by Andrew Healy
Football can be very random. Super Bowl winners come down to a helmet catch or the tuck rule or Red Right 88. While randomness plays an important role every year, this season has been crazier than most. The Colts defense gave up the most yards of the season one week after they gave up the fewest. Andy Dalton played the best game of his career one week after playing the worst. On Sunday, four underdogs covered the point spread by at least 20 points for just the second time in NFL history. That the NFL's most random team would earn the most surprising of those decisive upsets is fitting. That the Rams, ranked 24th in defensive DVOA coming in to this week, would hold the Broncos to seven points is still kind of insane, even for a league where randomness rules.
Since 2002, a defense ranked in the bottom half of the league had faced the top-ranked offense (Denver was No. 1 in offensive DVOA entering Sunday) 48 times in Week 10 or later. Across those games, the offensive pacesetter scored an average of 31.1 points and never fewer than 17 points. In the last five years, the numbers are even stronger, as poor defenses give up an average of 38.5 points to top-ranked offenses across the 15 games in the second half of the season.
A defense like the Rams holding an offensive juggernaut like the Broncos to seven points is kind of like the Houston Rockets holding the Golden State Warriors to 75 points in a game. The Broncos and Rams could replay the game well over a hundred times and we wouldn't expect it to happen again. Indeed, the seven points on Sunday on that lonely Emmanuel Sanders touchdown represented the lowest output for a Peyton Manning-led offense in a game that mattered since the Colts' 20-3 loss to the Patriots in the 2004-05 playoffs.
Manning historically feasts upon bad defenses. Facing defenses ranked in the bottom half of DVOA in Week 10 or later since 2002, Manning's offenses have averaged 29.1 points per game, scoring less than 17 points only twice in 50 games. Defenses ranked in the top half have fared only a little better against Manning (25.9 points per game) during that time, but have been held him under 17 points more often (seven times in 39 games, albeit with Manning not finishing two of those late-2009 games).
While Manning's history gives little precedent for what happened on Sunday, the Rams defense under Jeff Fisher has been decidedly weirder than most mediocre-to-bad defenses.
The Random Rams' Defense
Under Fisher, the Rams have consistently saved their best defensive performances for the best offenses, particularly late in the season. Their late-season improvements come in part from the Rams having the youngest defense in football the last two years. Before Week 10, the Rams have averaged a slightly below-average DVOA against teams ranked both in the bottom and top half of the league by offensive DVOA. After Week 10, though, they have improved overall and been lights out against the league's better offenses.
ranked No. 1 to 16
ranked No. 17 to 32
|Before Week 10||3.0%||3.3%|
|After Week 10||-21.6%||-6.3%|
There are only ten later season games in the sample against good offenses, so there is a good deal of randomness going on in these splits. Still, it is striking that Fisher's Rams have been better than average defensively (negative DVOA) in every game that they've played against a good offense after Week 10.
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In 2014, the Rams' defense has been all over the map and again appears to be coming together later in the year. Earlier in the season, their supposedly fearsome pass rush looked more like Tom and Mary-Kate (Jones and Olsen) in quarterback intimidation than Deacon and Merlin. They got just one sack in their first five games, setting an NFL record for futility in getting after the quarterback. In the last five games, they have 18 sacks, a pace that would rank second in the league. On Sunday, they sacked the hard-to-sack Peyton Manning three times, hitting him four times more. Coming into Sunday, the Broncos had given up just eight sacks of Manning all season and no more than two in any one game.
The Rams also had the second-best day for any defense this season in knocking passes down, even though they entered the game close to the bottom in that category. Before Sunday, the Rams had defensed 30 passes all season, or 3.3 per game. Against the Broncos, the Rams knocked down 12 of Manning's passes. The seemingly-everywhere T.J. McDonald had three, as did Robert Quinn. Alec Ogletree added two passes defensed to his 13 tackles and an interception.
Overall on the day, the Rams' defense was not surprisingly the most dominant unit by the DVOA. The Rams also won on special teams, courtesy of Greg Zuerlein's big day. The Leg went 5-for-5, including two kicks from 50-plus yards. Also, Britton Colquitt had a poor day punting for Denver, with a number of short kicks.
Given that the Rams held the league's best offense to just seven points, we might have expected the Rams to have had a bigger day on defense by the numbers. But Denver's point total is a little deceiving. The Broncos moved the ball much less effectively than they usually do, but well enough to expect much more than seven points.
Manning as Sisyphus
As a great Wisconsin philosopher said, "Relax," when it comes to interpreting one game. In Week 3, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers scored seven points against the Lions. They then scored 80 points over the next two weeks. The last two weeks, the Packers scored a combined 108 points, and they weren't even trying for much of the Bears' game. Unlike Denver on Sunday, Green Bay's struggles in Week 3 came against an elite defense, but the Packers still mustered just 223 yards of offense on the day.
In contrast, the Broncos came up just three yards shy of 400 yards in total offense against the Rams. Going back to 2010, teams have gotten within 10 yards of the Broncos' total offensive yardage 54 times in games where they also had two turnovers. Those teams scored an average of 28.9 points, and the previous low for any game was 13 points.
|Lowest Point Totals With Yardage & Turnovers Similar to Broncos vs. Rams, 2010-2014|
|Year||Team||Opponent||Week||Outcome||Yards||Yards Per Play||Turnovers|
If the Broncos had scored the 28 points their offensive output predicted, that would have been enough to win. The Broncos scoring so few points despite so many yards is perhaps the most random piece of Sunday's game. Only one time in NFL history has a team scored seven or fewer points with two turnovers or less and more total yards than the Broncos gained against the Rams.
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The Broncos scored so few points in large part because they needed to roll the boulder up from the bottom of the hill on every possession. The Broncos started just two of their 13 possessions outside their own 20-yard line, and those two were on the 21 and 25.
In addition to the long fields they had to travel, the Broncos failed to convert three fourth-down opportunities. On the Broncos' second possession, Fox did what he has usually not done in the past: go for it on fourth-and-medium from no man's land. With Sanders strangely running a route short of the sticks on fourth-and-5, the Broncos failed on that play as they would on two additional fourth downs later in the game. Those fourth-down failures kept the Broncos in single digits despite their offensive yardage. Going forward, the fourth-down failures against the Rams and Patriots may make Fox revert to his previous passiveness on fourth down. If so, that would add one more item to the long list of unlikely-to-repeat anomalies from Sunday's game.