FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Danny Woodhead’s 19-yard jaunt on a third-and-17 “I give up” play Sunday was bad enough. But a third-and-4 handoff to Lance Ball that gained one yard might have been worse.
Broncos coach John Fox blamed communication for the Ball call that left media and Broncos fans alike in an uproar. But Ball’s stunted rush was the exception to the rule on a day where Denver gained an average of 11.6 yards on 13 third-down plays — a pretty successful rate considering that the Broncos’ average distance needed on third downs was 5.9 yards.
But that number deceives, because it includes a 43-yard gain that didn’t result in a first down because of Demaryius Thomas’ second downfield fumble in as many weeks. If you remove that, the Broncos averaged 9.0 yards per third-down play. That’s not as spectacular, but it ‘s good enough to win far more often than not.
Meanwhile, the Patriots gained 9.2 yards on their 16 third-down snaps, taking out an end-game kneeldown. New England needed 6.9 yards per third down, and came through on 11 of 16 plays. Worse, the Patriots converted 80 percent — EIGHTY PERCENT! — of their third downs of 10 yards or greater, going 4-of-5. The Broncos went 2-of-3 in their own right, but the Patriots’ dominance on third-and-long was the story considering that it dealt the Broncos a knockout blow in the third-quarter.
The question for the Broncos’ reeling defense is obvious: is third-down the issue, or the symptom of deeper defensive issues?
“The tape well tell,” said cornerback Champ Bailey. “We held a team (the Raiders) to 1-of-12 last week. I don’t know what they did today, but it definitely wasn’t good enough.”
What he does know is the emotional impact of repeated third-down failures.
“It really sucks the life out of you when you give up a third-and-20 or whatever it was (17 yards) on a run play,” Bailey said, referring to Woodhead’s backbreaking jaunt. “People get lucky and pass the ball down there and get it, but you can’t give that up on a run play and expect to win.”
More numbers follow:
35: Number of first downs amassed by the Patriots in Sunday’s game — the most in New England history and the most allowed in Broncos history. The previous record of 33 was set in an overtime game against Pittsburgh to open the 1974 season — which ended in a tie, thus requiring 15 extra minutes. The previous record for first downs against the Broncos in a regulation game was 30, set by the Chiefs on Nov. 14, 2010 and Peyton Manning’s Colts on Sept. 30, 2007.
1 every 13.2 pass plays: Denver’s sack ratio so far this season, which is slightly ahead of last year’s pace of one sack every 14.0 pass plays — and well ahead of 2010′s piddling one-sack-per-22.8-pass plays ratio. As NFL teams have become more pass-intensive and focused on quick-timing routes, sack ratios have gone down; the Broncos are on pace for their most frequent sack pace since 1999, when they finished with one sack every 10.4 pass plays.
1-21: Denver’s all-time record when allowing an opponent to rush for over 250 yards. New England gained 251 yards on 54 carries Sunday — just six shy of the ground yardage it amassed during the Broncos’ last visit to Gillette Stadium, on Oct. 20, 2008.
2000: The last time the Broncos had a quarterback with a rating of over 100.0 through five games (with at least 50 attempts). Brian Griese had a 104.3 rating in the opening five games that season; Manning has a 101.2 rating so far this year. Both the 2000 and 2012 Broncos were 2-3 after five games; the 2000 Broncos finished 11-5.
Minus-6: Denver’s takeaway-giveaway margin this season, which is tied for fourth-worst in the league with Tennessee.
4: Takeaways by the Broncos this season. No team that has played five games has fewer. Three teams that have already had their byes (Oakland, Detroit and Indianapolis) have just three turnovers forced.
38.33: Percentage of third downs converted by all teams this season.
46.67: Percentage of third downs converted by Broncos opponents. Only the Bills (47.54 percent), Jets (50.91 percent) and Raiders (53.33 percent) have fared worse so far this year.
68.75: Percentage of third downs converted by the Patriots on Sunday prior to Tom Brady’s game-ending kneeldown.
118.8: Manning’s quarterback rating on third down Sunday. He went 7-of-8 for 146 yards on third down and was sacked once.
109.9: Brady’s quarterback rating on third down Sunday. He completed 6 of 8 third-down passes for 87 yards and was sacked twice.
8.2: Average per carry of the Patriots on third down (not counting Tom Brady’s kneeldown). Their running backs averaged 9.6 yards per third-down carry.
3.0: Average per carry of the Broncos on third down. Their running backs averaged 0.7 yards per third-down rush (the overall average of 3.0 is bolstered by Manning’s 10-yard run on third-and-5 early in the first quarter).
47.76: Percentage of third downs converted by the Broncos offense. Only the Falcons (48.48 percent) and Steelers (53.23 percent) are better (but perhaps not coincidentally, both faced the Broncos this season. The Patriots are fourth in third-down percentage and the Texans are seventh; only the Raiders — who went 1-of-12 on third downs against the Broncos — are not among the league leaders; they rank 28th).
12-5: The combined record of Denver’s first five opponents.
19-34: The combined record of Denver’s next 11 foes.