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A Pair of Pliers and a Blowtorch - Getting Medieval on 3rd Down

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We interrupt your regularly-scheduled Tim Tebow news, for an important announcement.

3rd downs matter.   

In the 2009, the Denver Broncos were pretty far from okay.  The team's lack of success on 3rd down was more than just a drive staler, it was the black plague of the Broncos season.  Whether through the air or on the ground, rain or shine, throwbacks or alternative jerseys, the Broncos mustered a hideously and perfectly grotesque Raiders-like 3rd-down conversion rate of 36.18%.  

3rd-down conversions are, like turnovers and field position, another critical marker of success in the NFL.  In fact, the team that won the battle on 3rd down in 2008 and 2009 (512 games) won about 70% of the time.  The only team that reached the playoffs last year with a 3rd-down conversion rate of less than 40% was the New York Jets.  And they needed help to get there.

The Broncos in 2009 could make no such playoff claim.  I remember writing in my weekly piece called The Stats That Don't Lie, the following during week 14 of last year:

I'm not letting the Broncos off the hook on 3rd downs, where they rank 23rd in the league. This is just an atrocious stat given that teams like the Detroit Lions are more effective. If the Broncos don't make the playoffs, we can all point to 3rd downs as the reason's outrageous that an 8-5 team is hovering at around 35% on 3rd downs--the Kool-Aid has gone just a tad bitter.

Even as early as week 9, when  Jamie Dukes was busy jumping on the Broncos bandwagon, I wrote this about the problems the Broncos were facing on 3rd downs:

We need to also be honest regarding 3rd-down efficiency...If the Broncos ever want to make a legitimate run at the playoffs, they need to be above 40%...until Denver improves on 3rd down, the criticism of Orton will continue, and much of it will be warranted. 

In a league in which the average 3rd-down conversion rate was 38.59%, the Broncos were a just a sleeping gimp.

So for the Broncos to ensure a better finish than their hillbilly-boy record of 8-8 last year, 3rd down was one statistic they couldn't ignore in both NFL Free Agency and in The Draft.

What they needed in the off season was a pair of pliers and a blowtorch.  

What did they get?  Survive the jump, and let's get medieval.

Now that you've bothered to read on,  I can drop all pretenses and take a moment to say something about 3rd-down. 

Although I've said this before, it's worth repeating again.  3rd-down efficiency isn't really a stat that tells us anything the Broncos did.  It's an sort of pass-through stat.  The stat that really makes a team medieval is yards/ pass attempt, which has an very strong correlation to winning. Since 1990, the seemingly simple stat of yard/attempt has a correlation coefficient to points differential of .845.   This kind of correlation isn't gimpy in the least.  It's also 2.76 times the correlation of rushing yards/play.  The NFL truly is a passing league, despite all of the rumors to the contrary.

However, 3rd-down efficiency is an easier stat to understand for almost all casual fans, and because most teams pass much more often on 3rd down, we're using 3rd-down efficiency as a proxy.  But make no mistake about it, getting better on 3rd-down is synonymous with increasing one's yards/passing attempt.  It's no secret that last year's participants in the Super Bowl, New Orleans and Indianapolis were 44% and 49% on 3rd down, which corresponded to a yards/attempt stat of 8.01 and 7.51 yards-per-pass attempt--both excellent.

With this bit of statistical chicanery aside, we can now get to the moves that the Broncos have made and how they affect 3rd down in 2010:

Signing Jamal Williams and Justin Bannan

With respect to 3rd down, these signings were primarily for 3rd-and-short.  Jamal Williams can stand up a center, a guard, the Black Hole, and a bus load of Ukrainian power lifters.  And Justin Bannan is strong enough to play a 3-4 nose tackle if needed.  It's not an exaggeration to think that if these two stay healthy, running against the Broncos on 3rd-and-short in 2010 just got hillbilly tough.

As an aside, you know that Williams wants to get medieval on the Chargers.  Here's a quote from Williams about Philip Rivers that was almost lost in all of the draft madness, but is worth seeing again:

"We text each other. We're an hour ahead here, so I wake up and text him and say, ‘I'm an hour better than you young man. You don't have that red jersey on during practice now,'" Williams said.

The only problem with this quote is that Williams called Rivers a man.   I prefer Broncos-chew toy, but I'll give Williams a pass.  Besides, I'm not telling a 350-pound man he is wrong.

Signing Nathan Jones

There is no secret here.  The signing of Jones was made precisely because of his body of work on 3rd downs.  He is being paid the kind of money that screams starting nickel back.  Last year, Alphonso Smith, Jack Williams, Ty Law, Josh Barrett, and Tony Carter were all used in the nickel spot.  In 2010, Denver is committed to stopping that revolving door. If Smith develops, wonderful.  But the Broncos aren't just waiting around and watching.

Although this signing has received little notice outside of Denver, it was a good move by the Broncos and should provide insurance this year in nickel situations and provide a bridge so that another young Broncos corner back can develop (Cox, Smith, Smith, etc.).

Signing of Jarvis Green

I was slightly puzzled by this move, and I'm still hopeful that Ryan McBean or Marcus Thomas will be used in running situations in place of Green.  Yet when I look at it from a 3rd-down perspective, it makes a lot of sense, if you believe Green's agent:

"We were in a unique, unique position to be a free agent. We believe he was the only person in free agency in his role - a down lineman who can rush and have sacks in the 3-4 scheme. Numbers prove it. So we weren't worried Friday, because we knew there was nobody (like him). Even if a team like Denver signs another end, Jarvis would still fit because he's used for third downs. We've studied the market."

Thanks to many MHR members who pointed this quote out to me last week.  It speaks to exactly why the Broncos paid this guy a lot of money (relatively).  Green was brought in precisely to provide an interior rush on 3rd downs.  If Green can regain his 2007 form, this could very well turn out to be the most underrated move the Broncos made in 2010.  And it was made because of the important of 3rd downs.

Mario Haggan  At Middle Linebacker

The Broncos feel Robert Ayers is ready to make the move to starter at Outside Linebacker, so Mario Haggan is shifting to the inside after the release of Andra Davis.  Since this piece is how the Broncos moves will affect third down, I'll simply note that on 1st and 2nd down, Haggan is a fine choice.  His bulk will serve the Broncos well on running downs and he proved he could hold the point just fine last year.  

It's 3rd downs that concern me.  One of the strategies teams used on the Broncos last year--specifically in the 2nd half of the season--was to no-huddle the Broncos, which made it hard for Denver to get Wesley Woodyard and Robert Ayers on the field in 3rd-down situations.  This created several opportunities for the opposition to over-match Davis or Haggan with running backs and tight ends.  

Moving Haggan to middle linebacker does little to relieve this situation.  Denver will still have the need to sub him on 3rd downs for Woodyard or recently-signed Akin Ayodele, and in some situations, Josh Barrett.   The Broncos could still find themselves at a disadvantage in the no-huddle on 3rd down.  It's precisely for this reason, there were many here at MHR that were hoping the Broncos would look to one of the linebackers in the draft that wouldn't have to come out on 3rd down.

Here's an idea, and I'm not the first to suggest it.   Start Woodyard.  We know that from his work in 2008, that when he's in the game, he plays much bigger than his size.    And now that we have Bannan and Williams, presumably Woodyard's speed will be an asset.  He will be free to fly around the field and make plays.  And there's not need to sub him on 3rd downs.  Although he had a few glitches in coverage last year, he's the best cover linebacker the Broncos have.

If only Josh Barrett could add another 15 pounds, we'd be in serious business.  There is no better Broncos player (let alone defensive back) who can line up in man coverage against the biggest and fastest tight ends in the game.  I would love to see how he would fair at linebacker.

Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker

Everyone knows my feelings about the signing of Thomas.  I'm just not a fan.  My feelings can be summed up by what Walter Football had to say about him after the Broncos selected him:

The only reason Thomas was drafted in the first round is because he's big and can reportedly run fast. That's it. He can't run routes and he can't catch the ball consistently. The Broncos should have just gone into random gyms across America and signed every big, athletic guy who claimed to run a 4.45.

EJ Ruiz wrote an excellent article about Thomas earlier in the week, and I recommend it for anyone, like me, who feels as if Thomas is going to bust.  It will help temper the sensation until you can make it to training camp for a shot of orange-and-blue tequila.  

With respect to 3rd down, however, it's easy to rationalize why the Broncos took these two, however.  They see both guys as red zone threats who can go up and get the ball against smaller corner backs.  Thomas is the deep threat, while Decker is going to be a possession guy.  In a perfect world, in 2 years, you will see a starting WR lineup that consists of Thomas split wide to one side, Decker flanked to the other, with Eddie Royal in the slot.  

We'll get to who is throwing them in the ball in a moment, of course.

I'll spare you the Decker/McCaffrey comparisons.  I'm just happy Decker didn't say, "My legs are stronger than Eddie McCaffrey's."

The Quickest Tim Tebow Analysis You've Ever Seen

Long-term, Tebow will make the Broncos more dangerous on 3rd downs.  Period.  Case Closed.

An Offensive Line Con Carne!

When the Broncos picked Zane Beadles, J.D. Walton, and Eric Olsen, it was the highlight of their 2010 draft.  This trio immediately ensures the Broncos will be strong on the interior for years to come.  

With respect to 3rd downs, you only have to pop in the Ravens tape from last year to realize why these picks were made.  On 3rd down, the Ravens absolutely terrorized Casey Wiegmann, Ben Hamilton, and, yes, Chris Kuper on the interior.  The Ravens also showed the rest of the league a horror film on to attack the Broncos on 3rd down for the remainder of the season--the delayed zone blitz.  

Perrish Cox and Syd'Quan Thompson

Did I tell you that you can never have enough corner backs?    Well, let me tell you again.  If the world really does end in 2012, I would expect only 3 types of survivors: all species of cockroaches, Al Davis and his army of zombies, and the extra corner backs the Denver Broncos should keep on their roster.

Cox, in the view of many, was a "steal" in the draft--a guy who had a 1st or 2nd round grade.    Thompson, it was claimed, was a good value pick in round 7.  Right now this is all talk.  Just load up on corner backs and I am happy.  The gods of 3rd down demand it.

Did I mention that you can never have enough corner backs?   I invite Chris Backer to shed another 120 pounds so we can put him on the depth chart at corner.

Mr. Relevant - Jammie Kirlew

Kirlew is a 7th-round pick, but this isn't going to matter once camp begins.  He'll unseat former 1st-round draft pick Jarvis Moss and grab a roster spot.  He may not be as athletic--and certainly not as well-known--as Moss, but he finds his way to the quarterback.  Moss hasn't done this nearly enough during his time with the Broncos.  This is probably his last camp with the Broncos and it's precisely because of Kirlew's value on 3rd downs.  

How Medieval Are We Talking?

Now that we've had time to take in the entire draft and the free agency, the Broncos made, in summary, what I consider to be decent moves as they attempt to improve their 3rd-down efficiency on both sides of the ball.  They made some calculated gambles to shore up their 3rd-and-short with some aging vets.  They also solidified their nickel corner spot in case Alphonso Smith continues to regress.  And they drafted several receivers and offensive linemen, who, should they fulfill their potential, will make a big difference on 3rd down in the future.  The Broncos also deserve credit for building some depth with respect to the pass rush on 3rd downs with the signing of Jarvis Green and the drafting of Jammie Kirlew.    

I still think they didn't do enough to address the gap they have with their linebackers in coverage, however.  I could see teams attacking them once again with the no-huddle and with quick calls on third down while the Broncos are forced to keep Wesley Woodyard on the sideline.  And what will Robert Ayers look like in coverage?  This is a major question mark.

What do you think?  Have the Broncos done enough to improve on 3rd down?  Or will the Black Hole be the only place we'll witness people going medieval in 2010?