In a game dominated by the Denver Broncos’ defense, what was encouraging to watch was how offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave called the game to his player’s strengths.
The Denver Broncos (3-4) went into University of Phoenix Stadium on Thursday night and snapped their four-game losing streak by overwhelming the Arizona Cardinals (1-6), 45-10.
Denver’s defense dominated the game early and often, starting things off with a Todd Davis pick-six on the game’s second play from scrimmage. Chris Harris Jr. also returned an interception for a score in the first quarter, and those defensive scores built a 21-3 Broncos lead after the first 15 minutes.
While I applaud the defense for scoring two touchdowns and holding Arizona to less than 300 total yards, that’s something a defense with as much talent as Denver’s has should be able to accomplish against a rookie quarterback like Josh Rosen, starting in just his fourth NFL game.
What I was more excited about while watching the game was how offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave finally changed the game plan and played more to Case Keenum’s strengths.
As I pointed out in an article last week, Keenum is a game-manager type of quarterback, meaning he needs to be able to lean on a strong running game and a lot of short, high percentage passes in order to succeed.
That’s exactly what Musgrave was calling for all night long, and for the first time all season, the Broncos finished the game with more rushing attempts than passing attempts. Keenum played efficiently, completing 14 of his 21 attempts (67%) for 161 yards and a score, along with his ninth interception of the year.
Keenum has still not been able to go an entire game without throwing at least one interception. The turnovers and occasional bad accuracy have been his two main troubles this season, and he seemed to fix the accuracy issue on Thursday.
As for the running backs, Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman got a combined 27 carries for 127 yards, an average of 4.7 yards per carry. Having a running back by committee system is so important for a quarterback like Keenum, because both guys are able to stay fresh on the sideline while the other is in the game.
Thursday’s game was the first time since week one that saw Lindsay and Freeman combine for 25 or more carries, and the Broncos are now 2-0 when that happens.
It was also noticeable that Musgrave called for more screen passes and short passes than we’ve seen this season. The athletic skill set that the Broncos’ receiving core possesses makes it possible for those short passes to be turned into 10-plus yard gains. Those easy completions also gave Keenum more confidence to go down the field later in the game, which would pay dividends on his 64-yard touchdown bomb to Emmanuel Sanders, who became the first player since John Elway for the Broncos to throw and catch a touchdown in the same game.
Denver’s run-heavy game plan set up success on play-action, which, as Sayre Bedinger mentioned in one of his pieces last week, Keenum excels in. The touchdown pass to Sanders showed that off, as it came off a play-action fake to Phillip Lindsay.
It will be important for the Broncos going forward offensively that they continue to play to their players’ strengths, which for Keenum means throwing 20-30 passes a game and letting his two young running backs churn out first downs. It was big for the Broncos to start fast and lead for the entirety of the game so that Musgrave didn’t feel forced to air it out to get back into the game.
Next week in Kansas City, it might not be so easy for the defense to pick on Pat Mahomes as it was against Josh Rosen. Even if Denver isn’t playing with the lead, though, they need to find a way to take advantage of Kansas City’s poor run defense, which is giving up 127.8 yards, setting them at 27th in the league.
This game was a great way for the offense to build confidence and give Broncos fans across the country confidence that the offense is finally starting to get into a groove. Let’s just hope that the game plan stays the same next week in the matchup against the Chiefs, essentially a must-win game if the Broncos hope to win the AFC West.