ENGLEWOOD | Case Keenum hasn’t thrown an interception since October, which isn’t winning him any brownie points at Broncos headquarters this week.
Coach Vance Joseph on Monday criticized his quarterback for being too cautious in Denver’s damaging 20-14 loss at San Francisco.
“Case has played his best football in the last month; yesterday, he was a little cautious with the ball,” Joseph said. “And the bottom line: we’ve got three weeks to play. He’s got to make more plays and sometimes taking some chances allow you to make more plays.”
So, Joseph wants his quarterback to quit fixating on avoiding interceptions.
“There’s going to be turnovers. So, he can’t worry about that. You can’t play this game perfect, but I want Case to be more aggressive, especially down the seams of those Cover-3 defenses,” Joseph said. “That’s where the soft spots are.”
The loss Sunday sent the Broncos (6-7) below .500 again, imperiled their playoff hopes and may ultimately jeopardize both Joseph’s and Keenum’s job security beyond this season.
Signed to a two-year, $36 million deal this spring, Keenum hasn’t been the same quarterback who guided the Vikings to the NFC championship game in January but the journeyman he was before that special season.
He threw three interceptions in his Denver debut and was picked off once in each of his next seven games before stringing together five games without an interception.
He has just five touchdown throws in that span, however, and he’s averaged a paltry 206 yards passing, which amounts to a good half for many quarterbacks in today’s high-scoring NFL.
“Case wants to be safe with the ball,” Joseph said. “And obviously he’s seeing different looks. But in my opinion, being safe with the ball, it allows you to have great numbers in that category. But as far as making plays on the field, you can’t be safe doing that. So, he’s got to take more chances down the middle of the field, and he would tell you that.”
Players were off Monday as the Broncos juggled their usual schedule with a game coming up Saturday night against Cleveland (5-7-1).
Keenum has targeted his tight ends just four times (for 8 yards) in the two games since losing Jeff Heuerman to broken ribs and a bruised lung.
“Those guys are running for him and they’re getting open for him,” Joseph said. “He’s got to make plays.”
Without his favorite receiver, Emmanuel Sanders, who went on IR after tearing his left Achilles tendon in practice last week, Keenum completed 24 of 42 throws for 186 yards Sunday.
That’s 4.4 yards per pass attempt.
“We had some chances downfield. We didn’t hit them. We missed three or four chances to make some big plays in the pass game,” Joseph said, noting that the 49ers loaded the box to stop the run and played with a single high safety. “So, you have to make plays in the pass game versus those kinds of defenses to kind of soften them up a little bit. And we didn’t make those plays.”
One factor in Keenum’s paltry numbers is a patchwork O-line that consists of a guard at center and four tackles. Although they’re solid in run blocking, they’re often lacking in pass protection. Keenum has been sacked a career-high 30 times so far.
Still, offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave has stuck with heavy doses of three-receiver sets in spread formations, which often results in a quickly collapsing pocket — it’s the same thing Mike McCoy did last year before getting fired at midseason and replaced by Musgrave.
The Broncos also have had trouble with their scripted plays, the ones they’re most comfortable with during the week. In their last six games, they’ve managed just two field goals and no touchdowns in the first quarter.
And ever since Sanders threw a 28-yard touchdown pass to Courtland Sutton at Arizona on Oct. 18, the Broncos’ opening drives in those six games have all ended in punts, including five three-and-outs.
“It’s all of us,” Joseph said. “We’ve got to obviously coach better early and play better early. In the last month we’ve had chances to keep plays alive and we haven’t. Missing throws. Drops on third down. Play calling. So, it’s everything.”
Against San Francisco, the Broncos didn’t score until the 38th minute and by then were down 20 points, leaving Keenum stumped.
“I felt like everybody had the right focus, had the right intensity, knew what was at stake, but I don’t know what it is,” Keenum said afterward. “We’ve just got to go out and slap ourselves in the face or something and get going early.”