In 2019, the Denver Broncos went for it on 4th down fifteen times (one fake punt). Counting that fake punt (which we converted on a pass from Andrew Beck to Tim Patrick), the Broncos converted on eleven of those fifteen. So in 2019 the Broncos were quite good when we decided to go for it on 4th down, but many of those were out of necessity when the team was down late in the game and punting was not an option.
In 2020 the team was terrible on 4th down, converting on only four of fourteen fourth down attempts. It’s not so much that we went for it on 4th down three times in a game as it is when and where we went for it.
During Vic Fangio’s first two seasons as the head coach of the Broncos Denver only went for it on 4th down four times in the first half (twice in 2019 - vs MIN and @ KC, and twice in 2020 - vs TEN and in final game of season vs LV).
The Broncos went for it three times on Sunday and converted all three. I’m going to look at the where and when for each.
First Quarter, scoreless game, 2:10 to play from the NYG 37, 4th and 7.
This is actually in range for McManus, but Fangio decided to go with his gut and let the offense try to convert here. The defense had been playing well up to this point so even if the offense doesn’t convert here, the Giants offense had yet to move the ball much up to this point. The Broncos used play-action faking the draw handoff to Gordon from a shotgun 3WR look. The Giants rushed four with two deep safeties and man across the board under that. Noah Fant ran a delayed out after chipping and this drew the middle linebacker out of the area where Patrick was able to sit down and make the catch. Hamler also cleared one of the safeties by running a deep post (or a fly). The other deep safety was in bracket coverage over the top of Jeudy on the other side of the field helping the CB.
This was the first time the the Broncos had gone for it on fourth down in the first quarter under Fangio. Having the offense go for it here, in my opinion, set the tone for the whole game on offense for the Broncos. The Bronco offense knew from that point on that their head coach had confidence in them. This is why, to me, this was the right decision, even if the Broncos offense had NOT converted on this play. The confidence boost was more valuable than the possible three points from a 53 yard FG attempt, even if the chances of hitting a FG from 53 are about 60%.
There were only eight instances in 2020 where a team went for it on 4th and 7 or more in the first half and five of those were at the end of the first half. So Fangio made a decision that was only made three times during the 2020 season. All three instances were in a similar situation, the offense was in opposing territory where a long field goal was an option, but a punt could possibly only net sixteen or seventeen yards if it ended up as a touchback. The Browns went for it on 4th and 7 from the WAS 37 early in the second quarter down seven. The Bears went for it on 4th and 7 early in the first quarter from the DET 34 in scoreless game, and the Saints went for it on 4th and 7 midway through the second quarter from the ATL 36 while already up 7-3.
For what it’s worth only one of three fourth downs was converted (Baker Mayfield completed a pass to Austin Hooper for 8 yards). I don’t know about the kickers on the Browns, Bears and Saints last season and whether they are good from 50+, but the success rate on all 50 or longer field goal attempts in 2020 was 63 percent. In the three cases the head coach decided not to attempt a 54, 51 and 53 yard field goal attempt. The success rate on 54 yard attempts in 2020 was actually 74 percent (17 of 23). That was better than the success rate from 51 (65 percent) and 53 (62 percent) in 2020.
I should also note that 2020 was a fairly conservative year. In 2019 there were eight times where a coach chose to go for it in the first half on 4th and 7 or more (two were fake punts). Four of those eight converted (three of six regular plays and one of two of the punt fakes).
Second Quarter, 48 seconds to play, 4th and 2 from the NYG 49, Broncos trailing 3-7.
This is out of FG range, but a punt was an option (and the safe option). The Giants still had all three timeouts and failing to convert here would have given the Giants a fairly good chance of getting a FG before the half and going into the locker room with a 10-3 lead.
The success rate in 2020 on 4th and 2 in the first half was 61 percent (19 of 31). We should also note that passes in these situations in 2020 were completed 12 of 14 times (15 dropbacks - one sack). Eleven of the twelve completed passes converted. Teams ran the ball sixteen times and only eight of those converted. I should also note that only six of these 31 plays were goal-to-go fourth down plays.
Gaining two yards is much easier than gaining seven, but this still is a fairly aggressive call from Fangio. I’m fairly certain that Fangio in 2019 and 2020 would have elected to punt here given how well the defense had been playing for most of the half. 2021 Fangio chose to go for it.
The Broncos lined up in empty with Fant wide left and Jerry Jeudy in the slot on the left. Tim Patrick, Melvin Gordon and Courtland Sutton were lined up trips right. Sutton made a nice diving catch on a 10-and-slant in front of the safety. Sutton gets hit hard but hangs on.
I like the route concept that Shurmur called here using the trips side routes (a stick, an out and a go) to pull the MLB out of the middle of the field which created space for Sutton to work.
Third quarter, 6:58 to play, 4th and 1 from the NYG 4, Broncos up 10-7.
This was another example of Fangio showing confidence in the offense. I have no doubt that 2019 and 2020 Fangio would have opted for the almost certain FG here to go up 13-7. A six point lead is good when your defense is playing well.
2021 Fangio chose to show confidence in the offense and go for it here. A ten point lead is much better than a six point lead, and even if the offense failed here, the Giants offense would be pinned deep in their own territory with an obviously not-100% Saquon Barkley (who was held to 26 yards on 10 carries).
This play was amazing on both the part of Teddy Bridgewater and Albert Okwuegbunam. The Broncos lined up in shotgun with a trips bunch to the right, Williams in the backfield, and Sutton isolated on the left. Bridgewater faked a handoff to Williams hold the LBs, but Austin Johnson drove Lloyd Cushenberry back into Bridgewater’s lap almost immediately. Xavier McKinney, number 29, came off the edge on a blitz and forced Teddy to backpedal and avoid him. Somes jukes and a stiff-arm gave Teddy enough space to move to his right and hit Albert O., who wasn’t even supposed to be running a route (he was a blocker). Teddy zipped a pass to Albert who caught it at the seven, but he needed the three for the first down.
Albert made the Giants best tackler, Blake Martinez, miss, and then not only got the yardage needed for the first down, but had the balance to extend the ball and touch the pylon for the touchdown as he was going out of bounds. This was an amazing catch and run from a player looking to make up for his costly fumble in the red zone earlier in the game.
This is something to look for in the coming season. Vic Fangio clearly has confidence in the offense’ ability to convert on 4th down. This will most likely lead him to make more “gutsy” calls to go for it of 4th down in plus territory like many of the younger analytical head coaches have been doing recently.
The Raiders in 2020 were one of the best teams in the league at converting on 4th down. They went for it twenty times and converted on fifteen of them. The most aggressive team on 4th down in 2020 was the Eagles. They went for it 35 times on 4th down (more than twice per game). Unfortunately, they only converted on fifteen (43 percent) which was one of the worse conversion rates in the league. The Broncos were second to last in 4th down conversion rate in 2020 at 29 percent. Only the Jaguars at 27 percent were worse.