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October 17, 2019 was a turning point for the Kansas City Chiefs and the Denver Broncos.
Joe Flacco flamed out to the point that the writing was on the wall for his tenure as a starting quarterback being doomed. Noah Fant dropped two passes, a humbling experience that set him on the path to his growth into one of the best young pass-catching tight ends in the NFL. Patrick Mahomes left in the second quarter with an injured knee, a problem that was feared to be serious but cost him just two games.
And Kansas City found a defense.
After allowing the Broncos to march to a first-possession score, the Chiefs shut out the Broncos for the rest of the game. Just under two months later, Kansas City held Denver to just three points during an Arrowhead Stadium snowstorm. Ten months later, amid lighter snowfall in Denver, the Chiefs limited the Broncos to 16 points.
An average of 8.3 points per game isn’t going to get it done against the high-powered Chiefs.
The Broncos’ struggles are extreme, of course, relative to the norm for Chiefs opponents. But there is a clear demarcation point that was drawn with kickoff of the teams’ game last October.
From Week 1 of 2018 through now, the Chiefs have played 48 games. The 30-6 slaughter of the Broncos last year was the 25th in that span, meaning that they have 24 before then and 24 after that (including the postseason).
And while Kansas City’s defense doesn’t qualify for greatness, it has been good in those last 24 games, holding opponents to 19.9 points per contest.
A comparison of the Chiefs defense in 24-game splits:
Points allowed per game
- Games 1-24 since 2018: 25.6
- Games 25-48 since 2018: 19.9
Total yards allowed per game
- Games 1-24 since 2018: 404.8
- Games 25-48 since 2018: 342.2
First downs allowed per game
- Games 1-24 since 2018: 26.0
- Games 25-48 since 2018: 20.5
Yards per play
- Games 1-24 since 2018: 5.8
- Games 25-48 since 2018: 5.4
- Games 1-24 since 2018: One allowed every 2.25 plays
- Games 25-48 since 2018: One allowed every 2.96 plays
The hiring of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo prior to the 2019 season had a significant impact. So did that offseason’s signing of safety Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu and the trade for defensive end Frank Clark, who has 12 sacks in the last two seasons.
“I think last time we played them they did a good job of bringing pressure on us — something that we’ve continued to try to get better at,” Fant said. “Any time they have a defense with a player like the ‘Honey Badger’ — he kind of moves around all over the place. He is kind of an anomaly; he can move anywhere he wants to or play anywhere he wants to go.
“So, those are always the kind of defenses that it’s kind of tough to play against. I think they do a really good job with that. I think if we handle the pressure well and run our plays well and execute our plays then we should be in good shape.”
Against the Broncos in particular, the Chiefs have a sack rate of one every 9.14 pass plays in the teams’ last three games — although that is spiked by the Flacco game, when the Chiefs sacked the immobile quarterback nine times. Their sack rate against Drew Lock is one every 17.2 pass plays.
So, in Lock’s starts, the more troublesome impact of pressure is errant throws and forcing Lock into quick decisions that ensure he is baited into throwing into coverage,. The pick-6 Lock threw in Week 7 came after an all-out blitz, and with three interceptions and a fumble in their games against Lock, the Chiefs have done better than most teams at inducing giveaways from the second-year quarterback.
Thus, identifying pressure, adjusting the protection and, finally, protecting the football itself fwill be a priority Sunday.
“They cause problems by bringing pressures that are unusual or make us hot or keep guys in,” Lock said. “That’s just what good defenses do. The Chiefs do it really well and it’s our job to pick those pressures up.
“It’s my job to put us in the right situation to be able to pick those up, and if we don’t know where my hots are, know where to get the ball and take care of it.”
And if the Broncos don’t, the Chiefs offense won’t have to be firing on all cylinders to ensure another Kansas City romp at Denver’s expense.