Thursday Night Football Preview: Can Peyton Manning Top the Chiefs?
Age before beauty.
In a game of inches that's judged by split-second decisions, once a player begins losing a step or two to Father Time, they also start to lose out to younger, faster, and stronger competition, both in the depth charts and on the field.
This is why it's often said that the NFL is a young man's game.
And when the Denver Broncos and their aging future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning meet the young and hungry Kansas City Chiefs, this just might be the ultimate test of this mantra.
Amassing a squad of young and talented players, including newly signed Pro Bowl free agent Jeremy Maclin and third-year standout tight end Travis Kelce, the Chiefs find themselves surging toward the top of our NFL Power Rankings and holding all the momentum.
The Denver Broncos, however, still have history on their side.
The Broncos have won the AFC West division title in each of the past four seasons, including the last three with Manning as their starting quarterback. Manning himself holds an 11-1 lifetime regular season record against the Chiefs, including a 5-1 record at Arrowhead Stadium.
In their Week 2 matchup with the Chiefs, the Broncos will look to keep these trends going for one more game.
So the question for Thursday night when these two teams meet is, which will win out: experience or youth?
The Pre-Game Rundown
The current incarnation of the Denver Broncos are shaping up to be a far different team than the one that lost to the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl XLVIII just two seasons ago.
Gone is the conservative John Fox and Adam Gase and in is offensive-minded head coach Gary Kubiak. But with that being said, don't expect to see the same Broncos offense this season as the one that saw Manning throw for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns in 2013.
So far for Manning, it seems as though the whispers of his severely reduced arm strength are actually founded in reality.
Off target all day last week, Manning completed just 24 of his 40 passes for 175 yards for a paltry 4.4 YPA average, one interception, and no touchdowns. This resulted in a -8.14 Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) that was so bad, it was actually worse than the production put up by Jameis Winston in his rookie debut with a Passing NEP of -6.84.
For those unfamiliar, NEP is our in-house metric that measures a player's contributions to a team's chances of scoring above or below expectation. A positive NEP means a player improved his team's scoring opportunity, and as you might expect, a negative score means the opposite.
So believe it or not, Manning actually contributed less to his team last week than Winston did to his.
And, unfortunately for Manning, this isn't just a case of one bad game.
His absolute dud of a Week 1 performance, combined with a weak finish to the 2014 season, and his struggles in this year's preseason (he still hasn't thrown a touchdown since the Broncos' loss to the Colts in the Divisional Round of the playoffs last season), have many wondering if the Broncos signal caller has any gas left in the tank.
To make matters worse for the Broncos, it seems as if the team is also feeling the loss of its multiple starters from their offensive line from last season, including now-San Diego Charger Orlando Franklin and an injured Ryan Clady.
Fielding four new starters on the offensive line this past week, including rookie left tackle Ty Sambrailo and second-year center Matt Paradis -- who as of this past Sunday now has a total of one game of NFL experience under his belt -- this unit showed just how green they were, giving up four sacks and leading the running game to just 69 yards on the ground.
On this note, it seems that while the running game may see an uptick in volume under coach Kubiak, the efficiency of this unit may come down from its impressive 2014 levels. If this offensive line doesn't improve quickly, the biggest candidate for a regression is starting tailback C.J. Anderson, who recorded the second-best Rushing NEP per carry of all running backs receiving at least 100 carries in 2014. Coming out of Week 1 with a toe injury and an uncharacteristically low 2.4 yards per carry, the question is whether Anderson can re-discover his 2014 form in time to fend off his competition in this backfield for touches.
And should Anderson falter, Ronnie Hillman would like nothing more than to prove that he deserves the workhorse back role that Anderson took from him mid-season last year.
All this means that the Broncos will need to rely on their defense more than ever before. And as Graham Barfield wrote in his AFC West preview earlier this year, if there's a ray of hope for the Broncos chances of winning the AFC West this year, it's that Denver looks to be a top-three unit this season, returning a group that last year "finished 7th and 10th, respectively, in schedule-adjusted pass and rush Defensive NEP, and finished ninth in sacks (41) and fourth in passes deflected (90)."
For the Kansas City Chiefs, their offense seems to be trending in the opposite direction. Led by the unspectacular but solid Alex Smith, the offense moved the ball masterfully against our top-ranked defense last season as measured by schedule-adjusted Defensive NEP in Houston.
Much has been said about the failures of the Chiefs receiving corps last year. That will happen when you have a group that fails to record a single receiving touchdown all year. The Chiefs front office went to work to quickly rectify this problem, bringing in the young star head coach Andy Reid once mentored in Philadelphia in Jeremy Maclin. Following up on his breakout 2015 season where he cracked the top-10 receiver list with a Reception NEP of 111.21 on the year, the former Eagle receiver has shown great chemistry with Smith already, notably putting up 7 receptions for 65 yards in the first half of the Chiefs preseason Week 3 dress rehearsal and a 5-for-52 line this past Sunday.
Maclin will make a formidable one-two punch on the offense with All Pro running back Jamaal Charles, who despite being under-utilized in a number of games last season still put up 1,000-plus yards on the ground and a top-10 finish in terms of Rushing NEP.
But perhaps the most talked about offensive player on this team this offseason wasn't their newly acquired receiver or Pro Bowl running back. It was their tight end, Travis Kelce.
Kelce has been tabbed a breakout tight end candidate all offseason, and he did nothing to dispel those notions in his 2015 debut. Going against the Texans linebackers and safeties on Sunday, the man they call "Zeus" put up a very Gronkesque 106 yards and 2 touchdowns on 6 receptions, good for a Reception and Target NEP of 11.83.
On the defensive side of things, last year the Chiefs fielded a bottom-half unit, ranking 19th in Adjusted Defensive NEP including 24th in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP. To shore up some of the team's defensive deficiencies, the team spent a first-round draft pick on cornerback Marcus Peters who is expected to help a secondary that ranked dead last in the league in interceptions with just six picks all year. Indeed, Peters has gone to work on this quickly this season, intercepting Brian Hoyer's first pass of the day last Sunday.
But while the team gets back a numbers of key players, with so many coming back from serious injuries, it's still uncertain what form this defense will take in 2015.
Dontari Poe played in Week 1 against Houston despite undergoing surgery to repair a herniated disc back in July. Both Mike Devito and Derrick Johnson are returning from ruptured Achilles suffered early last season. And in the secondary, the team gets back All Pro safety Eric Berry, who was cleared for practice in July after battling lymphoma.
So what will happen when these two AFC West powers collide on Thursday night?
The Broncos Game Script
While all eyes will be on Manning when the Broncos offense takes the field, it will be up to the offensive line to keep him upright against superstar outside linebacker Justin Houston. The Chiefs All Pro linebacker -- who has collected 48.5 sacks in his early four-year career with Kansas City -- has started the year in mid-season form already, registering a strip sack of Brian Hoyer in Week 1 that led to a Charles touchdown one play later.
In an attempt to protect Manning -- and perhaps disguise his diminished physical skills -- the team may choose to attack Kansas City on the ground. As mentioned earlier, the Chiefs were a bottom-10 ranked unit against the rush last season, and despite having the gap-plugging Poe in the lineup, the team will need more than him to stop Anderson and Hill an.
All this would set up a nice game script for success for Denver in which Anderson and Hillman will be used early and often. Last year this duo combined for a 4.5 yards-per-carry average (including 4.7 for Anderson) while the Chiefs surrendered 98.0 yards per game on the ground (17th-worst mark in the league). Count on these trends to continue in this game as Kubiak looks to exploit Kansas City's weaknesses with his talented backfield.
This will likely result in reduced usage and/or efficiency for Demaryius Thomas, with Manning potentially looking to dump it off to him or slot man Emmanuel Sanders on shorter, quicker-hitting routes. And while Peters and the secondary gave up 9 receptions for 98 yards and 2 touchdowns to Houston's primary receiver DeAndre Hopkins in Week 1, there isn't much reason for the Broncos to force the ball into their number one wideout's hands in a similar fashion this Thursday.
With Sanders having the sixth-highest catch rate among all receivers last season with at least 50 targets -- finishing just ahead of Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham -- Sanders' sure-handedness may have Manning looking his way. And while impressive cover corner Phillip Gaines will likely shadow Sanders all game, in two games last season against the Chiefs, Sanders recorded 14 receptions for 181 yards including a solid 6-for-73 line against Gaines in their second meeting.
The Chiefs Game Script
The Chiefs have a tough battle against a stout Denver defense. Already a top-10 unit from last season, it looks as if the 2015 version of the Broncos squad is even better: in Week 1, Denver limited the Ravens to just 13 points.
But with that being said, the Chiefs were able to move the ball to the tune of 27 points and 330 total yards against a Houston defense that ranked first in schedule-adjusted Defensive NEP last season. One caveat to this production however were all the short goal-to-go situations the Chiefs found themselves in thanks to Houston's stagnant offense and costly turnovers. Indeed, Kansas City had just the 14th-highest offensive NEP numbers in Week 1, behind teams like Detroit, Chicago, and Buffalo.
As Maclin continues to build chemistry with his new quarterback, it'll be a trial by fire on Thursday as he faces three Pro Bowlers in Denver's secondary in Bradley Roby, Aqib Talib, and the league's top cornerback last season according to Pro Football Focus, Chris Harris, Jr.. This unit blanketed Baltimore's weak receiving corps for a total of just 68 yards through the air, resulting in an abysmal -11.0 Target NEP.
Further tied to Maclin's success, another question many will be asking is whether or not the starting unit on the offensive line will be able to protect Smith against Denver's persistent pass rush. Last year, the Chiefs ranked just 22nd in pass blocking according to Pro Football Focus, and things have only gotten worse since then. In Week 1 the team played five new starters in Kansas City's season opener against Houston, and while this unit did an admirable job in the win, they also gave up two sacks and six tackles for a loss to J.J. Watt.
This offensive line will need to do a better job this Thursdayif they're going to keep Smith upright against a defense that ranked ninth in sacks last year (41).
If the offensive line fails to hold their own, Kelce could be asked to block more in an attempt to neutralize the incessant pass rush from Denver's outside linebackers, led by All Pros Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware.
On that note, if this pass rush comes out aggressively against Smith, this may open the door for Charles to get the ball on draw plays against the Broncos 3-4 base defense. And should the line struggle to generate running lanes for Charles to run through, Reid may call Charles name often in the passing game in an attempt to get him the ball in space against this run defense.
Fantasy Football Implications
With a low over/under (42.0) points and two capable defenses, this game could wind up a defensive battle, but that doesn't mean automatically avoiding all players in the contest.
For season-long fantasy football leagues, Kelce remains a must start; his 4.61 40-speed combined with his massive 6' 5", 260-pound frame makes him a threat to score a touchdown either down the seam or in the red zone in every game. Working in Kelce's favor is the fact that last season, the Broncos allowed the fourth-most fantasy points to tight ends last year, and our own projections have him as the fourth-ranked player at his position this week.
However, as mentioned above, with the formidable pass rush of the Broncos bearing down on Smith and the inexperience of this already sub-par pass blocking offensive line, Kelce may also be asked to stay in and help on pass protection, which could also limit his upside in this game.
On the outside, the three marquee names at wide receiver in this game all have uphill battles to climb, with Maclin facing Harris, Talib, and Roby, and the Broncos duo of Thomas and Sanders likely blanketed by already-impressive rookie Peters and second-year man Gaines. And while Denver's wideouts don't face nearly as stiff the competition in the secondary, the uncertainty around Manning's ability to effectively deliver the ball to these playmakers still makes them shaky propositions. So while you likely won't be sitting Thomas and Sanders in season-long fantasy leagues, I would temper my expectations for them this week.
In the ground game, while rushing offenses conversely tend to find greater success in these same Thursday Night Football games, with the possibility that Anderson and Hillman share carries in this backfield given the former's recent toe and ankle injuries, and running behind an inexperienced offensive line that has yet to gel this year, Anderson drops to RB2 status in this matchup, based on our projections.
On the other side of the field, Charles and the Chiefs must run against a unit that ranked 10th last year in Adjusted Rushing Defensive NEP and limited Justin Forsett and the Ravens to just 73 yards on the ground this past Sunday.
Charles should see enough usage both on the ground and in passing game to put up a decent day -- he totaled 103 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries and 5 receptions against the Texans defense. However, he won't be able to count on turnovers near the goal line for his scoring opportunities in this game like he did in Houston.
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