Numbers matter. Yes, the game is played out on the field — not on paper — but a quick look at the statistical profile of a team can show tendencies, strengths and weaknesses that shine some light on what can be expected when the teams take the field. This series is an examination of how the Broncos can gain an advantage against their opponent from a statistical perspective.
Here are the numbers that matter in this Week 15 matchup against the Browns.
5.9 and 5.2
The Broncos’ offense has been at its best when it can establish the run, and that starts on first down. The Broncos are averaging 5.9 yards per carry on first down, second-best in the NFL behind only the Panthers. Phillip Lindsay has performed especially well, averaging 6.5 yards on first downs.
However, this was an area in which the Broncos struggled last week. Against San Francisco, Denver ran the ball seven times for just 15 yards (not counting a Case Keenum kneel down) on first-and-10 situations, an average of 2.1 yards per attempt.
"We have to run the football," Head Coach Vance Joseph said Tuesday. "That's our bell cow on game day: running the football, play-[action] pass and keeping the third downs manageable."
Against the Browns, the Broncos could have the chance to get back to their typical first-down run dominance. The Browns have struggled to contain the run on first down, allowing 5.2 yards per opponent attempt.
Getting ahead of the chains on first down may allow the Broncos to open their playbook, and with Head Coach Vance Joseph wanting Keenum to be more aggressive throwing the ball downfield, first-down success could be crucial. Keenum has posted a quarterback rating of 112.4 on second down with 4-to-6 yards to go, so solid first-down gains have set him up for success throughout the season.
26 and 9
One way to disrupt the timing of a talented young quarterback such as Baker Mayfield is by creating consistent pressure. Outside linebacker duo Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, who have a league-leading 25.5 combined sacks, can do just that on Sunday, especially against a susceptible offensive line. Cleveland has been called for 26 offensive holding penalties this season, second-most in the NFL.
That’s already a high number, but it’s where those penalties are coming from that could give the Broncos a distinct advantage. Browns tackles Desmond Harrison and Greg Robinson — who will likely be tasked with trying to contain Miller and Chubb — have been responsible for nine of those 26 holds. That’s the most by any offensive tackle pair in the NFL.
Miller and Chubb have wreaked havoc on opposing backfields all season, and Sunday could present another opportunity to do so. The Browns have allowed 36 sacks this season, tied for 13th-most in the NFL. Against a quarterback who has played well recently, forcing a mistake or two could be a key for a Denver defense looking to bounce back.
113.2 and 88.5
Throughout the second half of the season, Joseph has stressed faster starts for the Broncos. But his words have yet to come to fruition. The Broncos offense has gone three-and-out on five of their last six opening drives, and they have scored just 17 opening-drive points all season, which ranks 28th in the NFL.
Against Cleveland, a fast start could be critical. Mayfield has been terrific when his team is leading, posting a 113.2 passer rating and throwing seven touchdowns and no interceptions.
When the Browns are trailing, though, Mayfield struggles. His passer rating drops to 88.5 and he has tossed 12 touchdowns to 10 interceptions. Of the 23 sacks he has taken this year, 19 have come when his team is either tied or trailing.
As the Broncos prepare for the Browns, a fast start will once again be a point of emphasis.
“We’ve got to coach better early and play better early, and in the last month, we’ve had chances to keep drives alive and we haven’t,” Joseph said Monday. “Missing throws, drops on third down, play-calling — it’s everything. We’ve scored, I think, three points in the last five first quarters. That can’t happen.”