Broncos Film Room: Why did Case Keenum hold onto the ball so long in Baltimore?

Andre Simone Avatar
September 28, 2018

Who came first, the chicken or the egg?

After the Denver Broncos tough loss to the Baltimore Ravens in Week 3, we had to go back to the tape, to settle the debate on who’s fault it was the passing game struggled in the Broncos’ first loss of the year.

Was it quarterback Case Keenum’s fault? Or was it the scheme and receivers? Maybe the culprit was the offensive line?

After watching the tape, we found that the answer to that question is complex, with shades of gray and instances where everyone was responsible for the passing game’s downfall. 

At the heart of the issue was consistency. As the Broncos’ passing offense simply wasn’t consistent in any one facet of the game. Whether it was blocking, receivers getting open, or Keenum’s accuracy, there was a clear lack of consistency that ultimately doomed the Broncos.

To break it all down, we’re going to go through the different factors that played into this and analyze some very telling plays that highlight some of the culprits.

It should be said that Keenum was not his best in several instances, though the scheme wasn’t either, as play-caller Bill Musgrave didn’t always put the offense in a position to succeed against a banged-up Ravens’ back-seven. 

Let’s begin. 

Keenum striking the proper balance 

After being overly aggressive in the first two games, Case Keenum was a bit too conservative in Baltimore. The QB was rushed and settled on his check downs too often, in an attempt to try and carve up Baltimore with the short passing game. However, the Ravens ‘D’ was up to the task, clogging the middle of the field, forcing the QB to show off his arm—in adverse weather conditions—with throws to the sideline.

A perfect example of how conservative Keenum was, is this 1st-and-10 play-action bootleg pass, which worked perfectly.

The QB had time in the pocket and had receiver Courtland Sutton open downfield for at least 15 yards.

Instead of hitting No. 14, Keenum didn’t even seem to look over the deep middle and settled for a short dump off to the flats for a four-yard gain.

This could’ve been a potential big gain that would’ve exploited the Ravens defense up the middle, which was generally good. Missing on that type of throw is emblematic of some of the things the QB didn’t see in the game.

This is also an example of how the tape shows that No. 4 didn’t see the whole field in the road battle. He looked like he was making half-field reads.

Here’s a perfect example, as Keenum didn’t look to his left at all where he had three receivers. As you can see above, Demaryius Thomas was wide open to the sideline due to a coverage breakdown.

Instead of hitting that open receiver, the QB was focused on the right side that was covered up. Despite good protection in the pocket, Keenum stepped up and tried to make a play with his legs, going nowhere.

Though this game was far from the QBs fault alone, there were plays like this that were head-scratchers from the veteran. Watching Keenum ignore the sideline makes you wonder if has the arm to push passes to the far hashes?

In general, he wasn’t as quick on the trigger as you’d like to see. He just didn’t seem to be on the same page with his receivers, as the ball came out a second too late. He wasn’t throwing guys open he was waiting for them to get open.

As the game went on, No. 4 held onto the ball too long, and his footwork started to go out the window with some flat-footed throws. You could tell the pressure impacted him and he had happy feet by the end of it.

Keenum’s accuracy and arm strength waned a bit, too. He had a few too many low passes as his spirals dipped or died off on throws to the sideline.

It’s legitimate to wonder if the QB was feeling the effects of his knee injury, which forced him to miss practice earlier in the week.

Pass protection

All in all, Keenum did do pretty well in avoiding pressure and extending plays—especially considering his knee wasn’t 100 percent—as he spun out of potential sacks and threw on the run with defenders in his face.

Here’s a great example, on 3rd-and-6 as pressure came with an unblocked defender off the edge.

The pressure threw the QB off his spot, right as his third foot hit on a three-step drop. Despite that, Keenum was still able to make the completion by running away from rusher to make a five-yard completion just short of the sticks. 

https://streamable.com/sodlt

Keenum had no time with some of the pressure the Ravens produced early on. Terell Suggs’ strip sack on left tackle Garett Bolles’ was just awful, as the tackle did a poor job blocking on a slow-developing play where no one got open for the QB.

There were other plays where rushers were allowed to run wild and unblocked off the edge, and designed hot routes weren’t getting open. 

Here’s a great example below. The tight end slipped on a route to the flats, everyone else was covered, and Keenum, with pressure in his face, had to take a check down and essentially throw the ball away. 

https://streamable.com/yxwuy

For a game manager to succeed, he needs to be given time and routes to manage the game and pick his spots. In several instances on Sunday, Keenum didn’t have that luxury.

The offensive game plan

Going into the game, the perfect strategy to attack the Ravens depleted defense seemed to be spread looks and up-tempo offense, attacking their cornerback depth without Jimmy Smith, while also opening up the middle of the field where C.J. Mosley’s absence was sure to be felt.

When Denver did attack this way, with five-wide looks, they worked early on.

https://streamable.com/oezd1

But, once again, in these spread formations, Keenum was only making half-field reads and missed some open targets with good protection.

Spread looks worked nicely in this game as receivers regularly got open and the Ravens seemed to struggle when being spread out to the sidelines. A few bad passes, a pass deflection at the line, and a drop or two limited the impact of such formations, though it felt like Musgrave gave up on this too early.

https://streamable.com/otx1a

Here’s another great example of how a five-wide formation worked. The receivers got open with ease, and Keenum was able to get the ball out quickly, going downfield to hit Thomas on a back shoulder pass to the sideline for 12 yards. 

When he had a chance to attack the sideline out of spread looks, No. 4 did a pretty nice job, but the opportunities to do so were limited.

The offense struggled in other personnel sets, as three wide looks didn’t produce many positive results with the WRs struggling to get open along with tight ends. The play-action game seemed to work, but Keenum played things a bit too conservative, and at least one Bolles holding flag killed the biggest play. 

The Broncos struggled to constantly separate on short routes that the quarterback could go to quickly. The Ravens did a great job of shutting down crossers over the middle.

For the first time this year, having a bigger receiving core and few true slot weapons hurt Denver, as the big guys like Courtland Sutton struggled to get open when lined up in the slot. 

At the same time, not enough vertical routes were called. When Case had vertical routes with one-on-one coverage outside, he got big gains to both Thomas and Sutton. 

The receiving targets

The receivers didn’t play great or always get open in this one. A perfect example of this is down in the red zone on Keenum’s costly interception. 

https://streamable.com/nz1em

As you can see, no one got open for Keenum, who threw to the only horizontal route he had off his back foot, leading to the turnover on a poor pass that was behind his target. 

The route concepts, again, weren’t great and receivers weren’t creating separation off the line. There were also some bad drops, none more costly than Sutton’s at the end of the first half, which allowed the Ravens to get the ball back and kick a field goal. 

Thomas had an underrated game that could’ve been better had Keenum hit him on a few more plays, but overall the receiving core was not good. It wasn’t just the receivers either, the tight ends struggled to get open, and without Phil Lindsay, the backs were non-factors in the passing game. 

In conclusion

Keenum certainly didn’t play well, but he was far from the only culprit in the Broncos’ passing-game struggles.

When the Broncos acquired him, they knew very well that he wasn’t the type of signal caller that could carry an offense, which is why the offensive game plan was underwhelming, as the scheme didn’t take advantage of the Ravens lacking cornerback depth. With Keenum playing things conservatively and not throwing up 50-50 balls to his big targets, the offense struggled.

This was also the offensive line’s worst performance of the season and generally a poor effort by everyone involved.

After watching the tape, Keenum’s injury is a bit concerning, as his arm strength seemed to be lacking in Week 3. A great leader on and off the field, there’s no disputing that No. 4 has been an upgrade for Denver, but the first loss of 2018 is indicative of what he does and doesn’t need in an offensive game plan and the support that he requires from his teammates.

With the Kansas City Chiefs coming up, the Broncos will have to fix the issues on offense quickly to try and match the most potent attack in the league right now. If they don’t, we’ll be back here trying to figure out what happened.

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