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Broncos 3rd & long: Outhustled, outcoached and outplayed

The Denver Broncos were rocked in Philly and we’re all still recovering from it.

NFL: Denver Broncos at Philadelphia Eagles Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

I played college football at Davidson, one of a handful of FCS schools that does not give football scholarships. When I was a player there, the league that we play in now, the Pioneer League, had not been formed so we mostly played D3 schools (got a geographic waiver to do so), but on occasion we would play a scholarship program. This was the case in the fall of 1997, my senior year, when we traveled to Tampa to play the University of South Florida. USF had recently started up their football program and were playing anyone they could find. They would transition to the BCS in a couple of years, joining what at the time was the Big East in football. They had a team full of BCS transfers and academic non-qualifiers. We had a team full of undersized future doctors, lawyers and scientists.

We won the toss and took the ball first. On our opening drive, through a series of well-schemed plays and great individual efforts (a beautiful 30-yard scramble by our QB, Tommy Dugan) we drove down to their 20 and were able to kick a FG to take a 3-0 lead to start the game. They got the ball and our defense was able to force a punt because of a penalty on their OL and two inaccurate throws by their QB (who was a transfer from USC). We were feeling pretty good at that point, but that would be the highpoint of the game for us. Our offense would go three and out and their punt returner, who would play briefly in the NFL, returned our punt 40 yards to set them up with great field position. Their first play on that drive would be a play-action fake followed by a beautiful throw on a go route for a TD. They took a 7-3 lead and never looked back. The final would be 48-3. They realized that they could pretty much do whatever they wanted on offense or defense and as long as they executed, we couldn’t stop them.

USF cut a very large check to the Davidson football program - about half of our football budget - for us to take this beating. While the game on Sunday was not the same type of sacrificial lamb game, it definitely had that feel. The Eagles could seemingly do no wrong. They were executing on both sides of the ball and everything that they tried seemed to be working. Watching from the upper deck of Lincoln Financial field with my 10-year old son, this had the feel of watching a horror film where you know the protagonist is going to die a horrible death and that everything they try is only going to make their situation worse.

I verbally sparred with an Eagles during the first quarter. Unfortunately for us, everything that should have been an advantage for Denver amounted to nothing. They had a backup starting at LT, so I figured I’d remind this guy that Carson Wentz will be running for his life all game because Shane Ray and Shaq Barrett will make Howdoyouspellhisfirstname Vaitai look silly. That didn’t happen. I tried to remind this guy that the Eagles were not going to be able to run the ball on our “ground control” defense. Thankfully I was in the line for concessions when Jay Ajayi broke off his 46-yard TD run so I didn’t have to hear about it from that fan. Even the No Fly Zone looked lost and demoralized for a large portion of the game. All of Denver’s strengths had been nullified and all of Denver’s weaknesses had been magnified. While the score was not as lopsided of the 48-3 butt-whooping my Davidson team took in 1997, the game was that lopsided.

The silver lining is that the much-maligned Eagles fans were in a very good mood and my son, who really isn’t that interested in football, got to move all around section 220 meeting and chatting with lots of Eagles fans who were constantly trying to turn him to the dark side. He resisted. I smiled. He had fun both at the tail-gate where we met Jess Place and his college friend. I smiled. He learned that he likes Chickie and Pete’s crabfries especially with the cheese sauce. I smiled. Some things are bigger than the results on the field and I’d like to think that he’ll remember his first (and my first) NFL game for a long time even if the performance of the Denver Broncos was largely forgettable.

Stopping the run on first down

I’ve been tracking this stat for four or five years now. This was the worst that the defense has done during that timeframe. Some of that is because the 46-yd TD run occurred on first down, but even if you leave that out, the Eagles were able to switch to a run-first mode in the second half when they had their big league and still get chunks of yardage on first down like teams did against us last season. For the day the ran the ball 14 times on first down for 146 yards (leaving out the kneel-down). That’s 10.42 yards per carry. Even if you leave out the 46-yd TD run, we still gave up 7.70 ypc on the other 13 first down runs. The saddest part is that nine of those fourteen runs happened in the second half when our defense should have been fully expecting them to run given their huge lead. The defense still couldn’t stop the run. These are the yards allowed on first down runs in the second half - 24, 9, 6, 5, 5, 7, 1, 26 and 2. One could look at those numbers and conclude that the defense had given up. I hope that is not the case, but it’s hard to understand those numbers after the defense was so good during most of the year at stopping the run.

For the season the Broncos had allowed 327 rushing yards on first downs prior to this game and we allowed 146 in this game alone. We came in allowing 3.72 ypc on first down runs and left allowing 4.64. This one game dropped us from near the top of the league in this stat (7th) to near the bottom of the league (28th).

Getting them in and stopping them on 3rd & long

I was surprised when I looked at the numbers. The Eagles were only six of fourteen on 3rd down during this game (including penalty conversions) and only two of seven on 3rd and long. It seemed much worse from the stands. Here are the results

Quarter Time ToGo Location Detail Result
1 9:45 9 PHI 26 Carson Wentz pass complete short middle to Trey Burton for 14 yards (tackle by Bradley Roby) conversion by catch
1 2:04 7 DEN 27 Carson Wentz pass incomplete short left intended for Alshon Jeffery (defended by Bradley Roby) incomplete
1 0:59 10 DEN 15 Carson Wentz pass complete short right to Corey Clement for 15 yards, touchdown touchdown
2 0:06 10 PHI 44 Carson Wentz pass complete short left to Alshon Jeffery for 5 yards catch but short
3 9:08 8 DEN 10 Carson Wentz left end for 7 yards (tackle by Justin Simmons) catch but short
3 6:08 10 PHI 23 Carson Wentz sacked by Brandon Marshall for -4 yards sack
4 1:53 8 DEN 32 Wendell Smallwood left end for no gain (tackle by Shelby Harris) run short of sticks

One of the reasons why it seemed worse is that Carson Wentz was 5 of 6 for 52 yards and two TDs when passing on 3rd down. His only 3rd down incompletion was in the first quarter. We did get one sack on 3rd and long, but even then it was a coverage sack.

Moving forward

Little hope remains for this season, but that doesn’t mean that there is no hope. Maybe playing at home against the defending cheaters champions will bring out the best in both our offense and our defense. Maybe the football gods will smile upon us and bless us with a couple of Cheatriot turnovers deep in their own territory. Maybe Jamaal Charles will finally have a “breakout” game with us and announce to the league that there is still gas left in his tank. I’m a fan and I’m going to keep watching just like I did during the 5-11 season in the 90s and the 4-12 season under McDufus. I’ll probably turn off the game at some point and then turn it on later (with the sound muted) if we play on Sunday night like we did last Sunday, but I’ll still pay attention - at least until it gets too gory. I enjoy a good horror film every now and then, but the memory of the Broncos getting disemboweled on the field in Philly is still too fresh in my mind. I don’t know that I can stomach another such event so soon.