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The Denver Broncos passing game is failing when and where it matters most

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Case Keenum and the Broncos passing game is one of the worst in the league in the two most crucial areas - on 3rd downs and in the red zone.

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NFL: Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Despite the Broncos record, and the optics at a glance, the Denver offense has shown improvement this year. There is an explosive component to this offense that hasn’t been there in years past.

Denver has also finally found a consistent running game. After three years of hearing “we want to establish the run” or “we want to lean on the running game” from the various coaching staffs, the fans are actually seeing the product on the field.

The Broncos rank 3rd in the league in total rushing yards, and 1st in the league in yards per attempt.

However, it’s the passing game that while it produces some explosive plays, just cannot get things done when it counts.

“3rd down and red zone”

I probably bring up this quote at least once a month during the NFL season, because I love it so much. David Shaw, head coach at Stanford is one of my favorite coaches and he described quarterback play in the NFL as 3rd down and red zone. That’s what sets the greats apart from the “stat stuffers” or “fantasy quarterbacks”.

Sure it’s fun to rack up yards between the 20s on 1st and 2nd down, but where quarterbacks make their money is in those critical spots for their team.

3rd Down

So how has Denver’s passing offense fared on 3rd downs?

First of all, it’s critical to understand the importance of a passing offense in this spot and why the quarterback must be effective on 3rd downs. If you have a strong running game like Denver has, is there as big a need for the quarterback and passing offense to shoulder the load on 3rd down?

In short, yes. In today’s NFL, 3rd down is essentially the quarterback’s down. Out of the 3,129 3rd down plays across the league so far this year, only 21% have been runs. That is because the league average for yards to gain on 3rd down is 7.1 yards (Denver is right at league average). Of the times teams have run the ball on 3rd downs, 50% of those runs have come when the offense had less than six yards to gain.

So when offenses have less than six yards to gain, it’s about a 50/50 split whether they run or pass on 3rd downs. Thus, offenses are passing the ball 80% of the time on 3rd downs. So, if you want to convert and be efficient on offense, you’re quarterback has to at least show up on 3rd down.

Unfortunately, this is precisely where Denver has failed in the passing game.

Case Keenum currently ranks 31st in the league at converting on 3rd downs at a paltry 22.5%. Additionally, Denver ranks 7th in the league on sacks given up on 3rd down with 12. In a future post, I’ll be breaking down each of those sacks to look at who’s to blame - the offensive line, or the quarterback, so more to come on this.

At first glance, when looking at raw stats like completion % or QB rating, Keenum’s performance doesn’t necessarily dip that much when it gets to 3rd down. Which is why it is important to look at more telling metrics like success rate and yards per attempt that take into account the context of the situation.

For instance, when passing on 3rd down, Denver has averaged around 8 yards to gain for a first down. Compare that to Case Keenum’s average yards per attempt on 3rd downs, at 5.6, and it becomes clearer that while he may be completing passes, they are falling short of the needed yardage.

In fact, Keenum’s Y/A on 3rd down drops nearly three yards per attempt from his first down Y/A. This leads to Denver being one of the worst teams in the league at not only converting on 3rd down, but on gap between yards needed versus yards actually gained.

I broke this down in a handy chart.

3rd Down Differential

Tm Games Plays YardsToGo Yds Gained Differential Rank 1st%
Tm Games Plays YardsToGo Yds Gained Differential Rank 1st%
KAN 8 64 7.89 8.66 -0.77 1 48.40%
DET 7 66 6.68 7.08 -0.4 2 45.50%
IND 8 97 6.75 6.86 -0.11 3 50.50%
WAS 7 75 7.31 7.11 0.2 4 37.30%
NWE 8 71 6.39 5.99 0.4 5 38.00%
TAM 7 70 8.04 7.39 0.65 6 42.90%
PIT 7 72 7.56 6.88 0.68 7 36.10%
LAR 8 68 7.53 6.44 1.09 8 39.70%
GNB 7 77 9.06 7.95 1.11 9 35.10%
SEA 7 66 7.3 6.17 1.13 10 37.90%
HOU 8 82 7.77 6.51 1.26 11 32.90%
JAX 8 93 6.77 5.48 1.29 12 41.90%
MIA 8 78 8.06 6.64 1.42 13 35.90%
OAK 7 66 6.83 5.23 1.6 14 37.90%
BAL 8 94 7.78 5.93 1.85 15 38.30%
ATL 7 78 8.15 6.19 1.96 16 44.90%
LAC 7 65 7.45 5.42 2.03 17 35.40%
League Average 7.67 5.48 2.19 36.40%
MIN 8 101 7.25 4.94 2.31 18 38.60%
NYG 8 90 8.57 6.07 2.5 19 34.40%
PHI 8 83 8.63 5.87 2.76 20 37.30%
NYJ 8 80 8.53 5.61 2.92 21 32.50%
TEN 7 74 7.08 3.99 3.09 22 33.80%
CAR 7 56 6.75 3.54 3.21 23 37.50%
CHI 7 61 6.69 3.41 3.28 24 37.70%
CIN 8 73 7.66 4.21 3.45 25 38.40%
CLE 8 105 8.19 4.68 3.51 26 28.60%
NOR 7 55 7.07 3.56 3.51 27 36.40%
DEN 8 77 7.94 3.69 4.25 28 27.30%
ARI 8 75 7.21 2.56 4.65 29 25.30%
SFO 8 74 8.03 3.19 4.84 30 28.40%
DAL 7 67 8.51 3.49 5.02 31 22.40%
BUF 8 87 9 3.93 5.07 32 27.60%
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 11/1/2018.
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 11/1/2018.

(here is a more mobile friendly chart)

As you can see, Denver is 28th in the league at closing the gap between the needed yards on 3rd down, and actual yards gained. On average, Denver’s passing game is four yards short of their needed yardage on 3rd downs, with the league average being around two yards.

This is why regardless of how effective your running game is, the quarterback and passing game is critical to the success of the offense as a whole - and Denver hasn’t just been not good in this area, they have been downright bad.

Red Zone

The second critical area for an offense is finishing when in scoring range. This is where things begin to really look ugly for Case Keenum.

Keenum’s QB rating drops nearly 40 points when inside the red zone, and his completion percentage drops over 20%.

This is even more of a startling drop off considering Case Keenum was a top five quarterback in the red zone last year. I mentioned this a little bit last week while on Orange and Blue 760. Case Keenum threw 15 touchdowns last year in the red zone with zero interceptions, and six of those went to Kyle Rudolph.

Another deep dive I will be doing in the future is a look at Keenum this year in the red zone, so stay tuned, but not having a go-to guy down in the red zone has clearly been an issue for Keenum and Denver’s offense.

When looking at the numbers like this, it is easy to see why Denver has struggled so much this year, and why fans are not happy with the quarterback play.

This is just the start of a series of posts on this topic, but it begins to paint a picture of just how bad the passing offense has been in key situations. You just can’t win in the NFL with this kind of play.

If the Denver Broncos want to improve their fortunes this year or next, this has to be where they start.