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Broncos 3rd & Long: Have we hit bottom yet?

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Our elite offense was held to one TD. Our elite defense made a journeyman QB look like a pro-bowler. Our elite QB looked like the guy who hadn't thrown a TD pass in over two years. Our league-best run defense gave up 131 yards on the ground. Our running game was left in Denver. We had three offensive starters leave the game and not return. We committed 8 penalties, 5 by the offensive line.

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

If you were going to write a script about how to lose on the road to an inferior team, what would that script include? Mine would include things like stupid penalties (we had 3 false start penalties - one on Louis Vazquez, one on Orlando Franklin and one on Lerentee McCray on a punt), stupid coaching decisions (not trying long FGs in a dome with a strong-legged kicker, not using any of our 3 time-outs at the end of the first half until they were useless) and stupid throws (Peyton Manning throwing to Jacob Tamme when he was blanketed or forcing the ball to DT in triple coverage). You could also throw in some missed tackles and missed assignments by the safeties leading to big plays on the ground and through the air. That would be a good script for an upset. For a little added flavor let's also write into the script that we completely lose the field position battle. We just lived that script.

Stupid Penalties

Now I know that the Rams have a strong front 4, but so do we. We had 3 holding penalties called against our offensive line. They had none.  Our offensive line also had two false starts. Theirs had none.  We were going on a silent count, which should eliminate false starts. There is absolutely no excuse for false starts on the road in relatively quiet dome particularly when the two players committing the false starts are seasoned veterans.  5 penalties on the offensive line is unacceptable. Teams that win playoffs games don't make these kind of mistakes (or at least they don't get flagged for holding when they do it - hello - Baltimore).

Stupid Coaching Decisions

The Broncos had just scored a TD and were going to get the ball back to start the second half. With the score 13-7 and 2:28 left in the first half, we kicked off to the Rams who ran it out to the 18. We still had all 3 timeouts. The Rams completed a pass on first down for 12 (to the 30) that took the game to the 2-minute warning. We could have taken a timeout to stop the clock before the 2-minute warning, but we did not. They then completed a pass for no gain, at which point it would have made sense for John Fox to use a timeout in the hopes of getting our offense back the ball before the half with a some time left. No timeout was called. The next play was a run up the middle by the Rams at 1:18 left in the half - gain of 6 to the STL . Still no timeout was called. The next play was a run on 3rd and 4 that took the clock down to 23 seconds before we called a timeout. Why the heck did we call a timeout then and not after the completion for no gain on first down. The Rams punted and we got the ball back with 16 seconds at our own 17. Fox's horrible clock management cost us a chance at a scoring drive to end the half. We should have gotten the ball back with 90 seconds or so and one timeout left.

I know we have a rookie who has never hit a FG from 50 or longer in his career, but he has a leg capable of hitting from that distance. His long so far in his short career is 44. We faced 3 situations when we should have given him a chance to try a long FG. Our defense was playing well (0 TDs in three red-zone trips for the Rams) and in a close and low scoring game, it makes sense to try and put points on the board when you have the chance. The first missed opportunity was 4th and 5 from the Rams 37 – that would have been a 54-yard FG attempt. The score at the time was 0-3. If we try a FG here instead of going for it, we might tie the game up. Going for it on 4th and 5 instead of trying a 54-yarder either means that Fox has gotten more aggressive or it means that he has no confidence in our place kicker - two guesses as to how McManus interpreted Foxes' decision. The second missed opportunity was when we punted from the Rams 38 with 12:35 left in the 3rd quarter. From there it would have been a 55-yarder. Let's say for the sake of argument that we hit that 54-yarder that we didn't try earlier. The game situation then is 13-10 with a chance to tie. Could McManus hit one from 55 in a dome at sea level? We may never know, but I would think that his leg is strong enough for it. So if we try that one instead of punting and hit it, we have a tie ball game and maybe the momentum is on our side. The last missed opportunity was 4th and 4 from the Rams 28 – that would have been a 45-yard FG attempt. The actual score at the time was 7-19 and there was 9:52 left in the game. With our two hypothetically tried and made FGs from earlier, the score would have been 13-19 and it would have been a no-brainer to try a 45-yard FG down by 6 with almost 10 minutes left in the game. The NFL success rate this year on FG attempts from 50 or more is 65%.

Injury Report

Another stupid coaching move was to activate Ball for the game. This may have been on Monte for telling the coaches that he was able to go when he really wasn't ready, but he re-injured himself reaching for a pass so it's not like he was putting a huge amount of stress on the muscle when he re-injured it. Maybe they rushed him back because of Hillman's injury, maybe Ball wanted to plsy in front of his relatives, but the results say that he wasn't healed enough yet to return if that level of mild exertion caused an injury relapse.

Stupid Throws

I'm not going to give Manning a pass on this one. He made some really questionable decisions throwing the ball this game. Only two of them were picked off, but there were at least two other throws that could have been picked off - defenders dropped them. Two years ago when we played the Rams in the preseason, Manning found out the Ogletree is a complete linebacker, i.e. he is great in coverage - when he picked off Manning. I guess he forget that, because he kept trying to hit Tamme who was blanketed by Alec Ogletree. Maybe Manning was pressing because of the loss of Julius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders and the absence of Ronnie Hillman and Montee Ball, but our offense isn't as good as we thought it was if we can't score in the absence of two skill position players that we had at the start of the game (I'm not counting Ball since he should not have been active for this game). Our only score this game came on a blown coverage TD pass. Think about that. We could have easily been shut out in this game.

3rd and long performance

We forced 17 third down situations. The Rams only converted 6, however, 2 of them were on 3rd and long (7 or more needed to gain)

Situation Detail Result
3rd and 8 at STL 26 (13:23 in 2Q) (Shotgun) S.Hill pass incomplete short middle to K.Britt. Incomplete
3rd and 10 at STL 29 (10:30 in 3Q) (Shotgun) S.Hill pass short middle to B.Cunningham to SL 41 for 12 yards (Q.Carter) [D.Ware]. Conversion by catch
3rd and 9 at STL 42 (8:26 in 3Q) (Shotgun) S.Hill pass incomplete deep right to K.Britt. Incomplete
3rd and 10 at STL 47 (14:46 in 4Q) (Shotgun) S.Hill pass short middle to S.Bailey to DEN 43 for 10 yards (Q.Carter). Conversion by catch
3rd and 17 at STL 45 (7:30 in 4Q) (Shotgun) T.Mason left end to SL 44 for -1 yards (D.Ware). Run short
3rd and 7 at DEN 38 (5:12 in 4Q) T.Mason left end pushed ob at DEN 35 for 3 yards (B.Marshall). Run short
3rd and 12 at STL 39 (1:16 in 4Q) T.Mason up the middle to SL 49 for 10 yards (S.Johnson). Run short

The Rams converted 2 of 7 3rd and long situations, but both conversions happened in the second half when we were losing the field position battle badly.  The first conversion will be discussed in the next section. The second conversion happened in the 4th quarter with the score 7-16. That drive ended with a 55 yd field goal to put the Rams up 12. That conversion would be the Rams only 3rd down conversion on that drive which started at their own 47 and only covered 16 yards, most of which came on that play. On the day the Rams were able to gain decent yardage on 1st and 2nd down so six of their 3rd downs were 3rd and short situations (3 or fewer yards needed). Their other four 3rd down conversion were on 3rd and short (3, 3, 3 and 2 yards to gain). None of those conversions on 3rd and short were via the run. They did not try and challenge our run defense in those situations, but they did convert 4 of 6 on 3rd and short (67%).

For the season we are allowing conversion on 31.1% of 3rd and longs (23 of 74). Overall we have allowed conversion on 40% of all 3rd downs (including penalty conversions - 61 of 138). Fourteen of those 3rd down conversions came at home against KC. If we can't stop them on 3rd down, we will lose at Arrowhead.


One bad 3rd down play

The Rams have 3rd and 10 at their 29. This is their first drive of the second half. The come out with 4 wide and Cunningham in the backfield. We counted with a 3-3-5 - counting Ward as a LB. We rush 4 - Miller, Jackson, Williams and Ware - and drop 7 into coverage. Chris Harris Jr. and T.J. Ward are covering the inside WRs and both are lined up close to the LOS. Marshall is five yards back on the def left. Aqib Talib and Bradley Roby are giving big cushions to the two outside WRs - 8 yards. Moore and Q. Carter are both deep at safety - 17 yards off the line at the snap. Ware and Von both go wide and get too deep in their pass rushes. Von is double-teamed effectively. Jackson and Williams get handled by the single blocker that takes each of them. The coverage on the 4 WRs is good, but no one accounts for the RB. Shaun Hill does a good job of moving in the pocket and getting rid of the ball before he is hit. Cunningham sneaks through the LOS and makes himself available when Hill moves to his left to avoid the pressure. We dropped 7 into coverage an no one accounted for the RB. Marshall must have blown the assignment. The two safeties start so deep that if they have the coverage on the RB, it is a horribly designed defensive scheme. Cunningham catches the ball five yards short of the chains, but Marshall fails to make the tackle and he gains just enough for the first down.

One good 3rd down play

The Rams had 3rd and 4 at our 15. The Rams came out in a 3-WR set. We were in a 3-3-5 with Ware, Jackson, Wolfe and Miller on the Line. Marshall and Ward were playing LB. Ward was walked up. We rushed 4. Ward covers the RB. Marshall covers the TE. Harris, Talib and Roby are the corners locked up in press-man coverage on the three WRs. Moore and Q. Carter at the two safeties - both start near the 5 yard line. Von bull-rushes their RT and ends up going low after pushing the RT back into the QB. Ware ended up getting double-teamed, and Malik and Derek stunted on the inside which was picked up nominally well by their OL. Malik was getting close when Hill went down. Von actually makes the sack from the ground. The coverage was good and Hill really had no where to throw with Von getting to him so quickly. The sack forces a FG making it 0-3 at that time.

First and 10 run defense

One of the constants so far this season has been our defense' ability to stop the run on first down. That did not happen last Sunday. The Rams ran the ball 17 times on first down for 69 yards (more than half of their rushing total was gained on first down) - 4.1 ypc on 1st down. For the game they ran the ball 33 times for 131 yards (4.0 ypc). The majority of that damage came running around LE (5 carries for 43 yards) and behind their RT (7 carries for 29 yards). You have to go back to the KC and SEA games from earlier this year to find games in which a team ran that much against us on 1st down (KC and SEA had 15 and 18 runs on 1st down against us). For the season teams have run the ball 116 times for 348 yards on first down against us (3.0 ypc). Of the long runs that the Rams had against us, almost all came after a missed tackle that would have stopped the run for short or no gain. Mason had runs of 27, 15, 10 and 10 yards against us. Prior to Sunday we had only allowed 11 runs of 10 or more yards this season in 9 games (one of those was the 23 yard run by Oliver on the final play of the game in garbage time in the win over SD). When you give up a run that goes for more than 10, the fault generally lies with the safeties. On two of those long runs by Mason, Q. Carter missed a tackle.

Concluding thoughts

Our special teams are in disarray right now. It was mentioned in a thread that McManus could not hit from beyond 50 in pre-game on Sunday. If that is true, we are severely limited because every place kicker in the NFL should be able to hit FGs from beyond 50. McManus career long right now is 44. League-wide place kickers are 61 of 94 (65%) on FG attempts of 50 or more this season. Having a range of 50 or less IN A DOME is unacceptable. 26 of 32 NFL teams have hit a FG from 50 or longer this season; we are not one of them despite playing at Mile High. Only two teams have not attempted one (CHI and TEN and both of their kickers have hit from 50 or more in their career, in fact Gould is 16 of 21 from 50 or more in his career).

We are losing the field position battle. Colquitt had punts of 41, 39, 30, 28 and 45 last game. That was his worst game of the season so far. While he did get two punts inside the 20 last game - those were both fair caught at the 18 and the 15, so neither pinned the Rams inside the 10. Once again our return game was poor - Burse usually had three or four unblocked defenders bearing down on him when he caught every punt and Caldwell had another awful game with KO returns of 14, 10 and 15 yards. We started exactly two drives beyond our own 20 last game and those started at our 21 and our 25. For the game we had zero snaps in our opponents red zone. Even our ability to get touchbacks on kickoffs was negated last game as both of McManus' kickoffs were returned (albeit from 5 and 6 yards deep in the endzone - to the 20 and the 18).

We've got six games to right the ship and fix our special teams, our safety play, our offensive line and our running game. I wish I could say that I have confidence in our coaching staff to fix the problems, but I don't have confidence in our coaching staff right now. Will we get back to playing at an elite level on offense and defense by the time the playoffs get here? Will we stop committing stupid penalties (false starts)? Will the offensive line start playing at the above average level they played at last year? Of the problems that I just mentioned which do think is the most critical to fix (see poll)?