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Broncos 3rd & long: More exciting than it should have been

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The Denver Broncos dominated most of the game against the Los Angeles Chargers, but almost choked it all away.

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Denver Broncos Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

So my weekly review is back. In it I’ll focus on two key defensive stats: the ability to stop the run on first down and the ability to stop the opposing offense when we get them in 3rd and long (7 or more yards needed to gain).

Before we get to it, I want to remind every announcer, reader and blogger that that total yards allowed is less important than yards per play or rush or pass. So while the Broncos were 28th in total rushing yards allowed last season, please stop saying that they were 28th in run defense. They were not. Why? Because they were 18th in average yards allowed per carry (4.33). In other words, our defense faced an inordinate number of runs last season due partly to our offense’ inability to stay on the field. The 482 rushing attempts we faced were 3rd most in the league (behind only SF - 548 and CLE - 498). So yes, the our 2016 run D was a far cry from our 2015 run D (which was historically elite - 3.28 ypc allowed), but it was not as bad as the poorly informed announcers would lead you to believe.

Defensive performance against first down runs

So let’s get to it. The Chargers ran the ball 13 times for 50 yards on first down (3.84 ypc), but 21 of those yards came on their first run of the game. After that run we held them to 29 yards on 12 carries (2.42 ypc). We stopped them once for a loss (TFL) and twice for no gain on first down runs. For comparison we allowed 4.43 ypc on first down runs last season and had a grand total of 14 TFL and 12 stops for no gain on first down runs all of last year. So we are on pace to have a greatly improved first down run D this season relative to last year. Also keep in mind that in the opener last year we allowed 108 yards on 20 first down runs to the Panthers (5.4 ypc). Before you get too happy about this, remember that we allowed a mere 3.17 ypc on first down runs in 2015.

Defensive performance on 3rd and Long

We only forced the Chargers into 3rd and long 5 times. Here is how we did when we forced them into 3rd and long

Quarter Time Down ToGo Location Detail Result
1 3:20 3 7 LAC 28 Philip Rivers pass complete short left to Keenan Allen for 9 yards (tackle by Justin Simmons) conversion by catch
1 1:51 3 8 LAC 39 Philip Rivers pass incomplete deep middle to 13-K.Allen (29-B.Roby). PENALTY on DEN-29-B.Roby, Defensive Pass Interference, 40 yards, enforced at LAC 39 - No Play. conversion by penalty
3 8:56 3 18 LAC 17 Philip Rivers pass complete short left to Tyrell Williams for 9 yards (tackle by Bradley Roby) catch but short
4 3:49 3 10 50 Philip Rivers pass complete short right to Travis Benjamin for -1 yards (tackle by Brandon Marshall) catch but short
2 10:25 3 9 LAC 28 Philip Rivers pass incomplete short right intended for Antonio Gates incomplete

The Chargers converted two of five third and long situations against us. They both occurred on their first TD drive. The first one was the a play where we got no pressure on Rivers and he had time to find Allen running free on the left side who gained some YAC for the first down picking up 9 on 3rd and 7. The second conversion was the conversion by penalty on the first Roby pass interference (which looked less dubious than the second).

Holding Rivers to 40% conversion on 3rd and long is decent, considering he has dissected our defense on 3rd and long in the past (I’ve been tracking this since 2012). Rivers is generally near the top of the league in terms of getting first down conversions on 3rd and long - he was 4th last year converting on 37.3% of his 3rd and longs (not counting penalty conversions). I count penalty conversions even though the league doesn’t (since it’s technically “no play”).

Moving on

The Cowboys should present a challenge for our D. They are widely regarded as having the best offensive line in the NFL (or at least one of the best) and they have a dynamic back in Ezekiel Elliot who would have gained good yardage even running behind our horrible 2016 OL. Stopping their run game will be a stiff test, so I doubt that we are able to force them into many 3rd and long situations on Sunday.

Dak Prescott only threw the ball 67 times on 3rd and long in 2016 in 16 starts. That was close to the lowest value in the league for a 16 game starter (Joe Flacco threw it 92 times on 3rd and long in 16 starts). Dallas only faced 3rd and long 85 times all last season: 71 passes [4 by others], 8 sacks and 6 runs. When Dak was forced to throw on 3rd and long last season he was OK (13th in passer rating - 88.6). I would expect him to improve a little bit this year, but he’s not going to turn into Tom Br*dy overnight (FYTB had an astounding passer rating of 133.6 on 3rd and long last season).