ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --**After Sunday's game, there was a sense of satisfaction in the Broncos' locker room, but not jubilation.
It seemed more like the locker room of a soccer team after the first leg of a two-game tie -- as it's dubbed in Britain's parlance. In the Champions League in particular, teams usually play at a game or two in other competitions between the two games in the tie; that's more than enough time to adjust to the situation dictated by the first game.
The soccer situation is a bit different; in those duels, the score is combined; there is no split decision, and
the winner has the most goals over two games. That's not how the Chiefs and Broncos will be separated. Point differential isn't even a tiebreaker, and points in all games doesn't even come into play until the seventh tiebreaker, which is best combined ranking in the AFC in points scored and points allowed.
But what does matter is what sort of strategic shifts take place after this game and in time for the return game Dec. 1 -- especially given the Chiefs' inability to generate a pass rush and the Broncos' struggles against the run. Some of the keys will be the same, starting with the Broncos' need to build a lead so they can force the Chiefs away from their reliable ground game.
The Broncos know the Chiefs will adjust. How Denver responds will determine whether the Broncos get the sweep they need, or if they are potentially down not only in the standings, but the common-opponent tiebreaker, thanks to the Week 7 loss at Indianapolis.
Kansas City often disguises its intentions; that's part of the luxury of having linebackers as athletic and aware as Tamba Hali, Justin Houston and Derrick Johnson; you can shuffle your tactics without sacrificing anything in either the pass rush or coverage. It's why the Chiefs defense has been among the league leaders and should remain there the rest of the season.
But on the 70-yard pass from Peyton Manning to Demaryius Thomas, the Chiefs went for overkill. Ten of
their 11 defenders were lined up within two yards of the line of scrimmage -- including safeties Eric Berry, Kendrick Lewis and Husain Abdullah, which left Quintin Demps as the only safety deep.
The Chiefs' disguise was to create the potential of seven pass rushers, with their three cornerbacks in one-on-one coverage. Instead, they rushed three. But with the other four defenders near the line of scrimmage dropping back, they were only prepared to cut off short crosses or a screen to Knowshon Moreno. They have speed, but not enough to help downfield.
The single high safety, Demps, is shaded to his right and Peyton Manning's left, about three yards outside of the hashmarks. There's logic for this; he's lined up to the side where two of the Broncos' three wide receivers are.
But with Demps to that side, the Chiefs have put all their eggs in the basket of Marcus Cooper, a rookie in one-on-one coverage against Demaryius Thomas who blows by the rookie and has already gotten past him 13 yards beyond the line of scrimmage on his go route. Even though Manning never looks to his left after receiving the snap, there is no chance at Demps arriving in time to prevent the catch.
The value of this play is two-fold: the obvious gain of yardage and the impact on the Chiefs' tactics going forward to the rematch Dec. 1. Manning showed his willingness to take the deep shot when the look was there. Perhaps in the next game with a similar situation, the Chiefs won't go for disguise, but for attack; instead of dropping the safeties that cheated toward the line of scrimmage, they'll bring them. In that case, will Manning still try and find Thomas in one-on-one coverage, or will Moreno move into the open flat for a swing pass that tries to capitalize off the Chiefs' over-commitment?
That's the luxury of having a quarterback like Manning with weapons like he possesses; the Chiefs can ask different questions -- and likely will on Dec. 1 -- but answers remain at the ready.
ATTACKING ALEX SMITH
Shaun Phillips finished the night with 1.5 sacks, and Malik Jackson a half-sack. And while Phillips' speed off the edge helped Denver's pass rush remain near the middle of the pack through the loss of Von Miller to a six-game suspension, his big game might not have happened without the work of Jackson, who set up both of those sacks of Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith.
On the first sack, Jackson was simply the first man through the Chiefs' offensive line; he bounced off Jon Asamoah and turned inside. Smith stepped up into Jackson's path, and Shaun Phillips closed from behind after beating right tackle Eric Fisher. But what was also crucial was the rush of Danny Trevathan. He was not a part of the sack, but his blitz forced Jamaal Charles to stay home and block, which removed Smith's fall-back plan from the play, leaving him no choice but to concede the sack.
The next sack, which was entirely credited to Phillips, was made possible when Jackson freed himself of the block of Chiefs left tackle Branden Albert. Denver had a five-man rush, knowing that Smith was looking to complete one more pass to set up a plausible field-goal attempt for placekicker Ryan Succop. Four matchups were one-on-ones; Terrance Knighton drew a double-team. By freeing himself of Albert, Jackson closed Smith's primary escape lane to the left; that forced him to take a half-step back into the path Phillips had established working wide of Anthony Fasano, who was lined up to the right side.
Denver's third sack was simple: it involved Derek Wolfe, working at left end, shaking free of Fisher. Wolfe pulled back, which forced the No. 1 overall pick off-balance, and then sprinted toward Smith, who had no shot at avoiding the inevitable.
Times are good for Wolfe and Jackson, the Broncos' two defensive linemen from the 2012 draft class. Wolfe has a sack in three consecutive games, and each has four sacks this season, tied for third on the roster. They line up inside and outside, allowing formational flexibility that has helped the Broncos use Phillips and Von Miller as stand-up players on the edge outside of three down linemen.
"Really, when we identified them (Wolfe and Jackson) in the draft last year, it was to have those kinds of guys that could play both -- a little bit of end in base situations and move in and play some sub and D-Tackle," said interim head coach Jack Del Rio. "Derek jumped out and had a great rookie year and he's starting to catch his stride again, getting another sack (Sunday).
"I think Malik has shown this year to be a little bit of a surprise guy. He came out of camp and has really been an impactful player for us, getting some good, quality snaps. He can play either spot, he's very versatile and we're getting good, quality snaps out of Malik."
Steven Johnson's thunderous tackle of Jamaal Charles on third-and-goal from the 1-yard-line in the second quarter was one of the two most important Broncos defensive plays of the game; it single-handedly took four points off Kansas City's tally. Johnson's awareness and acceleration were crucial, but so was the work of rookie Sylvester Williams who drew the attention of two offensive linemen, which helped create a gap through which Johnson could attack Charles.
Rushing yardage was hard to come by; the average of 2.97 yards per carry was the lowest by Broncos running backs this year, and the rate of one first down every 5.83 carries was the third-lowest of the season.