ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Case Keenum arrived in Denver with defined expectations: return the Broncos to the playoffs for the first time since Super Bowl 50.
He stabilized the position, providing leadership, accountability, relentless work ethic, and a dry wit. One thing is missing: consistency. Keenum has excelled in the fourth quarter in three games, but it was needed, in part, because of his uneven play through the first 45 minutes.
The numbers are telling, and hint of the improvement needed moving forward. Coach Vance Joseph insists he is not concerned -- and the small sample size provides a strong defense for this -- but the reality is sobering. If Keenum doesn't start starring, the Broncos' chances of reaching the postseason will nosedive.
"Overall, I’m still a long way from where I want to be," said Keenum to my question of how he would evaluate his season. "This offense has a chance to be really, really good."
Where adjectives fail, numbers succeed in explaining the first crossroads of Keenum's stay in Denver. In the fourth quarter, Keenum has completed 20 of 27 passes for 265 yards, one interception and one touchdown. He shows efficiency and benefits from uptempo.
The first three quarters suggest he's still learning to eliminate and isolate receivers with his new team and new offense. He has connected on 46 of 81 passes for 478 yards, two touchdowns and four interceptions. That represents a problem for a team attempting to rebound. The 57-percent completion percentage during the first 45 minutes pales to his 67.6 percent in games last season.
Of course, there are reasons. By coordinator Bill Musgrave's admission, Keenum continues learning the offense, figuring out not only when to let it loose, but when to eat the ball. Against Baltimore, Keenum, for the first time, began to anticipate pressure when I watched the game live and on replay. This creates issues for quarterbacks because their feet can become off-balance, their eyes can go down, making it difficult to throw accurately as they move through progressions.
The pressure on Keenum was real as Terrell Suggs harassed him. On the sack that led to a fumble and Phillip Lindsay's ejection, Keenum appeared dazed, down on the ground for several seconds as the melee played out. He said today he was looking around to see what happened, jarred by the hit. He never missed a snap, but was unable to guide a comeback, picked off as the Broncos attempted to rally.
This represents a greater concern this week because of the Chiefs. The Broncos offense likely needs to score 30 points to have a chance to upend the AFC West kings. Patrick Mahomes has posted the finest three-game start to a season, firing 13 touchdowns with no interceptions. Of course, part of Denver's plan will include playing keep away, gorging the clock to limit Kansas City's possessions. Regardless, the Broncos need a more efficient passing game.
The Chiefs present an ideal place to start. Kansas City ranks 32nd in net yards allowed and 31st in pass defense. Completions exist across the field, with multiple favorable matchups for receivers Emmanuel Sanders, Demaryius Thomas and Courtland Sutton.
"When Von is over on the sideline pumping the crowd up and I’m out there trying to keep him quiet while we’re moving down the field," Keenum said. "That's our best offense. Keeping the Chiefs off the field."
Can Keenum bounce back?
Keenum ranks tied for last in the NFL with five interceptions. Prior to the season, I advanced the importance of a three-to-one TD to pick ratio or fewer than 10 picks to push the Broncos back to the playoffs. Keenum showed the ability to pull that off last season. So the Broncos have seen it from afar. It's time for it show up this week at Mile High Stadium.
How No. 4 plays will go a long way in determining if the Broncos snap their five-game losing streak to Kansas City.
Tight end Jake Butt was not at practice on Thursday because of a left knee injury sustained in a non-contact drill Wednesday. He is expected to undergo an MRI. Of course it's a concern for a player who has dealt wth multiple knee injuries, including two ACL surgeries on his right knee . ... Cornerback Tramaine Brock, who is dealing with a groin injury, worked out on the side with trainer Tramaine Brock. ... Linebacker Brandon Marshall (knee) was practicing during the limited media viewing period. ... Chris Harris Jr. backs down for no one. He delivered the quote of the day about facing #KCChiefs high-powered offense. "If you’re scared, go to church. You got to be ready to challenge everybody.” Damn straight. Only way to stand a chance as an underdog. ... More from Harris: “This is a championship game. If you’re not studying and preparing for a championship game, you don’t know what AFC West football is. … Trying to have everyone’s mindset that this is a championship.”