s throwing windows on short passes will only get wider, which could spell trouble for the Chiefs.
4. Play with attitude, but keep your cool
Look, the Broncos are pirates on defense — I don’t know any other way to put it. They’re going to fly to the ball, they’re going to knock the heck out of you, and they’re going to celebrate and let you know about it afterward. This is NOT the defense to try to dig out of an early hole against. If they know you have to throw the ball, Phillips will start teeing off with blitzes, Von Miller and Co. will start swaggering around (even more than normal) and someone could get hurt. So the Chiefs had better match the Broncos’ intensity from the get-go; they need to play with some nastiness, finish blocks, deliver some big blows, do some talking, etc. Let these guys know you’re here to play. But don’t get baited into any stupid penalties; this could be a low-scoring affair, and every yard will count.
Four Broncos to watch
No. 88, WR Demaryius Thomas, 28 years old, 6-3, 229, seventh season
Ranked No. 62 on the NFL’s Top 100 list for 2016. Has posted at least 90 receptions and 1,300 yards the last four seasons, joining Jerry Rice and Marvin Harrison. Is on pace to catch 88 passes for 1,085 yards and eight touchdowns this season. Tremendous combination of size and speed (4.38-second 40-yard dash at 2010 combine). Can compete for the ball in the air and win 50-50 matchups, especially on downfield throws. Good, powerful athlete who is tough to bring down after the catch. “He’s got great skill down the field,” Sutton said. Willing blocker who gives good effort. Has battled the drops this year with seven, tied for the second-most in the league.
No. 58, SLB Von Miller, 27 years old, 6-3, 250, sixth season
Ranked No. 15 on the NFL’s Top 100 list for 2016. Reigning Super Bowl MVP who racked up 11 sacks and 32 pressures a year ago and is on pace to finish with 16 sacks and 27 pressures in 2016. Boasts outstanding speed, quickness and burst around the edge, which he pairs with an excellent pass-rush motor and a variety of moves. Has a spin move and inside counters to his devastating speed rush. Plays with power and closes on quarterbacks very quickly. Primarily rushes against the right tackle but lines up everywhere, including the left side and over the guards. Is difficult to stop once he gets rolling. Solid run defender who sets the edge. “He can be a game-wrecker,” Childress said.
No. 21, LCB Aqib Talib, 30 years old, 6-1, 205, ninth season
Ranked No. 34 on the NFL’s Top 100 list for 2016. Has recorded 20 tackles, three interceptions and 11 pass breakups this season. Aggressive, competitive, cocky corner who helps set the tone for one of the league’s nastiest defenses. Can jump underneath routes. Is big enough to be physical with big receivers but fast enough to cover smaller receivers and recover on deep balls. Has good ball skills and can play the ball in the air. Loves to play bump-and-run. Physical, willing run defender who is always looking to deliver a blow. Has missed the Broncos’ last three games because of a lower back injury but has practiced this week and could be ready to go. “It just makes my job a lot easier just being able to have a guy out there that knows what’s going on,” fellow corner and former KU teammate Chris Harris Jr. said. “The communication is always on point. I don’t really have to talk to everybody all game.”
No. 25, RCB Chris Harris, Jr., 27 years old, 5-10, 199, fifth season
Ranked No. 52 on the NFL’s Top 100 list for 2016. Has recorded 46 tackles, an interception and eight pass breakups this season. Went 35 games without surrendering a touchdown (2013 to 2015). Occasionally slides to the slot in nickel situations. “He’s every bit as effective in there as he is on the outside,” Childress said. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see him track one of our better receivers around the field.” Agile, fluid corner with good cover skills who pairs with Talib to give the Broncos one of the league’s best duos at corner. Competitive, cocky corner who plays with energy and thrives on big plays. Has deep speed and can run with almost anybody. Is also not afraid to compete with the ball in the air against big receivers.
Projected Chiefs two-deep
No., Name, Ht., Wt., Years
11 Alex Smith, 6-4, 220, 11 | 4 Nick Foles, 6-6, 243, 5
32 Spencer Ware, 5-10, 229, 3 | 35 Charcandrick West, 5-10, 205, 3
17 Chris Conley, 6-3, 205, 2 | 12 Albert Wilson, 5-9, 200, 3
10 Tyreek Hill, 5-10, 185, R 8 | 12 Albert Wilson, 5-9, 200, 3
12 Albert Wilson, 5-9, 200, 3 | 13 De'Anthony Thomas, 5-8, 176, 3
87 Travis Kelce (PB), 6-5, 260, 4 | 84 Demetrius Harris, 6-7, 230, 3
72 Eric Fisher, 6-7, 315, 4 | 71 Mitchell Schwartz, 6-5, 320, 5
73 Zach Fulton, 6-5, 316, 3 | 75 Jah Reid, 6-7, 325, 6
61 Mitch Morse, 6-6, 305, 2 | 73 Zach Fulton, 6-5, 316, 3
76 Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, 6-5, 321, 3 | 75 Jah Reid, 6-7, 325, 6
71 Mitchell Schwartz, 6-5, 320, 5 | 75 Jah Reid, 6-7, 325, 6
99 Rakeem Nunez-Roches, 6-2, 307, 2 | 98 Kendall Reyes, 6-4, 300, 5
92 Dontari Poe, 6-3, 346, 5 | 98 Kendall Reyes, 6-4, 300, 5
95 Chris Jones, 6-6, 310, R | 94 Jarvis Jenkins, 6-4, 300, 6
50 Justin Houston, 6-3, 258, 6 | 51 Frank Zombo, 6-3, 254, 7
56 Derrick Johnson, 6-3, 242, 12 | 57 D.J. Alexander, 6-2, 233, 2
53 Ramik Wilson, 6-2, 237, 2 | 49 Daniel Sorensen, 6-2, 208, 3
91 Tamba Hali, 6-3, 275, 11 | 51 Frank Zombo, 6-3, 254, 7
22 Marcus Peters, 6-0, 197, 2 | 24 D.J. White, 5-11, 193, R
38 Ron Parker, 6-0, 206, 6 | 21 Eric Murray, 5-11, 199, R
29 Eric Berry, 6-0, 212, 7 | 49 Daniel Sorensen, 6-2, 208, 3
23 Phillip Gaines, 6-0, 193, 3 | 24 D.J. White, 5-11, 193, R
27 Kenneth Acker, 6-0, 195, 3 | 23 Phillip Gaines, 6-0, 193, 3
5 Cairo Santos, 5-8, 160, 3
2 Dustin Colquitt, 6-3, 210, 12
34 Knile Davis, 5-10, 227, 4
10 Tyreek Hill, 5-10, 185, R
41 James Winchester, 6-3, 240, 2
Projected Broncos two-deep
KEY: Bold=Player to Watch, C=Captain, AP=2015 All-Pro, PB=2015 Pro Bowl, *=See “additional notes” section below for more info on player
No., Name, Ht., Wt., Years
*13 Trevor Siemian, 6-3, 220, 2 | 12 Paxton Lynch, 6-7, 244, R
*23 Devontae Booker, 5-11, 219, R | 35 Kapri Bibbs, 5-11, 203, 2
32 Andy Janovich , 6-1, 238, R
**88 Demaryius Thomas (C), 6-3, 229, 7** | 87 Jordan Taylor, 6-5, 210, 1
*10 Emmanuel Sanders, 5-11, 180, 7 | 14 Cody Latimer, 6-2, 215
11 Jordan Norwood, 5-11, 180, 7 | 16 Bennie Fowler III, 6-1, 212, 2
85 Virgil Green, 6-5, 255, 6 | 82 Jeff Heuerman, 6-5, 255, 2
73 Russell Okung, 6-5, 310, 7 | *74 Ty Sambrailo, 6-5, 315, 2
76 Max Garcia, 6-4, 309, 2 | 60 Connor McGovern, 6-4, 306, R
61 C Matt Paradis, 6-3, 300, 2 | 53 James Ferentz, 6-2, 285, 2
79 Michael Schofield, 6-6, 301, 3 | 70 Billy Turner, 6-5, 310, 3
*71 Donald Stephenson, 6-6, 312, 5 | *74 Ty Sambrailo, 6-5, 315, 2
95 Derek Wolfe, 6-5, 285, 5 | 97 Billy Winn, 6-4, 300, 5
92 Sylvester Williams, 6-2, 313, 4 | 98 Darius Kilgo, 6-3, 319, 2
93 Jared Crick, 6-4, 285, 5 | 99 Adam Gotsis, 6-4, 287, R
**58 Von Miller (AP, PB), 6-3, 250, 6** | 48 Shaq Barrett, 6-2, 250, 3
54 Brandon Marshall, 6-1, 250, 5 | 52 Corey Nelson, 6-1, 226, 3
51 Todd Davis, 6-1, 230, 3 | 50 Zaire Anderson, 5-11, 220, 1
94 DeMarcus Ware (C, PB), 6-4, 258, 12 | *56 Shane Ray, 6-3, 245, 2
**21 Aqib Talib (PB), 6-1, 205, 9** | 36 Kayvon Webster (C), 5-11, 198, 4
*43 T.J. Ward, 5-10, 200, 7 | 34 Will Parks, 6-1, 194, R
*26 Darian Stewart, 5-11, 214, 7 | 31 Justin Simmons, 6-2, 202, R
*29 Bradley Roby, 5-11, 194, 3 | 37 Lorenzo Doss, 5-11, 187, 2
**25 Chris Harris, Jr. (AP, PB), 5-10, 199, 5** | 36 Kayvon Webster (C), 5-11, 198, 4
8 Brandon McManus, 6-3, 201, 3
9 Riley Dixon, 6-4, 221, R
14 Cody Latimer, 6-2, 215, 3
11 Jordan Norwood, 5-11, 180, 7
45 Thomas Gafford, 6-2, 244, 8
Bonus notes on the Broncos
▪ Siemian is a decent athlete who can move in the pocket some but doesn’t force a ton of missed tackles (four all year). He also had a shoulder issue and has not been as mobile in recent games. Is not a consistent deep ball thrower but is not afraid to air it out some. Can make some throws outside the numbers, both short and intermediate, and flashes the ability to throw with heat and touch at those distances. “I think he can do what they’re asking him to do every well,” Sutton said. “Appears to me to be a really sharp guy on the field, appears to make really good decisions for a guy who hasn’t played much before this year.” Still, he also stares down his intended receiver on occasion and will force the ball into some tight spots.
▪ Booker is a nice fit in this offense; he’s nifty and quick with good one-cut burst but has not really gotten it going this year, as the Broncos only averaged 84 rushing yards in games three through nine. Still, the Chiefs remain wary. “Booker has come on as a back,” Sutton said. “He’s got some stuff to him.”
▪ Sanders isn’t as big as Thomas, but he’s just as outstanding and is a true deep-ball threat. He’s also elusive after the catch. “The two receivers on the outside are the real deal,” Sutton said.
▪ The Broncos need more consistency at right tackle; Kubiak said former Chief Donald Stephenson and second-year pro Ty Sambrailo will both play, with the one who does best earning the right to stay in the game. “We’ve made it a very competitive environment between the two of them,” Kubiak said. “They’re both going to play.”
▪ Ray, a Kansas City native and Bishop Miege product, could be the Broncos’ most improved player. “Shane’s kind of added a little bit to his arsenal as far as the speed rush, his ability to spin and come inside and set an edge in the run game,” Childress said.
▪ Roby is a talented player, but he has been targeted plenty this year. That makes sense, because Talib and Harris are worthy of general avoidance. He surrendered at least two big plays two weeks ago against New Orleans.
▪ Stewart has a knack for running under tipped balls. He had two picks last week. Corners believe in tight man-to-man coverage.
▪ Ward is a physical player who, along with Harris Jr. and others, could be tasked with covering tight end Travis Kelce. But the Chiefs are well aware of his tendency to hit you. “He’s a big thumper,” Childress said.
▪ Broncos have struggled early in games, as they’ve been outscored 36-10 in the first quarter of their previous six games. Their win over the Saints on Nov. 13 was first time they led after the first quarter in 10 games.
Prediction: Broncos 20-16
This one will be in prime time, so expect a hard-hitting, nasty, emotional game. But the Broncos are coming off a bye, so they’ll be rested and fresh against a banged up-but-motivated Chiefs team. That, plus the Broncos’ desire to avenge a 29-13 home loss to Kansas City that was way worse than the final score indicated, should be enough to give them the edge. But if the Chiefs’ offense can run the ball and stop the run — two things that are certainly in play — don’t rule out a fan base-calming road win. It’s just hard to predict that when the offense looked like it has the last several weeks.