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Broncos 3rd & long: rewriting the narrative

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The Denver Broncos have experienced a sudden turnaround over the last two weeks. A lot of that has to do with third down efficiency.

NFL: Denver Broncos at Houston Texans Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Houston Texans were supposed to blow out the Denver Broncos on Sunday. They had just beaten the reigning Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots in convincing fashion (the game was not as close as the 28-22 final score would indicate - similar to our game). This was supposed to be another victory in the Texans march towards the playoffs. Romeo Crennel had a history of stymieing and frustrating rookie quarterbacks and the Texans offense was supposed to slice though a weakened Bronco defense like hot butter. Vegas had the Texans by 8.0 points as the spread. Except that is not what happened.

The last time the Broncos were underdogs by eight or more points and WON was 2008 when the Broncos were eight point underdogs on the road against the Jets and won 34-17. Going back to 1980, the Broncos were 3-16 when the other team was favored by 8 or more points in the regular season. Those other two wins came in 1980 and 1987.

On Sunday, Drew Lock led a Bronco offense that looked nothing like the offense that Denver had fielded for most of the past five seasons. The offense scoring 24 first half points and the team, with the help of a defensive fumble-return TD, had 31 points on the scoreboard AT THE HALF. The Broncos had not scored 31 points in a game since putting 45 on the Cardinals in 2018 and the team had not scored 31 in the first half since that same game (Denver lead 35-10 at the half). To put this half in perspective the Broncos have only scored 31 points or more in a half twelve times before yesterday.

Year Date Home game Opp G# Result H1 H2 OH1 OH2
2019 12/8/2019 no HOU 13 W 38-24 31 7 3 21
2018 10/18/2018 no ARI 7 W 45-10 35 10 3 7
2013 12/29/2013 no OAK 16 W 34-14 31 3 0 14
2010 11/14/2010 yes KAN 9 W 49-29 35 14 10 19
2008 9/14/2008 yes SDG 2 W 39-38 31 8 17 21
2000 9/10/2000 yes ATL 2 W 42-14 34 8 7 7
1998 10/4/1998 yes PHI 5 W 41-16 35 6 2 14
1998 9/13/1998 yes DAL 2 W 42-23 35 7 17 6
1996 9/1/1996 yes NYJ 1 W 31-6 31 0 0 6
1989 11/26/1989 yes SEA 12 W 41-14 38 3 0 14
1986 11/16/1986 yes KAN 11 W 38-17 31 7 7 10
1984 11/18/1984 yes MIN 12 W 42-21 35 7 7 14
1979 11/11/1979 yes NWE 11 W 45-10 38 7 7 3

But more than just the offense, the defense in the first half was tremendous despite playing with a hobbled Von Miller, without Malik Reed, Derek Wolfe and Dre’Mont Jones (for most of the game). The defense held the Texans to 3 points in the first half which only two other teams had done this season. The Ravens had them to 0 and the Panthers to 3 at the half.

So how did the defense hold the Texans offense (that put up 28 on the Patriots vaunted 2019 D) to 3 points at the half? They got them off the field. The Texans first drive ended at the Bronco 41 when the defense forced an incompletion on 3rd and 10. The next Texan drive ended with the fumble returned for the TD. The next Texan drive ended with a punt when the defense forced an incompletion on 3rd and 14. The next three Texan drives would end with a FG, turnover on downs and end of the half. So that means that our defense “won” on five of six Houston drives in the first half. Some might argue that holding the Texans (who were done 21 points) to three is also a won for the defense.

Here is how the defense performed for the game when they forced the Texans into 3rd & long (seven or more needed).

Quarter Time Down Yards Location Score Detail Yds Result
1 10:39 3 10 DEN 41 0-0 Deshaun Watson pass incomplete short right 0 incomplete
1 0:50 3 14 HTX 41 0-14 Deshaun Watson pass incomplete deep middle intended for DeAndre Hopkins (defended by Kareem Jackson) 0 incomplete
2 9:00 3 15 DEN 36 0-21 Deshaun Watson pass incomplete deep right intended for DeAndre Hopkins 0 incomplete
3 0:43 3 10 DEN 38 10-38 Deshaun Watson pass complete short middle to Jordan Akins for 15 yards (tackle by Justin Simmons) 15 conversion by catch
4 9:21 3 15 HTX 45 17-38 Deshaun Watson sacked by Josey Jewell for -3 yards 0 sack

We stopped them on four out of five 3rd and long situations with that lone conversion coming late in the 3rd quarter when they were in desperation-mode. Overall the defense held the Texans to six of thirteen on third down with three of those six conversions coming on 3rd & one.

For the season the Broncos have allowed conversion on only 21 of 84 3rd and long situations (four by penalty) - 25%. That is tied for 10th. New England currently leads the league with at 14.1% conversion allowed on 3rd & long.

Two of the Broncos remaining three opponents this season have been pretty good at converting on 3rd & long. The Chiefs (31.8%) are 9th and the Lions (32.7%) are 4th. Dallas has the best offense for this, converting on 38.0% so for this season. The other remaining opponent, Oakland, is 26th, converting on only 24.2% of 3rd & long situations.