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Broncos 3rd & Long: Defense implodes vs. Colts in letdown game

What a difference a week makes.

Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

Last week Broncos fans were all giddy about how well the Denver Broncos played in all facets against an elite team. This week, our offense and defense failed on multiple levels against a less-than-elite opponent.

At least this didn't happen in the playoffs.

Andrew Luck and his freshly hired offensive coordinator just figured out how to beat the Denver Broncos defense. If your QB can run like a fullback, throw accurate darts and survive a multitude of wicked (and perfectly legal) hits, then you can put up 30 27 points on our defense. Thankfully there aren't many QB's in the NFL who can do what Andrew Luck can do when he is healthy.

While Manning's second interception is going to get singled out as the "reason" we lost this game, that is overlooking the real problem - we couldn't stop the Colts on 3rd down. They converted 12 of 20 third downs against us and none of those conversion were by penalty. Andrew Mason had some interesting thoughts on our defenses 3rd down performance - including how it had been 13 years since a Broncos defense allowed so many 3rd-down conversions. Entering the game we had given up 126 first downs in the first 7 games (18/game). The Colts put up 27 first downs on us yesterday (seven by penalty) allowing them to possess the ball for almost 39 minutes of the game.

It had been nearly 13 years since a Broncos defense allowed so many 3rd-down conversions

While our defense is deep, no defense is going to be able to hold up when the time of possession is that lopsided. Some of the blame for that rests with our offense which was atrocious in the first half. (Our offense had the ball five times in the first half and amassed 95 total yards, four punts and one interception.) Both sides of the ball played better in the second half, but it sure would have been nice if the team had not waited until the final seconds of the first half to start playing like the team we saw dismantle Green Bay.

Defensive Performance on 3rd & Long

As we do each week, we take a look at Denver's performance on 3rd and long (seven yards or greater). Our defense is designed to get teams in 3rd and long and then we have them right where we want them because of our elite pass rush. The Colts turned that on its head yesterday. They converted five of eight 3rd and longs (see table).

Situation Play Result
3rd and 10 at IND 37 (8:50 - 1st) (Shotgun) A.Luck pass deep left to T.Hilton to DEN 35 for 28 yards (T.Ward) [V.Miller]. DEN-C.Harris was injured during the play. PENALTY on DEN-T.Ward, Unnecessary Roughness, 15 yards, enforced at DEN 35 conversion by catch
3rd and 7 at IND 40 (10:10 - 2nd) (Shotgun) A.Luck pass short right to T.Hilton pushed ob at DEN 30 for 30 yards (D.Stewart) conversion by catch
3rd and 10 at IND 37 (3:09 - 2nd) (Shotgun) A.Luck scrambles up the middle to IND 47 for 10 yards (D.Trevathan) conversion by scramble
3rd and 11 at IND 46 (2:00 - 2nd) (Shotgun) A.Luck sacked at IND 39 for -7 yards (D.Ware) sack
3rd and 9 at IND 32 (13:00 - 3rd) (Shotgun) A.Luck pass incomplete short middle to A.Johnson [A.Smith] incomplete
3rd and 12 at IND 32 (10:29 - 3rd) (Shotgun) A.Luck scrambles right tackle to IND 43 for 11 yards (B.Marshall; S.Barrett) scramble stopped short
3rd and 7 at IND 49 (0:59 - 3rd) (Shotgun) A.Luck pass deep left to G.Whalen to DEN 13 for 38 yards (T.Ward) conversion by catch
3rd and 10 at DEN 34 (3:28 - 4th) (Shotgun) A.Luck pass short middle to G.Whalen to DEN 16 for 18 yards (T.Ward) [V.Miller] conversion by catch

Included in those five conversion was the backbreaker with 3:28 left to play in the 4th quarter. Stopping them on that play would have forced a long FG attempt and we would have at least gotten the ball back needing a TD with two timeouts and three+ minutes to play. It is has been rare for our defense to fail in critical situations this year. In fact it could be argued that our defense had not failed in a game-on-the-line situation this year - until Sunday. We've been saying this all season, but it finally played out yesterday - you can't turn the ball over in critical situations and beat good teams in the NFL.

It sure would have been nice if the team had not waited until the final seconds of the first half to start playing like the team we saw dismantle Green Bay

Let's track the chain of events that led to the loss. The offense failed to do much of anything in the first half initiated by our opening drive which began with two straight incomplete passes - one a drop by Demaryius Thomas and ended with a punt after a 9 yard gain on 3rd and 10. Our defense forced a three-and-out and got the ball back for our offense which gained one first down and 22 yards before punting again. So far the game was playing out like most of our games have this year with little or no offense from either side in the first quarter.

Our defense, which had not allowed a single point in the first quarter of this season, then allowed an 80-yd TD drive by the Colts in which 43 yards yards came on one play (28 yd catch + 15 yd penalty). Our offense then answered with a 9-play drive that only had two first downs gaining 28 yards before punting from mid-field. The Colts proceeded to drive 63 yards for a FG aided by the latest facemask flag even thrown in the history of the NFL to make it 10-0 early in the second quarter. Our offense answered with a four play drive ending with an interception on IND 37. The Colts took the ball 63 yards for a TD to make it 17-0. I was worried at this point, because our defense had just gotten steam-rolled on that drive.

From that point on our defense played better, but not as well as they have the rest of the year (the Colts converted on their first three 3rd and long situations and their last two). If the offense had been able to do anything substantial in the first half, I'm convinced that we would have won.

For the season we have now allowed conversion on 22 of 67 3rd and long situations (32.8%). The five conversions allowed to the Colts was the most we have allowed this year and the 63% conversion allowed on 3rd and long is the worst team defense on 3rd and long since the 2012 season when we allowed the P*triots to convert on five of seven (71%).

Stopping the Run on First Down

After the first first down run of the game which went for 17 yards, our first down run defense was as effective as it has been all season. The Colts ran the ball 39 times (excluding the kneeldown) and 19 of those were on first down. Those 19 first down runs gained only 43 yards (2.3 ypc). Included in those 19 runs were three stops for no gain and three TFL's (Derek Wolfe/Von Miller, TJ Ward and Vance Walker/Shaq Barrett).

For the season we are still the best team in the league at stopping the run on first down having allowed 317 yards on 112 carries (2.83 ypc). We now have 19 stops for no gain and 15 TFL's on first down runs meaning that 30% of all first down runs against us this year have been stopped at or behind the LOS.

Moving Forward

We now get to face a resilient Chiefs team in Denver. The Chiefs rolled over a listless Lions team 45-10 and ran for 206 yards and 4 TDs in that game despite not having the services of Jamaal Charles. They will have had two weeks to prepare for us and I am sure they will be looking for revenge after their first loss to us this year completely derailed their season. That being said, teams with Peyton Manning at QB don't lose two games in a row very often and this will not be a time when that happens. The offense will play an entire game next Sunday and the defense won't allow another team to convert as many 3rd and longs as the Colts did yesterday. The Chiefs will be in 3rd and long a lot next Sunday and Al(ex) Smith will have a bunch of Ortons (3rd down completions that don't convert). The dominating Broncos team that showed up against the Packers will show up next week against the Chiefs.