Big Plays #11: Denver @ San Diego

A methodical offense that doesn't hurt itself too badly and pulls it out in overtime.  A quarterback that played better when the game wasn't on the line than he did in the clutch moments, but whose defense-reading skills proved to be the difference.  A running back whose unremarkable game came to life in overtime.  And a tired defense whose only bright spots were two pass rushers, bailed out by two missed field goals.  Not quite when I expected to find in the numbers after watching the game with my eyes!

We're again referring to AdvancedNFLStats' game log to analyze the game and come up with the biggest plays of the game.  Our definition of a big play is a play that changes the likelihood of the outcome of the game.  We're looking at WPA to judge them.  At the start of the game, WPA is 0.50, meaning each team has a 50% chance of winning.  After every play, WPA is recalculated compared to every nfl football play that has ever happened, and each team's likelihood of winning is adjusted.  The bigger the play, the bigger the WPA movement.

Since we won, we'll start with our worst plays and end with our best.  I'll also ignore all plays of .06 points or less, since they're not big plays.  Here we go!



WPA Offense/Defense Play Description Notes
-0.18 Defense 12:15 1-10-SD 8 DEN 13 SD 13 LI: 2.9 24-R.Mathews up the middle to SD 24 for 16 yards (20-B.Dawkins 28-Q.Carter). After our first overtime drive, we had San Diego bottled up deep in their own territory, and it looked like we'd have the advantage, possibly getting the ball back in great field position.  This "blast up the middle" by Mathews changed that.  Joe Mays looked out of position here, and his lack of lateral quickness is probably what made him miss the tackle.
-0.15 Offense 1:53 3-8-SD 10 DEN 10 SD 13 LI: 4.4 (Shotgun) 15-T.Tebow scrambles up the middle to SD 6 for 4 yards (98-A.Barnes 95-S.Phillips). This is Denver's worst offensive play - deep inside the red zone, Tebow needed eight yards on third down and only got four.  Since teams sometimes are able to score a touchdown in this situation and rarely get worse than a field goal, being relegated to a tying field goal worsens the chance of victory.
-0.12 Defense 1:13 2-6-SD 29 DEN 13 SD 13 LI: 4.7 17-P.Rivers pass short left to 12-P.Crayton pushed ob at SD 40 for 11 yards (25-C.Harris). Rivers is able to convert a first down out of bounds against Chris Harris very late in the game.  This is when there was a slight possibility that San Diego would be able to drive for an end-of-regulation winning field goal.  Dumervil would slam the door on the next play, though.
-0.11 Offense 2:00 2-8-SD 10 DEN 10 SD 13 LI: 5.4 (Shotgun) 15-T.Tebow pass incomplete short left to 12-M.Willis. This was the play immediately before Tebow's scramble, above.  Denver had been moving down the field with a couple of great long passes, but it looks like Tebow, under pressure, just missed Matt Willis here - Matt would have either gotten a touchdown or a first-and-goal from the 2 if he had caught the ball.
-0.10 Defense 14:20 3-1-SD 29 DEN 10 SD 13 LI: 1.6 24-R.Mathews right end to DEN 32 for 39 yards (20-B.Dawkins). At the opening of the 4th quarter, San Diego was up three with a 3rd-and-1.  This long run play made things a little scary for Denver.  It was a strange pitch-toss from Rivers, and a pretty devastating block from Vincent Jackson on Quinton Carter in the backfield.  The longest run of the year for Mathews, and he also avoided Champ and Dumervil.  Luckily, this drive would end up with a missed field goal from Novak.
-0.10 Offense 13:09 3-2-DEN 44 DEN 13 SD 13 LI: 3.7 (Shotgun) 15-T.Tebow up the middle to DEN 45 for 1 yard (98-A.Barnes 76-C.Thomas). Tebow is unable to convert this third down in overtime.  It looks like Spikes had better contain than Tebow thought he would, and McGahee got hung up in the backfield and couldn't block well for Tebow.  Tebow either should have let McGahee have the ball, or tried to beat Spikes to the outside, I think.
-0.10 Defense 8:49 1-10-SD 20 DEN 13 SD 13 LI: 3.5 17-P.Rivers pass short right to 86-V.Brown to SD 31 for 11 yards (21-A.Goodman). On San Diego's final drive, they started at their 20.  This play got them a quick first down and gave them some momentum against Goodman and a tired Denver defense.
-0.09 Offense 9:13 3-6-SD 33 DEN 10 SD 13 LI: 1.8 (Shotgun) 15-T.Tebow up the middle to SD 21 for 12 yards (95-S.Phillips).  PENALTY on DEN-50-J.Walton, Offensive Holding, 10 yards, enforced at SD 33 - No Play. In the 4th quarter, Tebow goes back to pass and scrambles for a first down, but it's called back because of a holding penalty on JD Walton.  The next play would be the uncalled pass interference play, and it would lead to a punt.
-0.09 Defense 5:26 2-2-DEN 49 DEN 13 SD 13 LI: 4 24-R.Mathews right tackle to DEN 35 for 14 yards (20-B.Dawkins). This looked pretty brutal when it happened.  It looks like Dumervil couldn't shed his block, and Mathews got by to put San Diego right on the edge of field goal range.
-0.07 Special Teams 10:43 4-14-SD 20 DEN 13 SD 13 LI: 2.4 5-M.Scifres punts 49 yards to DEN 31 Center-47-M.Windt 19-E.Royal to DEN 30 for -1 yards (29-S.Wright 98-A.Barnes). Early in overtime, field position is everything, and Royal was unable to get a return off against this punt, knocking Denver back to the 30-yard-line.
-0.07 Defense 6:48 3-3-SD 38 DEN 13 SD 13 LI: 3.6 (Shotgun) 17-P.Rivers pass short right to 85-A.Gates to SD 43 for 5 yards (25-C.Harris). Also part of San Diego's final drive, on 3rd and 3, Rivers fires off a quick pass over the middle to a double-covered but very tall Gates for a first down.  Chris Harris pounds the ground in frustration.
-0.06 to +0.06 Gameplay (Every other play) This encompasses all the other plays of the game that weren't "big plays", and includes Novak's first field goal, Rivers' touchdown pass, Prater's tying field goal (this was actually negative because we were so close to the goal line), Royal's long punt return, Fells' long catch and fumble, a Dumervil sack, and Prater's winning field goal (since the victory was pretty much assured at that point).
+0.07 Offense 1:00 1-10-SD 18 DEN 0 SD 10 LI: 1.2 15-T.Tebow pass deep left to 87-E.Decker for 18 yards TOUCHDOWN. This was just a great play by Tebow.  A pump fake that San Diego bit on and a hard, accurate throw to Decker resulted in a touchdown to pull Denver within three at the end of the first half.
+0.07 Offense 3:03 3-5-SD 42 DEN 7 SD 13 LI: 0.9 15-T.Tebow pass short middle to 12-M.Willis to SD 28 for 14 yards (23-Q.Jammer) SD-71-A.Garay was injured during the play SD-23-Q.Jammer was injured during the play. Down by six with a 3rd-and-5 in the 3rd quarter, Tebow has tons of time and then converts the third down by throwing it with effective placement to Matt Willis.  This drive would later end in a field goal.
+0.08 Defense 1:33 1-10-SD 25 DEN 13 SD 13 LI: 4.7 17-P.Rivers pass short right to 35-M.Tolbert to SD 29 for 4 yards (58-V.Miller, 52-W.Woodyard). This is San Diego's final drive in overtime, and given that it was only four yards and inbounds, it brought the chances of victory closer to 50% likelihood for each team, since it was a tie game approaching the end of regulation.
+0.09 Defense 6:21 2-5-SD 36 DEN 10 SD 13 LI: 2.7 17-P.Rivers sacked at SD 30 for -6 yards (58-V.Miller 92-E.Dumervil). In the 4th quarter, San Diego has it on their 36, 2nd-and-five.  Good opportunity for them to get downfield, but then both Miller *and* Dumervil sack Rivers.  San Diego would then have to punt on this drive.
+0.10 Offense 2:25 2-10-DEN 43 DEN 13 SD 13 LI: 3.8 (Shotgun) 15-T.Tebow right end pushed ob at SD 45 for 12 yards (28-S.Gregory). On Denver's final drive, Tebow finally has an effective running play of his own - this would be his only big running play of the day, and gets a first down into San Diego territory.
+0.11 Offense 3:26 2-9-SD 35 DEN 10 SD 13 LI: 2.3 (Shotgun) 15-T.Tebow pass deep right to 81-D.Rosario to SD 12 for 23 yards (28-S.Gregory). This was actually either a zone-read pass, or a zone-read fake.  A beautiful-looking pass to Dante Rosario would lead to the game-tying field goal on the same drive.
+0.12 Defense 3:31 3-6-DEN 31 DEN 13 SD 13 LI: 3.7 35-M.Tolbert left tackle to DEN 35 for -4 yards (58-V.Miller). This was Denver's final defensive play, and it was looking like all hope would be lost.  Miller knocked back the field goal attempt from 48 yards to 53 yards, which very well might have been the difference in the kick.  And for the conspiracy theorists, there was a quick reaction shot by John Elway on the field right after the tackle, and he didn't look happy at all.  I think he's looking to replace Von Miller in the offseason.
+0.13 Special Teams 12:36 4-8-DEN 30 DEN 10 SD 13 LI: 1.1 9-N.Novak 48 yard field goal is No Good Wide Right Center-47-M.Windt Holder-5-M.Scifres. With San Diego up three, early in the 4th quarter, this field goal attempt was wide-right.  I thought it was interesting that it was preceded by two incomplete passes, rather than trying to get closer through the ground game.
+0.14 Offense 15:00 1-10-DEN 20 DEN 13 SD 13 LI: 3.5 (Shotgun) 23-W.McGahee up the middle to DEN 36 for 16 yards (27-P.Oliver). Willis McGahee gives Denver a good start to overtime by running for sixteen yards.  At the 20-yard-line, San Diego was actually more likely to win the game, but this gave them some nice breathing room.
+0.14 Special Teams 12:27 4-1-DEN 45 DEN 13 SD 13 LI: 2.6 4-B.Colquitt punts 47 yards to SD 8 Center-66-L.Paxton 12-P.Crayton to SD 8 for no gain (81-D.Rosario). Again, early in overtime, field position is everything, and this punt knocked San Diego back, deep in their own territory.
+0.15 Defense 1:08 1-10-SD 40 DEN 13 SD 13 LI: 4.7 (Shotgun) 17-P.Rivers sacked at SD 30 for -10 yards (92-E.Dumervil). Late in regulation, San Diego was starting to make some noise about driving for a field goal, and was actually still more likely to win the game because of it.  This sack is what convinced Norv Turner to give up and go for overtime.
+0.16 Offense 2:00 2-6-SD 41 DEN 13 SD 13 LI: 3.9 (Shotgun) 23-W.McGahee up the middle to SD 17 for 24 yards (28-S.Gregory 95-S.Phillips). Willis McGahee basically wins the game for Denver on this play.  And it was again a read-option.  Denver was already looking likely to win given their field position, but this play made it almost definite.
+0.17 Offense 2:41 1-10-SD 12 DEN 10 SD 13 LI: 3.2 23-W.McGahee up the middle to SD 10 for 2 yards (56-D.Butler 51-T.Spikes). I'm actually not sure why this is worth +0.17, but we went from 48% to 65% likely to win on this 1st-down 2-yard carry.  I think it's a flaw in Burke's model, in that it might be when it switches over to the Markov model.  In general, it looks like in these situations, 2nd down is more valuable than 3rd down.
+0.19 Offense 4:19 3-11-DEN 25 DEN 10 SD 13 LI: 1.6 (Shotgun) 15-T.Tebow pass deep right to 87-E.Decker to SD 36 for 39 yards (27-P.Oliver) DEN-87-E.Decker was injured during the play San Diego challenged the pass completion ruling and the play was Upheld (Timeout #1.) Huge play on 3rd and 11, and the biggest play of the game for the offense.  San Diego had successfully sniffed out two option-read plays in a row (the second of which was predicted perfectly by Fouts beforehand).  Tebow pumped once while San Diego held back on the pass rush (this seems like a really stupid way to defend Tebow), and Tebow eventually found Decker for a very difficult throw down the right side.  This drive would eventually lead to the game-tying field goal.
+0.34 Special Teams 2:36 4-10-DEN 35 DEN 13 SD 13 LI: 2.9 9-N.Novak 53 yard field goal is No Good Wide Right Center-47-M.Windt Holder-5-M.Scifres. I really think he would have made it from 48.  Thanks, Von.  I think Novak just planted his plant leg a little too far forward in an effort to get more power, and it made him kick the ball to the right.  This miss was actually the biggest play of the game, and the biggest reason Denver won the game.

Interesting game, and actually, I think this game illustrates some of Tebow's "intangibles".  San Diego just did not know how to defend Tebow, and their solution was to slow down their pass rush to try to limit his scrambling.  The end result was that Tebow had a lot of time to throw the ball, and Tebow proved that against that type of defense, he could do some damage.  While this game looked similar to the last few weeks on the surface, I think it was actually quite a bit different.  Denver's defense didn't have a very good game outside of Miller and Dumervil, and Denver's offense did more to keep the team in the game than the defense did.  But as is usually the case with San Diego, it was special teams that was their downfall - this time, the backup, full-bladdered field goal kicker.

Drive notes for Offense:

  1. -0.02 for a drive with two first downs that stalls past midfield.
  2. -0.03 for a drive with two first downs that stalls past midfield.
  3. -0.05 for an ugly three-and-out deep in our own territory with two penalties.
  4. -0.02 for a drive with one first down and a punt.
  5. +0.12 for a touchdown drive that started just past midfield.
  6. -0.03 for a three-and-out just after halftime.
  7. -0.05 for a super-ugly three-and-out where each play had negative yardage.
  8. +0.08 for a drive starting at our 20 and ending with a field goal.
  9. -0.11 for a drive where a holding penalty called back a 3rd-down conversion, leading to a punt.
  10. +0.03 for a drive leading to a tying field goal with 1:38 left.
  11. +0.06 for gaining some field position before punting in overtime.
  12. -0.08 for a three-and-out on an overturned call involving Jeremiah Johnson.
  13. +0.34 for the game-winning drive in overtime.

Drive notes for Defense:

  1. -0.06 for an opening drive that gives up a field goal.
  2. +0.05 for forcing a three-and-out.
  3. -0.22 for giving up a touchdown drive.
  4. +0.05 for forcing a three-and-out.
  5. +0.04 for forcing a punt after one first down.
  6. +0.00 for an end-of-half drive that did nothing..
  7. -0.04 for giving up a field goal to start the half.
  8. +0.03 for forcing a three-and-out.
  9. +0.07 for a drive that gave up yardage but ended with a missed field goal.
  10. +0.05 for forcing a punt after one first down.
  11. +0.13 for forcing San Diego to aim for overtime (a Dumervil sack helped).
  12. -0.03 for losing a bit of field position in overtime.
  13. +0.10 for a drive that gave up field position but ended in a missed field goal.

Denver's offense definitely improved in the first half, compared to the first half of the Jets game.  The offense was only -0.03 in the first half.  Denver's defense didn't have a great first half at -0.14.  So while neither side helped themselves, Denver's defense gave up more of the damage.  In the second half, the roles switched - Denver's offense was at -0.08, and Denver's defense was +0.24 for the real clutch performance - but really only from Miller and Dumervil.  That does give Denver credit for Novak's missed field goal - if we take that out, Denver's defense was +0.11, still positive.

In overtime, the offense was +0.32, and the defense was +0.07.  Again though, the defense is given credit for Novak's missed field goal.  If you take that out, Denver's defense is -0.27 - they were clearly spent, and lucked out from the missed attempt, helped by one timely play by Miller.

So what's the real storyline of the game?  Denver's offense almost treaded water in the first half as Denver's defense had a setback.  Then in the second half, Denver's defense managed to do just well enough to force overtime while the offense didn't damage their chances too badly.  Finally in overtime, Denver's offense bailed out the tired defense overall, helped by a missed field goal.

Players: Tim Tebow actually had a bad game in terms of WPA, but he did well in EPA.  This means he performed better (on average) when the game wasn't on the line, compared to when it was - somewhat of an anti-clutch performance, or perhaps it was regression to the mean.  Meanwhile, Willis McGahee had a huge game in terms of WPA, although you could give Tebow partial credit for McGahee's zone-read runs.  Defensively, Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil had the biggest games.  Congratulations to all!

This is a Fan-Created Comment on The opinion here is not necessarily shared by the editorial staff of MHR

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