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Broncos 3rd & Long: the right direction

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The Denver Broncos are headed in the right direction after beating the Pittsburgh Steelers last week.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

I have been very critical of Vance Joseph as a head coach, but when a team wins two games in a row that they were not supposed to win, then that team is improving. Improvement by the team as a whole is a result of coaching and the head coach deserves at least some of the credit for this. The Broncos were 7.5 underdogs against the Chargers and then 3.0 point underdogs against the Steelers. This marks the first and second times that Denver has won a game as underdogs by 3 or more points with Vance Joseph as the head coach - we were 0-9 before the Chargers game. In all games where the Broncos are underdogs, we are 4-10 with the other two wins being the victories over Cowboys and the Jets in 2017.

So how did we get to this win? We got to this by generating takeaways. The defense got four takeaways on Sunday and the Broncos are 24-1 this century when forcing four or more turnovers (95%). That lone loss was the 2007 overtime loss to the Bears. Since the merger the team is 98-17-2 when forcing four or more turnover - 83.7% winning %. In the modern NFL where turnovers occur less and less frequently, forcing them is not a sustainable method of winning games, but teams that can force them tend to win more than they lose. In our little two-game winning streak, the Broncos are +6 in turnover margin, with zero giveaways and 6 takeaways. Overall we are +6 on the season. We are 7th in fewest giveaways with 12 in 11 games and 8th in most takeaways with 18. While it’s unsustainable to rely on takeaways to win, consistently winning the turnover battle is a sustainable path to victory.

Metrics

So how did we do in the two metrics that I track here? Pittsburgh ran 8 times for 36 yards on first down - 4.63 ypc. This generally kept them out of 3rd and long situations. Of their 8 runs on first down, only one was stopped for no gain or a loss. Every other first down run gained 2 or more yards. The Steelers gained an average of 6.91 yards per play on first down - which was helped dramatically by the 97-yard TD pass. They gained a net of 233 yards on first down (33 plays). If you take out that TD pass, they gained 4.25 yards on first down plays (which is still pretty good). League average right now is 5.7 yards per play. This is up from 5.3 yards per play last season. That is a huge jump year over year and if this continues I will right up a whole piece on it at seasons end (although others have already done so). For the season we are now allowing 4.83 yards per carry on first down runs which is 21st in the league. SEA is currently worst in the league allowing 5.79 and New Orleans is best allowing 3.48. All numbers exclude QB kneel-downs, which really should be excluded from rushing stats.

The Broncos held the Steelers to zero conversion on four 3rd & long situations.

Quarter Time Down ToGo Location Detail Result
1 9:51 3 10 DEN 30 Ben Roethlisberger pass incomplete short right intended for Vance McDonald Incomplete
2 7:14 3 11 DEN 32 Ben Roethlisberger pass complete short right to Antonio Brown for 9 yards (tackle by Bradley Chubb and Shane Ray) Catch but short
3 13:45 3 9 PIT 26 Ben Roethlisberger pass complete short left to Antonio Brown for 1 yard (tackle by Todd Davis) Catch but short
3 4:33 3 8 PIT 41 Ben Roethlisberger pass incomplete deep right intended for Antonio Brown Incomplete

For the season the Broncos have allowed conversion on 22 of 73 3rd and long situations (30.1%) which is 26th in the league. Cleveland currently leads the league allowing conversions on 17.4% of 3rd and long plays while the Rams are dead last allowing conversion on an astounding 42.9%.

Overall the Broncos held the Steelers to 5 of 14 on 3rd down. We have moved all the way up to 18th in the league in 3rd down % allowed - 39.6%. Minnesota is still #1 allowing 27.6% while the Bengals (or next opponent) is dead last allowing conversion 55.1% of the time.

Moving On

This team is trending upward. I am now hopeful that this improvement can continue and that the Broncos can make a run at a playoff spot. Yes, the odds are slim. Only 2.6% of teams starting the season 3-6 have gone one to make the playoffs. From 1970 to 2018, 194 teams started the year 3-6 - the average finish of those teams was 6-10. 5 (2.6%) of them made the playoffs

Best Finish: 10-6, 3 teams (most recent: 2012 WAS)

Worst Finish: 3-13, 5 teams (most recent: 2013 WAS)

Even if the Broncos miss the playoffs this season, should they continue to play well down the stretch and win five or six of the last seven that would be dramatic improvement from where they were in 2017 and where they were in early 2018. That should lead to something that they have not had in a long to start the 2019 season - continuity. If we finish well, we should have the same offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, head coach and starting QB to start the 2019 season. In my opinion, that would be a good thing.