It’s been a theme ever since Joe Flacco called out his coaching staff for not being aggressive enough earlier this season, and it continued even in the wake of Denver’s win over the Chargers on Sunday.
Typically these film reviews attempt to cover a broad swath of the game and provide a macro view of themes. This week, I figured we’d go in the opposite direction and hone in on one specific play, as it represents a microcosm of the conversations happening for the last several weeks.
When asked about conservative play-calling after the game, Fangio didn’t agree that the team had been too conservative and held that the narrative really centered around two key 3rd and shorts.
“I think the opening up thing and the so-called conservative label that I think some of you asked me after the game, you know, we had a third-and-1 and a third-and-2 that we thought the best way to go about it was running it. When you don’t make those, that is immediately what you start thinking. Whereas if you make those or at least one of them, now you can open it up. You establish some runs and you get a little play-pass in there. I don’t think we were conservative to the point of protecting him, you know what I’m saying?”
This goes along with what I have been saying since Joe Flacco’s comments, that Denver has suffered from primarily an execution issue, not an aggressiveness or play-calling issue. However, that doesn’t absolve the play-calling or the offensive coaching staff from responsibility, but it’s an important distinction to make.
As we’ll see, even a play-call that seems semi-aggressive for the situation will draw criticism if it doesn’t work. At the end of the day, what we really want is effectiveness, and that comes from a mix of execution and players doing their jobs, and the coaches putting them in the best position to do that.
Some random thoughts on the "aggressiveness" critiques on Denver. Since Flacco's comments bringing it up, I have held that people don't actually mean "aggressiveness" when they complain about it.— Jeffrey Essary (@JeffreyEssary) December 6, 2019
What they want is "effectiveness" and aggressiveness is their solve for that.
Enough of a preamble; let’s dig in.
3rd and short
Denver’s most glaring issue on offense is their inability to convert 3rd downs. They currently rank 30th in the NFL with a 29% conversion rate.
And it doesn’t matter whether it’s 3rd and short, or 3rd and long, Denver is bad at all of it. 3rd and medium (4-6 yards) has actually been particularly bad as Denver converts those at nearly the same rate as they convert 3rd and 7+.
This past game saw Denver improve on 3rd downs with a 46% rate, but they still struggled on those key 3rd and shorts that Fangio was referencing.
Denver has had 47 3rd and short (1-3 yards) plays this year. 33 passes and 14 runs. Their success rate on passes is 42%. Success rate on runs is 57%#BroncosCountry— Jeffrey Essary (@JeffreyEssary) December 6, 2019
We can also see from the numbers above that Denver is much more effective converting 3rd and short when they run the ball, as opposed to when they pass. So in these instances, fans should be wanting Denver to run the ball to convert.
3rd and 2
The first 3rd and short that drew criticism came after a turnover, and Denver ran it three straight plays. This is the first instance of the “too conservative” criticism.
However, when looking at it in context, the first run gained 3 yards, and the second run gained 5 yards, setting up what should have been a favorable 3rd down for the offense.
Setting up a 3rd and 2 isn’t a bad outcome, and the numbers would bear out that Denver was correct to run it here as they have been more effective at converting 3rd and short via the run.
Additionally, you have to think that Brandon Allen’s interception in field goal range against the Vikings was weighing on the coaches’ minds as well, so I don’t have a problem with picking up 8 yards on 1st and 2nd down via the run.
The problem here came with the execution. A key block missed on the inside by Leary, failing to seal the linebacker after his double team, and Melvin Ingram #54 defeating Jeff Heuerman to stop the play in its tracks.
Which may lead us to say, “that was way too conservative of a play-call. Boring, right up the middle run. Too predictable.”
Perhaps Scangarello thought so too after that play and seeing the Chargers load up on the line of scrimmage defeating Denver in a head on run. So they pivoted on the next 3rd and short.
Here’s where we’ll park for little bit.
3rd and 1
Here’s the play. You probably recall it pretty vividly as there was a pretty large outcry during the game about this call. “Too cute” “Trying too hard” “Stick with what’s working” were all exclamations said online and in comment sections about this call.
To avoid just hindsight grading based on the outcome, let’s wind it back to Week 1 against Oakland.
Denver is facing a 3rd and 1 deep in Raiders territory, and ran the same play in that situation to try and catch the Raiders loading up in the middle to stop the run.
It’s pretty cool design here. Denver will pull Risner to the offense’s right and pitch to Lindsay off the left side. It looks at first as if Bolles completely whiffs on the end, but he is unblocked by design.
The goal is to muddle the rest of the Raiders defense in the middle as they run blitz the A-gap, then leave Lindsay 1-on-1 in space with a defensive end, a matchup I’ll take 10/10 times.
Lindsay has a two-way go, and Bolles climbs to the second level to cut off any linebacker pursuit.
#90 and #98 are essentially left free as the play isn’t towards #90, and Lindsay has room to cut it up inside of #98. If Bolles clears out that safety at the second level, this may have been a touchdown.
Here’s another look at it. Excuse my snark, it was a long day.
Ya'll help me here. Is this a good playcall? Too conservative?#BroncosCountry pic.twitter.com/KR0mlHJbLI— Jeffrey Essary (@JeffreyEssary) December 2, 2019
So we have seen that this play can work and was used in a similar situation to take advantage of the defense loading up in the middle on 3rd and short.
This was back in week 1, so Scangarello and the offensive staff reached back into their bag of tricks 12 weeks later when in a similar situation. They hadn’t run this play since then that I found.
Back to the Chargers game last week.
The formation is a bit different as Denver has Fant on the edge, and Risner won’t pull (likely because #90 came a little too close for comfort against the Raiders so they tweaked the design to shore that up).
The defensive end will go unblocked again as Bolles climbs to the second level and Fant kicks out the safety.
The pitch is blocked up pretty nicely, and the misdirection is working as you see the ILB take a step towards the line action right, being fooled by the fake. The issue comes further down the line at right tackle. Elijah Wilkinson completely whiffs on Joey Bosa.
This wouldn’t normally be an issue, but Bosa is a super-human athlete and chases the play down from across the field. Without Bosa in the picture, Lindsay is 1-on-1 against Ingram with the rest of the play blocked up nicely downfield and plenty of space to cut back and make this play.
If not for that missed block, Lindsay cuts this upfield and picks at minimum the first, potentially a big play.
That’s what it often comes down to. The difference in a narrative is a missed block here or there.
The interesting thing about this is that this call by Scangarello is actually pretty aggressive given the situation. Playing it safe would’ve been to run it up the gut again to grind out a yard, but seeing that not work on the previous play, they pivoted and tried the edges and some misdirection.
So was it a good call? Depends on who you ask I suppose. It’s clearly worked before, and the design was tweaked to further improve it. And given the context, I thought it was pretty aggressive. But, it didn’t work, so it’s obviously a bad call, right?
Questioning every play-call based on result is exhausting and something I’m not interested in, personally. That doesn’t mean calls are above criticism, and there’s plenty of growth to be made on the play-calling front by this young offensive coordinator.
I hope they learn from this, and maybe next time try something like the one below. I really like this one against the Vikings. Continue to get Phillip Lindsay in space and stress the defensive end.
The shotgun QB action is even more compelling of a fake, in my opinion. I’d like to see this one broken out next 3rd and short.
Hopefully, this helped give some insight into a few plays that have been under the microscope this week. As always, let’s chat it in the comments. I’m not looking for consensus, just hopefully to stimulate some good discussion!