ENGLEWOOD, Colo. —For weeks, the Broncos have stressed protecting the football on offense and generating takeaways on the defensive side.
But it's time for Case Keenum to take some chances, Head Coach Vance Joseph said Monday.
As the season enters its final three weeks, Joseph doesn't want his quarterback to be overly concerned with the potential of throwing an interception.
Instead, Joseph wants Keenum to take the chances that can result in big plays and lead to wins the Broncos desperately need.
"I thought Case has played his best football the last month," Joseph said. "Yesterday he was a little cautious with the ball. And the bottom line [is] we've got three weeks to play, he's got to make more plays. Sometimes, taking some chances allows you to make more plays. There's going to be turnovers, so you can't worry about that. You can't play this game perfect.
"I want Case to be more aggressive, especially down the seams of those Cover 3 defenses. That's where the soft spots are. He's got to be aggressive down the seams and not worry about making mistakes."
To Keenum's credit, he has avoided making mistakes since Week 9. After throwing at least one interception in each of his first eight games, Keenum hasn't thrown a pick over the last five games.
Against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, Keenum paired that ball security with yards per attempt averages of 7.04 yards and 7.19 yards, respectively.
The metric, which can provide an idea of how often a quarterback looks downfield vs. how frequently he checks the ball down, didn't look nearly as good during the Broncos' 20-14 loss to San Francisco.
Keenum's longest completion was 21 yards — just 5 yards longer than his longest run of the afternoon — and posted his lowest yards per attempt output of the season.
He finished the game 24-of-42 for just 186 yards.
In Joseph's eyes, avoiding turnovers plays a major role in Keenum's hesitance to make the same deep throws to Courtland Sutton on which the offense has relied throughout the season.
"I think it's a combination of Case wants to be safe with the ball and obviously seeing different looks," Joseph said. "In my opinion, obviously being safe with the ball sometimes, it allows you to have great numbers in that category, but as far as making plays down the field, you can't be safe doing that. He's got to take more chances down the middle of the field. He would tell you that."
LIFE WITHOUT HARRIS
The Broncos played their first full game without Chris Harris Jr. (lower leg) on Sunday, and his absence was noticeable.
Denver surrendered 210 yards in the first half to 49ers tight end George Kittle, who broke free for an 85-yard touchdown in the second quarter.
Part of the Broncos' struggles stemmed from not having Harris on the field, Joseph said, but there were other trickle-down effects.
Safety Justin Simmons was just one player to see his responsibilities change, as he slid down from his normal high safety spot to play nickel cornerback.
"Well obviously losing a guy like Chris, a Pro Bowl type of corner, it's going to hurt you," Joseph said. "I think it hurt us more moving Justin into nickel and having more moving pieces in the back end. But absolutely, no excuses. [The injury] happened against Cincinnati and we played through it. … When you lose some of your best players, it does affect you. It created moving pieces, simple as that. But we have no excuses for yesterday."
Harris is progressing toward a return, but Joseph emphasized Monday it would take more time before he could play again.
"He's progressing," Joseph said. "It's a broken leg. It's a healing process. It's more about that than it is his rehab. It just takes time for the leg to heal. He had a scan this morning and it's healing, but there's still a small break in his leg. The soreness is going away, but it just takes time for the bone to heal."
Joseph reiterated the Broncos' must win its remaining three games — but Denver also needs some help to make the playoffs.
Per ESPN, the Broncos need the following:
· Two losses by Miami (remaining schedule: at Minnesota, vs. Jacksonville, at Buffalo)
· One loss by Tennessee (at New York Giants, vs. Washington, vs. Indianapolis)
· One loss by Indianapolis (vs. Dallas, vs. New York Giants, at Tennessee)
· Two losses by Pittsburgh (vs. New England, at New Orleans, vs. Cincinnati) OR Baltimore (vs. Tampa Bay, at Los Angeles Chargers, vs. Cleveland)
"It's going to be crazy," said Joseph of the season's final three weeks. "I'm really focused on our next few weeks, but it's going to come down to the wire. There's no doubt. I think, obviously, yesterday was disappointing to play that way. That's a good football team, obviously, they're playing hard, but for us to play that way in the first half is disappointing. It's going to be a fun three weeks. We have to obviously play our best ball the next three weeks to have a chance to get in, but it's possible. That makes it exciting for me and for the football team."
ON THE SNAP
Von Miller recorded a sack Sunday, but he also tallied three neutral-zone infractions.
All three came on first-half scoring drives for the 49ers, including two on San Francisco's last-minute touchdown drive that put the Broncos in a 20-0 hole.
On that final drive, which started at the San Francisco 28-yard line with one minute and seven seconds to play, the Broncos were whistled for five penalties.
Asked Monday whether there's a balance between Miller timing his jump and waiting for the snap, Joseph didn't waver.
"You can't do it," Joseph said. "Watch the ball and get off on the ball. Von's a gifted pass rusher, so he doesn't have to cheat the count to go. That drive before half killed us. We had three offsides and two other … penalties, so we had five penalties in one drive, which gave them the second touchdown of the half, which was a killer for us. We can't do it. He's a gifted guy, so he can go on the snap and still win his one on ones."
Rookie cornerback Isaac Yiadom was the Broncos' lone injury from Sunday's game, and he will be listed as day to day with a right-shoulder separation as Denver prepares for Cleveland.
"Obviously, being a short week, it's going to be tough," Joseph said. "He went back into the game and played with a harness, so he's a tough kid. But we'll see how the week goes."
Joseph said he hopes cornerback Tramaine Brock will be available after missing the last two weeks with a rib injury. Brock has not practiced since suffering the injury against Pittsburgh.
"I'm hopeful he's going Saturday," Joseph said. "Obviously it's been two weeks with this injury. The pain's going away some, so he'll practice tomorrow. So we'll see where he's at. But I'm hopeful he plays Saturday, especially with Isaac's injury. We need him to play."
Linebacker Brandon Marshall (knee) could also make a return.
"He's trying," Joseph said. "He's tried for two weeks. He tried to practice Friday, looked better. So hopefully it looks better this week and he can go for us, but he wants to go. He's dying to go for us."