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Broncos 3rd & Long: Who's afraid of Arrowhead?

Our reinvented Broncos won with a dominant running game and a dominant defense - at Arrowhead, which has traditionally been a House of Horrors for us.

John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

After the losses to New England and St. Louis, our team looked lost on both sides of the ball.

Offensively we weren't doing what we had done so easily last season (score) and defensively we were not generating pressure in the passing game and not stopping the running game. Then a change or a series of changes were made and things have gotten better. We may never know who instigated the changes (Elway, Fox, Del Rio, Gase,  or all of them), but most of the changes have been paying off in spades so far. I'm going to talk about the two of the most obvious changes - our new commitment to the running game and our decision to let our cover corners prove that they can play press-man coverage so that we blitz.

In our first 10 games we had 424 passing plays and 243 running plays - meaning we threw the ball 63.5% of the time. In the past two games we have 71 passing plays and 80 running plays - meaning that we threw the ball 47.0% of the time. I can not remember a bigger shift in offensive strategy during the middle of any season in all of my years of following the Broncos. Currently only one NFL team has more running plays this season than passing plays - Seattle. Currently they throw the ball 47.0% of the time. As strange as it may sound, defenses might start forcing Peyton Manning to "prove" that he can beat them with the pass by stacking the box against us. Let that sink in for a second and then let the smile spread broadly across your face.

It may only be my perception because of the consecutive sacks on 3rd and longs where we brought more than 4 rushers, but it seemed to me that JDR was much more willing to blitz this game than in previous games. It seemed like we were bringing 5 on every 3rd down situation. Maybe we were only able to do this because of the pitiful group of or wide receivers that play for the Chiefs, but I think we should do this more often. Chris Harris, Bradley Roby, Aquib Talib, Tony Carter and even Kayvon Webster are better in man coverage than they are in zone. So let them play press-man and trust that they can cover for the 3 seconds that it takes our rush to get to the QB. I don't remember us blitzing anywhere near as much the week before against the similarly mobile Ryan Tannehill.

Performance on 3rd and long

When the total yards allowed is less than the weight of the lightest guy on the opposing team, your defense had a great game. You can't have a great game defensively without forcing 3rd and longs and stopping 3rd and longs. We did just that on Sunday.

Situation Detail Result
3rd and 8 at KC 37 (7:33) (Shotgun) A.Smith sacked at KC 24 for -13 yards (T.Ward). Sack
3rd and 8 at KC 33 (1:12) (Shotgun) A.Smith sacked at KC 27 for -6 yards (Q.Carter). Sack
3rd and 8 at DEN 21 (12:53) (Shotgun) A.Smith pass incomplete short middle to D.Bowe. Incomplete
3rd and 13 at KC 21 (6:50) (Shotgun) A.Smith sacked at KC 9 for -12 yards (B.Marshall). Sack
3rd and 16 at KC 11 (1:00) (Shotgun) A.Smith pass short left to J.Charles to KC 8 for -3 yards (B.Marshall). Catch way short

The Chiefs were held to 0 for 5 on 3rd and long. We blitzed on at least three of these since TJ Ward, Quentin Carter and Brandon Marshall generally drop into coverage. This is only the second game this season where we have not allowed a conversion on 3rd and long (7 or more needed to gain); the other game was the Seattle game. We did not have a single game in 2013 where we did not allow a conversion on 3rd and long. For the season we are now allowing conversion on 29.1% of 3rd and longs (25 of 86). The Chiefs only converted one of nine 3rd downs in the game (they only ran 44 plays) and that came late in the 4th quarter. For the season we are now allowing conversion on 38.1% of 3rd downs. For comparison we finished 2013 allowing 38.8% and 2012 allowing 31.5%

One Good Play on 3rd and Long (and we had many)

The Chiefs are facing 3rd and 8 at their own 33. The Chiefs come out in a 3 WR look, with two WRs to the offensive right and Kelce also on the right. Their single wide is split out to the offensive left and Jamaal Charles is in the backfield. We counter with a 4-2-5 look (or 3-3-5). Only two players line up with their hands in the dirt - Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe. DeMarcus Ware lines up on the right at DE in a two-point stance with Von Miller at the other DE also in a 2-point stance. T.J. Ward and Brandon Marshall are the two LBs, both start about 3 yards behind the LOS. Bradley Roby lines up close in coverage one the single WR on the defensive right. Chris Harris lines up in coverage on the outside of the two WRs to the defensive left. Tony Carter is about 6 yards off in coverage of the other. Quentin Carter is in close (3 yards to the line when he could either jam Kelce coming off the line or blitz. Rahim Moore is about 13 yards back at the snap. Prior to the snap Ward walks up the LOS, showing blitz. Unlike the previous third and long, Ward does not blitz but eyes Charles in man coverage. Q. Carter comes untouched between the RG and the RT (our old friend Ryan Harris). Ware has his man beaten by the time Carter is about to wrap up Alex Smith, so Ware would have gotten a sack if Carter had not gotten there first. Jackson and Wolfe run a DL stunt freeing up Jackson somewhat. Von Miller also beats Ryan Harris around the outside but may have gone too deep for the sack. We brought 5 and their 5 blockers were no match for our 5 rushers. Our six defenders in coverage do a good enough job that Smith had no where to quickly get rid of the ball before Carter gets to him. Charles was probably his hot read, but Ward had him well covered.

Quinton Carter sack on Alex Smith (lean)

Performance on first down runs

The Chiefs seemed to start the game by trying to prove that they could move the ball through the air against us. They failed (3 passes - 3-and-out). When they eventually did get around to employing their best offensive weapon, Charles, we didn't give him much (10 carries for 35 yards). Charles accounted for a grand total of 59 yards on offense - 5 of his carries came on first down (for 19 total yards). For the game they only ran the ball 7 times on first down for 26 yards (3.7 yards per carry). Alex Smith had the other two first down carries. For the season we have now allowed 436 yards on 135 first down carries (3.2 ypc). The Chiefs were held to 41 yards rushing in the game on 15 carries (2.7 ypc). This makes the 4th game this year where we have held our opponent to under 50 yards rushing. The Broncos are currently second in the league in terms of total rushing yards allowed (872) and yards per carry (3.4). Detroit is #1 is both (791 and 3.1). We are still the only NFL team that has not allowed a run of more than 30 yards this year.

Conclusions and moving forward

The defense was dominant in Arrowhead on Sunday with the exception of the two TD drives (62 and 69 yards). Those two drives accounted for 87% of the yards allowed on the day. The Chiefs had 11 drives (not counting the kneel-down), and their other 9 drives netted 20 total yards.  Even when faced with a short field after the Manning fumble, we were able to hold the Chiefs to a FG. We actually forced the Chiefs backwards on 4 of their 11 drives, with those four drives totaling -45 yards of offense.

Much like the Chiefs, the Bills don't have many weapons on offense.

Chiefs had more yards on kickoff returns (199) than offense (151).  They averaged 24.9 yards per KO return, which while it was better than us (19.0 average this game) it was still below their season average of 28.5 yards per KO return (3rd best in the league with one TD). We are currently 27th in the league with an average KO return of 21.3 yards. For all of the griping about Barth's inability to get touchbacks and our inability to cover kickoffs, we didn't do too poorly in Barth's first game. We must also keep in mind that it was cold and windy and the grass on the field in KC is quite poor this time of year (all things that can make it difficult for place kickers). However, if we just look at their KO return average we will miss this fact, following our kickoffs, KC started their drives at these points on the field (all on their side of the field): 31, 35, 31, 38, 35, 38, 24. That is an average drive start at their own 33 after our scores. This bears watching going forward as our next game will be at home and at altitude and against a team that is significantly worse at KO returns (Buffalo is 15th average 23.1 yards per return). The caveat is that Buffalo is one of the 5 teams this season to have returned a KO for a TD, but that was C.J. Spiller who took that 102 yards for a score. He is currently done for the year with an injury. Our biggest test left in the regular season will come against the Bengals who are currently 5th in the league in KO return average.

Much like the Chiefs, the Bills don't have many weapons on offense. Kyle Orton is not a threat to run the ball. CJ Spiller is done for the year. Sammy Watkins, their best receiver, hurt his hip on Sunday and may not play. Fred Jackson and Anthony Dixon have shared the load carrying the ball, but neither has been that impressive so far this year (Jackson has been hurt and has not been explosive since returning from his groin injury). Dixon is probably their best offensive weapon, if Watkins is hurt, given that he has runs of 27 and 30 yards in the past month. If Orton makes any mistakes this game could get ugly for them really fast, because I foresee us forcing a lot of 3rd downs next Sunday. The Bills were 3 of 16 on 3rd down last Sunday against the Browns (one by penalty on 3rd and 5). They did convert two 4th and shorts.  Their two 3rd down conversions both came on 3rd and 1 on their final scoring drive in the 4th quarter (FG to make it 23-10). They did a god job of staying out of 3rd and long against the Browns in Buffalo, with only two 3rd downs of 7 or more needed to gain (9 and 10 yards). Staying out of 3rd and long is good. Being unable to convert on 3rd and medium (6 failures) or 3rd and short (3 failures) is poor, but it's what we came to expect from Kyle Orton when he played here. The Bills have a strong defense (#2 scoring defense), so I am expecting a low scoring affair next Sunday with the Broncos winning by a score of 24-9. The only team to put up 30 or more on the Bills this year was the Pats (who put 37 on them).