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For Broncos defense, third down the first priority

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In a time when the rulebook has been thrown open to favor offenses and when the league's defensive coaches believe the game is stacked against them, the Denver Broncos find themselves struggling on the few plays where the defense holds most of the cards.

While the Broncos have forced offenses into plenty of third-and-long situations, too often the Broncos have also let those offenses escape.

“Once it gets to third-and-long the defense has the advantage," Broncos nose tackle Terrance Knighton said. “The great quarterbacks do a great job of getting out of those situations, but as a defense when we get teams in those situations, you have to win, you have to win. If it’s third-and-10 and they convert, it’s obviously a big chunk right there, 10 to 15 yards, if not more ... It’s yardage and momentum."

The Broncos have done well to force offense into plenty of third-and-6 or more situations, but those same opponents have wriggled off the hook 24 times, including four times by the New England Patriots this past Sunday.

The Broncos have also allowed one fourth-and-6 conversion -- by the Indianapolis Colts in the season opener. Twenty of the third-down-conversions have come by pass completions, with four coming as a result of Broncos penalties.

“It’s deflating," said Knighton, who comes out of the lineup when the Bronccos go to their specialty looks in those long-yardage situations. “Third-and-7 or more, or third-down period, if I’m out (of the game) I’m not thinking about going back on the field, period. Especially third-and-long. (But) it’s deflating, you’ve got the offense ready to go in and when the offense gets like a first down when they’re at a disadvantage, it sparks their drive ... If you look at successful teams, successful offenses, quarterbacks, in all NFL history they have high third-down completion percentages and they get themselves in manageable third downs."

The Kansas City Chiefs have been the most effective, having converted seven third-and-long plays, while the Patriots converted in four such situations on Sunday. The New York Jets, the San Francisco 49ers and San Diego Chargers each converted three third-down plays, while the Colts converted one long third-down situation to go with the fourth-down conversion.

It’s especially frustrating considering the Broncos have spent mightily to upgrade their defensive personnel and believe they have close-the-deal playmakers at the necessary positions.

Quarterbacks have spread out their targets on the successful third-down conversions. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady hit five different receivers to convert long-yardage situations on second, third and fourth downs this past Sunday.

“Any time we get people in third and long we expect to win," defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. “We’ve got really good rush up front, really good coverage people in the back and we know we’re sound in what we’re doing. We just need to execute a little bit better ... Frustrating? It can be if you let it be, but you want to be purposeful, you want to make sure you’re executing, and frustration does not typically lead to execution. We’re most interested in being poised, being smart, being tough, playing good football and part of that is taking advantage of those situations and winning those situations."

“It’s just some things we need to clean up," cornerback Chris Harris Jr said. “Little communication things ... We have to have those plays, those are the situations you want as a defense we have to take advantage of them."