Any Given Sunday: Raiders Over Broncos

Any Given Sunday: Raiders Over Broncos
Any Given Sunday: Raiders Over Broncos
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Andrew Healy

If you're an optimist, the Raiders' 15-12 upset of the Broncos set new standards for defensive dominance. Excluding quarterback kneels, the two defenses gave up a combined 65 yards on 40 rushing attempts. Never before in NFL history had both teams averaged under 1.65 yards per attempt on the ground. (Hat tip to Scott Kacsmar for that nugget.) Denver, ranked No. 1 in defensive DVOA, allowed minus-12 net yards to the Raiders in the first half, the lowest total by our reckoning since at least 1986. On the other side, Khalil Mack took a huge step towards joining the previously single-occupant J.J. Watt class, with five second-half sacks and seven more quarterback hits.

If you're a realist, you could see a likely playoff loss looming in the Broncos' second-half offensive struggles, when they were shut out by the defense that entered Sunday ranked just 22nd in DVOA. But even the most dyed-in-the-wool pessimist would recognize that Mack had as much to do with Denver's offensive woes as Brock Osweiler did. Even a double-team wasn't going to stop Mack on his fourth sack, seen below. So give Mack credit for the trucking here. Never has an NFL player had a more appropriate name for any one play.

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In addition, I have two other Mack attacks where Osweiler likely should not get any blame. On his first sack, Osweiler took a step into Mack's arms, but he was getting pressure up the middle that pushed him that way. On Mack's third sack, another bull rush ended with Mack in Osweiler's lap.

But it's on the other two sacks where I think Osweiler is part of the problem, although it's debatable on both plays. On the late third-quarter sack that set up the safety, you can see the space in front of Osweiler, space into which a faster-reacting, more pocket-aware quarterback would likely have stepped up.

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Mack's fifth sack, which came on Denver's final drive, looks very similar to many other quarterback sacks, and the temptation is to pin it all on Mack beating right tackle Michael Schofield. But again, there's space in front of Osweiler that he could have used instead of scrambling left, particularly if he reacted to the closing Mack a split-second earlier. Instead, he allows Mack to continue right on his path, getting into a race Osweiler has no chance to win.

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And if these plays are only suggestive of a potential problem. The Broncos' last offensive play shows how far Osweiler has to go with regards to pocket awareness. On this play, Mack showed some mercy and oddly dropped into a short zone even though it was fourth-and-12. So the Raiders rushed just two and they didn't really get close to Osweiler -- until, that is, Osweiler left his clean pocket and ran right into defensive end Denico Autry. In those last couple of seconds in the GIF, it almost looks like Osweiler tackles Autry, with the lineman getting driven to the ground first.

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Osweiler's struggles with pocket awareness and sacks extend beyond Sunday's second half, too. With mostly the same surrounding players, Peyton Manning was sacked 15 times in 340 dropbacks, a rate of 4.4 percent that's roughly half Osweiler's (17 sacks in 190 dropbacks, 8.9 percent). Just as interceptions were Manning's primary weakness in 2015, sacks are one of the two main reasons Osweiler's DVOA (-4.8%) is below zero.

The other main reason is Osweiler's inability to throw downfield. As much as Manning has been maligned for his noodle-arm woes, it's actually Osweiler who has struggled the most on passes traveling 15 yards or further in the air. Amongst quarterbacks with at least 15 attempts, Osweiler has the worst DVOA in the league on deep passes.

Brock Osweiler's Struggles Going Deep
Player Short Passes Deep Passes Pct Deep
Brock Osweiler 150 29.7% 23 -46.1% 13.3%
Peyton Manning 252 -24.1% 71 12.4% 22.0%
Rest of NFL
51.6% 19.3%

(Note that the overall league averages are so high because passes are more efficient than runs, and because sacks are excluded here.)

Osweiler is close to the ultimate dinker-and-dunker. Among quarterbacks with at least 150 attempts, only Matt Ryan has thrown a lower share of his passes deep than Osweiler. While some of that is play-calling choices, those choices also reflect Osweiler's shortcomings. Even with Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders at receiver, the Broncos rarely succeed on the rare occasions they do throw downfield.

It's the combination of Osweiler's tendencies to take sacks and to throw short that is so concerning. A few successful quarterbacks such as Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger have taken lots of sacks, but they were also getting the upside of big plays downfield. At the same time, other guys like Tom Brady and Matt Ryan throw short more often than average, but they also take few sacks. For this season at least, Osweiler is little more than an interception-avoider who has trouble getting through progressions, a poor man's Alex Smith.

His inability to throw deep also influences the running game, as defensive backs can play closer to the line of scrimmage. In part because of the running game's struggles, the offense has been no more efficient under Osweiler (-15.0% DVOA) than it was under Manning (-13.5%). And that leaves the Broncos with a quarterback dilemma with two unpromising options. For 2015, it might be even less likely that Osweiler develops the necessary rapid-fire decision-making skills than that Manning rediscovers just enough of his physical skills to get through a few playoff weeks.

Great Defenses Going it Alone

Six weeks ago, we covered Denver's historically great defense after its upset of the Packers. At that point, they ranked as the No. 4 defense through Week 8. After a couple of mediocre games -- against Indianapolis, primarily -- the Broncos have once again returned to dominance over the last couple weeks and they are again No. 4 through Week 14.

Best Defensive DVOA Through Week 14, 1989-2015
Year Team Def DVOA Off DVOA Off Rk
1991 PHI -40.0% -23.7% 26
2002 TB -39.9% -4.8% 22
2008 BAL -31.4% -0.4% 20
2015 DEN -29.4% -14.1% 28
1995 SF -29.3% 16.0% 5
2012 CHI -27.8% -12.8% 26
2008 PIT -27.0% -5.1% 21
2004 PIT -26.8% 15.7% 8
1991 NO -26.7% -7.4% 20
1997 SF -26.6% 2.0% 18

The Broncos' defense is far from the first great one to be saddled with an inefficient offense. Seven of the top ten defenses above had an offense that ranked No. 20 or worse. Two of the previous six won the Super Bowl: the 2002 Bucs and the 2008 Steelers. But the other two defenses that, like this year's Broncos, were saddled with offenses outside the top 25 (the 1991 Eagles and 2012 Bears) didn't even make the playoffs. Even with a defense this suffocating, the Broncos need to squeeze a little more out of the offense to have a chance in January.

By the VOA

Depending on your perspective, it was either the second-best defensive day of the season by DVOA -- the two defenses had a combined DVOA of -80.9% -- or the third-worst offensive day, with the two offenses putting up -76.1% together.

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DVOA (Opponent adjustments included)
OAK -36.0% -25.9% 2.9% -7.2%
DEN -40.1% -55.0% -13.3% 1.6%
VOA (No opponent adjustments)
OAK -63.1% -41.0% 2.9% -19.3%
DEN -39.1% -49.4% -13.3% -3.0%

In the first half alone, the Broncos' defensive DVOA was -148.8%. By way of comparison, the best defensive performance in our data for a single game is -124.2%, by the Cleveland Browns in the first-ever week for DVOA in 1989. Even with the second-half shutout, the Raiders' -59.3% DVOA in the second half came in third for this week behind the second-half shutouts for the Patriots and Panthers.

The Keep Lookin' At Wins Stat of the Week

Khalil Mack had us at hello. SackSEER is far from perfect, but its big-time love for Mack -- who was its all-time favorite prospect over classmate Jadeveon Clowney -- certainly seems right on the money. In just his second season, Mack now leads the NFL with 14.0 sacks. If Mack can get one more sack over the last three weeks, per, he will become the tenth player since sacks became an official stat to record at least 15 sacks in his first or second year.

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Most Sacks in a Season for First- or Second-Year Player
Player Year Team Sacks
J.J. Watt 2012 HOU 20.5
Derrick Thomas 1990 KC 20
Aldon Smith 2012 SF 19.5
Von Miller 2012 DEN 18.5
Reggie White 1986 PHI 18
Richard Dent 1984 CHI 17.5
Shawne Merriman 2006 SD 17
Jason Pierre-Paul 2011 NYG 16.5
Bruce Smith 1986 BUF 15
Jevon Kearse 1999 TEN 14.5
Reggie Camp 1984 CLE1 14
Bryan Cox 1992 MIA 14
Khalil Mack 2015 OAK 14
Aldon Smith 2011 SF 14
Cameron Wake 2010 MIA 14
Mario Williams 2007 HOU 14
Keith Willis 1983 PIT 14

Four of the five retired players on that list are Hall-of-Famers. J.J. Watt seems likely to make it at least five. And like Watt, Mack does much more than rack up sacks in an era when teams pass it more often. After Sunday, Mack moved into a tie for fourth place with 28 defeats (a stat which combines tackles for a loss, a play to prevent a conversion on third or fourth down, or any play leading to a turnover).

Most Defeats, 2015
Player Team Pos Defeats
J.J.Watt HOU DE 35
T.Mathieu ARI FS/NB 30
T.Smith JAC OLB 29
K.Mack OAK OLB 28
M.Barron STL OLB/SS 28
L.David TB OLB 28
A.Donald STL DT 26
M.Jenkins PHI FS/NB 25
M.Bennett SEA DE 24
L.Timmons PIT ILB 24
K.Dansby CLE ILB 23
K.Alexander TB OLB 22

With nine sacks and 13 defeats in his last three games, this holiday season has doubled as the Khalil Mack coming-out party. Offensive game plans against the Raiders will never be the same.


9 comments, Last at 16 Dec 2015, 10:45am

#1 by Led // Dec 15, 2015 - 3:16pm

What was the down and distance on the play in the last gif? I ask because Osweiler has a WR wide open on a short crossing route right in front of him. With a reasonably accurate pass, that's a 10 yard gain.

EDIT: Sorry, I somehow missed that the text says 4th and 12. A decent pass to the crossing receiver still gives them a shot at the first down but I can see why Osweiler would hesitate.

Points: 0

#2 by BroncFan07 // Dec 15, 2015 - 4:06pm

"Osweiler is close to the ultimate dinker-and-dunker."

So, he's basically a taller Bobby Hoying?

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#7 by Icarus_v2 // Dec 15, 2015 - 7:38pm

Maybe a more apt reference would be a taller version of Joey Harrington (who is undoubtedly a better pianist - ).

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#3 by Joe Pancake // Dec 15, 2015 - 5:28pm

"Never has an NFL player had a more appropriate name for any one play."

Apparently you don't recall any of Willie Thrower's eight passing attempts.

Points: 0

#5 by Perfundle // Dec 15, 2015 - 6:29pm

He has a lower passer rating than his yards per completion:

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#6 by eggwasp // Dec 15, 2015 - 6:40pm

Chuck Long?

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#8 by techvet // Dec 15, 2015 - 7:56pm

Brent Musburger's Heisman guy!

In the case of Rodgers taking sacks, he would rather take a sack than throw a pick, but there are any number of times where he should have thrown it away instead of taking the sack. He doesn't give up on a play, sometimes to a fault.

Points: 0

#9 by ChrisS // Dec 16, 2015 - 10:45am

As a Lions fan I think it is awesome that the two QB's that were compared to the very terrible Osweiler are former Lions. On the first sack, that must be one of the worst all time "attempts" to block by Harris. Then on the last sack 4 lineman stand around doing nothing and the fifth lineman (Harris) is left on an island and gets beat, though he holds off the defender long enough for a competent QB to make a throw.

Points: 0

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