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15 Dec 2013

Any Given Thursday: Chargers Over Broncos

by Mike Ridley

This week, Any Given Sunday gets a special Thursday night edition to go over the Broncos' improbable 27-20 loss to San Diego. Did San Diego discover the blueprint to shutting down the explosive Broncos attack, or was this performance merely a fluke?

Philip Rivers led the 6-7 Chargers to a victory Thursday night despite being 10.5-point underdogs. While Denver was far from a lock to cover the spread, they were the seen as the second-most likely team to come away with a victory, according to Football Outsiders’ premium picks. Instead, San Diego came into Sports Authority Field and limited the Broncos offense to their lowest point total of the season.

By the VOA

San Diego may have held Peyton Manning and the Broncos to 20 points, but they were still below average on defense according to VOA.

No Ordinary Offense
Team Off. VOA Def. VOA Special Teams VOA Total VOA
SD 31.2% 14.5% 3.7% 20.3%
DEN 28.6% 21.2% 3.1% 10.5%

But when we factor in our opponent adjustments, our numbers become drastically different.

Team Off. DVOA Def. DVOA Special Teams DVOA Total DVOA
SD 37.8% -19.5% 3.7% 61.0%
DEN -1.1% 12.1% 3.1% -10.2%

Denver’s offensive DVOA took such a deep hit due to San Diego’s poor defensive record. The Chargers entered this week with the league’s worst defense at 21.9% DVOA. Conversely, when Denver's offensive brilliance is taken into consideration, the Chargers receive a hefty boost to their defensive DVOA.

Amazingly, this wasn’t the Broncos' worst offensive performance of the year by DVOA. In all three of their losses this year, the Broncos have failed to produce a positive DVOA on offense. Their loss in Indianapolis was their worst performance, coming away with an offensive DVOA of -7.6%, slightly worse than the -2.9% DVOA they had against New England.

This was easily the Chargers best performance on defense when opponent adjustments are included. It was only the second time this season that San Diego has been above average on defense; the other being a Week 6 win over the Colts when they held Indianapolis to nine points and came away with a -8.3% DVOA.

Third Down Demons

When the Broncos started off the season at 6-0 and appeared to be world-beaters, they were playing at a historic level on third downs. Manning’s offense converted 58.9 percent of their third downs, including 17 of 33 on third-and-7 or longer. This gave them an offensive DVOA of 88.9% in third-down situations, easily the best in the league.

That number has dropped dramatically in the eight games that followed. In Weeks 7-15, the Broncos’ third-down DVOA is down to 26.5%, fifth in the league. Through last Sunday, their third-down conversion rate had dropped to 43.9 percent despite their average distance to go remaining nearly identical (6.5 yards and 6.2 yards, respectively). The biggest drop-off has come in the third-and-long situations that Denver excelled at early on, converting on just seven of 37 attempts (18.9 percent) when there are seven or more yards to go.

On Thursday, third downs were an issue again. The Broncos were just two of nine on third downs, despite encountering fairly reasonable distances. They had only two plays of third-and-7 or longer all game, both of which they failed to convert. Even on manageable third-and-6 situations, the Broncos went 0-for-4, with Manning’s passes falling incomplete each time.

Blueprint For Success or Fluke?

The biggest question coming out of Thursday night was whether others can emulate the defensive game plan San Diego used or if it was simply an off performance by Denver. The answer is probably a little of both.

San Diego excelled at limiting the Denver receivers after the catch. Demaryius Thomas, who leads the league in yards after the catch, was limited to just 18 yards on his four receptions. Julius Thomas was also held to 18 yards after the catch to add to his 314 YAC on the season (fourth among tight ends), and Eric Decker was limited to five such yards on his two catches. By not allowing the Broncos’ receivers to gain large chunks of yardage after the catch, they were able to hold Manning to his second-lowest yardage total of the season.

The other factor that came into play was the absence of Wes Welker. With Welker out with a concussion, the Broncos moved Decker into the slot position, something he had only done on about a quarter of his routes coming into the game. The absence also pushed Andre Caldwell up to third in the depth chart, essentially making two out of the three receivers new. Caldwell did lead the Broncos in every receiving category, but it would be a stretch to say that he presents the same challenges as Welker, especially in those third-and-6 situations the Broncos failed at.

Posted by: Mike Ridley on 15 Dec 2013

5 comments, Last at 17 Dec 2013, 6:48pm by Albert


by Nick L. (not verified) :: Mon, 12/16/2013 - 10:23am

I am amazed Denver didn't just put Jacob Tamme in the slot and leave J. Thomas and Decker on the outside. This is what they did in the 2nd half against the Titans and it seemed to work very well. The decision to play with two receivers out of position instead of one cost them the game. Without a slot receiver running the option route and without Decker as a reliable outside thread the offense collapsed.

by Anonymous14 (not verified) :: Tue, 12/17/2013 - 1:29pm

Its tough, as we all know Denver is the only team in the NFL that has had to deal with injury issues to a key player on their team. I mean its not like San Diego lost both of its starting WR's by week 2.

So sick of hearing about the Welker excuse. All these so called football people need to pull themselves away from Mannings jock for a moment, just long enough to see there are other teams in the NFL, the Broncos have issues that are no different or special compared to anyone else.

by Perfundle :: Tue, 12/17/2013 - 2:16pm

It's much harder to plan around a sudden injury (on a short week at that) than a sustained absence.

by Bay Area Bengal (not verified) :: Tue, 12/17/2013 - 5:15pm

Any insight into WHY the Broncos have dropped off in third-down conversions?

Obviously, a big chunk of it has to be simple regression to the mean. Given the fact that their "bad" third-down conversion rate still ranks fifth in the NFL, this doesn't seem to indicate any potential playoff problems.

However, 2-of-9 on third downs against the Chargers is something to worry about. Is this poor performance due to the absence of Welker? Were there dropped passes? Failed run attempts? I don't recall the details of the game ...

by Albert (not verified) :: Tue, 12/17/2013 - 6:48pm

Underated player Jerrell freeman did good with two forced fumbles