Broncos quarterback Case Keenum had a breakout year in 2017, finishing with 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions. However, Keenum has fallen off in 2018 thus far with eight touchdowns and nine interceptions after just seven games. Why has Case struggled this year and with only nine games to go, can the journeyman still turn it around?
Can Case Keenum Turn It Around?
2017 Versus 2018: What’s Changed?
First and foremost, Keenum has swapped teams. In leaving Minnesota for Denver, many would assume that Keenum’s surrounding cast is not as good, possibly explaining his fall from grace. That being said, a deeper look shows that while Denver is weaker than Minnesota was in many places, Denver is also stronger in other critical areas.
Quarterbacks need a good running game because it allows the team to set up play-action and also keep defenses from dropping extra players into coverage every play.
The 2017 Vikings enjoyed a rushing attack that was ranked seventh-best in the NFL. Comparatively, Denver is currently ranked fifth in rushing after seven games. Therefore, Keenum should be benefiting from his running backs even more than last year.
According to Pro Football Focus, the 2017 Vikings’ biggest weakness was their 22nd-ranked offensive line. The change to Denver’s fourth-ranked line should feel like a night-and-day difference for Keenum. Granted, that ranking will surely fall since the injury to guard Ronald Leary but Keenum was not able to take advantage when Leary was healthy earlier in the season.
It is also worth looking at the fact that Keenum enjoyed Adam Thielen (first-ranked wide receiver according to PFF) and Stefon Diggs (25th) last year. Compared to those two, Demaryius Thomas (29th) and Emmanuel Sanders (11th) seem to be a slight downgrade in comparison. A big factor might be that Thomas seems to have begun to regress at almost 31 years old.
When a defense gives up more points, it forces the quarterback to fling the ball around more. Defenses become aware of this and start to expect passing plays more often, thus making it harder to complete pass attempts. Denver’s 13th-ranked scoring defense has been a big drop off from the number one scoring defense Keenum enjoyed in Minnesota.
As a whole, Denver has been an upgrade when it comes to the offensive line and the rushing attack but it has been a downgrade in defense and receiving options. The tools may be different but a supposed “franchise” quarterback like Keenum should be able to produce with what he’s been given.
What About The Coaches?
With the change from offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur’s offense to Bill Musgrave’s comes a change in playcalling philosophy. The Vikings had the best defense in the league last year, so Shurmur’s goal was simply to not mess it up. If they could hold onto the football and force opposing teams to drive the entire length of the field then they had a very good chance of winning. Conversely, Denver seems to lean on the passing game much more than their running game, even when they are winning late in a game. The most fundamental change for Keenum has been that 2017 Vikings tried to win with their defense and the Broncos now are trying to win with their offense. Even so, the Vikings’ were leaning on something that the Broncos have interestingly neglected: play-action.
Keenum is uninspiring in his abilities as a whole with the exception of one: play-action. In 2017, Keenum finished his season with a 111.8 passer rating on play-action only, averaging a 92.8 rating without. In his career, Keenum has averaged a 109.4 passer rating when using play-action opposed to 77.6 without.
The Vikings played this to their advantage, running play-action on 28.7 percent of plays in 2017. Meanwhile, the Broncos have only used it 16 percent of the time.
Keenum’s 2017 explosion occurred in the same season that the Vikings called the greatest percentage of play-action passes in his career. Conversely, the Broncos are calling play-action passes at the lowest rate in his career during arguably his worst season to date. It seems that the key to improving Keenum’s play is to increase the number of play-action passes he runs.
A Roadmap To Success
Most teams don’t have a magic switch that can fix everything and turn the team from a bottom feeder to a contender. The Broncos, however, could have one with Case Keenum. But, it will be up to the coaching staff to call the right plays that give Keenum the best chance for success.
If the answer is to use play-action more, how exactly should it be done? Simply, the Broncos need to run the ball at a higher rate and call more play-action passes. With a fifth-ranked rushing game, defenses are preparing more for runs, so fakes should be more effective.
Currently, the Broncos run 44.67 percent of the time, 16th most in the league. With a rushing game that ranks 5th overall, the Broncos should be one of the most run-heavy teams. A simple five-percent increase put the Broncos in the top five in run-percentage and would, therefore, make play-action even more useful.
Conversely, the Broncos pass 55.33 percent of the time and only call play-action passes 16 percent of the time. Therefore, the Broncos are currently using vanilla pass plays 39 percent of the time. Almost half of those plays should be replaced with play-action to give Keenum the best opportunity for success.
In the heat of battle it might be hard to remember these percentages but if Musgrave were to focus on simply calling play-action passes for about half of passing plays, it would be easy to manage. When it comes to choosing to run the football, he should focus on always running the ball on every first or second down and the majority of short-yardage situations.
In the end, the offense needs to average 30 percent play-action, 20 percent vanilla passing plays, and 50 percent runs. With a recipe like this, defenses won’t know what to expect and when combined with a fifth-ranked rushing attack and Keenum’s proficiency with play-action should exponentially improve results. That being said, this game plan would need to be put in place as soon as possible if Keenum and the Broncos are to turn this around in time to save the season.
Is There Time?
If this change in the offense were to be implemented this week, Keenum’s season still can realistically be saved. This new game plan could return Keenum’s numbers to his level of production of 2017. Meaning that if the change were to happen now, Keenum would only need to average two touchdowns and one interception in each of the remaining 9 games in order to post a decent stat line: 26 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. While it wouldn’t be the best stat line, it would be enough to keep him in Denver for another year.
If Keenum’s job is to remain secure going into next year, play-action must become a larger part of the offense. Unfortunately for number four, it will be up to Bill Musgrave and head coach Vance Joseph to save him. At age 30, Keenum’s current abilities are unlikely to substantially improve during the second half of his career.