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Broncos 3rd & Long: Defensive depth shines vs. Browns

Given a chance to start because of injury, Shaquil Barrett not only played well, but he was arguably the defensive star of the game. With Shane Ray leaving the game because of a sprained MCL, Larentee McCray played well. This defense is good and deep. If our offense can even get to average, we will be unstoppable.

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

I'm not going to pile on QB debate other than to say I hope our defense hasn't used up all of its late game miracles this early in the season. The defense had another good game, but this was their worst showing of the season so far (the numbers will back this later in the piece).

The Broncos had to pull from their reserves to beat the Browns, but the good news is that Shaquil Barrett looked like Demarcus Ware. Larentee McCray looked servicable when pressed into service.

Stopping the Run on First Down

The Browns were able to move the ball on us, mainly because they were able to run the ball effectively on first down. They ran the ball 20 times on first down for 77 yards. There rushing total for game was 109 yards, so all but 32 of that came on first down runs.

It was Denver's worst defensive performance of the year, and they allowed only 16 points.

The positive is that we were able to generally stuff the second down runs even if we gave up 6-8 yards on first down. The negative is that the Browns run the ball effectively on first down against us. So far this year the only other team that has been able to do that was the Chiefs who gained 64 yards on 17 first down carries.

On the year the Broncos have allowed 212 yards on 80 first down carries (2.65 ypc) - not as good as we were after 5 games, but still the best in the league by half of a yard (the Giants are currently #2 at 3.23 ypc allowed on first down). We got two TFLs and one stop for no gain on first down bringing our first down total to 11 TFLs and 13 stops for no gain for the year. Our 24 first down run stops for zero or a loss ranks second best in the league behind KC who has 26 (surprisingly, only two of those 26 happened when we played against them) .

Performance on 3rd and Long

We remind you that "3rd and Long" as "3rd and 7 yards or greater." Despite giving up 77 rushing yards on first down (with a long of 12), the Broncos still forced the Browns into nine 3rd and long situations.

Situation Play Result
3rd and 8 at CLE 32 (1:20 - 1st) (Shotgun) J.McCown sacked at CLV 32 for 0 yards (M.Jackson). PENALTY on DEN-M.Jackson, Face Mask (15 Yards), 15 yards, enforced at CLV 32 - No Play conversion by penalty
3rd and 9 at CLE 37 (10:55 - 2nd) (Shotgun) J.McCown pass short left to T.Benjamin to CLV 49 for 12 yards (D.Stewart). Penalty on DEN-A.Smith, Defensive Offside, declined conversion by catch
3rd and 9 at 50 (10:05 - 2nd) (Shotgun) J.McCown sacked at CLV 45 for -5 yards (B.Marshall) sack
3rd and 9 at CLE 35 (7:19 - 2nd) (Shotgun) J.McCown pass incomplete short middle to D.Johnson incomplete
3rd and 10 at DEN 48 (3:35 - 2nd) (Shotgun) J.McCown pass incomplete short middle to G.Barnidge [A.Smith] incomplete
3rd and 9 at CLE 21 (12:15 - 4th) (Shotgun) J.McCown pass deep left to T.Benjamin to DEN 32 for 47 yards (D.Stewart). Penalty on DEN-M.Jackson, Defensive Offside, declined conversion by catch
3rd and 16 at CLE 21 (7:03 - 4th) (Shotgun) J.McCown pass short left to T.Benjamin to CLV 32 for 11 yards (B.Roby) catch but short
3rd and 7 at DEN 8 (1:41 - 4th) (Shotgun) J.McCown pass incomplete short right to B.Hartline incomplete
3rd and 21 at 50 (13:01) (Shotgun) 13-J.McCown sacked at CLE 48 for -2 yards (sack split by 48-S.Barrett and 90-A.Smith). sack

The Browns were able to convert on their first two 3rd and long situations - one by penalty (facemask on Malik Jackson) and one by a catch. Their other conversion came on the "free play" where Malik was offsides and Josh McCown threw up it for Benjamin, who out-jumped Roby for the catch. Overall the Browns were able to convert on 7 of 16 third downs (44%) - this pretty closely matched what the Vikings (7/17) and the Faiders (8/17) did against us - including conversions by penalty.

If you couple that with our shoddy performance against the run on first down, you have our worst defensive performance of the year. Even with that, our defense only allowed 16 points. Eight of our 26 sacks have happened on 3rd and long. We don't have a single sack on 3rd and medium or 3rd and short.

With 26 sacks in 6 games, we are on pace to finish the season at 69 sacks, would be 3 shy of the NFL single season team record. By downs our sacks are remarkably evenly split: 8 on 3rd down, 9 on 2nd down and 9 on 1st down.

For the season we have now allowed conversion on 14 of 52 3rd and longs (26.9%) - including conversion by penalty. Five of those 14 were directly from penalties and one was only made possibly by a penalty (the offsides by Malik on Sunday leading to the 47 yard completion). Including penalty conversion we have now allowed conversion on 31 of 85 third downs (36.5%). Leaving out penalty conversion we have allowed 25 of 79 (31.6%). We are no longer leading the league in 3rd down conversion % allowed, Houston has barely edged us for the top spot with 25 of 80 (31.3%).

Moving Forward

With 26 sacks in 6 games, the Broncos are chasing the NFL single-season team sack record.

We've got the bye this week and two weeks to prepare for the Packers high-powered offense. Can our offense get "right" before we hit this five game stretch where we play Green Bay, Indianapolis and New England? The running game against a weak Browns' run defense looked mostly good and the run defenses that we are going to be facing going forward have almost all been bad so far this year.  In terms of of our defense against some "better" offenses and better offensive lines, here are the rankings of our upcoming opponents as of right now in terms of total offense (by YPP) and offensive line (by total QB hits allowed).

Opponent Yards Per Play Rank OL Rank
GB 5 10
IND 23 29
KC 18 25
CHI 28 16
NE 3 15
SD 4 31
OAK 20 5
PIT 6 12
CIN 2 1

Note that we face the teams ranked 2nd through 6th in yards per play this season. Given that our defense currently ranks first in yards per play allowed, the offenses we have yet to face are better than the offenses that we have already faced. To put it another way, in terms of ypp all six of our opponents this years are in the bottom half of the league (CLE - 15th, KC - 18th, OAK - 19th, BAL - 20th, DET - 21st, MIN - 32nd). I think that our defense will rise to the challenge, but only if our offense can start supporting them by sustaining a few long TD drives and not turning the ball over. The bright side of the table above is that only Jokeland and Cincy have done a good job of keeping defenders off of their QB so far this year so we should continue to put up decent sack totals going forward.