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Broncos 3rd & Long: Defense preserves another win

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While the defense looked more vulnerable this game than they had in the previous three, they made the plays at the end of the game to preserve the victory.

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

This isn't the No Bull Review, but I'm going to give it to you straight. The defense yesterday gave me some scary memories of our 2013 and 2014 defenses. We'll discuss that in more depth later, but I'm first going to digress into any area that I don't cover in this review normally: the offensive line.

Offensive line play

With our rookie LT sidelined with a shoulder injury and our de facto rookie RT starting his first every NFL game against an above average front 7, this looked like a recipe for disaster.

Ryan Harris hadn't played LT since he left South Bend and Michael Schofield hadn't taken a regular season snap since leaving Ann Arbor. Coming into the game, this looked like it could be a train wreck. Simply stated, it wasn't. Despite a few penalties, you could argue our offensive line played its best game of the season yesterday. From the perspective of running the ball, there is no argument, it was our best rushing performance even if you discount the 72-yard TD run by Ronnie Hillman. Removing the two kneeldowns and Hillman's TD run, you get 74 yards on 21 carries (3.5 ypc). While that number is not great by any stretch of the imagination, it looked good relative to the last three games.

We still had too many runs that went nowhere or lost yards, but the line looked better this game than it has all season. They did allow two sacks and three QB hits (according to ESPN), but, frankly, that is a lot better than most expected them to perform prior to the game.

Defensive performance on 3rd and long (7 or more needed to gain)

The Vikings were able to convert on seven of 17 third downs (including the one penalty conversion), but we were able to keep them out of third and short mostly. Only two of their 17 third-down situations were short yardage ("3 to go" on both of them). We put them in third and long 13 times on their 11 drives.

Situation Play Result
3rd and 15 at MIN 34 (11:59) (Shotgun) T.Bridgewater sacked at MIN 21 for -13 yards (D.Ware). sack
3rd and 8 at MIN 37 (5:37) (Shotgun) T.Bridgewater pass short middle to S.Diggs to MIN 44 for 7 yards (B.Roby). complete but short
3rd and 7 at MIN 49 (3:31) (Shotgun) T.Bridgewater pass short middle to M.Wallace to DEN 33 for 18 yards (C.Harris; D.Stewart). conversion by catch
3rd and 20 at DEN 43 (1:24) (Shotgun) T.Bridgewater pass short right to M.Wallace to DEN 43 for no gain (C.Harris). complete but short
3rd and 7 at DEN 20 (11:44) (Shotgun) T.Bridgewater pass incomplete deep left to M.Wallace [B.Marshall]. incomplete
3rd and 9 at MIN 6 (9:58) (Shotgun) T.Bridgewater pass incomplete short left to K.Rudolph. incomplete
3rd and 7 at MIN 36 (3:56) (Shotgun) T.Bridgewater sacked at MIN 22 for -14 yards (sack split by D.Ware and V.Miller). PENALTY on DEN-A.Talib, Defensive Holding, 5 yards, enforced at MIN 36 - No Play. conversion by penalty
3rd and 10 at DEN 31 (2:04) (Shotgun) T.Bridgewater scrambles up the middle to DEN 20 for 11 yards (D.Ware). convsersion by scramble
3rd and 10 at MIN 27 (9:49) (Shotgun) T.Bridgewater pass short left to A.Thielen to MIN 32 for 5 yards (C.Harris). complete but short
3rd and 17 at MIN 36 (10:38) (Shotgun) T.Bridgewater pass short right to A.Thielen to DEN 48 for 16 yards (B.Marshall; D.Bruton). complete but short
3rd and 10 at MIN 20 (1:20) (Shotgun) T.Bridgewater scrambles up the middle to MIN 30 for 10 yards (C.Harris). convsersion by scramble
3rd and 10 at DEN 20 (1:48) (Shotgun) T.Bridgewater pass incomplete deep left to S.Diggs. incomplete
3rd and 12 at DEN 25 (5:50) (Shotgun) T.Bridgewater pass short right to A.Thielen to DEN 15 for 10 yards (C.Nelson). complete but short

The average yardage needed to gain for the Vikings yesterday on third down was 9.4.

For the season we have now allowed eight conversions on 34 third and long situations (23.5%). Four of those eight conversions have come via penalty, three of those four non-penalty conversions happened yesterday. Either Teddy Bridgewater had a great game against us (maybe) or offensive coordinators are starting to figure out how to "beat" our pressure defense.

We came into the game with the best third-down defense in the league overall. We are still in first place after giving up some third-down conversions this game. Since the NFL does not count third-down conversions allowed by penalty, by their count we have only allowed 12 of 48 third downs to be converted in four games (25%). The Titans, who had a bye, are in second place and they have allowed 31 percent conversion through three games. The Jaguars, have been the worst defense in the league through four games allowing 51percent conversion on third down. By my accounting, we have allowed 16 conversions on 52 third downs (30.8%) if you include the conversions by penalty.

Defending the run on 1st and 10

The reason we were able to force so many third and long situations was our ability to stymie the Vikings' running game on first down. They ran the ball eight times on first down for 17 yards (2.1 ypc) with two tackles for loss - DeMarcus Ware and Sylvester Williams combined on one and Aqib Talib had the other.

It's pretty rare to stop Adrian Peterson for a loss on first down runs. He has carried the ball 1,226 times on first down during his career and only been stopped behind the line of scrimmage 169 times on those runs (14%). He averages 4.7 ypc on first down runs during his career and 193 of those first down runs have gone for a first down or a touchdown. 170 of those first down runs have gained 10 or more yards, so he is as likely to gain another first down on a first down as he is to lose yards.

Despite all of that, our defense was able to keep him in check on first down. Peterson's longest carry on first down yesterday was for six yards.  Our run defense was very disciplined, and if you factor out the 48-yard TD run on 4th and 1, we held them to 3.3 ypc on their other 20 runs. Considering that Minnesota is currently leading the league in yards per carry at 4.9 after four games, that is pretty good (Seattle could overtake them tonight if they run all over the Lions). Two of their longer runs came on scrambles that get them first down yardage on 3rd and long (10 and 11 yards).

Looking ahead to the Faiders

One quarter of the way through the season we sit atop the AFC West at 4-0 despite an offense that is struggling to find its stride. We've still got a lot of tough games to play. One of them might be next Sunday in Jokeland (don't laugh). The Faiders looked like they might have finally gotten out of the AFC West cellar after beating a demoralized Ravens team and limping Browns team, but they laid an absolute egg against the hapless Bears on Sunday. The Bears entered the game alone with the worst-scoring defense in the league (they still are, but now the Chefs are tied with them). Somehow, the Faiders only managed 20 points against the worst-scoring defense in the league. That does not bode well for them when they face the second best scoring defense in the league - us.

The Faiders have one of the heaviest offensive lines in the league (and one of the largest feature backs in the league in Latavius Murray). So I'm guessing that they are going to try and run right at us next Sunday in an attempt to use their size advantage to wear down our defense. Their offensive line has been one of the better units in the league through four games, allowing only five sacks and 15 QB hits through four games (we got 7 sacks and 11 QB hits against the Vikings).

Given the Raiders' ability to run the ball (7th in ypc) and their ability to protect Derek Carr, you could argue that the Faiders offensive line has played the best of any unit in the NFL so far this season. This Faiders offense looks much more competent than it has for the most of this decade, so this could be another tough test for our defense.