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 11 matchup against the Chargers.
37 and 36
The Broncos have connected on 37 passing plays of at least 20 yards, tied for sixth-best in the NFL, and the Chargers have allowed 36 passing plays of at least 20 yards, tied for eighth-most in the league. That means there should be some opportunities for Case Keenum to work the ball downfield to Courtland Sutton, Emmanuel Sanders and the rest of the receiving corps that has shown big-play ability.
The Broncos have been unafraid to take chances down the field — their 44 attempts of at least 20 yards downfield ranks seventh in the league — and when they do go deep, the results have been in their favor. The Broncos have completed 41 percent of their passes at that distance. Of teams that have thrown it 20-plus yards downfield at least 41 times, only the Chiefs and the Buccaneers have a higher completion percentage.
Sanders leads the team with 11 catches of at least 20 yards, and Sutton is just behind him with 10 such catches.
"With Emmanuel being able to go deep and also catch-and-run like he did way back when in September against Seattle, we're looking to build on all that," Offensive Coordinator Bill Musgrave said Thursday. "And also of course with our young guys, we're expecting DaeSean Hamilton to be back complementing Courtland."
5.05 and 1.57
Denver's running backs are averaging 5.05 yards per carry this season and 1.57 second-level yards, a metric that measures how many yards per carry a team's running backs gain when they get to the second level (5-10 yards past the line of scrimmage). Those numbers put Denver at third and fourth, respectively, in the NFL, showing the Broncos' offensive line has not only done a good job of opening holes for the running backs, but the running backs have taken advantage when they get to the second level.
Both position groups will be tested this week, though, with the season-ending injury to center Matt Paradis. Connor McGovern will take over in his stead.
"I'm doing my best to be the best Matt Paradis I can be, but I'm not going to be him," McGovern said last week. "So Case and I will work through stuff and continue to get better and keep moving this offense forward."
The Chargers, who allow 4.45 yards per carry to opposing running backs — 20th in the league — are also dealing with a key injury. Inside linebacker Denzel Perryman is out for the season after suffering a knee injury.
"In our run defense it's a little bit of a challenge … because Denzel was just really good in that area," Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn said. "It was so obvious. Everyone's going to have to step it up a notch and take their game to another level to make up for missing Denzel."
The Broncos have been at their best when they run the ball effectively, and the Chargers' already-struggling run defense just took a big blow. Denver could have a chance to take advantage on the ground.
Coming out of the bye week, Head Coach Vance Joseph wants his team to start faster. On nine game-opening drives this season, the Broncos have scored just 17 points — touchdowns against the Ravens and the Cardinals and a field goal in the first meeting against the Chiefs. That ranks tied for 19th in the NFL.
"I think offensively we have to obviously start faster and score more points early," Joseph said Monday. "Obviously, being better in the red zone and being better on third downs—the numbers don't lie there."
The Broncos haven't been bad in first quarters — in fact, their 7.2 points per first quarter is second in the league. But they average just 5.7 points per game in second quarters, 23rd in the NFL. Having a strong start and maintaining it will be a key, though, as the Broncos have trailed at halftime in five of their six losses. Changing that will not come easy against the Chargers, who are plus-53 in the first half.
"It's executing early, it's having our favorite plays — our best plays — early, it's doing what we do well and having an intensity really that first drive — getting things going, having a focus and intensity, and not just playing hard, but playing smart early in games to try to put pressure on other offense to score more points," Keenum said Wednesday.
119.4 and 7.6
Philip Rivers is enjoying one of his best seasons, and a lot of that is due to his success on first down: He is third in the NFL with a passer rating of 119.4 on first downs, third-best in the league.
But it's not just Rivers who has enjoyed success: The Chargers' offense is averaging 7.6 yards per first-down play, the best mark in the league.
"It's critical [to get stops on first down]," Defensive Coordinator Joe Woods said Thursday. "They're doing a great job. … You just have to be sound on what you're doing. When you watch tape, there's a lot of explosive runs with big holes in there. I feel like we've cleaned up what we've been doing against the run game."
If the Broncos can succeed on early downs, though, they can unleash their pass rush on long down-and-distance situations.
"You want to put yourself in third-down situations where you can rush the passer," Woods said. "Normally teams have break points when it's third-and-short. They're going to get the ball out of their hands fast. So you want to get them in third-and-medium [or] third-and-long, so that way it's all about rush and coverage."