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Broncos’ 3rd & long: Offense drops the ball, literally and figuratively

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An inability to handle blitzes led to an inability to convert on third down and a very predictable loss

Kansas City Chiefs v Denver Broncos Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

I thought about using this article to do sack-blame, but I decided that warranted its own article. This will be the standard format for 3rd & long.

The defense was the only leg of the tripod that did its job on Thursday. Special teams and the offense both failed in spectacular fashion. You could argue the defense should not have allowed 17 points once the Chiefs lost their wunderkind to injury, but the defense was constantly put in bad situations by the offense and the special teams. The Chiefs started two drives in Denver territory (at the DEN 38 and 21) and both ONLY led to field goals.

They also started one drive at their own 49 while the Broncos started all drives on their end of the field with only two beyond the 25 (DEN 35 and 27).

The Chiefs won the special team’s battle on every front, and to the (now-muted) Chiefs’ special teams’ troll on Twitter - You were right. Special teams played a critical role in this game, even if it didn’t in the previous three.

The defense did a decent job of stopping the run on first down. KC ran the ball 13 times for 49 yards on first down (3.77 yards per carry), but almost half of that came off one 22-yard run in the fourth quarter. Six of their 13 first-down runs gained one yard or less. For the season, the Broncos defense is 24th at stopping the run on first down (4.9 yards per carry). The Jets are still the best team in the league at stopping the run on first down, allowing only 3.0 yards per carry. The Browns are the worst, allowing 5.5.

When the defense forced KC into third-and-long, Broncos stopped the Chiefs six out of seven times.

Quarter Time Down Yards Location Detail Result
1 1:49 3 10 DEN 21 Patrick Mahomes pass complete short right to Darrel Williams for 6 yards (tackle by Dre'Mont Jones and Alexander Johnson) catch but short
2 1:15 3 14 KAN 36 Matt Moore pass incomplete short middle intended for Demarcus Robinson (defended by Justin Simmons) incomplete
3 14:20 3 7 KAN 28 Matt Moore pass complete short right to Travis Kelce for 8 yards (tackle by Kareem Jackson) conversion by catch
3 13:35 3 10 KAN 36 Matt Moore pass complete short right to Darrel Williams for -1 yards (tackle by Todd Davis) catch but short
3 6:29 3 14 KAN 38 Matt Moore pass incomplete deep left intended for Tyreek Hill incomplete
3 1:06 3 7 KAN 49 Matt Moore pass incomplete short left incomplete
4 10:55 3 8 KAN 34 Matt Moore sacked by DeMarcus Walker for -2 yards sack

Unfortunately the defense was not so good at stopping KC on third-and-short - or medium - where they converted four of eight. All four conversions came on third-and-short, including the touchdown to Mecole Hardman.

For the season the defense is fifth at stopping offenses from converting on third-and-long. Denver has only allowed nine conversions on 46 attempts (19.6 percent). The Patriots are currently leading the league, allowing conversion on 12.2 percent (6 of 50) while the Texans are currently the worst, allowing conversion on 40 percent (20 of 50).

Third-and-long offense

Now let’s talk a little about the offensive offense. I was surprised to see that the Broncos are not the worst offense in the league at converting on third-and-long (that would be the Dolphins at 10.3 percent, or 4 of 39). The offense currently ranks 27th at converting on third-and-long with 21.3 percent (10 of 47). Contrast that with the Cowboys who have converted on 38.6 percent of their third-and-long chances this season (13 of 34).

One reason the Broncos are having troubles on third-and-long is that the offensive line has been having troubles pass protecting over the past two games. I’ll get into this in a post later this week, but I wanted some answers as to why. Is the offense ending up in third-and-long more often than other offenses around the league? My gut says yes, but what does the data say? The data says my gut is wrong.

The Broncos have had 91 third-down plays this season and only 43 of them have been in long situations (7 or more yards needed)

Rank Tm G 3rd Down Plays 7 or more needed long %
1 ARI 7 99 58 58.6%
2 MIN 7 75 43 57.3%
3 TEN 7 89 51 57.3%
4 NYJ 5 66 37 56.1%
5 ATL 7 81 45 55.6%
6 GNB 7 78 43 55.1%
7 BUF 6 73 39 53.4%
8 JAX 7 90 48 53.3%
9 DET 6 79 42 53.2%
10 BAL 7 89 47 52.8%
11 KAN 7 78 41 52.6%
12 CLE 6 71 37 52.1%
13 TAM 6 75 39 52.0%
14 CHI 6 78 40 51.3%
15 NYG 7 86 44 51.2%
16 MIA 6 77 39 50.6%
17 NWE 6 85 42 49.4%
18 IND 6 81 40 49.4%
19 HOU 7 86 42 48.8%
20 CAR 6 76 37 48.7%
21 CIN 7 93 45 48.4%
22 DEN 7 91 43 47.3%
23 LAC 7 87 41 47.1%
24 SEA 7 88 41 46.6%
25 WAS 7 73 34 46.6%
26 PIT 6 66 30 45.5%
27 LAR 7 91 41 45.1%
28 SFO 6 81 36 44.4%
29 PHI 7 91 39 42.9%
30 NOR 7 92 38 41.3%
31 DAL 7 81 31 38.3%
32 OAK 6 74 28 37.8%

That is the 11th best offense at staying OUT OF third-and-long situations. One reason with this that the Broncos are the 11th best team at gaining yards when we run the ball on first down (4.8 ypc). I seem to remember the Broncos having a hard time running the ball in the second half when being in the lead, but the average (at least on first-down runs) only goes down to 4.7 yards per carry when leading the game running the ball on first down in the second half.

Now, bear in mind that Broncos spent so little time leading ball games in their five losses that they have exactly one second-half rushing attempt on first or second down with a lead in those five games (a run for no gain by Phillip Lindsay when Broncos were up 17-13 vs Jacksonville). In the two victories, the Broncos have averaged 5.7 and 4.0 yards respectively on first and second down runs in the second half with a lead.

Play calling on offense

I saw somewhere that our offensive play-calling has been ridiculously predictable in the second half when we have a lead. Let’s shine some light on that.

The Broncos have run 25 plays on first down in the second half with a lead - 21 runs and four passes. Eight of those carries have gone to Royce Freeman who had gained 17 yards on those runs (2.13 yards per carry); 13 to Lindsay who has gained 88 yards on those runs (6.77 yards per carry). Interestingly, 78 of those yards have come on three runs. On the other 10 runs, he’s gained 10 net yards. Joe Flacco is three-of-four for 21 yards (one first down) on those throws.

So I wondered if other teams are this predictable in the second half with a lead.

They are not.

In fact, only two have run more often in this situation (first down in the second half with a lead) than the Broncos - the Giants and 49ers.

Tm G Plays Pass Rush Run%
SFO 6 66 9 57 86%
NYG 1 13 2 11 85%
DEN 3 25 4 21 84%
TAM 3 37 6 31 84%
MIA 1 6 1 5 83%
CHI 4 36 8 28 78%
LAR 5 51 12 39 76%
DET 4 33 8 25 76%
CAR 4 45 11 34 76%
BAL 5 57 14 43 75%
DAL 4 52 13 39 75%
OAK 3 31 8 23 74%
CLE 4 27 7 20 74%
JAX 3 23 6 17 74%
BUF 5 34 9 25 74%
LAC 4 36 10 26 72%
TEN 4 35 10 25 71%
NOR 6 58 17 41 71%
PHI 4 32 10 22 69%
MIN 5 54 19 35 65%
PIT 5 31 11 20 65%
NWE 6 81 29 52 64%
SEA 5 38 14 24 63%
GNB 5 58 23 35 60%
CIN 2 10 4 6 60%
KAN 6 59 24 35 59%
IND 4 39 16 23 59%
ARI 4 29 12 17 59%
HOU 5 43 18 25 58%
WAS 2 14 1 1 50%
ATL 1 9 5 4 44%
NYJ 2 21 12 9 43%

Of the nine predictable teams (teams running the ball more than 75 percent of the time in this situation), the Broncos are fourth best at average yards gained (5.0). Only Carolina (7.6), Chicago (6.8) and San Fransisco (6.2) have averaged more yards gained on first down in these situations.

Keep this in mind though - the Broncos have gained 125 yards on these 25 plays. 78 of those yards came on three runs. The other 22 plays have gained 47 yards (2.13 yards per play). That figure of 2.13 on first down plays in the second half with a lead would be second to last in the league without Lindsay’s three long runs. Only the Dolphins have been worse, and they have only had six plays.

It’s possible that the reason for this predictable play-calling is that Rich Scangerello does not trust the offensive line to protect Joe Flacco, but it would appear to me that the league has picked up on this tendency, and that play-action could be extremely effective in these situations (assuming we have a game in the remainder of the season with a second half lead).