This is shaping up as a make or break game for the 2-4 Denver Broncos, who enter Thursday night’s contest at Arizona (1-5) mired in four-game losing streak. The season seems to be slipping away in a manner that is bringing back memories of last year, when the Broncos started 3-1 only to fall off a cliff and lose eight straight en route to a 5-11 finish. General manager John Elway this week heaped pressure on his beleaguered team and coaching staff by suggesting in a radio interview that he hoped to see the Broncos “take a mentality into that Thursday night game where we're fighting for our lives.''
Elway added, "At some point in time we have to play better football ... we're still making the mistakes we shouldn't make.” The coaches and players get where Elway is coming from because mistakes and poor play have characterized the Broncos, especially in the last two weeks and nothing suggests they can take lightly an Arizona team that has just one win in six games. Denver has been plagued by a multitude of problems, from a lack of discipline that brought on penalties that cost them points to an offense that seems to move the ball well until it gets close to scoring territory and starts sputtering. Defensively, the Broncos stop the pass one week but are a sieve when it comes to the run. The issues have fueled a team-wide frustration and linebacker Von Miller for one is intent on taking it out in a smash-mouth sort of way on the Cardinals. “I wouldn’t say it’s a must-win [game],” Miller said. “We’re going to kick their ass, though. Make sure you put that up there, we’re going to kick their ass. They’re going to get our best this week. Last week was tough, the week before that, whatever. This week, Thursday night, prime-time, they’re going to get the Broncos best.”
NOTES & QUOTES
--The Broncos offensive line is undergoing a midseason makeover due to injuries. Left guard Ron Leary suffered a season-ending Achilles’ tendon injury in last week’s loss 23-20 to the Los Angeles Rams. Right tackle Jared Veldheer has missed the last two games with a knee injury and his status is uncertain for the Arizona game. Max Garcia is expected to step in for Leary and Billy Turner has been filling in for Veldheer. Quarterback Case Keenum said he’s confident the revamped offensive line will get the job done. “I trust the offensive line, no matter who’s in there,” Keenum said. “I think we’ve got seven or eight guys, nine guys that can play whenever they need to. That’s the ‘Next Man Up” mentality. Those guys, that’s why they’re here. They’re ready to go. I think they’ll be ready to go Thursday night.”
--Cornerback Chris Harris Jr. is slated to start his 100th career game Thursday night.
--Outside linebacker Von Miller is one sack away from overtaking Tamba Hali (89.5) and Bryant Young (89.5) for 45th on the NFL;’s all-time sack list.
BY THE NUMBERS
--The Broncos rank 12th in total offense but when it comes to scoring, they are among the worst, ranking 26th (20.0 points) among the eague’s 32 teams. The lack of scoring efficiency stems from a poor touchdown percentage in the Red Zone, drive-killing penalties and a sometimes one-dimensional offense that leans on the passing game because of the frequency with which the Broncos are forced to play catch-up in games. “When you’re playing behind, you try to stick to your game-plan and keep running the ball here and there, but especially with the later it gets, you need to make explosive plays,” quarterback Case Keenum said. “That gives the defense, especially the defensive line, a chance to tee off and try to come sack the quarterback. It makes it tough on our offensive line because they’re sitting back there, the defensive line has they’re ears pinned back, trying to rush. It’s tough, but we put ourselves in that position early and we’ve got to make sure we don’t do it again this week.”
-- Cornerback Adam Jones has yet to practice this week because of a lingering thigh injury and with the quick turnaround it seems likely he could miss a second consecutive game. Cornerback Tramaine Brock returned from injury last week and is expected to play in the place of Jones in nickel packages.
--Linebacker Shane Ray siuffered an ankle injury in last week’s loss to the Rams and he has missed practice so far this week. His status for Thursday night’s game against Arizona is uncertain.
--Safety Dymonte Thomas missed practice this week because of a chest contusion suffered last Sunday against the Rams. His status remains questionable for Thursday night’s Arizona game.
--Tight end Matt LaCosse returned to practice in limited fashion Tuesday. His status for Thursday’s game remains uncertain.
This is the 11th regular season meeting between the Broncos and the Cardinals and the first since a 2014 encounter when Denver downed Arizona 41-20. The Broncos lead the series 8-1-1 and have gone 3-1-1 on the road against the Cardinals.
Linebacker Bradley Chubb, the Broncos top draft pick, is coming off a breakout performance last week. He had three of the team’s five sacks in last week’s 23-20 loss to the Los Angeles Rams, emerging as a forceful complement to Pro Bowl pass rusher Von Miller. Chubb, who had made little impact in previous games, said he’s getting accustomed to playing at the NFL. “I’m getting more comfortable, understanding my job and my role on this team,” Chubb said. “Whatever the coach asks me to do, I’m just trying to do right now.” Opposing teams have focused their pass protection on containing the dominating but with Chubb’s play on the rise other side, opposing clubs will also have to take him into account in their pass protection scheme.
The Broncos will be looking to execute a more balanced offensive attack against the Cardinals after a one-dimensional effort figured in their loss to the Rams last week. Denver threw the ball 41 times last week and ran it just 17 times, despite having a pair of productive rookie running backs in Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman. The tendency to put the ball resulted in a lopsided time of possession disadvantage for the Broncos, who can afford to repeat that problem against the Cardinals.
Denver has to clamp down against the run after allowing consecutive 200-yard rushers in losses to the Rams and Jets. The Broncos’ nickel package has been most susceptible to running plays that turn into big gainers and it remains an open question whether the Broncos have to adjust scheme or just get better at making the tackle. There’s at least a possibility that Denver will more frequently deploy its base defense and the coaching staff has been particularly intent this week on stressing the importance of “want” in defenders when making a tackle.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Arizona wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald continues to play at a high level and his reliability has helped spur the development of rookie quarterback Josh Rosen. Fitzgerald figures to be matched up at times against Denver cornerback Bradley Roby, who is trying to bounce back from a shaky performance two weeks against the Jets in which he was beaten for two long touchdown passes. Roby had a pass defensed and a tackle for a loss in last week’s 23-20 loss to the LA Rams but he’ll have his hands full against one of the NFL’s most polished and dynamic receivers in the accomplished Fitzgerald.
Arizona has more to worry about than pass rushing linebacker Von Miller in figuring their pass blocking schemes. Cardinals left tackle D.J. Humphries surely took note of the three-sack performance last week by rookie linebacker Bradley Chubb, who plays opposite of Miller. Chubb’s athleticism and quickness make him a tough pass blocking matchup and he seems to have gained confidence in recent weeks as he has become more accustomed to making the leap from college ball to the NFL.