Denver’s new-look “No Fly Zone” is showing some cracks, and there’s no let-up in sight for the Broncos secondary, which faces the NFL’s hottest quarterback in Monday night’s matchup against Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs.
Cornerback Chris Harris Jr. continues to anchor the right side and cornerback Bradley Roby has taken over on the left side for Aqib Talib, who was let go over the winter. Justin Simmons begins his second season as free safety and Darian Stewart returns as strong safety but Denver turned to free agency to bring in Adam Jones as a nickel back with veteran Tramaine Brock, Will Parks, and rookie Isaac Yiadom providing depth in the secondary.
Yet the stress the unit has come under has been evident, particularly in the last two weeks. Raiders quarterback Derek Carr seemingly completed passes at will during the Raiders’ 20-19 loss to the Broncos on Sept. 16, going 29 of 32 for 288 yards and Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco went 25 of 40 for 277 yards and a score against a Broncos defense that struggled to get off the field.
Injuries were a factor in the secondary’s defensive breakdowns in Baltimore as Jones missed the game with a thigh injury and Brock was out with a groin strain. Both players returned to practice on Wednesday and it is anticipated that they will be able to go Monday night.
Even if Denver’s secondary returns to full strength, the vulnerabilities in coverage the Raiders and Ravens exposed in recent weeks need to be addressed and pronto heading into the matchup with the Chiefs, whose offense is lighting it up under Mahomes. The first-year starting quarterback has thrown for 13 touchdowns in his first three games, the most in that span in NFL history. Nine different Chiefs players have caught scoring passes from Mahomes. On top of that, the Chiefs are averaging 39.3 points per game, tops in the league.
Harris said recently that the Broncos need to do a better job of disguising and mixing up their coverages, and Broncos coach Vance Joseph agreed, adding that pass defenders also have to do a better job of shadowing opposing receivers in 1-on-1 situations to buy time for Denver’s vaunted pass rush to breakthrough.
“The bottom line is we’ve got to obviously play better, especially in man-to-man situations,” Joseph said. “We’ve got to coach better and help those guys play more shell defense on certain downs. We can coach and play better.”
This is the 115th meeting between the longtime divisional rivals. Kansas City has won the past five meetings, including the most recent on Dec. 31, 2017 in which Mahomes drove the Chiefs to a game-winning field goal in the late going in his first career start.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--“We pretty much just can’t shoot ourselves in the foot. We were sustaining drives, and the next thing you know _ penalty. Then another penalty, then it just knocked us out. It’s just dumb penalties that I feel like we can control and that’s the biggest thing.” _ Broncos nose tackle Shelby Harris on the team’s 13 penalties for 120 yards in last week’s loss to the Ravens. The infractions cost Denver field position as well as negating a touchdown return off a blocked kick.
--Broncos rookie running backs Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman have combined for 350 yards rushing and rank second and fourth, respectively, among rookie rushing leaders. Lindsay has 198 yards on 33 carries while Freeman as 152 yards.
--Quarterback Case Keenum is one touchdown pass shy of 50 for his career.
--Keenum has gone 13-4 over the previous two seasons as a starter and his winning percentage of .765 ranks third-best in that span behind Philadelphia’s Carson Wentz (.857) and the Los Angeles Rams’ Jared Goff (.778).
--Wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders have each had 100 yards receving in the same game seven times since 2014.
--Linebacker Von Miller has 87.5 sacks since entering the league in 2011, the most in the NFL in that span. He has a team-high four sacks this season.
--Rookie linebacker Bradley Chubb, the Broncos’ top draft pick, has the most quarterback hurries (9) among all rookie defenders.
BY THE NUMBERS
--Punter Marquette King is off to slow start with the Broncos, who signed him to a 3-year, $7 million deal after he was cut by Raiders coach Jon Gruden. Denver then traded away incumbent punter, Riley Dixon, to the New York Giants. King had a 39.3-yard net punting average on seven punts in last week’s loss at Baltimore, contributing to Denver’s field position problems throughout the game. Overall, he’s averaging 44.6 yards per punt which ranks in the bottom third in the league. The Broncos put King on notice that their patience is not unlimited. They signed punter Colby Wadman to the practice squad. “We have to get better there,” Broncos coach Vance Joseph said of the team’s punting game. “We’re looking forward to Marquette having a good week of punting. It’s a performance-based business.”
--Running back Phillip Lindsay has made a notable impact in his first three career games in more ways than one. The undrafted free agent out of Colorado was ejected for throwing a punch in a first-quarter scrum over a loose ball. A key contributor and catalyst in both of Denver’s two wins to start the season, his absence was felt in the team’s first loss of the season at Baltimore as the Broncos offense stalled repeatedly against the Ravens. Baltimore scored 20 straight points to finish the game after trailing 14-7 early on. Lindsay is averaging 6.0 yards on 33 carries with a long of 53 yards. He has three catches for 35 yards and a touchdown.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Broncos LT Garett Bolles and RT Jared Veldheer vs. OLBs Justin Houston and Dee Ford: Houston and Ford have been the best players on a unit that ranks last in the league in total defense. They’re both able to cover a lot of ground in run support and exert pressure on the quarterback. Veldheer missed time this season with a concussion and Bolles drew two holding penalties last week, setting back an already struggling offense. Bolles and Veldheer will need to shore up the offensive line to help sustain drives to maintain as much possession as possible to keep the ball away from the Chiefs’ highly productive offense.
Broncos OLB Von Miller vs. QB Patrick Mahomes: Beyond his powerful, accurate passing arm, Mahomes has shown remarkable quickness and elusiveness on the run, both in the pocket and in all-out scrambles. Miller, who has four sacks on the season and plenty of hurries, represents the Broncos’ best chance to pressure Mahomes and throw him off his rhythm.