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Broncos 3rd and Long: Reviewing the Bengals, Raiders, and the 2014 season

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One win, one loss, a 12-4 record and the #2 seed in the AFC. A lot happened in the final two weeks of the regular season, but the defense continued to play well despite some critical injuries.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

I took a week off for the holidays, meaning that this edition will cover the final two regular season games. I will also include the final regular season numbers.

Cincy Game

While the offense struggled in three of the four quarters of the game, the defense held firm for most of the game - with the exception of that 85 yard TD run. The Cincy offense scored three touchdowns, but the the second and third came from drives of 22 and 27 yards. The 85 yard run made the numbers look bad (three separate Bronco defenders made horrible plays on that run), but other than that the defense played quite well despite Davis and Johnson looking lost at LB for most of the game.

Performance on 3rd and Long

Situation Play Result
3rd and 7 at CIN 23 (13:52 in 1Q) (Shotgun) A.Dalton pass short right to J.Gresham to CIN 29 for 6 yards (T.Davis; B.Roby). Catch but short
3rd and 12 at CIN 15 (6:16 in 1Q) (Shotgun) A.Dalton pass short middle to J.Gresham to CIN 27 for 12 yards (D.Bruton Jr.). Conversion by catch
3rd and 11 at CIN 37 (3:48 in 2Q) (Shotgun) A.Dalton pass short left to G.Bernard to CIN 40 for 3 yards (C.Harris Jr.). Catch but short
3rd and 9 at DEN 31 (1:14 in 3Q) (Shotgun) A.Dalton pass incomplete deep middle to A.Green [M.Jackson]. Incomplete
3rd and 12 at DEN 40 (12:25 in 4Q) (Shotgun) A.Dalton pass incomplete short middle to J.Gresham (D.Bruton). Incomplete
3rd and 9 at DEN 42 (4:18) (Shotgun) A.Dalton pass short left to J.Gresham pushed ob at DEN 38 for 4 yards (O.Bolden). Catch but short

Six of the eleven 3rd downs that we forced were 3rd and long (7 or more needed to gain). The Bengals only converted one and - the 12 yards catch by Gresham on the middle screen in the first quarter. Of the other 3rd downs that we forced, the Bengals only converted one (they did convert on 4th and 1 though). That other conversion was on the touchdown catch by Bernard on 3rd and 5. For the game they were 2 of 11 on 3rd down. The Bengals finished in the bottom half of the league converting 40% of 3rd downs in the regular season so holding them to 18% on them game was good even if Green was playing with one arm.

(Not) Stopping the run on first down

The Bengals only converted one third and long... but this was easily our worst first-down run defense of the season.

Rahim Moore looked like Deion Sanders in run support on that 85 yard TD run - which came on first down. The Bengals were committed to running on first down against us - running the ball 20 times on first down for 131 yards - 6.6 ypc. This was easily our worst first down run defense of the season. If you exclude the 85 yard run, we only gave up 46 yards on the other 19 first down carries - 2.4 ypc. It's hard to recall at this point, but outside of that play, we defended the run quite well on first down in this game with 3 tackles for loss and one stop for no gain. Bad angles and missed tackles from Johnson and Davis led to the runs of 10, 10, 9 and 8 yards that made up the lion's share of the first down rushing yards that didn't happen on that 85 yard run.

Trouncing the Raiders

Broncos fans who were born in the last 20 years have no recollection of a time when beating the Raiders twice a year wasn't a sure thing. TYJE. This game was almost exactly what the Doctor ordered - other than the Bruton's scary injury and the shots that Manning took during the game. The defense really asserted themselves, particularly in the first half - holding the Faiders to 9 total yards, forcing six punts and allowing exactly one first down.

Performance on 3rd and Long

Situation Play Result
3rd and 16 at OAK 14 (13:38 1Q) (Shotgun) D.Carr pass incomplete deep middle to M.Rivera (T.Davis). Incomplete
3rd and 15 at OAK 21 (5:18 1Q) (Shotgun) D.Carr pass short right to L.Murray to OAK 31 for 10 yards (B.Roby). Catch but short
3rd and 7 at OAK 23 (8:40 2Q) (Shotgun) D.Carr pass short right to M.Rivera ran ob at OAK 37 for 14 yards [M.Jackson]. Conversion by catch
3rd and 10 at DEN 45 (2:04 3Q) (Shotgun) D.Carr pass short left to D.McFadden pushed ob at DEN 39 for 6 yards (D.Bruton). Catch but short
3rd and 15 at OAK 19 (8:35 4Q) (Shotgun) D.Carr pass short right to D.McFadden to OAK 19 for no gain (O.Bolden). Catch but short
3rd and 10 at OAK 19 (5:06 4Q) (Shotgun) D.Carr pass short left to M.Rivera pushed ob at OAK 31 for 12 yards (T.Carter). Conversion by catch
3rd and 10 at OAK 11 (4:34 4Q) (Shotgun) D.Carr pass incomplete deep right to A.Holmes (K.Webster). Incomplete
3rd and 10 at OAK 42 (0:47 4Q) (Shotgun) D.Carr scrambles right end pushed ob at OAK 47 for 5 yards (K.Webster). Run but short

The Raiders lone first down in the first half came on a 3rd and long conversion. They also converted another 3rd and long late in the 4th. Both conversions came on catches by Rivera.

For the season the Broncos finished the year allowing conversion on 31 of 111 3rd downs of 7 or yards - 27.9%.  In 2013 we finished the season allowing conversion 24.8% of the time on 3rd and long and in 2012 that number was 26.3%. League-wide conversions on 3rd and long have occurred 27.1% of the time this year, so we finished the year a little below average. League average was 26.3% in 2013 and 26.8% in 2012. So our defense was above average the past two years, but was slightly below average this season. Seattle led the league this year in these situations allowing conversion only 20.2% of the time. New Orleans was the worst in the league allowing conversion 38.3% of the time when they got their opponents in 3rd and 7 or more. There were eight NFL teams that did not convert at that high a rate on ALL 3rd down situations for the year.

Overall we allowed conversion on 90 of 232 3rd downs this year -  38.7% (this includes 3rd down conversions by penalty). For the season we finished ranked 5th in the NFL in 3rd down conversion % allowed (leaving out penalty conversions) - 36.4%. We gave up 9 3rd down conversions by penalty this regular season. Buffalo led the league at 33.1% conversion allowed and Atlanta was the worst in the league at 46.8%. The league average was 40.2%.   In 2013 we finished the regular season 16th in 3rd down conversion % allowed after leading the league in that stat in 2012.

Stopping the Run on First Down

Jokeland ran the ball 9 times on first down gaining 20 total yards - 2.2 ypc. One of those runs ended in no gain and one ended with a TFL - Malik Jackson to end the half. For the season we finished with 20 stops for no gain and 27 TFLs on 203 first down runs - 23.2% of the time teams ran against us on first down we stopped them for 0 or negative yards. We allowed 695 yards on 203 first down carries -  3.4 ypc. Only three first down carries went for more than 20 yards and the 85 yard run by Hill accounted for 1/8th of all of the yardage we allowed this year on first down runs. For comparison, we finished the regular season allowing 4.3 ypc on first down runs in 2013 and 3.4 ypc in on first down runs in 2012.

Overall we allowed 1276 yards rushing on 349 carries - 3.66 ypc. That was the 4th best ypc allowed in the NFL this year. In terms of absolute rushing yards allowed we finished second behind the Lions, who only allowed 1109. We finished last season 8th in ypc allowed at 3.87 ypc (1626 yards on 420 carries) and finished 2012 2nd in the league in ypc allowed at 3.61 ypc (1458 yards on 404 carries). Our run defense has been exceptional to elite over the past three seasons.

Concluding thoughts

With the Colts, Bengals or Steelers looming as our next opponent, our ability to stop the run on first down should be a boon, especially against the Bengals once Marshall is back. The Bengals ran the ball 68.7% of the time on first down this year. The Colts ran the ball 59.3% of the time on first down while the Steelers only ran the ball 55.7% of the time on first down. Against either opponent our ability to stop the opponent for 2 yards or less on first down runs should give us a good chance of forcing them out of their comfort zones when then play us in the divisional round.

How have our potential AFC opponents done when trying to convert on 3rd and long this year? Brady and Roethlisberger were able to convert on 31.6% - which was in the top 10. Luck was only able to convert on 29.4% and Dalton was only able to convert on 24.0%. League average was 27.1%. Rodgers was best in the league this year at 39.6%. Of the teams in the playoffs, the Cowboys were the second best at conversion on 3rd and long (32.6%). We were only able to convert 24.0% this year on offense after converting at 32.6% in 2013 which was 5th in the league. We are tied with Cincy for last of the 12 playoff teams in terms of our ability to convert on 3rd and long this season.  We need to play penalty free in the playoffs because we have been below average this season at converting on 3rd and long. Things like holding calls almost always have killed drives this year.  We had 24 offensive holding penalties called on us this regular season - second most in the league (only the Rams had more called against them) - 19 of those were accepted costing us 236 yards.

Offensive holding calls by player

Ryan Clady - 5

Orlando Franklin - 4

Chris Clark, Luis Vasquez and Manny Ramirez - each had 3

Paul Cornick and Will Montgomery - each had 2

Julius Thomas - 1

The other 5 offensive holding calls were on special teams where 5 player each had one. (Nate Irving, Kayvon Webster, Lamin Barrow, Corey Nelson and Tony Carter).

Getting an officiating crew that does not call many holding penalties on the OL should benefit us. While we were second to last at getting offensive holding called on us, we were also second to last at getting offensive holding called on our opponent despite having two elite pass rushers. Only 12 offensive holding calls went against our opponents this year in 16 regular season games - exactly half as many as we had called on us.  To put that in perspective, the team with the fewest offensive holding penalties against (CAR) had 13 - one more than we "forced" this season. That defies logic unless our pass rush sucked so badly that the opposing OLines did not have to hold to protect the QB - and we know that is not the case. Only one team "forced" fewer holding calls this season, oddly enough that would be the same Carolina Panthers who had the fewest called against them.