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Stats in the cradle: Broncos game two 2022

Musings on red zone futility, when to try the field goal or punt, and forcing fumbles

NFL: Houston Texans at Denver Broncos Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Red Zone Futility

On Sunday the Broncos got inside the Texan’s five yard line twice and failed to get a touchdown on either drive. The Broncos now have five drives that have gotten inside the opponent five yard line and have nine total points on those five drives. For comparison, the Chiefs have eight such drives through two games and have scored seven touchdowns (and one field goal). Their 52 points on drives inside the opponent five leads the league (with four teams still yet to play this week as I’m writing this).

If you look at this by points per drive, the Broncos (with 9 points on five drives that got inside the opp 5) are getting 1.8 points per drive on these drives. That is second worst in the league at this point. Only the Seahawks are worse. They have two drives inside the opponent five and have zero points to show for those two drives. Every NFL team has had at least one drive inside that had a play inside the opponent five this season.

There are currently seven teams that have gotten a TD on every single one of these drives (Arizona, Washington, New Orleans, Dolphins, Bills, Panthers and Cowboys), but some of those teams have only had two such drives (Bills, Panthers and Cowboys) while Arizona has had seven.

The scary thing is that, for the Broncos, this is nothing new. This century the Broncos have 18 drives in the first two games where they got inside the opponent five and failed to score a touchdown. The team with the second most is the Panthers with 15. If you expand that to the 10, then the Broncos are only 3rd worst with 33 drives in the first two games where the offense got inside the opponent 10 and failed to get a TD. The Chargers (38) and the Patriots (35) have more of those drives in the opening two weeks.

The good thing is that the Broncos offense is literally inches from having three of those drives this season end in touchdowns (Melvin Gordon almost breaking the plane, Eric Tomlinson and Courtland Sutton both being out of bounds by roughly two centimeters). SO this should change for the better soon.

To kick or not to kick

Down 3 with 4:21 left in the 3rd, on 3rd and 1 from the +35, Denver ran a TE/FB option sweep and lost 1 yard. Apparently this play was the result of miscommunication and this is not what was supposed to be run. Then on 4th and 2 from the +36, Nathaniel Hackett, who asked Brandon McManus to kick a 64-yarder on Monday, was uncertain about whether to go for it or attempt the 53-yd FG. This uncertainty led to a delay of game penalty as the ball was snapped just after the playclock reached zero. This moved the attempt back to a 58/59 yard attempt, which we know McManus can make in Denver, but instead of trying to tie the game with a long FG attempt, Nathaniel Hackett sent out the punting team.

I guess the calculus was that the defense was playing well and it was better to not potentially give the Texans the ball back close to midfield.

McManus accuracy on kicks longer than 56 might have also factored into the decision (see above). The 32 yard (by design) punt did force the Texans to start their drive from the nine and they went three and out. Their punter, who had a career day, then boomed another 60+ yard punt which Montrell Washington returned twelve yards setting up the Broncos on the -38. The punt by Cameron Johnston was so good that Lovie Smith chose to not have replay the punt despite Andrew Beck getting flagged for running into the kicker (which thankfully would not have given them a first down since it was 4th and six).

Cameron Johnston punted five times for a net of 53.6, but his gross distance (from the LOS) was 64, 48, 64, 61, and 31. The 31 yarder was short by design since the Texans were punting from the Denver 45. That was fair caught by Washington at the 14. Johnston was the better punter on Sunday. Let’s hope this is not a trend.

The thing that was lost in the calculus was how effective Russell Wilson has been in his career at converting on 4th and short in plus territory. On 43 plays needed three yards or less in plus territory on 4th down, Wilson has converted on 27 (62.8%). Seven of those plays have resulted in touchdowns, four in sacks and only one in a turnover. In case you are wondering, many of these were in the 2020 season, so it’s not like young Russ could do this but “old” Russ can’t. Admittedly, he only converted on three of seven in 2020 and was sacked twice and picked once on three of the four failed tries on 4th down. However, two of the three conversions were touchdowns.

Forcing Fumbles

The Broncos have now forced five fumbles through two games. The defense forced six in seventeen regular season games last season. With two forced fumbles, free agent signee, Randy Gregory leads the team, but the other three guys who have one are defenders who were on the Broncos last season (Ronald Darby, Dre’Mont Jones, and Bradley Chubb). Admittedly, Chubb (fifteen games) and Darby (six games) both missed significant time in 2021 so in some ways they feel like “new” defenders relative to last season.

I hope this is a product of the more aggressive mentality that Ejiro Evero has instilled in the 2022 defense relative to last year’s defense which tended to be more passive/reactive. The Chiefs, Colts and Cardinals defense all tied for the lead with fourteen forced fumbles in 2021. Obviously the pace that the Broncos defense is on (for 42 forced fumbles) is not sustainable, but it is nice to see the defense causing them. Giving our offense some short fields to work with will be helpful because we are going to need to score more than 16 per game to compete in the AFC West.

It should not be lost on folks that the defense is playing quite well (admittedly against “weak” offenses) without Josey Jewell (starting ILB), Justin Simmons (out for three more games), and Patrick Surtain (missed half of last game). Allowing a total of 26 points through two games is pretty good, but not sustainable. The Buccaneers have only allowed 13 points and the Bills 17. The Broncos are currently tied for fourth in points allowed with the 49ers, who we play next week.

Yes, our defense has yet to face a true test, but if they can do this largely in the absence of our two best defenders (Simmons and Surtain), one has to hope that this defense will not regress anywhere near as much as many feared coming into the season. In the three seasons with our “defensive genius” at head coach, the Broncos finished 10th, 25th and 3rd in points allowed.

The two starting QBs that the Broncos have faced this season will most likely not be starters in 2023. The same can be said of the QB that the Broncos will face on Sunday, Jimmy Garoppolo. If you were to bet money on Geno Smith, Davis Mills and Jimmy G all being their teams primary starting quarterbacks in 2023, you would lose that money (and I would laugh at you for being foolish with your money).