Lost amid the wreckage of another disappointing loss to a serious Super Bowl Contender are some really encouraging signs. It’s easy to see the 20-23 final and think the Broncos are hopeless, but you’d be wrong.
What went right? The pass D showed signs of life.
Once the Rams crossed the 50 yard line Jared Goff hit the turf more often than he passed for a first down. Reports surfaced that Vance Joseph has taken more control over the defensive calls and it showed, the Broncos defense mixed things up enough to hold the 2016 first overall pick to 50% completion percentage. While doing so let Gurley gash them time and again, the scarier part of the Rams offense has been their passing attack so far and slowing it down did enough for the Broncos offense to have a chance. Big kudos to Von Miller and company.
What went right? The Broncos receivers came up big
For all the problems that have been present week after week with the passing game, Broncos Country needs to admire the effort the pass catchers showed against the Rams. You can’t blame Jeff Heuerman that Case Keenum never saw him. He was right in front of him and a completion to him would have meant a 1st down.
Demaryius Thomas is another Bronco that showed a ton of fight. Emmanuel Sanders “taunt” got a lot of the media narrative about the game and deservedly so, but his effort shows up every single week. Courtland Sutton’s playing on a bum wheel and still showing all the promise you could dare hope for from a rookie.
What went right? Lindsay showed up.
The Broncos running game was mostly stifled by the Rams’ D, but much like Keenum’s 322-2-1 statline, the number’s do a poor job of telling the full story. Los Angeles routinely stacked the box and dared Case Keenum to beat them. Musgrave did his part in helping them. When the Broncos ran it was routinely out of 12 and 21 personnel. While Andy Janovich has been a stud, it hardly made sense to telegraph your intent like that. Then there were plays like the one above, with the Broncos running Duo-concept.
If you’ve read my preseason look at the Musgrave offense you already know that Duo is a play designed to get vertical push off the line of scrimmage in order to create gaps. In a week where the opponent doesn’t feature two All-Pro defensive tackles, it’d be a great call. Even with the two studs a double team may mean positive yardage.
Instead the call left Matt Paradis isolated on Ndamukong Suh, who shucked the Broncos center like corn to force Philip Lindsay to bounce away from the hole. Credit has to go to the rookie because he found positive yardage. He and Royce Freeman both found themselves trying to outrun the questionable game plan and Max Garcia’s limitations versus Los Angeles.
Last week I looked at Connor Mcgovern and saw he had a rough week against the Jets. Can't say he had many plays like this though. Shame Ron Leary's out, Garcia means the #Broncos run game is about to take a big hit. pic.twitter.com/z3dPGjZIpE— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 16, 2018
It’s going to be crucial for all 3 aspects I mentioned above to come through this week. While the Cardinals are 1-5 and coming off a painful 17-27 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, they have the pieces necessary to beat the Broncos if they come out flat or unprepared. How can Denver insure they finish the week with a win?
Key #1 Manage the Down and Distance
If you watched the Broncos games against the New York Jets or Baltimore Ravens you know that Case Keenum has struggled against pressure packages this season. He’s had a bad habit of locking on to one receiver, rolling out too early, or eating a bad sack. While it was expected that he’d decline from his 2017 career year in this regard, he’s fallen far short of expectations in this department so far.
With that in mind, it’s absolutely critical to the Broncos fortunes that Musgrave and Joseph keep the Broncos out of predictable passing situations. This Cardinals defense did their part to beat the Vikings. They held Kirk Cousins to a season low 233 yards, sacking him four times and forcing two turnovers, both of which came on third downs.
Most of the time the Cardinals will run a 4 man line with Chandler Jones serving as an amoeba of sorts. He’s their best edge rusher but has the versatility to drop in coverage at times. On passing downs however, they utilize all sorts of looks.
With Ron Leary’s injury, Max Garcia steps into the starting lineup full time. He has experience at right guard but has spent most of his career on the left. That matters. It also means the Broncos will have two backups playing key roles as it looks like Jared Veldheer will miss another game.
Key #2 Make the Rookie Running Backs Astronauts
If the Cardinals defense has one big weakness, it’s that they’re second and third level defenders have been poor run defenders. That may sound familiar, but to accomplish Key #1 Musgrave has to go to the running well early and often.
The Cardinals defense is notably susceptible to runs off the right end, where they finished among the worst 3 teams in the league through 6 weeks by Football Outsiders Adjusted Line Yards. What’s more, Arizona is also bad at defending passes to running backs so Lindsay should find work there as well.
Utilizing outside zone to the right in order to both push that advantage and potentially launch Freeman and Lindsay past the first level of the defense would serve 3 purposes. It’d protect Keenum from Arizona’s blitz scheme, it would play to the Broncos strengths while attacking the Cardinal’s weaknesses and it would limit Mike McCoy’s opportunities to settle his rookie QB into a groove.
Key #3 Hold up Against the Run, but Respect Play Action
Through 6 games David Johnson is averaging 3.2 yards a carry. Denver running backs are averaging 3.4 yards per carry BEFORE contact this year. That doesn’t mean Johnson isn’t dangerous, of course. With the way the secondary has played against the run this year every opposing running back presents a challenge, but Arizona’s offensive line may be the least talented group in the league west of New York. They’ll also be a M.A.S.H unit Thursday.
Cardinals right guard Justin Pugh broke his hand against the Vikings. It is not yet clear how much time Pugh will miss. Across all positions, approximately 80 percent of hand fractures cause at least one missed game, while half cause absences of three or more weeks. Typical recovery times are three to eight weeks. Left guard Mike Iupati injured his back and did not return to the game. About one-third of back injuries to offensive linemen cause them to miss at least one game; typical recovery times are one to four weeks. Iupati’s replacement, Jeremy Vujnovich, then injured his hamstring and was replaced by John Wetzel.
The Broncos still need to respect play action, however. While McCoy called run fakes on less than 20% of plays in 2018, the Cardinals average a 1st down on those plays. Two of Rosen’s best plays this year came after play action and the Denver defense was pitiful at stopping it until the Rams game.
If Woods and Joseph can make Arizona one dimensional it will force Rosen to beat them himself. He’s shown enough promise on tape that it’s fair to wonder if Elway should have picked him over Bradley Chubb, but he’s still a rookie passer with questionable weapons to exploit the Fly Zone.
X-Factor: Case Keenum
The Cardinals defense is one of the very best in the league against preventing big plays through the air and harassing quarterbacks into mistakes. They’re built to force passes to tight ends and running backs in order to tempt opposing offenses to patiently march the field with the idea that eventually a mishap will occur. Keenum is the only quarterback in the NFL this season who has thrown an interception in all 6 games. Time is running out for him to convince fans he can turn back the clock to 2017, if it hasn’t already.
Even if he never rediscovers the magic that made him a legitimate MVP candidate with the Vikings, his previous tape showed a game manager that could pilot a playoff-worthy offense. So far he’s failed to meet even that hope with Denver, despite a talented supporting cast. Thursday represents his last best chance to flip the narrative that Elway erred in handing him a 2-year $36 million deal.
After Arizona, four of the Broncos’ next five opponents have legitimate playoff aspirations. Lose to the Cardinals and Kelly time becomes a real possibility with 10 days before the trip to Kansas City.