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Broncos' offensive starts place playoffs in jeopardy

First quarter blues hurting Broncos
Keenum is better of late. Is it good enough?
Posted at 1:29 PM, Dec 13, 2018
and last updated 2018-12-13 16:32:28-05

ENGLEWOOD — No reason to change the font or the size. A bullhorn is not necessary. Everyone understands the stakes in the Broncos' game Saturday against Cleveland.

The Broncos need to win to keep their faint pulse in the playoff race. They need to win two of their next three games to avoid back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 1972. And if the players want coach Vance Joseph to return for a third season, they need to win as his status remains uncertain following last Sunday's paralyzing crumble against San Francisco.

"We weren't talking about the playoffs even when we won three straight. Nothing has changed. We know the reality of our situation," safety Su'a Cravens told Denver7 on Thursday. "We have a job to do. And that reality we want is not going to come true if we lose this weekend."

It starts with the start. The Broncos stink in first quarters over the past month. They have scored three points in their last four games. The drought began, ironically, when Joseph began stressing the need for smooth launches. Up to that point, the Broncos were one of the top five scoring teams in the league in the opening period. Nothing has gone right since. The Broncos offense had 56 yards passing yards through three quarters at Los Angeles. They netted 65 total yards at half last week, a headshaking collapse that has left Denver needing to win out and receive help to reach the postseason.

"We have to stay on the field. We have to sustain drives to help the defense," said running back Phillip Lindsay, looking to rebound against a Browns defense that ranks 28th against the run at 133.3 yards per game. "It's about putting drives together."

The Broncos began last week with six consecutive punts. They went 2-for-15 on third down. The value of a quick start is obvious on the scoreboard. But it is even more important for the Broncos. They lean as heavily on the pass rush as any team. They rank fourth in the NFL with 40 sacks. Von Miller and Bradley Chubb top the league with 25.5 for a duo.

"We are built to play with a lead," Joseph said.

The Browns start slowly, even though Baker Mayfield owns a 114.3 quarterback rating over the past five games. They rank 28th with 45 first quarter points. Having an early advantage also brings the crowd back into play. Those offsides penalties against Von Miller? They are less likely as visitors don't use hard counts as much on the road. Miller is going to keep taking chances. At this point, he needs to emphasis this to Case Keenum. Spooked by early picks, Keenum has become ultra conservative. Turnovers have nosedived, but it has left the defense with no margin for error.

It's not about starting fast. It's about starting, period. A touchdown in the first period would go a long way in revving up the crowd and enhancing the pass rush.