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Can the Broncos' late letdowns be fixed?

Andrew Mason Avatar
September 15, 2020

If the Broncos call a timeout after Derrick Henry gallops 13 yards around left end for a first down with 1:23 to play on Monday night, there is no guarantee they would have turned an eventual 16-14 loss to the Tennessee Titans into a win.

But the odds are good that they would have had a viable shot. Instead of 17 seconds, they could have had nearly a minute on the clock — more than enough time for Drew Lock to wing it and work a little end-game magic.

So barely 12 hours after defending his decision to not take a timeout, Broncos coach Vic Fangio walked it back.

“I should have called timeout there,” Fangio said. “That was the one I missed.”

Now what comes next? Fangio spoke of the importance of using each game and scenario as a “learning experience.” The first step was admitting the mistake, something Fangio said he “absolutely” believes he must acknowledge with his players.

“It was totally my fault there,” he said. “I had too much thought into what I was going to call next on defense and I missed it.”

But what is the solution? The Broncos could, in theory, have someone who is in charge of in-game management and the use of timeouts. This would allow Fangio to focus on the play-calling. But he also noted that offensive coaches help with clock- and game-management decisions while the defense is on the field, “and vice versa.”

“It’s easier when we’re on offense because I’m not calling the plays,” Fangio said. “It was my miss on that one and nobody else’s.”

Clock management is something within the Broncos’ control. The other aspect of the late letdown requires a bit more work.

THE PATTERN OF LOSING LATE LEADS

Independent of the decision not to call a timeout was the continuation of a pattern from last year: the defense’s struggles in preserving a lead during the game’s final moments. Five of the Broncos’ 10 losses under Fangio have come in games that they led in the final 10 minutes of regulation. Four of those saw the Broncos lose the lead on field goals in the final 22 seconds.

It’s also not quite as bad as it sounds.

In nine of 17 games under Fangio, the Broncos defense was on the field in the final eight minutes of the fourth quarter with a lead of seven or fewer points. Denver ended up winning four of them. But in two of those four wins — last December against the Chargers and Raiders — the Broncos still allowed a late score. They were saved by a pass-interference call that led to a game-winning field goal against Los Angeles and Shelby Harris’ deflection of an Oakland two-point conversion attempt.

Still, allowing scores in seven of nine such games overall — and seven of 12 drives, since the Colts, Raiders and Titans both had two cracks at overturning a deficit in the final 10 minutes of a game — is a cause for concern.

Denver’s defense remains good enough in the first three quarters of the game. In quarters 1-3, the Broncos have allowed 4.29 points per quarter over the last two seasons, the sixth-best figure in the NFL. But the Broncos have allowed 6.65 points per fourth quarter in the second quarter, which ranks 18th.

Further, that 2.36-point discrepancy between the first three quarters and the fourth quarter is the sixth-worst in the NFL.

Until the Broncos make their fourth-quarter defense look more like their D in the first three periods, the heartbreaking losses could continue.

ONE-SCORE LEADS IN THE LAST 10 MINUTES HELD BY THE BRONCOS, 2019-PRESENT:

Week 2 vs. Chicago, 2019

  • Broncos lead: 14-13
  • Time left when opponent got the ball: 0:31
  • Result: Game-winning field goal at 0:00

Week 4 vs. Jacksonville, 2019

  • Broncos lead: 14-13
  • Time left when opponent got the ball: 1:32
  • Result: Game-winning field goal at 0:00.

Week 5 at L.A. Chargers, 2019

  • Broncos lead: 17-10
  • Time left when opponent got the ball: 4:22
  • Result: One first down and a punt; Broncos subsequently drive to game-clinching field goal.

Week 8 at Indianapolis, 2019

  • Broncos lead: 13-12
  • Time left when opponent got the ball: 5:51 and 1:48
  • Result: One first down and a punt on the first series, game-winning field goal at 0:22 on the second.

Week 9 vs. Cleveland, 2019

  • Broncos lead: 24-19
  • Time left when opponent got the ball: 7:26
  • Result: Turnover on downs after an 8-play, 60-yard drive.

Week 11 at Minnesota, 2019

  • Broncos lead: 23-20
  • Time left when opponent got the ball: 8:15
  • Result: A 5-play, 67-yard touchdown drive; Broncos subsequently drive to the Minnesota 4-yard line, but lose after three goal-to-go incompletions.

Week 13 vs. L.A. Chargers, 2019

  • Broncos lead: 20-17
  • Time left when opponent got the ball: 4:26
  • Result: Chargers drive 46 yards in 7 plays, including a fourth-and-15 conversion, to a game-tying field goal with 19 seconds left; Broncos subsequently kick game-winning field goal after a 37-yard pass-interference penalty against Casey Hayward.

Week 17 vs. Oakland, 2019

  • Broncos lead: 16-9
  • Time left when opponent got the ball: 2:45 and 1:41
  • Result: Broncos force a fourth-down stop, but after their offense goes three-and-out, Oakland drives 53 yards in 8 plays to a touchdown. Shelby Harris breaks up the ensuing 2-point conversion attempt to seal the win.

Week 1 vs. Tennessee, 2020

  • Broncos lead: 14-13
  • Time left when opponent got the ball: 4:57 and 3:05
  • Result: Broncos force three-and-out, but after the Denver offense goes three-and-out in return, Tennessee drives 83 yards to Gostkowski’s game-winning field goal with 17 seconds left.

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