Why was the Broncos’ stellar defensive performance not enough in loss to Chiefs?

Kansas City Chiefs free safety Tyrann Mathieu (32) celebrates as he leaps over Denver Broncos quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (5) during the second half at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium.
Dec 5, 2021; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs free safety Tyrann Mathieu (32) celebrates as he leaps over Denver Broncos quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (5) during the second half at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Broncos had their biggest game since Super Bowl 50 with a primetime matchup against the AFC West-leading Kansas City Chiefs.

Unfortunately, despite the defense turning in a heavenly performance, the Broncos fell short and by the game’s end, it didn’t even feel like they were all that close.

Why was that the case? Well, let’s take a look.

Stock Up

Broncos defense

The Broncos defense we were promised in the preseason took a while to show up, but it’s here now, just in time for a potential playoff run.

The defense has looked awesome in recent weeks against Washington, Dallas and Los Angeles, and once again looked the part against the Kansas City Chiefs.

On a night where the special teams unit gave Mahomes the ball at the 10-yard line and the offense gave up a defensive touchdown, the Broncos only allowed 22 points. That number should’ve been closer to 13, which should be enough to win your team the game 90 percent of the time.

The defense also gave Patrick Mahomes the lowest passer rating of his career, and while that’s a poor metric which is helped by drops and some lucky bounces, it also showcases just how little the Broncos were allowing through the air.

After the first two drives, they played lights-out the rest of the way, only allowing the Chiefs to drive into scoring position once more.

Frankly, one could even argue that after the opening-drive touchdown, the Broncos played an exceptional game. It took a lucky bounce off the upright, and a strong wind at his back, for Harrison Butker to connect on his field goal that capped off the Chiefs’ second drive.

Say what you will about this Broncos performance, but Fangio did his job defensively.

Javonte Williams

The Broncos found a real one in the second round of this year’s draft.

In the modern age of pro football, selecting a running back high is frowned upon, and with good reason. However, that doesn’t make it impossible for the player to live up to the value assigned to them by being selected so high. Accomplishing that feat just takes a really special back that can produce despite poor surrounding performances.

Denver might have found such a back, with that requisite degree of special talent, in second-round pick Javonte Williams.

The offensive line allowed penetration all night long, and that easily could have stunted Williams’ performance, but the rookie out of North Carolina refused to be denied. He constantly battled for yards and was the only thing working on Denver’s offense as a result.

One thing that has to be highlighted was the improved vision Williams flashed at times. The Chiefs’ front-seven would have a play dead-to-rights, only for Williams to find a gap and shoot through for a nice gain.

That was a skill that was severely lacking just a few weeks ago, and the reason why he wasn’t the bell-cow back. Now that he’s demonstrating some improved vision, the need for Melvin Gordon is becoming lesser and lesser.

Stock Down

Teddy Bridgewater

Time to get into the meat of this piece, right?

So why did the Broncos fall so far short of beating the Kansas City Chiefs despite a truly awesome performance from the defense?

Teddy Bridgewater was probably the biggest culprit.

For much of this season he’s been fine, and more or less what the Broncos expected — a solid game manager who doesn’t elevate the talent around him much, but also won’t lose you a game with painful turnovers and head-scratching decisions.

Tonight that was not the case.

Having his protection torn to shreds by the Chiefs on such a high percentage of his dropbacks certainly made matters worse, but Bridgewater appeared rattled and uneven all night long.

The typically accurate Bridgewater, known for his decision-making and field vision made several inaccurate throws, questionable decisions and missed open receivers at times.

He finished the day 22-for-40 for 257 yards, a touchdown, and two interceptions, though those stats are incredibly friendly and don’t necessarily reflect the performance Bridgewater turned in.

Yeah, Bridgewater might be the team’s best quarterback since Peyton Manning, but that’s a very low bar to clear and it definitely doesn’t mean Bridgewater has been a solution. To be fair though, the Broncos weren’t looking for a savior and they didn’t need one tonight. They needed someone who wouldn’t be a part of the problem, and tonight, he was a major part of the problem with the offense.

It should not be hard to quell the cries for a quarterback as objectively bad as Drew Lock, yet Bridgewater has not been able to accomplish that feat. That does reflect on his own poor level of play, to some extent.

Offensive Line

The shortcomings of the Broncos’ quarterback, might have been more glaring, but upon initial viewing, the offensive line appeared to be the worst aspect of the offense in their matchup with the Chiefs. That’s saying something considering just how poorly nearly everyone performed.

Denver’s run game was proficient today, but not thanks to the offensive line. Partway through the second half, NBC showed a Next-Gen Stats graphic detailing how over 91 percent (71 yards in total) of Javonte Williams’ 78 rushing yards had been gained after contact.

The line was consistently blown up in the run game, leading to numerous plays that ended with tackles for loss or short gains that pushed the offense behind the sticks.

Much worse though, was their pass protection. Kansas City’s defense thrives on being aggressive and bringing heat, and Denver had almost no ability to stifle it tonight. Bridgewater was bad, but a lot of his bad play could be attributed to the high rate of pressure the Chiefs were creating.

There were multiple plays in which the Broncos had to convert and move the sticks, and the play was practically over before Bridgewater finished his drop.

The quarterback polarization of the fanbase can skew things into making it seem like either it’s all on the quarterback, or it’s not on the quarterback at all. Today felt like a healthy mix of both poor protection and poor quarterback play sinking the Broncos in the biggest of spots.

Special Teams

This columnist stupidly and foolishly considered writing a column before the game about the Broncos’ improved special teams play in recent weeks.

They’ve had numerous blocked field goals, have been limiting the effectiveness of punt returns, and have been making their kickoffs unreturnable at one of the highest rates in the league. It really did seem like maybe they were turning the corner.

Well, so much for that. That column will never see the light of the day.

The first head-scratching special teams gaffe came right before the half. Diontae Spencer gobbled up valuable seconds with a lengthy return that went nowhere and that left the offense with no time to do anything.

Would they have made the most of the time had they been provided it? No, probably not, but Spencer didn’t even give them the option.

The next gaffe was much more embarrassing, painful and obvious.

Caden Sterns — who has been such a pleasant surprise nearly all season long for the Broncos — foolishly engaged in a block and ran into Spencer, in the middle of a fair catch, resulting in a fumble.

It’s hard to win when your offense plays like Denver’s did on Sunday. It’s impossible when those offensive errors are compounded by mistakes on special teams.