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Broncos Film Room: Why Case Keenum hasn’t been his 2017 self

Andre Simone Avatar
October 12, 2018

In the middle of a 2-3 start in which the Denver Broncos offense hasn’t produced up to expectations, the performance of quarterback Case Keenum has been heavily scrutinized, as he just hasn’t been up to the level of what he showed with the Minnesota Vikings in 2017.

With the Vikings a season ago, Keenum wasn’t an all-world performer who was slinging the ball around the filed for tons of yards, but he was efficient and strived in three key areas of the game: under pressure, in the red zone, and on third down.

That hasn’t been the case for the Broncos big free agent acquisition in 2018, as Keenum has struggled in all three areas.

Let’s see why.

Red-zone issues

It starts with Keenum’s ability in the red zone, where he was supremely efficient with the Vikings in 2017, boasting a 17-to-1 touchdown to interception ratio as he completed 58-percent of his pass attempts inside the 20-yard line. His quick decision making, ability to anticipate throws, and cool demeanor under pressure really allowed him to succeed in such situations.

That hasn’t been there this year, at least not constantly. No. 4 has completed only 4-of-10 passes in the red area and is sporting a 1-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio, a far cry from what he produced a season ago.

We’ve seen flashes like the touchdown he threw to Courland Sutton in Week 5 against the New York Jets, where he was able to get out the pocket—with good protection—and lead his receiver perfectly, putting the ball where only his guy could get to it.

In other occasions, though, Keenum has looked rushed under duress and forced throws into double coverage.

The bigger issue has been his accuracy and ball placement, which just haven’t been there in tighter spaces. Case doesn’t seem to be reading coverages down in the red area, where defenses are more compact, missing linebackers underneath and forcing throws on top of that.

For the Broncos offense to be more efficient than the 27th scoring attack with a 20-points-per-game average, Keenum needs to get back to being decisive and threading the needle within the 20 like he was in Minnesota.

Struggles under pressure

In 2017, Keenum was at his best against pressure, which was supported by both the eye test and the stats as he led the NFL with a passer rating of 110.1 outside the pocket, making tons of nice throws while evading pressure.

Case just looked like a cool customer, always keeping his eyes downfield, resetting his feet and seeming at ease when maneuvering the pocket as it broke down.

Keenum was able to avoid sacks despite an average line and was only sacked 22 times on 481 attempts. This year, Keenum’s already been sacked 13 times.

In Denver, he’s just looked frazzled. He’s not making quick decisions and isn’t showing much arm strength when his feet aren’t under him, meaning that throws on the run or off his back leg are lacking zip and have been dreadfully inaccurate.

He’s still been able to avoid pressure from time to time but is seemingly looking to run more often than he did in 2017 and isn’t reading coverages as well, settling for short throws behind the sticks.

At this point, it’s starting to look like Keenum is a bit jumpy and possibly lacking confidence in his line, especially up the middle, where the guards and center haven’t given him a clean pocket to step into, allowing 4.5 sacks. Without a clean interior, the quarterback has struggled, and he certainly hasn’t shown any of the high-end skills in getting out the pocket and delivering darts.

Most of all—like we talked about in the post-Week 3 Film Room—the ball just hasn’t been coming out of his hands fast enough. Which is in part due to his receivers not getting open very quickly. Another issue is that the scheme isn’t providing many quick-hitting throws—which we’ll talk about in just a second.

Third down 

Unlike his issues under pressure and in the red zone, Keenum’s struggles on third down aren’t all on him, as the play calling hasn’t done him any favors in that regard. 

Keenum’s third-down percentages have declined drastically this year, as he’s gone from converting 48 percent of his third-down attempts for first downs to only 30 percent in Denver.

When breaking down those conversions, the biggest difference has been on third-and-medium where Keenum excelled in Minnesota converting 59 percent of his opportunities, as a Bronco he’s only completing 36.4 percent this year on 22 opportunities.

That’s a massive drop off in an area in which Keenum was among the NFL’s absolute best in 2017.

The other issue, and this is where the play calling comes into play, has been on third-and-short, where Keenum was absolutely terrific in Minnesota, converting 80 percent of his attempts. In Denver, he’s only had two opportunities to throw on third-and-short.

With a running game that’s the league’s best in yards per carry, the Broncos need to run to set up the pass but just haven’t so far. This is leading to more third-and-medium and third-and-long situations.

It would be nice to see the Broncos run on first and second down more often and then throw out of play action, or atypical formations in running downs—much like Pat Shurmur did with the Vikings, implementing spread looks on third-and-short— to pass the ball and keep opposing defenses off balance. Case can be trusted on third-and-short, he just needs to be given more opportunities.

We knew coming into the year that he wasn’t going to succeed regularly on third-and-long, it’s what killed the Vikings in the NFC Championship against the Philadelphia Eagles last year. Heck, we wrote a whole film room in the offseason about preventing this exact scenario

Not having a run-first approach and failing to put Keenum in situations where he can succeed is as much on Bill Musgrave as it is on the QB.

Scheme issues

Attempting to prevent third-and-long situations is obvious, everyone’s trying to avoid third-and-long, it really goes without saying. However, it has to be more of a point of emphasis in an offense led by Keenum than many others.

More tempo and shotgun looks could help Keenum, who did well in 2017 with such formations, and has continued to do so with the Broncos this season.

As mentioned above, not running the ball has also hurt the Broncos new QB, as Denver’s struggled to strike a balance on offense.

In 2017, the Vikings ran the ball 48 percent of the time, while the Broncos are only running 39 percent of the time. That’s all despite Denver’s running game averaging 5.6 yards per carry. The Vikings averaged only 3.9 but stayed committed to the run game because they understood the need for a balanced attack with Keenum behind center.

That lack of balance has made it harder for the Broncos to give Case play-action opportunities as they’ve only utilized him on play-action fakes 16 percent of the time—fifth lowest in the NFL—which is way down from the Vikings 28.7 percent last year. Given Denver’s run game, which is clearly better than what Minnesota had a year ago, that seems like a huge wasted opportunity for Keenum, who’s career QB rating on play action is 108.7, much higher than the 77.5 he’s generated on non-play-action passes.

Not to mention, increasing the play-action plays could keep defenses who load the box at bay.

As much as Keenum’s having a down year compared to 2017, it has felt like the play-calling hasn’t helped him in the past four weeks where the Broncos weren’t trailing for large portions of the game until Week 5.

Struggling with the basics

Beyond those three key areas, the Broncos QB hasn’t been accurate this season, and his decision making has left something to be desired, as well.

Accuracy wise, Keenum’s ball placement has been poor, especially on deep throws where he shined for Minnesota.

That’s especially been obvious as he’s thrown to Sutton, his big target who’s shown flashes of being a terrific deep ball and contested catch weapon.

No. 4’s shown a willingness to throw it up for grabs to the big rook but has been off with his placement, too often not even giving Sutton a chance to catch the ball in bounds.

The issues with ball placement have really shown up for Keenum on the seven picks he’s thrown this year, which in five weeks have matched his total from a year ago in 15 starts.

Those INTs have most often occurred because Keenum is throwing the ball behind his target and forcing passes.

We talked about this in the offseason, a key to Case’s career year in 2017 was his ability to tone down his gunslinger mentality and became more of an accurate game manager who took his shots when he needed to. In Denver, he’s regressed to that gun-slinging mentality, and it’s costing him.

Not only has Keenum already matched his interception total from a year ago, but he’s been lucky to not have more, as he could have thrown at least three more picks in Week 5 alone due to passes that weren’t on time and behind his target.

The timing of the offense has been a bit off due to the QB holding onto the ball too long, and not throwing his receivers open, rather waiting for them to come open. 

His arm strength to the sideline has also been exposed a bit, as out-routes beyond the numbers have given him trouble, and more defenses are challenging him to make throws outside. 

When your quarterback isn’t accurate on short routes, is too aggressive, and has lost his ball placement deep, no passing offense is going to succeed in the NFL, plain and simple. Even Keenum’s eye manipulation, which stood out in 2017, hasn’t really been there.

Beyond any of the play calling issues and decline in key situations, Keenum must play better, especially when it comes to reading coverages and being accurate. If he doesn’t do that, it might be time to move on sooner than anyone expected.

In conclusion

Keenum’s decline in all these different areas, combined with an offense that’s not playing to his strengths, has resulted in him having a QB rating of 78.1, 30th in the NFL, that won’t fly.

Of course, it’s still early, but that might be part of the problem as passing yards are up in the NFL this season and are bound to go down, as defenses who have limited practices in pads are slowly going to catch up to the offensive explosion we’ve seen in the league.

Denver’s new quarterback has still been better than what Trevor Siemian and the band of misfit QBs was for the Broncos in 2017, but this isn’t what the Broncos signed up for.

Keenum’s Dynamic Player Rating of 62.99 is better than Siemian’s 57.83 from last year, but it’s been significantly worse than the 76.94 that he produced in Minnesota, where he was better than Jared Goff, Russell Wilson, and Aaron Rodgers per the metric.

The comforting thing is that Keenum’s accuracy, timing, and decision making can improve with an increased comfort level in the offense, but the clutch QB we saw with the Vikings hasn’t been there, as it’s becoming legitimate to wonder if 2017 was a fluke season for Keenum in Shurmur’s offense.


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