In the NFL, third down is the money down. This is where good quarterbacks separate themselves from great ones, and where defenses show what they’re made of.
One of my favorite interviews I’ve listened to is one Peter King did with David Shaw, head football coach at Stanford, last year. In it, Shaw was talking about the difference in the college game and the NFL and made this remark about playing QB in the NFL.
“It’s 3rd down and it’s red zone. That’s their whole world. It’s 3rd down and red zone when it comes to quarterback play in the NFL.
He’s absolutely right, and the same principle applies to defenses too. The ones that can get you off the field on 3rd down, and keep you out of the end zone when you’re knocking on the door, are the ones who will have success over the course of an NFL season.
The Denver Broncos are still working on the red zone portion. I wrote a few weeks ago about there struggles in this area last year, and they have made improvements so far this year. But it’s their 3rd down defense that has been phenomenal over the first two games of the season.
Denver is currently first in the league in 3rd down conversion %, and has only allowed five total first downs through two weeks. In fact, Denver has had more sacks than 3rd down conversions allowed.
Denver's defense currently leads the league in 3rd down conversion % at 22.7%— Jeffrey Essary (@JeffreyEssary) September 20, 2018
So far this year, you're more likely to turn the ball over or be sacked on 3rd down than convert a 1st down against the #Broncos defense.
Coach Joseph mentioned this on Monday as well when discussing how the defense played against Oakland:
“On third downs, we were aggressive. Our plan was to be careful with the match-ups early, get then into the third down and obviously pressure the quarterback. That third down plan was right on, but the first and second down plan the first half was way too cautious.”
In Monday’s news conference, Joseph admitted that they needed to play more aggressive overall, and they gave the Raiders receivers too much cushion to complete short passes all day.
Here’s the kind of cushion Joseph was talking about.
These are two first down plays where Oakland took advantage of Denver’s off coverage to throw short, and pick up chunks of yardage.
So what exactly was Denver doing differently on 3rd down, that they can implement earlier in drives? I’m so glad you asked.
Believe it or not, this was the first 3rd down of the drive.
The big thing to notice below is Denver got their hands on the receivers at the line of scrimmage. I know Bradley Chubb has been getting flamed some for his coverage, but he does a great job here pressing Jared Cook and carrying him upfield.
When you play a 3-4 front, and rush four, which you need to do at times, simple math tells you one of your OLBs will have coverage responsibilities. Chubb does a nice job with his here.
Just Simmons also gets a really nice jam on Jordy Nelson on the right, which throws off the timing of the levels concept Oakland was trying to run on the right side.
Carr looks at Cook first and see that Chubb is still maintaining contact (within five yards), and Davis has him doubled.
At this point he begins to roll and look for either Cooper or Nelson on the right, but both guys are covered up.
Notice in the GIF below, Nelson is slow making it to that corner of the end zone because of the jam, which gives Roby time to essentially cover both guys. He’s in zone and what the play is trying to do is get Roby to commit low, and open up the corner, or vice versa. But Roby is able to stay with Cooper, then turn and locate Nelson arriving.
If Carr tries that throw, it’s intercepted. So he has to check down and Denver forces a field goal.
Overall, sound defense by Denver, and it all started by getting their hands on the receivers and playing assignment sound coverage.
Denver saved some of their exotic looks and blitzes for 3rd down, and this was one of them.
Joe Woods did this several times in this game, where he would show a look pre-snap and then rotate to a different look as the ball was being snapped.
Here Denver shows a really interesting blitz look and will drop into a cover-2 behind it, utilizing Roby essentially as the deep safety on that half of the field.
Here’s the end zone angle of the blitz. Simmons and Parks are going to come off the left edge along with Bradley Chubb, while Von Miller and Shane Ray drop off into zone coverage on the other side. This leaves only five rushers, but all overloaded to one side.
Here you end up having the RT and RG taking on one rusher, while the LT and RB are struggling to block the blitz. This forces Carr to get rid of it quickly and throw behind Jordy Nelson. If he had thrown it accurately, Nelson would have been hit hard by Ray dropping into the path of the slant.
Denver knew Carr would need to get the ball out quick, and he would be looking to throw into the area the blitz vacated, so they essentially just had to play that one route.
Really cool look by Woods that got Oakland off the field.
Speaking of disguised looks, here’s another one on the very next 3rd down.
Here is the pre-snap look, which is essentially what Denver was playing most of the game on 1st and 2nd down - off man coverage with a single high.
Here is where the cat and mouse game begins. Carr sees the look and sends a man in motion to gauge whether it’s man coverage or not.
Harris follows across the formation and back giving the appearance of man. Seeing this, Carr changes the play at the line.
Denver then rotates into a completely different look right before the snap.
Now Denver is in a cover-2 zone look. This becomes important because Carr checked to a run, trying to catch the secondary with their back turned, but now that the players are in zone, they are able to rally to make the tackle short of the marker. Chris Harris impressively comes up from the nickel-back position and dumps the runner on his back.
Watch this whole pre-snap back and forth between Carr and the defense.
In addition to disguising looks, Denver was more aggressive on 3rd downs, like Joseph mentioned. They pretty much only pressed the receivers on 3rd down, and not 1st and 2nd.
Now, pressing the receivers isn’t always a magic bullet, and it’s not as simple as just saying “press” more as a solution.
Roby attempts to press Cooper here, misses the jam, and gets burned for one of Oaklands’ 3rd down conversions.
Other times, the Raiders would stack receivers so they couldn’t get a clean jam on them, or use it to their advantage.
Here’s one that Denver will learn from. Cook is split out wide so Simmons follows him (which is a good thing!). Simmons is going to press him off the line, but Cooper will use that as a natural pick and slip in behind.
This leaves Harris to come over the pick and way off in coverage.
What they should have done is switched assignments, with Simmons coming off the press and taking the outside receiver, and Harris taking the inside guy. Denver executed this technique in man coverage to counter pick routes all the time when Aqib Talib was here.
The Raiders were clever, in that they did it with a tight end split wide so Simmons was more likely to stay with his guy instead of switching. But again, this is a learning opportunity and they will clean it up next time around, so it’s not a reason to not utilize tight coverage in these situations.
So, there are some ways where tighter coverage can be gamed and you can’t do crazy blitzes on every play, but overall, Denver’s defense benefited from their aggressive approach on 3rd down and I expect we will see more looks like the ones above earlier in drives this coming Sunday.