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Broncos Film Study, part 2: The ‘good’ Joe Flacco on third down

What do Joe Flacco’s best conversions have in common?

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos
Hidden underneath all the ugly are some good plays.
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

One of the things that’s gotten lost in the wreckage of the Broncos’ 30-6 loss to the Chiefs is how there have been glimpses of positive play from the passing offense this year.

After we re-watched the game and looked through some other film, Joe Rowles, Joe Mahoney and I found there is some ‘good’ when it comes to the Broncos’ starting quarterback.

There are two key stats for any offense and quarterback - their red zone play and third-down performance. I have mentioned it many times, but one of my favorite quotes is from David Shaw, head coach at Stanford, in an interview with Peter King talking about quarterback play in the NFL. He made the statement that playing QB in the NFL is “all third down and red zone,” and that’s what it boils down to.

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 percent) and 29th in scoring (16.0 ppg).

Thus, we’re taking a significant chunk of time over a few posts to really dig into the good, bad, and the ugly on third down. We’ll also tackle the red zone at some point too, I suppose.

Denver has been dead last in the league over the last three games, converting only 15% of their 3rd downs. Overall, they’re 29th in the league on 3rd downs with 29%, so it’s been trending down as of late.

In order to see what Denver could do to improve it, we wanted to look at successful third down conversions to see what can be replicated and repeated. Joe Rowles has pulled everything together, and the three of us figured we would do a film-room style post where we sit around (virtually) and talk about what we see. Hope you enjoy and will join with us in the comments.

4th Quarter of the Raiders game - 3rd and 7

The Broncos have had effective post routes all year.

JoRo: I shared this one because this is the first route where Courtland Sutton really blew me away. Until this he looked good, but I wasn’t ready to re-evaluate his game. After this I wound up focusing on him prior to the Bears game.

It’s a simple concept against a Cover 2 Shell, but last year 14 was dropping as many as he was catching in these scenarios.

Jeff: This is a good example of good Joe Flacco when he’s throwing on time, with anticipation, and using his arm strength to rifle the ball in there.

Sutton froze the safety here a bit, not sure if he was scared of the post-corner fake so he was hanging back to protect the pylon, but the corner just opened his hips wide and is funneling Sutton inside to help that didn’t exist. Good recognition and throw by Flacco, great route by Sutton.

Joe M: The whole OL plays this really well. Bolles keeps his shoulders square. Risner and McGovern handle the twist on the left side while Leary and Wilkinson handle the twist on the right side. Flacco has a nice pocket to step up into.

4th Quarter of the Bears Game - 3rd and 9

Great man/zone beater here.

JoRo: One thing I really liked about this play is how Flacco correctly identifies the safeties and gives his receiver a chance. After reading the middle of the field, he goes to Sutton who’s playing against Kyle Fuller in off-coverage. It’s the only route Scangarello dialed up that will get a first in this situation.

Jeff: Good design by Scangarello here. I really like using Sutton as the X on the backside of a 3x1. You’re most likely going to get single matchups here, and the back on the flare route pulls the linebacker down out of the throwing lane. Sutton selling the deep route and then sinking his hips for the comeback is a thing of beauty. Flacco, again muscles in a nice throw with good rhythm as his first read was open.

Joe M.: Wilkinson gets beaten pretty quickly, but Flacco is able to slide in the pocket to avoid the pressure. Bolles does a good job against Khalil Mack. Risner sticks with nose and then peels back to help Bolles with Mack. Other than Wilkinson, the OL plays this well.

2nd Quarter of the Packers Game - 3rd and 6

Spacing between the receivers hasn’t always been good.

JoRo: Heading into the Packers game I made sure to mention how Mike Pettine’s passing down calls are some of the more exotic blitzes the Broncos will face in 2019. Here he overloads the right side of the line, threatens the left with Blake Martinez and winds up dropping his stack backer to the middle of the field.

Jeff: Looks like Flacco’s first read is Sanders on the inside vertical, but he comes off quickly enough to find Sutton. I’m not so sure Heuerman isn’t supposed to drag across the middle here to complete the Dagger concept Scangarello looks like he’s building on the right side. The left side routes get all messed up, I’m not quite sure what’s going on. It doesn’t look intentional. Fortunately it was away from the main reads of the play, so it didn’t cause any issues, but I would bet money Heuerman ran the wrong route here.

Joe M.: Any DC that dials up a blitz where Bolles doesn’t have to block anyone is doing the Broncos a favor.

Early 1st Quarter of the Chiefs game - 2nd and 7

A scripted play at its best.

JoRo: Rich Scangarello and the offense certainly look better in the opening script than they do later in the game, so I thought it worth looking at one of those plays. The play call gives Flacco two options on this second and long.

Jeff: This spacing concept out of bunch sets, or with Scangarello creating essentially a bunch set with the RB motion, has worked really well so far this year, specifically in the red zone.

Joe M.: The Chiefs decided to only rush three here and didn’t get pressure (they did with three later in the game). The Broncos have six to block four. Wilkinson does a good job handle the edge one-on-one. Bolles gets help from Jeff Heuerman while McGovern and Risner double the defensive tackle. Flacco has a nice clean pocket and makes the right decision with the ball.

Jeff: Here are a few other variations of it that I have noticed and broke down in a previous post, here.

All of these do a great job creating space in a compressed red zone for Sutton to go to work. Good stuff from Scangarello.

2nd Quarter of the Chiefs game - 3rd and 6

Even 7 games in the Broncos are finding success on posts.

JoRo: Going through the Chiefs film was a lot like pouring bleach in my eyes, but when I got to this play I stopped and watched it four times before I decided to cut it. It’s a thing of beauty.

Jeff: This is one of the few times Denver picked up the Chiefs pressure on Thursday night. This ended up being the perfect play call for the Chiefs disguise here as the slot post is able to come right underneath the rotating safety, and the hook route holds the underneath defender.

Coming up Empty

12 Personnel on 2nd and 8, motion the back into empty and let it rip.
Another Man/Zone beater.

JoRo: This last play is a little different. The Broncos are in 12 personnel and go to Empty. The call is a flood with a divide concept.

Jeff: I really like this concept overall. It gives good options for either picking up some of the yardage needed with a chance for YAC on the crosser underneath. Fant on the post who is the eventual target is a nice pairing with the crosser and an easy read for Flacco of the middle linebacker. If he chases the crosser, throw the post, if he releases the crosser, throw it and have blockers out in front, essentially.

JoRo: Right? It’s a great design. Unfortunately it doesn’t work, but still I love the design and call on 2nd and 8 with the way the Jaguars were defending the Broncos’ run game.

Closing Thoughts

Jeff: It’s interesting/concerning because the majority of the plays that worked on third down and the red zone have been to Sutton, and also they’re also Flacco’s first read. When his first read isn’t open is where issues begin and the play starts to break down, which we found when we dug into more of the bad plays.

I think to improve on third down, Denver has to find another go-to guy. The hope is that Fant can eventually be that guy in the middle, and Hamilton steps up on the outside, with Sanders now gone.

Joe M.: Fant has one of the highest drop rates in the league right now with 5 drops on 24 targets. I think Flacco has lost confidence in him, if he ever had it.

JoRo: I agree with Jeff. Watching Flacco often feels a lot like watching a rookie quarterback for me. He’s slow to read the field and has a tendency to lock on to one read and wait for the receiver to show he’s open. This gives the defense ample opportunity to make it to him. With Sanders gone the problem could become even worse as teams can key in on Courtland Sutton even more than they’ve started to.

It’s important for Scangarello and the offense to give as many opportunities as they can to the other receivers, regardless of the results. Yes, even Noah Fant.

The Broncos’ first-round pick is up next on my GIF Horse list barring something drastic in the Colts game. It’s important to remember that last season Courtland Sutton had a 50 percent catch rate and some of his drops were just baffling. Fant isn’t only learning wide receiver at the NFL level, but also the blocking assignments and techniques an offensive lineman has to adjust to.

I remain hesitant to make any sort of sweeping judgment on a rookie just yet. Let’s hope he starts puts it all together over the second half.