ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- There are excuses, and there are reasons.
For Kansas City, whose defense was picked apart last Sunday in ways it had not experienced before this season, the latter applies. When you remove outside linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston from the equation -- and by the end of the second quarter, both were gone -- the results are both predictable and understandable.
San Diego blistered the Chiefs, who surrendered season highs in points (41), net yardage (491), yardage per play (7.3) and yards per pass play (9.7).
Although Hali leads the Chiefs in sacks, the loss of Houston is a particularly crippling blow. He was highly effective against the run in the Week 11 duel, leading the Chiefs in tackles and earning his highest ProFootballFocus.com grade of the season -- and by far the highest for any Chiefs defender that night.
The Chiefs defense fared reasonably well in limited work with Hali and without Houston last Sunday; during that period of the second quarter, San Diego averaged 3.2 yards per pass play, 4.6 yards per run play and 4.0 yards per snap overall. But without both, the defense crumbled; San Diego racked up 9.0 yards per play, gained first downs on 18 of 32 snaps and averaged 4.75 points per possession.
"You lose both those guys (LBs Tamba Hali and Justin Houston) in the same game, that's going to affect what you're doing," said Broncos Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase.
Hali has practiced this week on an injured ankle and vows to play. Houston has a dislocated elbow and is likely staring at a multi-week absence.
"So will that change them a little bit? Maybe," Gase said. "But they'll do whatever is best for them for this game and it'll be a battle."
The problem is, what is the best?
Kansas City's only sack in its last three games came on the Chiefs' next-to-last defensive play, when Eric Berry blitzed and sacked Philip Rivers. But despite Berry's blitz, the play was above all, a coverage sack. Rivers held the football 3.49 seconds before feeling any pressure and was sacked 4.79 seconds after the snap.
Berry is tied for the league lead in sacks by a safety (2.5), and cornerback blitzes were effective at generating pressure, if not sacks, through much of the season. Peyton Manning's quick deliveries, frequently below 2.0 seconds from the snap, make this difficult, but not entirely impossible.
Still than any game against a familiar opponent, the Broncos must prepare for the unknown. They have barely a half of game footage of the Chiefs' 2013 defense without Houston, and that might not bear resemblance to what the Chiefs will utilize this week.
Kansas City might try to mimic some tactics used by the Colts and Patriots -- assuming that Hali is still healthy enough to generate pressure from the edge, just as Indianapolis' Robert Mathis did in Week 7 and New England's Chandler Jones did last week. Otherwise, expect pressure from all angles, and for the Chiefs to try and confound the Broncos, perhaps with more than a few new wrinkles.
NOTING THE SECONDARY:
While the Chiefs' pass rush will take on a different look, the secondary could remain much the same if rookie Sanders Commings can't play; he has missed the last two days of practice with a shoulder injury. Commings, a fifth-round pick who was deemed worthy of the only recallable injured-reserve designation that the team had this season. He made his regular-season debut in the last Broncos game and played mostly on special teams, with only a brief three-play cameo on defense.
The first thing that jumps out about Commings is his size; at 223 pounds, he's five pounds bigger than any other Chiefs defensive back, and has 12 pounds on playmaking safety Eric Berry. His size would make him an intriguing one-on-one prospect against Demaryius Thomas, if he's healthy.
Whether Commings plays or not, the Chiefs might have to try something different to contain Thomas. On one play when rookie Marcus Cooper was in one-on-one coverage, the 229-pound Thomas simply sprinted past the 197-pound Cooper, who was unable to keep pace. Thomas had passed Cooper 13 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, and kept increasing his separation until he caught Peyton Manning's pass, not stopping until he had gained 70 yards.
If Commings is unavailable, Kansas City could opt to use their other big cornerback, 218-pound Sean Smith, to shadow Thomas and press him at the line of scrimmage. The downside of that is that it would take Smith out of any packages to defend tight end Julius Thomas or wide receivers Eric Decker and Wes Welker who, as always, will draw attention.