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 16 game at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium. The game will air on NBC (Ch. 41 in Kansas City).
Coach: Gary Kubiak (81-74) 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 champion teams, 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 18th in passing (235.4 yards per game) and 27th in rushing (91.3). The Broncos have used shotgun 36 percent of the time and have passed 60 percent of the time (14th in the league), though they’ve been throwing at a 70 percent clip the last three weeks. They are primarily a three-wide team that also uses some two-wide sets and mixes in a fullback.
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 first in passing defense (183 yards per game) and 29th (127.9) in rushing defense. The Broncos rank first with 40 sacks and 10th in turnovers forced (23).
Special teams: Joe DeCamilis, 51, is in his second year as Kubiak’s special teams coach and 24th overall as a NFL special teams coach. Kicker Brandon McManus has converted 87 percent of his field goals, including a long of 55. McManus has drilled 44 touchbacks, but the Broncos also specialize in short kicks to the corner, which they use to neutralize some return games; they rank seventh in the NFL in shortest kick-return average (20.4), even though the Chiefs’ Tyreek Hill broke a 86-yard return touchdown on them in Week 12. Punter Riley Dixon has dropped 25 punts inside the 20. The Broncos’ return units statistically rank above average. DeCamilis’ groups have earned the respect of Chiefs special teams coach Dave Toub. “They have a real good kicker, punter, great returner, great coach,” Toub said. “They play hard, physical, fast – it’s going to be a battle.”
Four keys to a Chiefs victory
1. Take what they give you in the passing game
The Broncos’ imposing pass defense ranks first in the NFL due to its combination of sticky cover corners and fearsome pass rushers. Quarterback Alex Smith completed only 26 of 44 passes for 220 yards the last time they met, and he was sacked six times. But he did do a nice job protecting the football and making some throws when he really needed to. That can be a winning formula again, as the Chiefs used a ton of short, quick passes with a few deep tosses peppered in. “You know your clock is limited when you’re back there in that pocket,” co-offensive coordinator Matt Nagy said. “Alex has to be aware of that.” Receiver Tyreek Hill (nine catches, 52 yards, one touchdown) and tight end Travis Kelce (eight catches, 101 yards) teamed up to hurt the Broncos, and the Chiefs will have Jeremy Maclin this time, which they hope will add some juice to the offense. “Now, they have Maclin back, he’s a really good receiver, too,” Denver defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. “We have to be aware of him. They put him in there and he can run the deep routes and he can run the regular routes.”
2. Pound the rock
The Chiefs didn’t have much success on the ground when they met a month ago, when they rushed 26 times for 83 yards – an average of 3.2 yards per carry. But running the ball against one of the league’s worst run defenses serves two purposes: First, you get to wear down their pass rushers some. And second, it’s a way of protecting your quarterback and avoiding turnovers, which the Broncos will be hunting for after a few quiet weeks. “We’ve lost the turnover battle a couple of weeks in a row now,” Kubiak said. “I think we’re minus five over the course of those two games. It’s something that needs to change for us.” One thing to monitor: If run-stuffing stud Derek Wolfe can’t go due to a neck injury, the Broncos are expected to start either Billy Winn or rookie Adam Gotsis. If Wolfe doesn’t play, he will be missed. He recorded eight tackles and a sack on Nov. 27 and has recorded 19 quarterback hurries, the fifth-most among interior linemen in the league.
3. Attack the edges
Justin Houston racked up three sacks against the Broncos’ right tackles a month ago, but he might not play Sunday. The good thing for the Chiefs is that Dee Ford is a very capable replacement – he looks more at home on the right side, anyway – and Tamba Hali can certainly handle a larger workload to play more after logging only 40 combined snaps the last two weeks. Second-year Denver quarterback Trevor Siemian still had a nice statistical game (20 of 34, 368 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions) earlier this season, but the Chiefs did sack him five times and pressured him seven more. The Chiefs might again decide to target starting right tackle (and Kansas City native) Donald Stephenson when they need some pressure. It won’t help the Broncos that their best fullback (Andy Janovich) and two of their top three tight ends (Virgil Green and A.J. Derby) are out due to injuries, and Kubiak said it will require some creativity to help protect Siemian. “We obviously have to help those guys,” he said.
4. Be wary of the deep ball
The Broncos had a tremendous amount of success attacking the Chiefs’ corners not named Marcus Peters, who has earned the Broncos’ respect. “He takes chances sometimes, but every time I see him on the field taking chances, he’s making a play on the ball,” receiver Demaryius Thomas said. “He has great hips. He can run with any player.” With Peters targeted only four times the last time these two teams met, Phillip Gaines, in particular, struggled, as he yielded six completions for 209 yards. Star receiver Emmanuel Sanders caught four of those passes for 127 yards and a touchdown. Gaines will not play Sunday due to ongoing knee issues, but don’t expect quarterback Trevor Siemian to stop attacking his replacement, Terrance Mitchell. Mitchell has played well, but Siemian might test Mitchell’s 4.63-speed vertically, just like he did against Gaines a month ago. “He had some really big plays on us,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said.
Four Broncos to watch
No. 13, QB Trevor Siemian, 24 years old, 6-3, 220, second season
Has completed 255 of 416 passes (61.3 percent) for 3,012 yards, 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions in his first year as a starter. Decent athlete who can move in the pocket some. Is not a consistent deep ball thrower but has a fairly strong arm and 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. When he’s on a roll, he flashes the ability to make some tough throws. Fairly quick decision maker who impressed Sutton with his mentality against the Chiefs on Nov. 27, when he struggled in the first half but finished with 368 yards. “I think one of the things that impressed us about him – not only in our game, but going in – he’s a real focused guy, in my opinion,” Sutton said. “He doesn’t let the ups and downs change how he plays the game.”
No. 10, WR Emmanuel Sanders, 29 years old, 5-11, 180, seventh season
Ranked No. 74 on the NFL’s Top 100 list for 2016. Has caught 78 passes for 1,006 yards and five touchdowns despite somewhat inconsistent quarterback play. Big-play threat with field-stretching speed; has routinely torched the Chiefs on deep routes since his arrival in Denver in 2014. Racked up 162 yards and a touchdown on 10 catches against the Chiefs on Nov. 27. Talkative and competitive; isn’t afraid to work the middle and make the tough catch. Very good route runner who can create good separation with uncommonly good burst out of breaks. “His quickness and his ability to get in and out of cuts is what makes him difficult to cover,” Sutton said. “He’s a really good receiver and has been for quite a while.”
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 currently has 13 1/2 sacks and 22 pressures, despite the constant attention he receives from offenses. 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.
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 58 tackles, two interceptions and 11 pass breakups this season. Went 35 games without surrendering a touchdown (2013 to 2015). Occasionally slides to the slot in nickel situations, where he is very effective. Agile, fluid corner with good cover skills who pairs with Aqib 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 for the ball in the air against big receivers.
Projected Chiefs two-deep
KEY: Bold=Player to Watch, C=Captain, AP=2015 All-Pro, PB=2017 Pro Bowl, Q=Questionable
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
42 Anthony Sherman, 5-10, 242, 6
17 Chris Conley, 6-3, 205, 2 | 12 Albert Wilson, 5-9, 200, 3
19 Jeremy Maclin, 6-0, 198, 8 | 12 Albert Wilson, 5-9, 200, 3
10 Tyreek Hill (PB), 5-10, 185, R | 13 De’Anthony Thomas, 5-9, 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 | 77 T.J. Barnes, 6-7, 364, 3
95 Chris Jones, 6-6, 310, R | 94 Jarvis Jenkins, 6-4, 300, 6
50 Justin Houston (AP, Q), 6-3, 258, 6 | 51 Frank Zombo, 6-3, 254, 7
57 D.J. Alexander, 6-2, 233, 2 | 48 Terrance Smith, 6-2, 235, R
53 Ramik Wilson, 6-2, 237, 2 | 49 Daniel Sorensen, 6-2, 208, 3
55 Dee Ford, 6-2, 252, 3 | 91 Tamba Hali, 6-3, 275, 11
22 Marcus Peters (AP, PB), 6-0, 197, 2 | 39 Terrance Mitchell, 5-11, 190, 3
38 Ron Parker, 6-0, 206, 6 | 21 Eric Murray, 5-11, 199, R
29 Eric Berry (AP, PB), 6-0, 212, 7 | 49 Daniel Sorensen, 6-2, 208, 3
39 Terrance Mitchell, 5-11, 190, 3 | 24 D.J. White, 5-11, 193, R
20 Steven Nelson, 5-11, 194, 2 | 39 Terrance Mitchell, 5-11, 190, 3
5 Cairo Santos, 5-8, 160, 3
2 Dustin Colquitt, 6-3, 210, 12
13 De’Anthony Thomas, 5-9, 176, 3
10 Tyreek Hill (PB), 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=2017 Pro Bowl, Q=Questionable, *=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
*20 Justin Forsett, 5-8, 195, 9 | 23 Devontae Booker, 5-11, 219, R
*40 Juwan Thompson, 5-11, 225, 3
*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
*82 Jeff Heuerman, 6-5, 255, 2 | 84 Henry Krieger-Coble, 6-4, 247, R
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 (Q), 6-5, 285, 5 | 97 Billy Winn, 6-4, 300, 5
92 Sylvester Williams, 6-2, 313, 4 | 97 Billy Winn, 6-4, 300, 5
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
*52 Corey Nelson, 6-1, 226, 3 | 50 Zaire Anderson, 5-11, 220, 1
51 Todd Davis, 6-1, 230, 3 | 50 Zaire Anderson, 5-11, 220, 1
*94 DeMarcus Ware (C), 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
*34 Will Parks, 6-1, 194, R | *31 Justin Simmons, 6-2, 202, 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** | 29 Bradley Roby, 5-11, 194, 3
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
*Veteran Justin Forsett was signed a few weeks ago to give a boost to a sagging running game. In two contests, he’s rushed 16 times for 54 yards – barely over 3 yards per carry. The Broncos used more outside zone runs against New England last week and could continue that Sunday. “We’d love to run the ball better than we’ve been running it,” Kubiak said. “That’s for sure.
*Juwan Thompson has stepped in at fullback since Andy Janovich went on injured reserve in late November with an ankle issue.
*Demaryius Thomas, who is ranked No. 62 on the NFL’s Top 100 list for 2016, has caught 83 passes for 1,016 yards and five touchdowns. He boasts a tremendous combination of size and speed, can compete for the ball in the air and win 50-50 matchups, especially on downfield throws.
*With tight end starter Virgil Green and backup A.J. Derby both in concussion protocol, Jeff Heuerman, a second-year pro, will make his first career start. “He’s had a lot of setbacks with injuries, but he’s had a good month here,” Kubiak said. “Let’s see what happens.” Undrafted rookie Henry Krieger-Coble, who has not appeared in a regular-season NFL game, was recently called up from the practice squad.
*DeMarcus Ware, 34, has only played in nine games due to injuries and is on pace for his least-productive season as a Bronco. He currently has four sacks and eight hurries.
*Corey Nelson, who is slated to get the start at inside linebacker with Brandon Marshall out, was exceedingly productive against New England last week, racking up 13 tackles and a pass deflection. “He’s good in the sub package because he can really run and cover,” defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said.
*Aqib Talib, who is ranked No. 34 on the NFL’s Top 100 list for 2016, has recorded 35 tackles, three interceptions and 12 pass breakups this season. He’s an aggressive, competitive, cocky corner who helps set the tone for one of the league’s nastiest defenses.
*With hard-hitting enforcer T.J. Ward out due to a concussion, the Broncos will turn to a pair of rookies in Will Parks and Justin Simmons to fill the void. Both have played nearly 400 snaps this year, so they aren’t necessarily green. “It’s a big opportunity, not only for myself, but for Will as well,” Simmons said. “We just have to do what we’ve been doing week in and week out.”
*Jordan Norwood has had some issues handling punts recently, and the pressure is on to correct the issue. “I think you get on a roll one way or the other, if you’re hot or if you’re cold,” Kubiak said. “Unfortunately, he is in a cold stage right now. We need to get him out of it.”
*The Chiefs as always, will need to bring a certainly physicality to beat Denver’s aggressive defense, but it’s not something the coaches have felt the need to stress this week “If we have to say something to them, that’s a problem,” Nagy said. “This is ranked where they are for a reason. They get after you, they know they get after you and they have a lot of success doing it. Our guys up front, if you’re not ready for this matchup, you’ll never be ready.”
Prediction: Chiefs 23-20
Unlike the Chiefs’ last two games, the weather will not be bitterly cold; the forecast is predicting 65 degrees with light rain. Denver has dropped three of its last four games, including a 30-27 overtime thriller to the Chiefs on Nov. 27, but with their season on the line, they’ll be ready to play. The defending champions won’t go down without a fight, but Chiefs coach Andy Reid has brought out his best stuff for divisional games, which should be a boon after the offense went a little conservative in a dispiriting 19-17 loss to Tennessee. This is a bit of a coin-flip game since the Broncos tend to bring it in prime time, but the feeling here is the Chiefs will play better than they did last week and finally clinch a playoff spot.