In outlining his bottom-line approach to success, Denver quarterback Russell Wilson last Tuesday noted two situational areas of the game.
“We want to be great on third down, we want to be great in the red zone, but at the end of the day, we put on the pads and cleats to win,” he said as the Broncos prepared for Indianapolis.
The Broncos failed on all three accounts Thursday night at Empower Field against Indianapolis — continuing a troubling trend that has significantly contributed to the offense’s anemic start to the season.
Through five games, the offense has been terrible on both third down and in the red zone. And the 12-9 overtime loss to the Colts only highlighted the Broncos’ inability to play well in key situations.
When running back Melvin Gordon fell forward with 12 minutes, 30 seconds, left in the second quarter and picked up three yards on third-and-1, the Broncos moved to 2-of-5 on third down tries. It was their last third-down conversion of the night.
Denver did pick up one fourth-and-2 in the fourth quarter but missed on its final 13 third-down attempts. Not only that, but they hardly gave themselves a chance, facing nine third downs of 10 yards or longer, including tries of 17, 16, 16, 15 and 13 yards.
“If you’re playing behind the chains as much as we are, it’s going to be hard to move the ball,” head coach Nathaniel Hackett said Friday. “I think that’s where it starts on third down. We’re putting ourselves in bad positions there.”
On 11 snaps of third-and-7 or longer, Wilson was sacked once and completed 6-of-10 passes for 40 yards. Each of the completions came well short of the first-down line. Two of the three passes he pushed past the marker fell incomplete in the red zone – one in the end zone toward tight end Eric Saubert, the other incomplete past Jerry Jeudy up the left sideline. And the third was intercepted when Wilson threw the ball to an area where only Indianapolis safety Rodney Thomas waited.
A 7-yard completion to Courtland Sutton set up a fourth-down conversion that preceded Wilson’s red zone interception just before the two-minute warning. One other underneath route to KJ Hamler came within a broken tackle of turning into a first down. The rest more or less were just about getting a few yards for better field position.
“It starts with efficiency on first and second down,” Hackett said. “All those third downs, when you look at them, they’re very, very long.”
A 2-of-15 outing overall for Denver on third down dropped the team to No. 29 in the NFL with a conversion rate of 30.6%. Since hitting on 8-of-15 against the Seahawks, the Broncos have converted 28.5% over the past four weeks.
“We’re playing behind the chains,” Hackett said. “I feel like a broken record, we’ve been saying that for the first five games, whether it be a penalty, whether it be a drop, a missed execution or things like that and it starts with me. I have to do better coaching the guys, I have to do a better job of making sure the guys know where to be, when to be there and for (Wilson) to be able to see it to execute it.”
Even worse, Denver is 3-of-32 on third-and-7 or longer over that span, by Denver Post numbers. Each of the three conversions came on touchdown drives, a reflection of how hard the offense is having to work to put points on the board. Against Las Vegas, for example, Wilson picked up 13 with his legs on third-and-9 and then the offense had to overcome a first-and-30 to punch in a fourth-quarter score.
“It’s across the board, whether it’s a run play or a pass play, because if you’re playing behind the chains as much as we are, it’s going to be hard to move the ball,” Hackett said.
Denver’s red zone production is just as debilitating as its third down performance.
The Broncos failed to score touchdowns on their first six trips inside opponents’ 20-yard line this season, then looked to be getting back on track with three scores in four tries. Against the Colts, though, Denver failed all four times. On the season, they have four touchdowns in 13 red zone visits, a 21.4% success rate that is not only the worst in the NFL but almost twice as bad as anybody else (San Francisco and Indianapolis are tied for 30th at 40%).
Against the Colts, the Broncos ran 14 plays in the red zone, netted nine yards, zero first downs and turned the ball over on Wilson’s ill-advised throw to Tyrie Cleveland with 2:13 left in the game and Denver holding a 9-6 lead.
Twice the Broncos combined their issues, facing a third-and-12 from the Indy 14 and a third-and-goal from the 16.
“Once we got down there — we were on about the 9-yard line — we ended up having a loss of yardage, went back and ended having another loss of yardage back and then we were on a third-and-16 from the 16,” Hackett lamented. “Those things are hard to execute. Any time you’re in a third-and-goal from that far out, it’s hard. (The defense is) all going to sink back into the end zone.
“You’re going to do your best to take a shot or have somebody run around and make a play, but those situations we can’t have.”
Wilson finished 1-of-6 in the red zone passing for five yards and the pick.
The Broncos didn’t get any points on two of the four trips to the red zone because of the interception and a blocked Brandon McManus field goal attempt, and on another drive Denver started at the Indianapolis 27-yard line after Caden Sterns’ second interception of the night. It didn’t make it to the red zone at all, instead going three-and-out and setting for a field goal.
“We can be upset about the loss and whatever else we want to be upset about, but then we have to wake up and figure out ways to get ourselves individually ready so that we can go out and help the team be successful,” wide receiver Courtland Sutton said after the loss. “Then we have to go in next week and have the best week of prep that we’ve had.”
There are a lot of ways to win games in the NFL. It doesn’t often take 40 points, and it can be done without winning beauty contest awards.
Denver’s problem isn’t that it can’t win — the defense is stout and will keep the Broncos in the mix more often than not. However, they can’t expect to win games playing as poorly as they have in third-down and red-zone situations. Signs of progress so far have proved fleeting.