Sizing up a key Broncos-Chiefs matchup

November, 14, 2013
11/14/13
12:35
PM ET
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It didn't take Demaryius Thomas very long to see what he thinks is the biggest change in the Kansas City Chiefs defense.

As in, it was clear at first glance, from the first digital image that went across the screen for the Denver Broncos wide receiver.

[+] EnlargeDemaryius Thomas
Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY SportsUnlike last season, Demaryius Thomas and the Broncos' receivers will have to contend with bigger, more physical Chiefs defenders.
"They've got a lot more size back there, a lot," Thomas said. "Last year they had two smaller guys outside. Flowers plays in the nickel a lot of the time, but look now and Sean [Smith], he goes about 220 [pounds]. They have some big guys, if you let them get their hands on you, it's a long day."

And for most defenses that have the Broncos receivers in front of them, size matters. Thomas is a 6-foot-3, 229-pound matchup dilemma with elite speed, and the Broncos also line up the 6-3, 215-pound Eric Decker along with Wes Welker in their three-wide receiver set. Toss in 6-5, 250-pound tight end Julius Thomas in the pattern and the Broncos are tough to handle.

Last season, in two games against the Broncos, size mattered. The Chiefs started the 5-9, 197-pound Javier Arenas and the 5-9, 187-pound Brandon Flowers in the secondary as Kansas City opened both games in the dime -- six defensive backs. The Chiefs held their ground reasonably well in a 17-9 Broncos win last November, but in the regular-season finale the Broncos overwhelmed the Chiefs secondary.

Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning finished that game 23-of-29 passing for 334 yards and three touchdowns. Thomas finished with 122 yards receiving and a touchdown and Decker had two touchdown catches.

"I think after that they probably wanted some bigger guys," Thomas said. "And they got them."

That they did. At 6-3, 218, Smith is one of the biggest cornerbacks in the league and the Chiefs secured him with a three-year, $18 million deal after his four seasons in Miami. Smith has started all nine games at right cornerback for the Chiefs thus far and been everything they hoped he would be.

The Chiefs then had some good fortune along the way. They claimed rookie cornerback Marcus Cooper (6-2, 192) off waivers just before the start of the regular season in hopes he could provide depth. Cooper, a converted wide receiver who moved to defense after his first season at Rutgers, had been a seventh-round pick by the San Francisco 49ers, but they waived him in the final roster cut before the regular season after their own free-agent spending spree in the secondary had limited the spots.

And Cooper has been a revelation, having started three games and consistently been in the lineup when the team goes to the nickel. Cooper is second on the league's leading defense with two interceptions, having repeatedly shown the kind of skills when the ball is in the air a receiver would have with the physical edge needed on defense. With Smith and Cooper in the outside spots and Flowers in the slot in the nickel, the Chiefs are far more able to line up one-on-one on the bigger receivers and it is at least part of the reason the team leads the league in sacks with 37.

So, while Chiefs coach Andy Reid won't say the Broncos were the tipping point in all of this, he will acknowledge it was a position of need as he and general manager John Dorsey re-made a roster that fueled a 2-14 finish last season.

"I would tell you that you're not sitting here building your team to beat the Denver Broncos, that's not what you're doing," Reid said. "There's a fine line there that you're trying to accumulate as many players as you can at all of the positions, so not only can you compete against the Denver Broncos but these other teams in the National Football League that have good players. That's really what you're doing.

"I'm just stating a fact here, if you follow kind of what John [Dorsey] has done through his career in personnel, he has always gone after big corners," Reid continued. "Sean [Smith] is different, he's a huge man, the size of a linebacker really, and there aren't many of those in the league. But he has always had big corners and has gone after that type of a player and that was before Denver was in the vision. When he builds a team, that's what he likes."

It all makes for a quality matchup Sunday night, however. The Chiefs have yet to surrender a 300-yard passing game -- the Cowboys' Tony Romo came the closest with 298 on Sept. 15 -- and no opposing wide receiver has caught two scoring passes in the same game against Kansas City this season.

"No question, we have our hands full," Manning said.

There is also the matter of opposing defensive backs having success with some of the rough stuff over the last four games against the Broncos' receivers. Whether it be disrupting the timing of the routes or simply frustrating the Broncos wideouts with all of the contact, some defensive coordinators believe that may be the way to go against the Broncos' high-powered attack.

Thomas was asked if he felt defenses had tried to get more physical in recent weeks.

"That's true," he said. "But I feel like that's every game sometimes, it's just something we've got to deal with, something we've got to work through ... we just can't let it happen. Don't let them put their hands on you. That's on us."

Jeff Legwold

ESPN Denver Broncos reporter

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