The Denver Broncos’ offensive issues so far this season are a lot deeper than just the ineptitude of Case Keenum. We take a deeper look.
The Denver Broncos are struggling on offense, to say the least.
Despite being above average moving the ball between the 20s (12th in the NFL in total yards), they rank 27th in the league in scoring. The Broncos are also one of the bottom 11 teams in the league at controlling the clock despite having one of the best rushing attacks in the NFL.
These issues have much deeper roots than simply quarterback Case Keenum’s physical limitations. We saw in 2017 in Minnesota that Keenum is not only capable of successfully operating an offense, he’s capable of thriving and elevating his team.
Why has that not happened in Denver?
The Broncos have a better running game than the Vikings did last year, and despite the fact that they don’t have a young duo like Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, you’d be hard-pressed to find a team that wouldn’t love to have the Broncos’ core of skill position talent at running back and receiver.
The Broncos are 2-3 and their losses are not simply the defense’s fault. The offense is very much at fault and with so many big plays this season, this team isn’t finishing enough or sustaining drives long enough.
Jakob King outlined in a recent post that Keenum is currently on pace to throw over 600 passes, more than 130 additional throws than he attempted last season with the Vikings, who also ranked second in the NFL in total carries.
The key stat from his article that can’t be ignored at this point is the fact that Denver right now ranks 20th in the league in rushing attempts despite being one of the most effective and efficient running teams in the game.
That falls on Bill Musgrave, who is attempting to fit 11 square pegs in 11 round holes.
The formula for success for the Broncos’ offense seems pretty obvious at this point, but for some reason, it’s least obvious to Musgrave, who had all offseason to discover his $36 million quarterback’s strengths and more importantly — his weaknesses.
Case Keenum, as pointed out by Benjamin Allbright via Pro Football Focus metrics, was most effective last season on play-action throws. He was fourth in the NFL in play-action percentage at 28.7 percent and completed a league-high 69.1 percent of his play-action passes with at least 23 percent of his dropbacks being of the play-action variety.
On play-action throws with Minnesota, Keenum had 1,200 yards, eight touchdowns, and one interception. On non-play-action throws, he was only slightly worse, but still very effective with 14 touchdowns and six interceptions while completing 67 percent of his throws.
Everything was schemed correctly for Keenum to have success in 2018, so wouldn’t Musgrave figure that out and translate that over for the Broncos? Apparently not.
Keenum has the fourth fewest play-action dropbacks of any quarterback in the NFL so far this season and the 10th most dropbacks overall.
This season, the difference between play-action or a regular dropback for Keenum is as drastic as you could possibly imagine. He is completing 76.7 percent of his play-action throws this year compared to 61.1 percent of his non-play-action throws.
That percentage difference is the biggest in the league.
The Broncos have an analytics team. They are watching the film. They have to know this is an advantage of theirs. And yet through the first five games, the running game has been inexplicably abandoned and it has cost the team desperately.
What’s the solution? It seems too simple, but the Broncos really just have to incorporate the running game more and get Keenum’s play-action opportunities way up.
He’s been the worst-rated quarterback in the league with 2.5 seconds or less to get rid of the ball. That means the Broncos are using too many long-developing routes, the protection isn’t holding up, and Keenum is either short-arming throws, isn’t capable of making the throws, or simply has to abandon the plan on too many of the Broncos’ play calls.
Bill Musgrave is the one who needs to re-evaluate things. Watching the New Orleans Saints whoop up on one of the best defenses in the NFL so far this season on Monday Night Football with all of their weapons was enviable, but it also reminded me that the Broncos have a lot of talented players and there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to manipulate defenses with their personnel.
Keenum doesn’t have the arm talent as some of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL, but he has proven he can be accurate and on time with the football. He’s also proven he can be very effective in an offense that sticks with the running game through thick and thin, utilizing play-action on around three of every 10 pass attempts throughout a game.
The Broncos have to make adjustments, and it starts with Musgrave’s scheme, which right now is not good enough.
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