Third Down...and Out

KANSAS CITY MO - DECEMBER 05: Tamba Hali #91 of the Kansas City Chiefs sacks quarterback Kyle Orton #8 of the Denver Broncos during the game on December 5 2010 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

I tried to get this post finished before Sunday's game, but I didn't expect the rabbit hole I was entering to be so deep and seemingly never-ending. Fortunately, I had all the data researched and ready to go by late Saturday night  so all I had to do was plug in the numbers from the Broncos-Chiefs game on Sunday to begin actually writing.  Also (un)fortunately, the game did little to improve the numbers I had already gathered.

Many of you know how critical I have been of Kyle Orton nearly all season long, but most of my criticism was based on what my eyes were seeing and I never did any meaningful research to see if my gut instinct was correct. However, after twelve weeks I felt it was time to examine the actual statistical reality and compare it to my own opinion. The result was worse than I imagined it would be.

The following is mostly an indictment upon Kyle Orton, but it is also an indictment upon Josh McDaniels as the play calling has, at times, placed Orton in rather unfortunate situations. However, it has also become plain to me that most of the failures on third down are entirely due to the failure of Orton to make plays when they are needed the most.

To figure all of this out I had to compile the actual drive stats for every single drive the offense has run this season. No small task, I assure you. Then I had to break the drives down by the situations the drives occurred. This is where the only subjective part of this statistical compilation came into play, so I will explain in detail how I went about doing that and what my criteria were in doing so.

The first set of data is the largest and most common. I simply named it the Regular Game Action category. This category basically has every single drive in the first half (even the Oakland game), as well as most third quarter action in games that were either close or a Denver Broncos blowout.

The second set of data is categorized as Garbage Time Action, which contain any drives that took place when the Broncos were down by three or more scores in the second half. I had to include the Rams game in this category even though Orton led the Broncos back into this game, simply because the Rams were running the prevent defense during that rally and returned to their base defense on the final drive.

The last set of data is likely to be the most contentious group of data, which I have dubbed Clutch (Game in Doubt). This includes any drive that took place during the late third and through the fourth quarter of any game where the Broncos trailed by a single score.

I also threw out several so-called drives that resulted from the victory formation or very short drives that resulted in instant turnovers - such as the Orton pick six and Demaryius Thomas fumble from the Raider game. Also, I did my best to get 100% accuracy, but if I am off by a number here or there please refrain from crucifying me. If any mistakes are found, let me know and I will fix them. The data set is too large for any minor error to change anything, so I am not too worried about that.

Let's get to it.

Regular Game Action

I will start with the data gathered from the 91 drives that fell under this category. Here is a chart showing the overall breakdown of the drives listed and the 3rd down conversion rate:

Regular Game Action
Pass
Plays
Run
Plays
Yards Pts. 3rd Down
Conversion
338 216 3018 173 46/116

 

As you can see, the Broncos have thrown the ball a little over 60% of the time in regular game action. I think this had more to do with injuries and a lack of talent in the backfield more than it had to do with McDaniels desire to throw more than run. Also, note the putrid 39.7% third down conversion rate as we'll come back to that in a minute.

First, before we get to the really shocking items, I'd like to go over a few things I noticed while examining each drive in more detail. The Broncos scored touchdowns on twenty of their 91 drives in this data set. The remarkable stat that came out of this is that on seven of those twenty drives, the Broncos did not have to convert a single third down during the length of the drive. Granted, any drive that doesn't need a third down conversion would result in a touchdown, but that stat sort of confirmed my suspicion that everything must go right for Orton to convert drives into touchdowns.

The other thing that bothered me, though I did not research other teams to see if this number was indeed bad, was that this team had to travel 17 yards for every point scored, which seems high to me. Anyways, these things are peanuts compared to what else I found. Let's go with a bullet format for these:

  • Out of Kyle Orton's 33 sacks taken this season, 16 have come on third down during this Regular Game Action category. Four other drives also ended in large part because of sacks taken on first or second down prior to the third down failure (3 sacks on second down, 1 on first down).  Do I need to mention how awful that stat is? This has very little to do with actual line protection. Kyle Orton is incredibly indecisive on third downs and when his first option is covered he panics, resulting in busted plays.
  • Out of the 116 third down plays, the shotgun formation was run 97 times. I am not sure what to make of this stat other than it drives me crazy to see Orton in shotgun on third and short.  Of those 97 shotgun formations, a first down or touchdown was obtained just thirty times out of that formation. Correct me if I am wrong, but 30.9% conversion rate is bad right?
  • One good stat, only two third down attempts resulted in interceptions.
  • Of the failed third down conversions, 44 were passes, 7 runs, 16 sacks, 2 INT and 1 Penalty.  The one penalty ended up being a failed third down pass, but I decided to blame the holding penalty rather than Orton's incomplete pass, since the hold cost the team a first down.
  • When Kyle Orton throws a second down incomplete pass, the Broncos convert just 6.25% of their third downs.  Yes, SIX POINT TWO FIVE.

Not much else to add to this.  Though if any of this made you sick to your stomach, I should inform you that this was the good. The bad and ugly is coming up next.

Garbage Time Action

On to the bad. I felt like there should be more, but I was a bit more lenient on my definition of what a "garbage time" drive is. Therefore, I counted just 20 drives that fit my criteria. My criteria was a large deficit and/or against the prevent defense. Here is the breakdown of drives:

Garbage Time Action
Pass
Plays
Run
Plays
Yards Pts. 3rd Down
Conversion
91 19 720 52 5/21

 

Desperate times call for desperate measures. This time the Broncos necessarily chucked the ball 82.7% of the time, with pretty impressive results. Though the third down conversion rate is still atrocious at 23.8%, the Broncos converted 50% on fourth downs. They also put points on the board eight out of the twenty drives, including seven touchdowns!

This time around, the Broncos only had two drives that did not require a third down conversion to score, so at least some conversions were necessary albeit fourth downs included. The big thing here is only 13.8 yards were needed for every point scored. Perhaps this is why the Prevent defense is so annoying to fans - why do coaches insist on running it? Bullet time:

  • Of the 16 failed third down conversions, 13 were passes, one run and one sack. This brings Orton's sack total on third down to 17 by the way. Also, two other sacks on first or second down resulted in a failed third down conversion during that set of downs. So actually, out of 33 total sacks on the year, we are up to 23 that would help bring about a failed third down conversion and we still have one more category to examine.
  • Once again, its all shotgun all the time. Of the 21 third down plays, 20 were run in the shotgun formation. This makes sense though, since it is desperation time at this point in a game.
  • A second down incomplete pass resulted in a 0% conversion rate on third down. Yes, that is a zero.

The bad is that the Broncos have spent so much time in Garbage Time. This information should make you somewhat ill, but rest assured the ugly will put all to shame.

Clutch (Game in Doubt)

The ugly is Kyle Orton's performance (along with Josh McDaniels play calling) when it is a one possession score late in the third quarter and through the fourth quarter. We'll start with the breakdown of the 18 drives I counted while the Broncos were in this situation:

Clutch (Game in Doubt)
Pass
Plays
Run
Plays
Yards Pts. 3rd Down
Conversion
83 26 529 19 4/17

 

The unwillingness to run the ball during close games continues to vex me, for passing the ball 76% of the time just makes no sense. Late in the game is when you are supposed to wear down your opponent and there are far too many three or four and outs in this category for my liking (7 out of the 18 drives). Third downs still embarrassing at just 23.5% and a laughable 27.8 yards per point. This category is why I believe Kyle Orton has failed as a starting quarterback for this football team. However, before I completely levy my indictment upon him, let's examine all of the key points I have found:

  • Kyle Orton took fewer sacks in this category. In fact, none on third down and only two on the other downs that would lead to unsuccessful third down conversions. That brings his total to 25 sacks that would play a large role in unsuccessful third down attempts. Ouch!
  • Once again, the shotgun formation rules the day. 14 of the 17 attempts were out of this formation, only 3 were successful in converting.
  • The most shocking and likely the most damning stat of all is the six turnovers (3 INT and 3 Fumbles) by Orton, five of which came on third downs. Also, three failed fourth down conversions.
  • Both touchdowns scored in the clutch were on drives that did not have a single third down attempt.
  • There were four incomplete passes on second down, resulting in zero third down conversions. 

I have only one word for this. Shocking. It is shocking to me at how bad Kyle Orton is late in the game with victory within reach. There is only one excuse a fan of Kyle Orton could possibly use to explain away these facts and that is the play calling of Josh McDaniels. I can agree with that up to a point, but I cannot deny that most of the blame must fall upon Kyle Orton's shoulders.

Whoever starts at quarterback in 2011, his name will not be Kyle Orton, so it is time to give Tebow a looksee. For if Tebow does not progress at quarterback enough in these final four games, at least we'll know that a Top 5 quarterback is where this team will need to go in next years draft.

The only reasoning I can figure for sticking with Orton for the rest of this dreadful season is for trade value. The Broncos are heading for a Top 5 pick, perhaps even Top 3.  So that is why I cannot understand why the hell the front office is so unwilling to get some experience under Tebow's belt. Otherwise, how does this organization pass on Andrew Luck if by some miracle he drops a spot or two?

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