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Stats gotta hurt - Denver Broncos’ stat review for Week 17

A look at how 7-6 and in the hunt turned into 7-9 and possibly a top ten draft pick

Chargers Broncos at SoFi Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Less than a month ago, the Denver Broncos stood at 7-6 and faced a critical home game against the Bengals to try and stay in the playoff hunt. As has happened so many times during the Vic Fangio tenure, the defense balled out - allowing 15 points, forcing seven punts and allowing only two decent drives all game - while the offense repeatedly did nothing - or at least, nothing good. The offense turned ball over on a goal-to-go play and punted six times. Terrible clock management led to a rushed field goal attempt near the end of the half that Brandon McManus missed, which ultimately led to a long field goal for the Bengals to end the half.

A simple lack of forethought and/or planning on the part of the coaching staff as to what they might do from the Bengal 33 with 14 seconds left and one timeout remaining on 4th-and-1 led to the rushed and missed field goal. Someone (Fangio) needed to know what they were going to do in the event of an incomplete pass on 3rd and 1 before the 3rd and 1 play. I’m not trying to say that was the only thing that caused our loss, but it’s an example of the “death-by-inches” that has plagued the Broncos since Vance Joseph - something that Fangio was supposed to stop. If we didn’t have to rush the FG attempt, then McManus probably hits that FG and the Broncos most likely go into the half with a 6-3 lead. Instead they went into the half trailing 6-3. In a game that ended as a five-point loss, it’s not an exaggeration to say that a six-point swing decided the game.

The other thing that happened in this game that derailed the season was the concussion that Teddy Bridgewater received. While the offense wasn’t great before the injury, it has been worse since. The Broncos offense has scored on 36.3 percent of drives this season. If we start with the drive where Drew Lock was forced to replace Bridgewater against the Bengals, the offense has scored on seven of twenty-two (31.8 percent) - Brett Rypien led one drive so this is not ALL on Lock.

That means that the offense was scoring on 37.0 percent of drives with (mostly) Bridgewater at QB - which is 18th in the league (Lock did come in and play on a drive at home vs the Chargers that ended with a Williams TD run - this was another time that Bridgewater had to leave with injury). 31.8 percent would be 26th.

Currently the best is New England at 48.5 and the worst is Jacksonville at 24.4. And because I know that someone is going to point it out in the comments, yes, I am aware that one of Lock’s scoring drives (vs LVR) was a one-play drive (one-yard scoring run by Javonte Williams after the Bradley Chubb tip-pick). That was the only* drive this season in which Drew Lock began the drive at QB and the Broncos scored a touchdown (*excluding the garbage-time TD at the end of the Chargers game - which you can count if you wish - I don’t).

The fact of the matter is that scoring 10, 13 and 13 points is not going to win many games in the modern NFL. While that failure rests with Pat Shurmur, it ultimately rests with Vic Fangio as well, who could have replaced Shurmur. After getting to 5-4 with back-to-back wins against WFT and Dallas, the Broncos have gone 2-5 and have not scored more than 13 points in any of those five losses. This season there have only been six games where a team scored 13 or fewer points and won. Teams scoring 13 or fewer this year are 6 and 94.

Let’s talk about the defense. The defense that played on Sunday in LA was not even the JV, it was more like the B-team. Hopefully it is the first and last game where the Broncos ever need to use Jonas Griffith, Micah Kiser and Pita Taumeopenu at inside linebacker. The fact that the defense only gave up 27 points is pretty amazing given how many third-, fourth- or ninth-string players we had taking defensive snaps. Here is the list of defensive players who saw a career high in defensive snap percentage on Sunday for the Broncos:

  • Malik Reed (96 percent)
  • Jonas Griffith (100)
  • Micah Kiser (94 - previous high was 32)
  • Nate Hairston (66 - high with Denver, he played 100 with IND and NYJ)
  • Andre Mintze (58 - previous high was 26)
  • Aaron Patrick (43 - previous high 15)
  • Marquiss Spencer (21 - first career defensive snaps)
  • AND Jonathan Harris played 52 percent which was close to his career high of 53 which he set last season in the snow against the Chiefs.

With the 34 total points allowed the team has now fallen to third in points allowed this season. The team has allowed 294, but the defense is only directly responsible for 266 of that with four touchdowns coming against the offense (pick six and fumble return TD) and the special teams (two KOR TDs). There have only been nine KOR touchdowns this season and the Broncos have allowed two of them. As bad as that is, the Jaguars have been worse, allowing three.

Punt return touchdowns have reached an all-time low this season. With sixteen total regular season games to go this year (thanks to the 17th regular season game that is going to require us to put an asterisk by every stat that is not a rate stat) there have only been 11 total kick and punt return TDs this season; that’s the lowest total number of punt and kick return touchdowns in NFL history. The previous low post-merger was 12 (not counting the 1982 strike-shortened season). That has happened four times, but only twice since the league went to sixteen regular season games in 1978 (it happened in 1979 and 2018). The caveat is that the total number of returned kickoffs is about half of what it was before the recent rule changes on kickoffs to force more touchbacks.

If we focus solely on punt return touchdowns, the current total of two would be the fewest in a year since the merger. The previous low (post-merger) was three in 1971 when there were only 26 NFL teams and teams played 14 regulars season games. There have been 829 returned punts so far this year so the punt return touchdown rate is 0.24 percent which is also an all time low. The previous low was also set in 1971 at 0.35 percent.

So the good news is that the Broncos have not allowed a punt return touchdown this season, but then again neither have 29 other teams. The bad news is that we have used s roster spot on Diontae Spencer for the better part of three seasons and that has been a poor use of a roster spot since he does not really play on offense and his value on special teams is dubious. He is currently one of the worst punt returners in the league as well as one of the worst kickoff returners in the league.

During his three year stint in Denver, Spencer has fumbled/muffed seven times (three lost) and has accounted for only one touchdown (punt return TD last season). I will admit he was good on punt returns last season. He averaged 15.8 yards per return, but a large part of that was his 83 yard punt return touchdown against Carolina. He had 253 total punt return yards, so he averaged 11.3 yards per punt return on his other fifteen returns in 2020. If had had enough to punt returns to qualify he would have finished second in punt return average in 2020 (second to Gunner Olzsewski with 17.2). Even taking out that long punt return for a touchdown means that he would have finished fourth in average on punt returns in 2020 if he had enough to qualify.

That being said, for two out of three years he has been on the team, he was a below average punt returner. But let’s look at his other (and only other) role on the team - as kickoff returner. He had a good kickoff return in 2019 (60 yarder), but he returns so few because of the high touchback rate in Denver and he makes poor choices as to when to bring the ball out from the endzone. If he had enough KORs to qualify he would have finished third in average KOR in 2019 (he averaged 29.1 on 15 KOR’s), but his average on KOR’s in the past two seasons has been bad - 18.7 and 17.1. Remember that a touchback on a kickoff comes out to the 25 yard-line. So over the last two seasons, unless Spencer has fielded a kickoff at the seven or eight yard-line, the Broncos have been started with poor field position.

Spencer has now returned 47 kickoffs for the Broncos. Seven of those have had penalties called on the Broncos (not Spencer’s fault - Tom McMahon’s fault). If he don’t “penalize” Spencer for those seven, we find that the Broncos average drive after Spencer returns a kickoff is at the 23.8. That doesn’t sound too bad, until you dig a little further into the details. Removing the penalty yardage, the Broncos have started drives at the 24 or worse on 30 of the 47 kickoff returns. Only six of those 47 began at the 30 or better. There have been 19 times when Spencer has fielded a kickoff in the endzone or at the goal line. On only eight of those have the Broncos started the drive at the 25 or better. On kickoffs that Spencer has chosen to return, the Broncos have started drives at the 3, 7, 8, 8, 11 and 13. Admittedly five of those six had penalties on the Broncos (the drive that started at the 7 did not). So those drives would have started at the 5, 15, 16, 21 and 23 without the penalties (Yay?). Still not very good for an offense that has struggled during the past six seasons.

I can’t tell you how much of this is on Spencer and how much of this is on McMahon’s inability to teach Spencer when and when not to return kickoffs - or on McMahon’s inability to teach his kickoff return unit how to block without getting penalized.

Back to our inept offense which still is the worst team in the league at average yards needed on third down (7.8). Let’s dig into the why behind this pathetic stat. One possibility is penalties. Well, we only have 77 accepted (and not-offsetting) penalties against us as a team so far this season. That’s the fifth fewest in the league (Dallas has the most with 122). Of those 77, 20 are against the OL, 13 against the TEs, 9 against the WRs, 3 on the QBs and 1 on the RBs. Those 46 penalties only account for 368 negative yards so that can’t account for too much of the 7.8 yards needed on average on 3rd down. The Broncos currently have 5254 yards of total offense. So it would seem that it comes from our inability to gain yards on either first or second down.

The Broncos are averaging 5.4 yards per play on first down this year. That is 12th best right now. The best in the league is the 49ers at 6.2. The Texans are the worst at 3.9. But wait, you say! How can be be averaging 5.4 yards per play on first down and still need 7.8 yards on average on 3rd down? Here is where statistics can get a little confusing because the Broncos are averaging 4.9 yards per play on second down. How can we average 5.4 on first down and 4.9 on second down and still need 7.8 on third down? The answer lies in the outliers. The Broncos have a bunch of big plays on first and second down that are bringing both of the averages up and belying how “boom or bust” our offense has been (more bust than boom). The booms might balance out the averages, but we still have way too many bad plays on first and second down.

We’ll take a closer look at first down. We’ve run 448 first down plays this year and gained 1,582 yards passing on 190 throws and 992 yards rushing on 223 runs. We’ve also allowed 15 sacks on first down. Excluding kneel downs we have 72 runs on first down that have gained 1 yard or less. That’s a whole bunch of second and nine or more. Now look at the 84 incomplete passes on first down and you get 171 times where the Broncos have been in second and nine (or more) this season. Not counting penalties on first down, that’s 38 percent of the time the Broncos have ended up in with second and nine (or worse) this season. Note that I did not exclude goal-to-go situations here.

When we have gotten into second and nine or more (171 times) how have we done? We have 57 plays on second and 9 or more that have gained 1 yard or less. So on exactly one third of the plays where we started with second and a bunch, we ended with 3rd and 8 or more. The Broncos have had 107 plays on 3rd and 8 or more this season. That’s the most in the league. The Vikings are second with 103. The Rams and the Eagles are tied for the fewest with 63.

So when a play fails on first down, it can be because the offense failed to execute a good play, because it was a poor play that was called, or because the defense made a great play. I don’t know how often we’ve seen great plays by the defense against us on first down this year. From what I remember it was generally poor execution and way too often terrible blocking that led to little or no gain (or loss) on first down. The stats for second and long show that our offense generally had a hard time doing much immediately after a bad play on first down and that’s the biggest reason we had the largest average yards needed on 3rd down so far this season.

The sad thing is that our offense is actually pretty good this year on first down. We’ve gotten a first down or touchdown on first down 21.7 percent of the time this season - 16th in the league. The 49ers are the best at 26.0 percent and the Texans are the worst at 13.8 percent.