The Denver Broncos’ struggles in the Red Zone are dragging down the offense and the team this season.
Losers of three straight and facing a Sunday matchup against the unbeaten Los Angeles Rams (5-0), the Broncos (2-3) have the lowest scoring percentage (66.7) in the AFC on possessions inside the 20 and come away with touchdowns less than half the time (46.7 percent).
Broncos coach Vance Joseph attributes the lack of efficiency in the Red Zone to the team’s failure to consistently convert third downs. In last week’s 34-16 loss at the New York Jets, Denver converted just 4 of 14 third downs (29 percent) and failed to convert its only fourth-down try. The Broncos also were forced to settle for a Brandon McManus field goal when a first-and-goal at the Jets’ 7-yard line turned into a fourth down from the 12 yard line following three incompletions by Case Keenum around a penalty for an illegal shift by rookie wide receiver Courtland Sutton.
Overall, the Broncos have converted only 35.8 percent of their third downs, which ranks 26th in the 32-team league.
“Every drive in the red zone (last) week or even in the scoring zone have been third-and-longs, so we settle for field goals or we get pushed back with penalties and had to punt,” Broncos coach Vance Joseph said. “It’s more about converting third downs and keeping third downs more manageable.”
Keenum said the onus is on him as the quarterback to improve the scoring efficiency of the offense when it gets within striking distance.
“The Red Zone is tough,” Keenum said. “As detailed and as a game of inches as it is out on the field, everything gets condensed down there. Decisions get magnified, so that’s something we’ve looked at. We’ve gone through all of the Red Zone clips and asked, ‘OK, what can we do better here? What kind of decisions do we need to make that are better here? How do we prevent negative plays, going backwards, penalties, holds, whatever it is?’ Because those kill you, those kill drives. We move the ball, then get down there and go backwards. Those are all things that we need to fix, and we’re going to get better at. You need to come away with seven points down there, most of the time. When you don’t, if you have three points in your pocket, then you need to take it.”
The Broncos have to resolve their scoring issues in a hurry if they hope to keep up with or exceed the scoring punch of the Rams, who have scored more than 30 points in each of their first five games.
Keenum said to a large degree, the responsibility for picking up the play of the offense rests on his shoulders.
“We’ve had a good share of explosive plays, run and pass,” he said. “But for us, it’s just execution. I’m getting tired of saying that we’re close because we’ve got to get better. It starts with me. I’ve got to get the ball in the right place. I’ve got to get the ball out. I've got to get the ball out accurately to the right place and let those guys _ we’ve got so many weapons _ I’ve got to let those guys hunt and go do what they do.”
This is the 14th meeting and the first between the Rams and Broncos since the team left St. Louis and returned to Los Angeles for the 2016 season. The Broncos trail in the series 5-8 and have lost the past three encounters, most recently a 22-7 setback at St. Louis in 2014.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Note and quotes
--Broncos quarterback Case Keenum spent two seasons with the Rams, passing for more than 3,000 yards over the course of the 2015-16 seasons in St. Louis and Los Angeles before giving way to the team’s current starter, Jared Goff.
--Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has a long and decorated history with the Broncos as well. He was Denver’s head coach from 1993-94, and also had two stints as the Broncos’ defensive coordinator in 1989-92 and 2015-16.
--Denver WR Demaryius Thomas enters the game 74 yards shy of 9,000 for his career.
--Denver’s offensive struggles have centered around the passing game. The Broncos’ rushing attack, featuring rookie running backs Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman, ranks third in the league, averaging 137 yards per game. The team’s per-carry average of 5.6 yards is tops in the league.
--Rookie linebacker Bradey Chubb, the fifth overall draft pick, has 1 1-2 sacks in his first five games and is tied with Indianapolis’ Kemoko Turay for the lead among rookies in quarterback hurries with 12.
--Trying to sort out defensive problems that were exposed in the loss to the Jets last week, the defensive unit held a players only meeting Monday in hopes of rebuilding confidence as the squad gears up to face the high-powered Rams. Cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said the players were there to encourage each other. “We’ve had plenty of success in this league for a long number of years and we’ve just got to bring it all together,” Harris said. “We don’t want to live in the past with this last game and we want to get back to playing our type of defense.”
BY THE NUMBERS
During Denver’s three-game losing streak, its defense has regressed allowing 342 yards in a loss at Baltimore, 446 yards in a loss to the Chiefs, and 512 yards in last week’s loss at the New York Jets. Particularly glaring in the loss at New York was the rushing total of 323 yards, including a Jets franchise record of 219 yards by Isaiah Crowell. The Broncos can’t afford another lackluster performance with the Rams’ Todd Gurley coming to town. He ranks second in the league with 645 yards from scrimmage in the previous five games this season.
Cornerback Bradley Roby will be trying to bounce back from a nightmarish week. He was beaten for a pair of long touchdown passes by Jets wide receiver Robby Anderson last week and missed a tackle during a 77-yard scoring run by Isaiah Crowell. Then, on Monday, he missed part of a Broncos team meeting and was disciplined for the episode. “It was more about communication than a total miss, but it’s been fixed and handled internally,” said Broncos coach Vance Joseph, who indicated Roby remains the starter. Fellow cornerback Chris Harris gave Roby encouragement even as he reminded him that he’ll be tested. “Cornerback, it’s one-on-one a lot of the times,” Harris said. “You can kind of control a lot of things on your own out there, Shoot, you’ve got to look at yourself in the mirror and know, ‘How bad do you want it?’ And if ‘Robe wants it bad enough, he’ll bounce back.’”
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Inside linebackers Todd Davis ad Brandon Marshall vs Rams running back Todd Gurley: The Broncos defense has been gashed repeatedly on the ground, and it was especially evident in last week’s loss to the Jets. New York runners averaged 8.5 yards every time they touched the ball, and they carried it 38 times en route to 323 yards rushing on the day. If the Broncos’ defensive front loses in the trenches, allowing blockers to get to Davis and Marshall and prevent them from stuffing the run, Gurley could have another field day.
T’s Garett Bolles and Billy Turner vs. DTs Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh: Donald and Suh have combined for six of the Rams’ 10 sacks, and they have teamed to exert tremendous pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Bolles and Turner are going to have to hold up on the edges in pass protection if Case Keenum, who has struggled with his accuracy while trying to fend off pressure , is to get Denver’s passing game off the ground.
Rams quarterback Jared Goff has thrown for better than 300 yards in each of the past four games but two of his primary targets, wide receivers Cooper Kupp and Brandin Cooks, are in concussion protocol this week and their playing status for Sunday’s game is iffy. Edge rushers Von Miller, Bradley Chubb and Shane Ray need to exert pressure on Goff, hurry his decision-making process to try to force mistakes, especially if his receiving options take on a different look because of injuries.
The Broncos have had a surprisingly productive running game all season with the rookie tandem of Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman forming a potent backfield tandem. But they haven’t been able to deploy the running game consistently because they have been playing from behind in the last three weeks, forcing them to lean on the pass. That hasn’t produced desirable results because Case Keenum has found himself under constant pressure. If the Broncos can sustain a semblance of a running game throughout the game, their passing attack under Keenum should open up, allowing downfield opportunities for Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders.