A low-scoring and ugly game partially obfuscated a reality in the Broncos’ Week 6 loss on a Thursday night to Kansas City earlier this month: For the most part, the Chiefs dominated on both sides of the ball.
Perhaps the biggest thing that went wrong for Andy Reid’s team: Kicker Harrison Butker and Kansas City’s field goal unit got far too much work.
The Chiefs moved the ball up and down the field against Denver’s defense and compiled 389 yards, but turned five red zone trips into just one touchdown and four field goals.
If the Broncos are to pull off an upset Sunday at Empower Field, a similarly stout performance in that department might well be necessary.
“Today is the day we work red zone and then we give them the red zone statistics,” head coach Sean Payton said Friday. “If you grade it offensively, let’s say you have four trips in, ultimately you’re looking at red zone touchdown efficiency and you get a percentage and a lot of times, your third down numbers in the red zone can point you to the end result.
“I thought we played good red zone defense (last time), but look, this is an explosive offense and we’ve seen them move the ball. Fortunately we were able to force field goals and that’ll be an important part of this game coming up.”
Patrick Mahomes and company currently rank No. 14 in the NFL in red zone touchdown percentage at 57.1%. Outside of that Thursday night on a short week of preparation, the Chiefs are at 65.2%.
And in the team’s other two most recent games — last weekend against Los Angeles and Week 5 against Minnesota — they went 6 of 7 scoring touchdowns and a perfect 6 of 6 in goal-to-go situations.
Conversely, Denver is 20th in red zone touchdown defense (55.2%) but would be comfortably in the top 10 if not for a 6-for-6 afternoon by Miami in that 70-20 blowout.
“For defensive linemen, you’ve got to be selfless,” Denver defensive end Zach Allen said. “You can’t necessarily take a crazy pass-rush move. You’ve got to rush smart. Probably going to be a bull rush. You’re not going to be able to throw your move. Coverage guys, obviously, you can’t make any mistakes there.
“We invest a lot of time in it and it was good to see the benefits (in recent weeks).”
Denver allowed two touchdowns to Green Bay in three trips last weekend, but over their past three games have given up just three in 13 tries.
“The biggest thing is just to all be on the same page and what that comes down to is communication,” inside linebacker Josey Jewell said. “We’ve got a bunch of good guys out there, the kind of guys who have played here a couple of years, been here a while and just know how to play off each other. You’re put in weird situations in the red zone sometimes.”
Allen said part of the challenge against a quarterback like Mahomes is that defensive integrity can falter if a player gets baited into trying to make a big play against the two-time MVP.
“We do a really good job, I think, of talking about, on certain plays, who can take their shot and who can’t. You let the game come to you. Sometimes you’ll be able to get your shot and when you do, that’s the one you’ve got to win on.
“It’s just kind of understanding your opportunities within playing team defense.”
Not an easy task against Mahomes.
“No matter what, it’s going to be hard with him,” Jewell said. “You’ve just got to try to stay to your keys and we’ve got to be able to try to match people after those first couple of seconds of the down.”
The short week of preparation curtailed what each side could really plan out in Round 1, but now they’ve each got a game’s worth of information, plus the original prep work, plus players who just heard the same scouting reports and installs two weeks ago.
Even still, Payton said, new stuff comes up.
“You have a lot of deja vu, because it feels like a month ago to some degree but then here you are,” Payton said. “It’s funny, you’ll watch the same cut-up of 208 red zone plays inside the 10 over the last three years and you’ll forget four things you saw two weeks ago and then there will be four others that you get that you like and you’re like, ‘I don’t know why I didn’t see it in the short week.’ …
“There’s things that look different when you look at it again.”
To forge a different result against Kansas City for the first time since 2015, in this one area the Broncos would probably take a repeat defensive performance.