ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Through the first three weeks of the season, the Broncos have faced three very different quarterbacks.
In Week 1, they faced Russell Wilson, one of the best scrambling quarterbacks in NFL history. In Week 2, Derek Carr — armed with a very quick release and an accurate arm — paid a visit to Broncos Stadium at Mile High and, like Wilson, left with a loss. In Week 3, strong-armed Joe Flacco played well at home and handed the Broncos their first loss of the season.
Week 4 brings a new type of challenge: a quarterback with athleticism similar to Wilson but size and arm strength closer to Flacco— as well as a group of receivers and runners around him that are among the league's best.
Patrick Mahomes — by way of 13 touchdowns, zero interceptions, a 3-0 record and the league's top-scoring offense — has become one of the most talked-about players of the young season.
It's up to the Broncos to change the tune of that conversation — and that starts with a game plan that will introduce a variety of looks to Mahomes in what will be his fifth career NFL start.
"We always want to be an attacking football team here," cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said Thursday. "That's our motto here. It's been like that ever since I've been here. It's always what we've done: just be in attack mode, not sit back; be aggressive and give him different looks. That's what we've got to do. We've got to try to confuse him and give him something he hasn't seen. [Chiefs head coach] Andy Reid's played against us a lot of times, so we've got to try to change it up, try to trick him a couple of times."
Even after three weeks, Harris believes the Broncos' defense has plenty to unveil on "Monday Night Football."
"We haven't run anything," Harris said. "We have a lot of tricks up our sleeve at our disposal that we can run any time. We've just got to make sure we can execute that. [Defensive Coordinator] Joe Woods has called some great calls, and we didn't execute. … We've got to execute it and do our job to the best of our ability."
Mahomes followed a concrete plan in his rookie season last year, sitting behind starter Alex Smith for almost the entire season. With the Chiefs' playoff seeding secured in Week 17, though, Mahomes started the contest against the Broncos. Mahomes completed 22 of 35 passes for 284 yards and an interception in a Kansas City win.
Joseph believes that game can help provide at least a preliminary blueprint for preparing for Mahomes.
"It's Andy Reid's offense vs. our defense, so there's going to be some similarities from that football game last year," Joseph said Wednesday. "We'll look at it."
But like any young player, Mahomes has also developed significantly over the past 10 months.
"The biggest difference is just the general knowledge I have of the offense," Mahomes said Thursday. "Then for defenses, I know so much more now about what the defenses are trying to get you to do and what we're trying to do. Being able to utilize my weapons and utilize the answers I have within the offense is probably the biggest difference I have at this point."
The Chiefs' offense presents a difficult task. Andy Reid has incorporated some tendencies from the spread offense to allow his quarterback to distribute the ball to speedy wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins, former All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce and versatile running back Kareem Hunt, who led the league in rushing yards last season as a rookie.
For the Broncos to slow down this explosive offense, it has to start early: The Chiefs have scored touchdowns on every opening drive this season and outscored opponents 49-6 in the opening period. Last week, the Chiefs scored touchdowns on five straight drives to open their game against the 49ers.
Getting pressure on Mahomes will be an important part of starting off well defensively and setting the tone for the rest of the game. That likely starts with the Broncos' front seven, especially Denver's plethora of edge rushers. The Broncos sacked Mahomes twice in the season finale last year.
"We've got to hit him some way, try to get pressure on him," Harris said. "That's the best way to rattle a quarterback that's hot like this."
While Mahomes has only been sacked four times — tied for second-fewest in the league — he's been hit 20 times, 11th-most in the league. The Broncos must make sure to both contain Mahomes in the pocket and bring him down if they get to him.
"I've seen a lot of similarities between him and Russell [Wilson], the way he can makes plays with his feet…" outside linebacker Bradley Chubb said. "There's a lot of similarities between the quarterbacks we've seen. We've just got to do our job, and let's get after them. I feel like if we get to them, then that can make things happen for us."
Monday night is a big opportunity for the Broncos. In front of a national audience, they can rebound from the first loss of the season and announce their presence in the AFC West against a divisional rival, one that has held the division crown back-to-back years. The significance of this game — even in Week 4 — certainly isn't lost on the leader of the secondary.
"This is a championship game," Harris said. "If you're not studying and preparing for a championship game, you don't know what division and AFC West football is. That's what it is. You try to have everybody's mindset that this the championship and this is going to help us in the end, in this race and getting in the playoffs. We've got to gain that mind control of that."