CLEVELAND — Playing on Thursday remains a difficult ask.
Of all the bad options for the slumping Broncos, this is the best one. The Broncos, losers of three straight, a gut punch that has wobbled their legs, face a struggling Cleveland team that will have more good players in the trainer's room than on the field tonight.
The Browns boast 19 players on their injury report and will be without starting quarterback Baker Mayfield (torn left labrum), running backs Nick Chubb (calf) and Kareem Hunt (calf) and possibly receiver Odell Beckham Jr. (shoulder). Jarvis Landry is trending towards playing, but there's no denying that Cleveland is compromised, especially considering it's top two offensive tackles are hurting.
Case Keenum receives the start for the Browns, his first in Cleveland. If Denver's season turns sour because of a loss to Keenum, its former quarterback, no one can blame Broncos Country for curling up in the fetal position and letting out a collective moan. In 2018, his one season with the Broncos after his celebrated free agent signing, Keenum went 6-10, failed to connect with the locker room and played more like a backup than the player who guided the Viking to the playoffs with an 11-3 record. Outside of that season, Keenum is 16-32 with 53 touchdowns and 40 interceptions.
So it's Case vs. Teddy Bridgewater, the former Minnesota teammates. Bridgewater is expected to play despite a painful foot bruise and quad injury. How can the Broncos avoid tying the longest losing skid in coach Vic Fangio's three-year tenure, a loss that would turn up the temperature on his office seat?
My Denver7 keys to Broncos pulling off the upset:
Stop the Run-around
Don't give fans the run-around. Don't be too cute Broncos. The one thing Denver has done well in all six games this season is run the ball, averaging 127 yards in wins and 108 yards in losses. Cleveland is strong against the run, ranking seventh (87.0). That means Denver needs to set up the ground attack with first down quick passes. Show variance. And don't forget about Melvin Gordon. We all love Javonte Williams' wow burst each week, but Gordon has been increasingly effective. He is averaging 5.0 yards per attempt over the past three games.
Walk The Line
Most offensive lines run by the motto: Play nasty, play physical. This is the week to challenge the Broncos line to dramatically improve. Along with the secondary, no part of the team has been more disappointing. All-Pro Garett Bolles has regressed, allowing 4.5 sacks after allowing one last season. He's not alone. Graham Glasgow has failed to gain traction, and Dalton Risner has been inconsistent. Coach Mike Munchak is among the league's best. Broncos need to him to push the right buttons, inspiring this group to win at the line of scrimmage.
Keep Teddy Upright
If the Broncos find their way on the ground, it will help pass protection. And there's no way around the fact that has been a problem with Myles Garrett (eight sacks) on tap tonight. The Broncos have allowed 19 sacks, ranking 30th overall. Not all of that is on the line, roughly 13-14 sacks are based on my untrained eye. Bridgewater has held onto the ball too long, something he acknowledges. Even when Bridgewater has not been sacked, he's been under pressure, second most by many metrics. The key is quick strikes on slants, using the backs on dump downs and leaning on play action after establishing the run game.
Von on Fire
Von Miller tried talking up the Ravens, Steelers and Raiders games as contests the Broncos needed to approach with added importance, if not win. Denver fell flat on its face with a thud. Von changed tactics, placing the onus on the man in the mirror. I asked him about embracing the challenge this week with the season teetering, and he stopped shy of guaranteeing a victory.
"The pressure is on me to play well, and I will play well. I don’t know who I am going against, but I am going to kill him. I am going to play well. And I am going to set us up to win this game for sure," Miller said.
Jedrick Wills Jr., a promising former Alabama star, is expected to return at left tackle, making it possible his replacement Blake Hance moves to right tackle in favor of James Hudson who struggled as starter Jack Conklin's replacement last week. If Von leaves Hance with no chance, especially if the Broncos force Keenum to beat them, the Broncos' chances of winning will increase dramatically.
No Second Thoughts
The secondary has been alarmingly inconsistent, gashed seven times last week by passing plays of at least 20 yards. If that happens against Keenum, it's time for wholesale changes in either personnel or the playcaller. There are no excuses. The Broncos are facing a backup on a short week and no Browns receiver has more than 15 receptions. Jarvis Landry is likely to play, and he is solid. If you are the Broncos, you can't let him beat you with Odell Beckham Jr. either sidelined or limited. My plan: roll help to tight end David Njoku and seek big plays even as Keenum looks to play conversatively. Trust your eyes. Improve communication. And no hiccups early after allowing touchdown passes on three first drives to Jacksonville, Pittsburgh and Las Vegas.
Be Creative, Aggressive
Fangio often says the right calls were made defensively, but not executed. Perhaps, it's time to make it more simple. There has been a disconnect, leaving the Broncos passive in cornerback play and not making an impact at safety with any regularity. So be more physical, be more creative, and look for ways to manufacture turnovers to help the sluggish offense, even if that's on a safety blitz in the run game.
Stay In The Fight
The Broncos have trailed by an aggregate of 51-17 at halftime of the past three games, all losses. This game figures to be ugly, dirty, and possibly impacted by rain. The Broncos need to stay in the fight, and give themselves a chance to win with Brandon McManus, who is perfect this season. That is the formula. I am not convinced the Broncos can pull if off after their uninspired play the last three weeks. Broncos Country is pulling for them to prove me wrong. The time is now to save the season.
Troy Prediction: Browns 22, Broncos 19