KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Broncos did something to the Chiefs in Week 4 that no one else has done so far this season — prevent them from scoring at least 30 points.
It wasn’t enough for them to win, which made the accomplishment hollow. But it offers cause for optimism as the Broncos head to Kansas City looking to defeat the Chiefs for the first time since September 2015. After all, the Chiefs’ six 30-plus point outputs are the fourth-most through seven games in NFL history, behind only the 2013 Broncos, 2007 Patriots and 2000 Rams.
“There are a lot of good things [from] going back and watching the tape. But there are a lot of things that we could have done so much better,” safety Justin Simmons said. “Obviously, being the only team to [hold them below 30 points] is great, but we could have done even better than that, and that’s the part of the tape that we look at.”
Doing better is the task this week, even though the Broncos will head to Arrowhead Stadium without three starters on offense and defense — running back Royce Freeman, right tackle Jared Veldheer and safety Darian Stewart. Outside linebacker Shane Ray is also doubtful for the game.
Stewart’s absence could change how the Broncos attempt to counter tight end Travis Kelce and running back Kareem Hunt. Kelce recorded 78 yards and a game-winning touchdown on seven receptions in the Week 4 game, while Hunt racked up 155 yards from scrimmage, including 121 on the ground, becoming the first of three consecutive opposing running backs to surpass 175 yards against the Broncos.
Hunt heads into this week on a tear. He has scored in six consecutive games and has averaged 149 yards from scrimmage per game in October.
“We’ve got to gang-tackle him and tackle him as a unit,” said safety Will Parks, who will start in place of Stewart. “And if you’ve got him one-on-one, you’ve got to make the tackle.”
Kelce has surpassed 75 yards five times against the Broncos in the last five seasons; no one else in the NFL has done so more than twice (New England’s Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski is the two players with that distinction).
“Kelce is more of an elusive tight end. He has that twitch to him to be able to get open,” Simmons said. “He’s not more of the push-off type of guy. He does do it if he is covered, but nine times out of 10, he likes his feet to work for him and create the separation.”
But the Chiefs go far beyond that, with wide receivers Sammy Watkins and Tyreek Hill all capable of causing problems in their multi-faceted attack, led by quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
What are the keys to success Sunday?
Win the turnover battle
Since Andy Reid became Kansas City’s head coach in 2013, no team has won more games with a plus-two turnover margin than the Chiefs, who are 30-1 in the regular season under Reid with that giveaway-takeaway edge.
They are 20-10 when they are even or plus-one in turnover margin, giving them a record of 50-11 when they do not lose the turnover battle. When the opponent wins in that statistical metric, the Chiefs are 9-17 under Reid.
These numbers are significant because in Reid’s tenure, the Chiefs have the fewest turnovers in the NFL (83 in 87 games), the third-most takeaways (148, behind only Carolina and Arizona) and the league’s best turnover margin (plus-65, 12 better than No. 2 Seattle).
The Broncos, meanwhile, have just two turnover-free games in the last two seasons, matching the Browns for the fewest such games. They’ve failed to produce a takeaway nine times; only the Raiders and Dolphins have more games without forcing a turnover.
These are all trends the Broncos must find ways to reverse.
Keep Mahomes in the pocket
Mahomes has been effective in virtually all areas, but when he is kept in the pocket for at least 2.5 seconds, his completion percentage drops to 49.1 percent, according to Pro Football Focus. All five of Mahomes’ interceptions this year have come on the 108 pass attempts when he held the ball in the pocket for at least 2.5 seconds.
Forcing Mahomes into one scenario in which his comfort zone erodes requires a collaborative effort, with each defender focusing on his assignment. It takes strong coverage at the back end to prevent Mahomes from having any large windows to target, and discipline in the pass rush to ensure that the second-year quarterback does not escape.
“We all know we’ve got to keep him inside the pocket, so if I’m on the blitz, I’ve got to keep him in the pocket and do my job. It’s all about doing your job,” Parks said.
“You can’t go out there and have [mental errors] or miscommunication. That’s the biggest thing with this team. They have a lot of shifts, a lot of motions, a lot of things that get the quarterback rolling and get him in a groove. As long as we contain him, give him different looks, execute and communicate, we should be fine.”
A win in the red zone
This is the area of the field in which Broncos quarterback Case Keenum has struggled most, throwing three interceptions in 29 attempts on plays snapped from inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. His 44.0 passer rating in the red-zone is 46.1 points below his rating at all other points on the field, and is also unlike his 2017 work in Minnesota, in which he threw 16 touchdown passes and one interception in 63 red-zone attempts.
Containing the Chiefs’ red-zone offense is key, but with the Broncos currently 25th in red-zone touchdown percentage, they must maximize their opportunities to have a chance at their first win at Arrowhead Stadium since 2015.