Any Given Sunday: Broncos over Chargers

Any Given Sunday: Broncos over Chargers
Any Given Sunday: Broncos over Chargers
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Rivers McCown

The 2017 Chargers were easily one of the AFC's best six teams. They were one of two teams in the conference (along with Pittsburgh) that had a top-12 DVOA on offense and on defense. They did not make the playoffs on account of abysmal special teams play and, to use a general term that I've seen more than once, "Some Chargers Shit." The only team to beat them by more than one score was the Chiefs, to whom they turned the ball over seven times in the two games they met.

So it was not a huge stretch of the imagination to consider that the 2018 Chargers would be good. All the underlying data coming into this year supported this conclusion, and their re-design of the offense to feature more passing to the running backs has been a success. That put them at No. 2 in pass offense DVOA coming into this week, where they were assailed by the Broncos late in a game they should have had wrapped up by halftime.

The 2018 Chargers, again, are not great at special teams. They have already had two kickers and two punters, with 38-year-old Donnie Jones unretiring to help them out on punts. Caleb Sturgis went 9-of-13 on field goal attempts and 9-of-15 on extra points, and backup Mike Badgley missed his first career extra point in this game -- the difference in the final score. The Chargers are, for the second year in a row, 32nd in special teams DVOA. And their rating actually improved in this game!

In this specific game, the problems the Chargers had boil down to three things. One: they choked. Two: They committed 14 penalties for 120 yards. They outgained Denver 479-325 in total yardage, but gave a lot of that back with a -77 penalty yardage disadvantage. Three: When the ball was past the Denver 40, the offense ran 23 plays and picked up only 101 yards. Only five of the plays were successful by FO's definitions. That's why, despite all those yards, the points were not accumulating. The Chargers started each of their ten drives of the game at their own 28 or worse, including inside their own 20 six times.

Now, let's look at how the Chargers managed to blow a lead when they had bobbed back and forth above a 90 percent game-winning chance even on Denver's last drive:

  • Los Angeles came up 1 yard short on third-and-15 at the Denver 26 with 6:51 left in the game, leading to the decision to kick a field goal to put them up by two points.
  • On Denver's ensuing drive, not once but twice, Case Keenum and company turned the ball over only to get bailed out. An Emmanuel Sanders catch-and-fumble was reversed to an incomplete pass, and an interception to Sanders was wiped out on a defensive holding penalty. Regardless, the Chargers still managed to stop Denver on third-and-7 at the Chargers 45-yard line. Denver decided to punt. At this point, the Chargers' GWC was at 79.9 percent.
  • On third-and-6, the Chargers came out in a one-back shotgun, and the Broncos played man across the board with one deep safety. Rivers stepped back in the pocket and found Antonio Gates on Justin Simmons with a small crease, putting the Chargers nearly into Broncos territory and forcing them to use their last timeout. The GWC spikes to 96.9 percent.

    via Gfycat

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  • Then, after a 7-yard run by Melvin Gordon left the Chargers needing 3 yards to essentially ice the game, L.A. drew up this one:

    (Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

    Starring Philip Rivers as Old Snake on a sneaking mission, it did not go well.

  • The Chargers tried to run a screen on third-and-7, but Von Miller -- who had already pilfered one Rivers screen pass -- read the entire thing, forcing Rivers to dump it into the turf. The Chargers punted to Denver with 1:58 left on the clock after having had a second-and-3 with 2:39 left and zero Broncos timeouts remaining.
  • The Broncos ran seven plays. Five of them picked up a total of 8 yards when you factor in an offensive pass interference penalty. The other two gained 68 and won them the game.

    via Gfycat

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    On this one the Chargers appeared to be running Cover-3 with a bunch of underneath defenders. Keenum found the perfect time to dump it over them all to Sanders.

  • And after Tim Patrick's pass interference made it second-and-16 at the Denver 45-yard line, Courtland Sutton came up with one of the biggest GWC swings of the season:

    via Gfycat

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    Sutton runs a route breaking towards the middle of the field against what appears to be quarters. He's wide open. The ball is perfect. The Broncos were able to spike the clock just in time.

And that's how you lose a game you had 90 percent chance to win twice in the last three minutes of the game. That is Some Chargers Shit.

Where the Game Swung

Here are the plays that EdjSports has that swung the game entirely. The GWC is from Los Angeles' perspective (i.e., their chances of winning the game):

Biggest Plays in Broncos' Win Over Chargers, per EdjSports
Qtr Time Down To Go Yardline Play GWC before GWC Change GWC after
2 6:57 4 1 LAC 16
(6:57) 30-P.Lindsay up the middle to LAC 16 for no gain (57 J.Brown; 51-K.Emanuel). 39.8% +15.2% 55.0%
4 3:57 3 7 LAC 45
(3:57) (Shotgun) 4-C.Keenum pass incomplete short right to 82-J.Heuerman [54-M.Ingram]. 62.8% +17.1% 79.9%
4 3:33 3 6 LAC 24
(3:33) (Shotgun) 17-P.Rivers pass short right to 85-A.Gates to LAC 49 for 25 yards (31-J.Simmons). 78.2% +18.7% 96.9%
4 1:28 2 5 DEN 13
(1:28) (Shotgun) 4-C.Keenum pass short left to 10-E.Sanders to LAC 49 for 38 yards (57-J.Brown). 93.9% -24.3% 69.6%
4 0:43 2 6 LAC 45
(:43) (Shotgun) 4-C.Keenum pass short right to 81-T.Patrick to LAC 34 for 11 yards (43-M.Davis). PENALTY on DEN-81-T.Patrick, Offensive Pass Interference, 10 yards, enforced at LAC 45 - No Play. 70.2% +22.1% 92.3%
4 0:20 3 7 LAC 46
(:20) (Shotgun) 4-C.Keenum pass deep middle to 14-C.Sutton to LAC 16 for 30 yards (33-D.James). 87.4% -76.2% 11.2%

Hey look, it's the entire fourth quarter sequence that we just went over! The Broncos were aggressive and unrewarded for it in the second quarter, but otherwise, this game fell apart for Los Angeles in the last few drives.

By the DVOA

DEN 28.0% -22.4% 1.7% 52.1%
LAC 7.3% 14.8% 3.9% -3.7%
DEN 27.0% -2.5% 1.7% 31.2%
LAC -4.2% 16.0% 3.9% -16.4%

Oh you wacky DVOA! Here you go spitting out a result that barely makes sense, giving Los Angeles positive special teams value, giving the Denver offense a boatload of credit.

The Denver offense did, for the record, average 5.7 yards per carry with a successful play rate of 58 percent and eight first downs. That part we get. There's also the matter of which penalties count for DVOA -- the Chargers found a ton of false starts.

Building a Box for the Quarterback that Never Existed

The Denver Broncos set out this offseason to create a team that could carry a so-so quarterback performance deep into the playoffs. In signing Case Keenum, they essentially were trying to emulate last year's Minnesota Vikings. Odd to say this about a 4-6 team, but they mostly succeeded.

The Broncos have had the NFL's hardest schedule to this point of the season. By our estimated wins numbers, they're at 6.9. Some of that comes down to what DVOA thinks of their "stinkers." Losing by 18 on the road to the Jets? The Broncos left that game with a game score of -27.6% DVOA. Their offense was actually above average in that game. Getting blown out by Joe Flacco? -7.0% game score. Their worst game of the year by DVOA was actually Week 2's win over the Raiders, at -43.5%. Aaron Schatz went over Denver's results in Week 7's DVOA commentary. The gist of the Jets game was that two long touchdowns were not seen as especially predictive by DVOA, and it preferred the steady gains that Denver had been making here.

It was especially impressive that the Broncos were able to continue running well even after star center Matt Paradis hit IR following an injury in Week 9's loss to Houston. Elijah Wilkinson has come in at guard and been, if not quite as good as Paradis, at least a solid replacement.

The Broncos drafted a running back in the third round, and they found Phillip Lindsay as an undrafted free agent. It's worth documenting just how good those two have been. Lindsay entered Week 11 with a top-15 broken tackle figure among all backs and receivers, and added two more to it. Royce Freeman had broken 21 tackles on just 75 touches.

Here's how Lindsay puts the Chargers on skates without even needing to break a tackle. Look at this poor safety.

via Gfycat

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

Drafting Bradley Chubb No. 4 overall paid immediate dividends for the Broncos, and since Chubb wasn't a running back, you can actually watch the Broncos without having to see "generational" thrown around in poor faith every time they play. Through Week 10, both Chubb and Miller had top-25 pass pressure figures from SIS. Another rookie, linebacker Josey Jewell, has been a net positive in run defense. Denver even succeeded in not losing much in the secondary while getting younger by shedding Aqib Talib for Tramaine Brock.

But the one area where they haven't been able to replicate anything is Keenum's success with Minnesota. Sanders and Sutton are not one-for-one replacements for Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. It was an obvious sucker bet that Keenum could pull off last season's success, to the point where I'd argue the goal posts for this move should have been whether Keenum could keep them competitive. I think they've lost that bet pretty conclusively, though I don't know if any of the rookie quarterbacks could have made this team any more competitive in the short-term anyway. (And on a two-year deal, Keenum is basically an expensive transitional quarterback next year.)

As we head into the rest of the season, the most important thing for these spoiler Broncos will be the evaluations of their young receivers. Sutton has got to do better than a sub-50 percent catch rate, no matter how good he is downfield. The team should also spend some snaps on fourth-rounder DaeSean Hamilton out of Penn State to see what he can offer them in 2019. If Hamilton can only play in the slot, the team has to ponder if Sanders will need to be traded off just as Demaryius Thomas was.

Which isn't to say that Denver is done this year -- 9-7 could take a wild card spot -- but it would take some real hot streaks from the supporting cast that was supposed to boost Keenum up. Instead, that cast is trying to keep Keenum from dragging the team to the brink of elimination.

To get this team to the next level, John Elway is going to have to do something he hasn't really shown any proof of doing outside of recruiting one particular Hall of Famer in free agency. He's going to have to evaluate the quarterback position well. No Keenums, no Siemians, no Paxtons. A real solution. And given that the Broncos may not select all that high in a draft that is already sort of looked down upon, it might take a much bolder move than the Keenum play to get there.

Until then, this offense is a team waiting for a quarterback worthy of it.


5 comments, Last at 21 Nov 2018, 4:24pm

#1 by Hummingbird Cyborg // Nov 20, 2018 - 3:33pm

Of the last drive, factoring the offensive pass interference penalty against Patrick into the yardage is questionable. That looked like an atrocious call. Both players were going for the ball and no view that we were given watching the game showed anything that could be construed as interference. Perhaps it was long before the ball was thrown. Who knows, but definitely looked bad on the broadcast.

Otherwise, 6.7 to 6.2 yards per play with 2 turnovers vs 0, I expected VOA to see the game as close. Kind of surprised that Denver was so favored, but I expected it to be close.

Points: 0

#2 by BroncFan07 // Nov 20, 2018 - 3:55pm

On the 2nd and 3 play, Gordon admitted after the game that he ran the wrong way. Also, the biggest play was the one right after that. I can't for the life of me figure out why Rivers grounded the ball instead of just eating the sack. It would have killed 45 more seconds, and Denver needed every second they got.

Points: 0

#3 by Jose21crisis // Nov 20, 2018 - 5:04pm

With the ball still in his hand, Rivers was thinking "Don't kill me, don't kill me" as Von Miller was on the hunt, because he was all over the screen. Right after he let go of the ball, he realized he should have not thrown that ball away.

Points: 0

#4 by BroncFan07 // Nov 20, 2018 - 6:00pm

I think more it was "don't pick it again" but yeah, he was probably yelling Oh No as soon as he released the ball.

Points: 0

#5 by Mountain Time … // Nov 21, 2018 - 4:24pm

I don't agree about the "small" dropoff at CB from Talib to Brock. I think the drop has been precipitous, although a lot of it is being made up by the improved pass rush. With Talib (assuming healthy), this squad may have been a super bowl contender. We'll never know though.

Points: 0

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