Week 4 of the 2018 NFL season has already been the most exciting week of the year. Incredibly, the league’s most exciting team through the first three weeks hasn’t even played yet.
Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs are the highest-flying show on TV this season, and they’re set to take on their division rival Denver Broncos in Denver on “Monday Night Football.” The Chiefs and Broncos seemingly always play wild games when they get together for primetime contests, and this should should be no different.
Considering the stakes — Kansas City is looking to move to 4-0 and stake out a huge division lead, while the Broncos are attempting to tie the Chiefs’ record at 3-1 and move into first place by virtue of the tiebreaker — it should be extremely interesting to watch how it all goes down. What should we be looking for? Read on to find out.
When the Broncos have the ball
The Chiefs’ defense has been — to be as kind as humanly possible — utterly terrible so far this season. Kansas City has yielded 6.7 yards per play, 30th in the NFL. They’ve given up a touchdown or field goal on 48.4 percent of opponents’ drives, the worst figure in the league; and they’ve created a turnover on only 3.2 percent of drives, also the worst figure in the league. And all this despite Kansas City’s opponents beginning drives with the worst average starting field position in all of football. Yeah, it’s that bad.
So, the Broncos have a pretty good chance to get their offense back on track after a sub-par performance against the Baltimore Ravens a week ago. Case Keenum has looked extremely ordinary so far this season, completing only 61 percent of his passes at 6.9 yards per attempt while throwing three touchdowns against five interceptions. But the Chiefs are allowing opponents to complete 66 percent of their passes at 8.0 yards per attempt, with eight touchdowns and just one interception. They’ve gotten a sack on only 4.1 percent of opponent drop backs, the fourth-lowest rate in the league.
Their pass defense ranks 30th in DVOA, per Football Outsiders, and has been particularly vulnerable to pass-catching tight ends and running backs. Keenum already has 13 completions for 117 yards to tight ends this season, as well as 12 for 96 yards to running backs. The Chiefs have been absolutely dreadful defending short passes, meaning they could yield Keenum some easy throws that allow him to get into a rhythm and make the kind of intermediate-to-deep passes he prefers to players like Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas.
Desperately wish you had a 30-minutes-or-so, daily NFL podcast in your podcast app every morning by 6 a.m.? Put some Pick Six Podcast in your life and join Will Brinson as he breaks down the latest news and notes from around the league, as well as the win totals on a team-by-team schedule. It’s a daily dose of football to get you right for that commute or gym trip. Subscribe: via iTunes | via Stitcher | via TuneIn | via Google Play
Sanders has been Keenum’s most efficient target thus far this season, while Thomas has struggled to really get on track and is averaging a career-low 9.0 yards per reception. Perhaps working against Orlando Scandrick will be good for him, as Thomas has a distinct size advantage there and can use his body to shield the smaller corner from the ball and fight for yards after the catch.
Though the Chiefs have been damaged most often through the air, it would be reasonable to expect the Broncos to lean on a run game that has been quite efficient so far. The combination of rookies Royce Freeman and Phillip Lindsay has Denver averaging 5.2 yards per rush, fifth in the league. The Broncos already have the NFL’s fourth-most rushing yards and, well, the KC defense has also been dreadful against the run. The Chiefs are yielding … 5.2 yards per rush, third-worst in the NFL, and 26.6 percent of all carries against them have resulted in a first down. They’re missing tackles left and right, allowing opposing backs to gain 3.58 yards per carry after contact. All of this indicates Freeman and Lindsay could have a pretty big night if Denver’s blocking is on point.
When the Chiefs have the ball
We have spent a whole lot of time in this space extolling the virtues of the Chiefs’ passing offense. Just last week, for example, we dedicated a significant portion of our Chiefs-49ers preview detailing exactly how good Patrick Mahomes and company had been through the first two weeks of the season.
Mahomes’ 10 touchdown passes during the first two weeks of the season are an NFL record, and half of those touchdowns have come on passes that traveled at least 15 yards in the air. He’s 12 of 18 for an incredible 332 yards and five scores on such throws, good for a completely ridiculous 149.3 passer rating.
Mahomes has been dominant in just about every split imaginable, but a few important ones stick out in terms of highlighting how well Andy Reid’s play-calling has put him in position to succeed.
On throws to the middle of the field, according to data from Sports Info Solutions, Mahomes is 23 of 30 for 317 yards and seven scores. That means 30 of Mahomes’ 55 pass attempts have gone to the middle, now the most fruitful area of the field due to the dual evolution of defenses and NFL rules.
Because of the sheer amount of speed and athleticism the Chiefs sport at every skill position, teams have often resorted to playing zone against them, providing Mahomes with wider throwing lanes than if every individual receiver had an assigned cover man. Against zone coverages, he has completed 31 of 41 passes for 279 yards and eight touchdowns.
Using all that talent to spread the defense out as wide as possible has also been fruitful, and it should not be surprising that Mahomes has had incredible success working out of the empty formations he used so often at Texas Tech; he’s completed 13 of 17 passes for 187 yards and three touchdowns when the Chiefs split five receivers out wide.
Then Mahomes came out and completed 24 of 38 passes for 314 yards, three touchdowns and zero picks against the 49ers. So, yeah, he’s still on fire. Mahomes leads the NFL in touchdown passes despite playing one fewer game than almost every team in the league. He also leads the NFL in touchdown rate. (The percentage of pass attempts that turn into touchdowns.) He leads the NFL adjusted net yards per attempt. And he leads the NFL in passer rating. He primarily spreads the ball around to tight end Travis Kelce (16 catches, 229 yards, two touchdowns) and wide receivers Tyreek Hill (14-310-3) and Sammy Watkins (14-176-1); but players like Chris Conley (5-45-2) and the Chiefs’ running backs (9-112-2 combined) also chip in.
But because you’ve undoubtedly heard so much about just how good Kansas City’s pass offense has been, it seems wise to spend time examining what has held back the team’s run offense. Kansas City is averaging just 3.9 yards per rush, 21st in the NFL. Kareem Hunt — who began last season by rushing for 401 yards and four touchdowns on 47 carries during the first three games of the year — has gained only 168 yards on his 52 carries, and has not gained longer than 16 yards on any of them. (By this time last year, he had five runs longer than that, including three touchdown runs of 50 yards or more.)
So, what’s the issue? Is it blocking? Well, Sports Info Solutions credits Chiefs offensive linemen with precisely zero blown run blocks so far. But not having blown any blocks doesn’t mean that the blocks they haven’t blown have actually been good. The ball-carrier has been stopped in the backfield on 21 percent of Kansas City’s carries, per Football Outsiders, 19th in the league. And the Chiefs rank 26th in FO’s Adjusted Line Yards, which assigns credit to the offensive line in the run game based on a percentage of yards gained per carry. Hunt is averaging just 0.85 yards before contact per carry, per data culled from Sports Info Solutions. That figure ranks 51st among the 65 running backs with at least 10 carries so far this season. (To his credit, Hunt has already broken seven tackles in the run game, tied for fifth-most in the NFL. He also showed terrific tackle-breaking ability as a rookie.)
Is Monday the night that Hunt finally breaks loose? Maybe not. Denver’s run defense has been fantastic thus far, ranking fifth in Football Outsiders’ run defense DVOA. The Broncos have done a wonderful job of tackling in the open field, limiting second-level and open-field yards as well as almost any team in football. They’ve had just three tackles broken on rush attempts and their 2.15 yards after contact allowed per attempt is tied for seventh-best in the NFL. Perhaps the Chiefs can spread them out enough to really get Hunt going — I wouldn’t put anything past this offense at this point — but it does seem like a better bet on Monday night is Mahomes and the pass offense continuing to shine while Hunt gets short-yardage opportunities and chips in as a pass-blocker and pass-catcher out of the backfield.
Prediction: Chiefs 30, Broncos 24