Every NFL QB is judged on how well he performs on third downs.
Good performance on third downs can mean the difference between a touchdown and a field goal, or the difference between a field goal and a punt. Good offenses generally have QBs who can convert on third down.
Right now the correlation between third down conversion rate and scoring (points per game) is 62.2 percent. The Broncos currently rank 29th in third down conversion rate (29.7%) and 29th in scoring (16.0 ppg).
One of the reasons for the Bronco’s ineptitude on third downs this year is that Joe Flacco has been bad on third downs.
Flacco is the 33rd-ranked passer in the NFL this season on third and fourth downs (by passer rating). His passer rating on third and fourth downs is 63.8. For comparison Patrick Mahomes has a rating of 135.3 on third and fourth down passing. Flacco’s “empty completion” percentage is also one of the worst in the league (7th worst), and the only non-injury replacement starters who have been worse so far this year are Ben Roethlisberger (who is injured) and Marcus Mariotta (who was benched).
An empty completion on third and fourth down is a completion that does not gain a first down (or a touchdown). Flacco is also the only QB in the league with 50 or more passing attempts or third or fourth down who does not have a TD throw on third or fourth down.
So enough with the stats, let’s watch some video.
We are going to analyze 18 third-down plays: six sacks, six conversions and six plays where Flacco could have made a play but didn’t. This is the first part of a three-part series - and it will cover the sacks.
All six of these sacks occurred on 3rd or 4th and long plays (7+ yards needed). The Broncos have allowed 12 sacks on 3rd or 4th down plays this season. These will be shown in chronological order.
The first sack was in game one vs Oakland. The Broncos are on the Raider 33 and it’s 3rd-and-12. Even an incompletion here would have lead to a FG attempt. The ten yard loss on the sack/fumble led to a punt. This play may or may not have cost the Broncos three points since Brandon McManus was still in his funk from 50 and beyond. Kicking off of the dirt in Jokeland is also tricky.
DaeSean Hamilton starts out in the backfield in a shotgun pro-set with Royce Freeman. Hamilton then motions to the offense’s right. Garett Bolles and Dalton Risner do a good job picking up the edge and the DB, Elijah Wilkinson gets beaten quickly with an outside rush fake followed by a cross-face rip.
Royce Freeman, who is supposed to help on the edge rusher if needed, does almost nothing to help block him, giving him only a slight nudge as he moves into his route. Clelin Ferrell (#96) may or may not have gotten into the throwing lane for both Noah Fant and Emmanuel Sanders (see the sideline view still below the GIF).
From this shot it would appear that Flacco has the space and the time to hit Sanders in that big red circled area, but maybe Flacco did not feel that he could fit the ball into that large window with the defender underneath the throwing lane.
I also don’t know if Sanders was running a shallow cross or a post. A post looks like it might carry him into the path of Fant, while a cross would potentially be if the end stays with Fant up the seam. The line to gain is shown in black so Flacco may have been waiting for this to develop a little more.
As you can see in the still below, the edge that beats Wilkinson has already gotten inside position on him and is three steps from sacking him.
JoRo: One of my biggest knocks on Flacco back when I watched his tape with the Baltimore Ravens is how he’s a “see it, throw it,” passer. Too often with the Broncos this habit has creeped into “gun shy” territory. To the point where it’s almost as if Flacco’s afraid to throw a pick so he’ll wait too long and eat a sack.
Unfortunately sacks are often just as bad, if not worse than picks.
Jeff: I don’t disagree with Joe R. on Flacco being a “see it, throw it” guy who struggles with anticipation at times and was one of the things I said about Flacco when broke down his tape earlier this offseason. However, I think in this instance, I agree with Joe M. above about the line to gain. I think Flacco is waiting for this one to develop just a bit more, likely to get a little more separation from that underneath backer and probably thought he had a little more time, but the protection broke down. I put this one 50/50 on Wilkinson and Freeman.
The next sack was on 3rd-and-10 from the Green Bay 43 early in the first quarter with the Broncos trailing 7-0. Risner gets beaten quickly and while Flacco is able to step up and avoid the initial rusher, Bolles’ man is able to reach over him to get a hand on Flacco. Bolles gets driven right into Flacco’s lap. Also there was absolutely no one open on this play (see the still).
Nobody was open - poor blocking and great coverage led to this sack.
JoRo: While Dalton Risner has had a really solid rookie season, this is a play he’d probably love to have back. While Bolles eventually loses to Rashan Gary, it’s the quick pressure by Za’Darius Smith that disrupts the play and leads to the pocket collapsing.
I will say that If you believe the Broncos’ offense would look better with more mobility at the quarterback position this play supports your position. Smith doesn’t pretend to respect a rush lane by the quarterback and Flacco winds up staring down a runway at Courtland Sutton.
I do wonder if Flacco could have tried to rip the ball to Sanders, Hamilton, or Fant on their comebacks. All three are well covered so it’s a tough ask, but Flacco is so locked on Sutton down the sideline he never even considers it. By the time he accepts his primary target is covered it’s run or eat the sack, and the 12-year veteran essentially does both.
Jeff: I think you’re being a little hard on Flacco here, Joe R. This is a third-and-long so needs a little time to develop, no one is open, and the protection was awful. Even if Flacco was the most mobile of QBs, I don’t see him escaping that.
That gap slant pass rush (not sure what it’s officially called) is something that the Jaguars did with success against Denver as well. The defense brings a potential blitzer into the B-gap to get the guard’s attention, and then the blitzer drops while the Dline each jump over one gap, really messing with the protection.
That happened here and caught Risner by surprise, and he didn’t have help to that side because the center had pivoted to the next guy down the line, because the RG was paying attention to the potential blitz. It’s like a domino effect.
Found the play I was thinking about from the Jags game.
The next sack is on 4th-and-17 from Denver’s 49 with 2:23 left in the game and the Broncos trailing 27-16. Preston Smith, #91, jumps offsides.
Von Miller had jumped offsides earlier in the game, leading to a free-play TD for Aaron Rodgers. Wilkinson has no chance against a speed rusher who jumps offsides. Most RT’s in the NFL don’t, which is why jumping off-sides is illegal.
Jeff: I won’t complain too much since Von Miller does a lot of these borderline offsides plays where he is anticipating the snap really really well. Still, makes it really tough to block by Wilkinson.
This next sack is from the Chargers’ game. Both Broncos’ tackles do a decent job of using the edge defender’s momentum to push them past the QB, but Uchenna Nwosu does a great job of knocking the ball out of Flacco’s hand on the back-swing.
The blame on this sack was debated in an earlier piece that I wrote. I think I said that this was just a great play by the defender and no player on the offense was too blame, but you could put the blame here on Flacco for not having the pocket awareness to avoid this. Flacco does not have much room to step up as Risner’s man is right in his face with a hand up as his is starting to throw.
This play cost the Broncos three points as even an incompletion here or 3rd and 11 makes this an easy 38 yard FG attempt.
JoRo: I blamed Flacco for this one at the time it happened - and it only looks worse on the sideline cam. He’s looking to throw a bomb into double coverage when there’s options underneath.
Now, keep in mind that I’m all for pushing it past the sticks when the opportunity is there.
Jeff: I like the shot they have dialed up. Flacco confirmed after this game that he was looking for Sanders on the corner/post route deep, and would have had a touchdown. This one is just a tough play. I tend to agree with Joe M.
One of the things Brandon Thorn has pointed out as one of Flacco’s issues is he’s taking too deep of drops which makes it harder on the tackles. I think that may be some of the case here, but he’s also stepping up nicely in the pocket. I like the aggressiveness and it should’ve been a touchdown. Just a great play by the defender.
This next sack was from last game. The Broncos have the ball on their own 19. It’s 3rd-and-16 with 3:23 left in the first quarter and the Broncos are trailing 7-6. This is a failure by both of the offensive tackles and by Freeman, and it’s pretty sad that the Chiefs get pressure this quickly with a three-man rush. Their safety acts like he is going to rush then decides against it.
This was also a poor play design if the Broncos were trying to get the first down here. Admittedly they may have been just trying to gain a few yards.
Only one receiver runs a route that goes beyond the line to gain and that is Courtland Sutton, who is on a route deep down the middle of the field.
Flacco does not have enough time to get him the ball even if he wanted to try and fit it into Sutton between the two safeties.
JoRo: This isn’t meant to absolve the protection as watching that endzone footage makes me ill. But egads, Flacco just dump it off to a secondary option.
Jeff: Egads is right, all across the board. They really let a three-man rush with a late fourth win against a six-man protection?? Those tackles should be utterly embarrassed for putting that kind of garbage on tape, not sure what Freeman is doing, and Flacco dropped way too deep again.
Ugh, I think I need to lie down after watching that.
This final sack is on 3rd-and-9 from the KC 19 with 3:47 left to play in the second quarter and Denver trailing 20-6. I have no idea why Joe Flacco does not throw this ball.
This eight-yard loss made a 37-yard attempt into a 45-yard attempt which McManus would miss. It’s possible that he misses from 37 as well, but less likely since that’s ostensibly an extra point (which he has missed this year - vs Chicago).
This sideline view of the all-22 shows that Flacco had this throw and chose not to make it. I can’t figure out why.
JoRo: I talked about this on Twitter a couple days ago when I was watching the Chiefs game. The most frustrating part about missing this is how the Broncos have been running variations of this concept since training camp.
It’s another one of those plays where Flacco could easily turn it into a positive gain if he throws with just a little bit of anticipation, and instead he eats a sack.
Jeff: Tagging onto Joe’s comment, this is why I’m a Scangarello fan and am way more encouraged about him than most of Broncos Country, it seems like. This is a great play design and should be at least a first down, maybe a touchdown if you can get some magic after the catch.
Why the heck Flacco didn’t throw this ball is beyond me. An utter failure. Just lob it out in front of him with a little air and let him run into it if you’re worried about the trailing defender.
Jeff: My closing thoughts are, between the protection breakdowns (#1 in blame in my book) and Joe Flacco struggling (#2 in blame), this offense doesn’t really have a chance if they keep playing this way. Box score scouting will lead you to being critical of Scangarello, but as you can see on tape, he is putting good designs out there, for the most part, these guys are just not executing.
Who is most at fault on these six sacks?
This poll is closed
Rich Scangerello - poor play design or play call