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After exploiting defenses almost at will in Denver's first three games, QB Jay Cutler ran into some trouble at Kansas City on Sunday. Though he threw for 361 yards and had moments when he flashed excellent arm strength, vision and timing, the performance didn't measure up to those of Cutler's previous outings. Credit Chiefs coach Herm Edwards and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham for drawing up an excellent game plan: a combination of eight-man fronts, disguised coverage schemes and timely pressure packages.
Despite Cutler's off-the-charts productivity leading up to the matchup, Cunningham focused on taking away Denver's run game. He used interior zone run blitzes and stunts in tandem with eight-man fronts to create penetration and clog rushing lanes. Rather than play it safe and still get burned -- as several defenses more talented than Kansas City's already had -- Cunningham chose to make the Broncos one-dimensional.
It was a risk, no doubt. But Cunningham's timing was great, and he was similarly aggressive in his pressure packages and coverages. He ran stunts, blitzed linebackers and even got a strong push from his front four. Cunningham challenged rookie cornerbacks Brandon Flowers and Brandon Carr to play tight coverage on wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal, mixing man-to-man (including press) and five-underneath man two-deep (which looks similar to Cover 2) with a base two-deep zone to stifle Denver's short and intermediate routes and keep Cutler guessing.
The result: Cutler racked up yards, but he appeared to press more often. He forced the ball into tight windows that closed quickly and wound up throwing a pair of interceptions. Marshall, Royal and wide receiver Brandon Stokley got their touches, but the Broncos scored just one touchdown.
Cutler excels in the pocket and on designed rollouts and bootlegs, but he isn't as effective as some other mobile passers when forced to improvise. Cutler can run, but athleticism doesn't automatically translate to playmaking ability. Throwing on the move when a play breaks down is a different skill than delivering on a predetermined run/pass option, and Cutler isn't as instinctive in this department as, say, Cowboys QB Tony Romo (though very few are). When Cutler was pressured in the pocket by the Chiefs and hurried to find an open target, he appeared uncomfortable. The front-four rush and sporadic linebacker blitzes seemed to take him out of his comfort zone.
To counter such a game plan (which future Denver opponents are sure to copy), coach Mike Shanahan needs to consider more screen passes, flares and wheel routes to the backs. Particularly if the coaching staff senses defenses matching up or using combination coverages that worked for Kansas City, the Broncos need to get the ball to running backs Selvin Young, Ahmad Hall and Michael Pittman in mismatch situations on linebackers.
The Chiefs had little to lose Sunday, and decided they'd rather pull out the stops and see what happened than die a slow death. The better team may not have won, but it won't be the last time an overmatched Broncos opponent tries to get Cutler and his crew out of rhythm. They had better be ready next time.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.