The Denver Broncos lost more than the game on Sunday. They lost their way. For the third straight week, the team looked ill-prepared to stop what the opponent was doing on either side of the ball.
The defense continued to give up big plays in the passing game. An inability to stop the run on first and second down has been leading to a need to keep one of the safeties closer to the line of scrimmage and this has allowed teams to beat the corners deep. The secondary was supposed to be the strength of this team. The defense has already allowed 24 plays of 20 or more yards in six games. Our 2020 defense, with random guys from the stands playing cornerback, only allowed 49 for the season. The 2021 defense is on pace to allow 68 after bringing in three elite cornerbacks and signing Justin Simmons to a big contract. The worst big-play defense in the league in 2020, the Texans, allowed 70.
It’s not so much that the defense is allowing big plays, but that they have mostly been during this three game losing streak. Of the 24, 17 of them have happened in the past three games and seven happened on Sunday at home against the Raiders. Getting embarrassed at home by a division rival that just “fired” their head coach is a bad look for any franchise.
The defense has also had a hard time getting off the field during this losing streak. Overall the defense is decent (19th) on third down allowing conversion on 42.1 percent, but over the past three games the defense has allowed conversion on 20 of 44 third downs (including one by penalty). That’s 45.4 percent. That would be near the bottom of the league if the defense had done that all season (only three teams have been worse).
The defense is still near the top of the league in terms of pressure percentage on opposing QBs (26.3 percent), but Ben Roethlisberger and David Carr were hardly touched during the last two games. Both were only pressured four times and Roethlisberger dropped back 26 times while Carr dropped back 30 times.
The offense is not without blame. The offensive line has been terrible. Their inability to run block on first down has led to way too many second and nine or ten situations. The offense is averaging 4.4 yards per carry on first down runs, which sounds good but it’s a very odd distribution with three really long runs (70, 31 and 30) making up a large chunk of the first down rushing yardage we have gained this season (400 yards). We have run the ball 86 times on first down (excluding kneel-downs) and 29 of those runs have gained one or fewer yards. It’s a testament to our running backs that only eight have been stopped for negative yards. Many times Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon have had to make defenders miss in the backfield simply to get back to the line of scrimmage.
This cascades to many 3rd and 8 or 9 situations. Denver is currently tied with Minnesota for last in the NFL needing an average of 8.3 yards on third down this season. This has led to the offense being last in the league in third down conversions at 29.9 percent.
The offense inability to make critical plays has also translated to a a terrible red zone touchdown percentage of 45.5 percent. Only the Patriots (44.4), Colts (42.9), and Giants (41.2) have been worse.
Much of this comes down to the offensive line being bad so far. Teddy Bridgewater is the second most pressured starting QB in the league at 30.4% (behind Russell Wilson at 32.4%). His ability to handle the pressure has been amazing, but even elite quarterbacks can wilt under constant pressure (see Tom Brady in the 2015 AFCC or Patrick Mahomes in the 2020 Super Bowl). In case you are wondering, Drew Lock was pressured on 50 percent of his dropbacks in the Baltimore game when Teddy was out.