Ok, now that we have banished the last second defensive failure demon for at least one more week, let's all exhale. We won. It may have taken some dramatic 3rd down conversions by PFM on that final drive, but we won and the petulant 4-year old that is Phyllis Rivers can now be sent to his room without desert. So let's look at how the Broncos were able to dispatch the Chargers yesterday.
Controlling the LOS
I wrote this last week
If we play the first down run like we did in game one, we will win this game. If we play the first down run like we did in the second game, we will lose.
The Broncos controlled the LOS on both sides of the ball and it showed. The Chargers ran the ball 10 times on first down for a grand total of 20 yards (2.0 ypc), included in that were 3 stops for no gain and two stops for 1 yard. Their longest first down run was 6 yards. This was akin to what our defensive front was able to do to them in the first game. Remember that the Chargers were the best team in the league at not getting stuffed on running plays (only 4.7% of running plays went for zero or negative yards). Our front seven held the Chargers to 65 yards rushing on 17 carries (leaving out the Phyllis kneel-down, 3.8 ypc) for the game with the majority of that coming on Mathews 16 yards run where our defenders failed to wrap him up. Our front seven also had a stop for no gain on a second down run by Brown (his only carry). So that is 4 stops for no gain on 17 actual running plays - 23.5% of the Chargers runs were stuffed by our D.
By stopping them on first down runs, we consistently got them in 2nd and long and then forced them into many 3rd and longs in the first half (only 4 of 12 3rd downs were 3rd and long, three of those were in the first half). Even when we allowed them to get in 3rd and medium or short, we only allowed them to convert 4 of 12. They came in as the best team in the league at converting on 3rd down and we held them to 33% conversion. A lot of that can be contributed to the front 4 putting pressure on Phyllis WITHOUT resorting to blitzes.
On the offensive side of the Ball, we ran that ball effectively, converting 13 first downs via the run (and only 11 via the pass). As a team we ran for 133 yards on 33 carries (leaving out the kneel-down, 4.0 ypc). This allowed us to control the clock (35+ minutes of possession) against the team that was the best in the league this year at controlling the clock. Our ability to control the LOS on offense allowed us to overcome two turnovers and some costly penalties.
This was a mixed bag.
- We went the entire game without punting.
- Every one of Prater's kickoffs went for a touchback.
- We averaged 22 yards per punt return (and without the turf-monster getting ED again, one would have gone for a TD).
- We should have had a KOR for a touchdown (no thanks to Bolden).
- Holliday looked very dangerous and averaged 25.7 yards on his KO returns even with one shortened by penalty.
- We have no idea how our coverage units played since they weren't tested.
- Prater missed one FG badly (blame it on the wind?) and almost missed another. I was having flashbacks to last year against the Ravens when he missed the kick that would have put us up 20-0. You never want to leave points on the field in the playoffs, no matter how insignificant they may seem at the time.
- Decker missed the "catch" on the onside which ended up not hurting us other than causing the blood-pressure of most Broncos fans to rise dramatically. While not recorded as one, this was effectively a turnover.
I think in the final tally we won the special teams battle, but there is no doubt that we could have played better.
Two key points heading into the AFCC game with the Pats
The LOS - our OL vs their DL
The first key point is again about the LOS. In our overtime loss the Pats, we ran the ball 48 times for 280 yards (5.8 ypc). We converted 9 of 18 3rd downs and had 15 rushing first downs on the game The Pats were concerned enough in that game with our passing that they dared Manning to beat them with the running game. The Pats defensive line and LBs were dominated in that game. They were saved by turnovers (fumble, interception and the punt that Carter let hit his leg) and timely incompletions on 3rd and short or medium in the second half and overtime. Our offensive line just destroyed their undermanned (and undersized) defensive line. Yesterday, our offensive line played extremely well against the Chargers (after getting beaten by their defensive line in the previous meeting). So it's possible that the Pats front 7 plays significantly better this time around, but I would wager that our offensive line still wins the battle this week.
How did the front 7 of the Pats do against the Colts? Indy only had 3 rushing first downs. Indy ran the ball 23 times for 69 yards (3.3 ypc). They Pats front 7 kept Luck from scrambling (only one run) and confused him into throwing 4 picks. They did this without Spikes, one of their defensive leaders and better defensive players this season. After the Broncos gouged them for 280 rushing yards, they tightened up somewhat allowing only 608 yards rushing (4.4 ypc) in their next five games. They weren't horrible against the run in their remaining games (HOU, CLE, MIA, BAL, BUF), but they weren't great either. The caveat is that four of their five final opponents finished in the bottom third of the NFL in rushing yards, so it's not like they were facing great rushing offenses save for Buffalo (Buffalo finished second in the league in rushing yards).
Will our OL dominate their DL like last game? The chess match will be interesting, but I doubt that Bellicheat allows Manning to beat him with his arm. I think he will rely on the same type of game plan. Inviting the Broncos to run by playing the safeties deep and either forcing Manning to move down the field with runs or short passes. He will hope for more turnovers (we turned it over 4 times against them in Foxboro) and enough stops on defense that Brady gets his chances against our hobbled secondary (now that Harris is out).
The other LOS - their OL vs our DL
NE was able to run the ball against the Colts in a similar manner to what they did to us in 2012. While they only had 13 rushing first downs against the Colts, they ran the ball 45 times for 234 yards (leaving out the kneel-down). Even taking out Blount's 73 yard run that put the game out of reach, they still averaged 3.7 yards per carry. That means that they ran the ball early and often. They also ran the ball efficiently allowing them to get into managable 3rd down situations. Even without Gronk, the Pats converted on 11 of 18 3rd downs (61%) against the Clots (intentional misspelling). I doubt that they run that ball as effectively against our front 7. In our previous meeting, the Pats ran the ball 31 times for 116 yards (3.7 ypc), but 33 of those yards came on one carry. In you leave out that carry, they averages 2.8 ypc against us in that game. Keep in mind that in our last meeting it which not only cold but the winds were significantly worse than the winds were against SD yesterday. So both teams NEEDED to run the ball because of the difficulty throwing anything down the field on the gusty winds.
Since the Chargers ran the ball well against us in our loss to them, the Broncos D has been quite good against the run. We held the Texans to 87 yards on 26 carries, the Raiders to 64 yards on 20 carries and the Chargers yesterday to 65 yards on 18 carries (3.4 yards per carry allowed over the past three games). Our DL, despite the loss of Vickerson and Wolfe, is playing very well against the run. While the offensive line of the Texans and Faiders are not great, the Chargers offensive line had been playing quite well over the past month+. The Pats offensive line is probably better than the Chargers OL (if only because of the injuries on the Chargers OL) and we are without Von in this game un like the last time we played the Pats, but I still expect that our DL will hold the Pats running game down.
Both teams are banged up dramatically. That Pats have 12 guys on IR, 5 of whom have been to the Pro-bowl. The Broncos have 11 guys on the IR, two of whom have been All-Pros. We could debate who has lost more to the IR, but the fact will not change that both teams have huge contributors that they have lost for the season at various points during the year. Both teams have so far been able to compensate for those losses. That does not mean that the backups currently starting can not be exploited. The outcome on Sunday could very well be determined by which coaching staff better takes advantage of the backups that are on the field for the other team. Unfortunately, without Harris the Broncos glaring weak link will be whoever the third CB is (Webster, Carter or Jammer). Pick your poison there. Webster is playing with a cast and is a rookie who was picked on by Phyllis in our loss. Carter was not even active on Sunday and his played an extremely limited amount since he was toasted in the Dallas game. Jammer was almost solely responsible for letting the Chargers back into yesterday's game. Who is the lesser of the three evils there? Hopefully whoever gets the call is protected enough the Brady doesn't kill our D by attacking him.