Numbers matter. Yes, the game is played out on the field — not on paper — but a quick look at the statistical profile of a team can show tendencies, strengths and weaknesses that shine some light on what can be expected when the teams take the field. This series is an examination of how the Broncos can gain an advantage against their opponent from a statistical perspective.
Here are the numbers that matter in this Week 7 "Thursday Night Football" matchup against the Cardinals.
14 for 64
The Cardinals are 14 for 64 (22 percent) on third down this season, which ranks last in the league. They are coming off a 0-for-10 performance in a 27-17 loss to the Vikings. At their current rate, the Cardinals are on pace to have the worst third-down conversion percentage since at least 1990.
Against Minnesota, Arizona rookie quarterback Josh Rosen went 1 for 7 with an interception on third down, and his lone completion went for negative-2 yards. Rosen also took two sacks on third down. If the Broncos can force the Arizona offense into long down-and-distance situations, they can unleash a pass rush that came to life with five sacks against the Rams.
This is an area where the Broncos must take advantage. The Broncos' defense has struggled at times in this facet, allowing opponents to convert 41 percent of their third downs. But going against a unit that has had their own issues in this area, the Broncos could be on track to significantly improve that number and rack up some sacks and turnovers along the way.
The Broncos still lead the NFL at 5.3 yards per carry, even after a disappointing showing on the ground against the Rams. The key will be sustaining that success on the ground: The Broncos average 5.9 yards per carry in the first half but just 4.8 in the second half. This isn't all on the running game, though. The passing game needs to be more effective, too, so that opposing defenses can't load the box. If the Broncos can hit some big pass plays early, that will get the Cardinals' defense on its heels.
Arizona ranks 20th this season allowing 4.4 yards per carry, but they have allowed a 5.1-yard average over the past three weeks. The Vikings racked up 195 yards on the ground on Sunday at more than 6 yards per carry. With guard Ron Leary out for the rest of the season, guards Connor McGovern and Max Garcia, as well as the rest of the offensive line, will have to regroup quickly. If they do, the opportunity for chunk plays on the ground should be there.
It's undoubtedly the black eye on the Broncos' defensive statistical profile: Denver ranks dead last in rushing defense in the NFL, allowing 5.6 yards per carry. And the woes have been particularly troublesome over their last three games, as the Broncos have allowed 7.1 yards per carry in that time. With another talented back, David Johnson, on the docket for Thursday, the Broncos are searching for answers.
"That's a major issue when you're trying to call defenses," Head Coach Vance Joseph said Sunday. "If you can't slow them down, it keeps the play call off balance. It's tough when you can't stop the run."
Arizona ranks last in the NFL with just 64.0 rushing yards per game and 3.2 yards per carry. If the Broncos can fix their run defense against a struggling opponent, that will put a lot of pressure on Rosen, a key ingredient in the recipe for success.
94.3 and 63.8
On the road, a strong start is key, but so, too, is maintaining that momentum and not allowing hosts and their home crowd to get back into the game. That's something Case Keenum especially needs to do well as the Broncos look to pick up their first win away from Mile High on Thursday. Keenum has posted a quarterback rating of 94.3 in first and fourth quarters combined this year. In the middle two quarters, his rating is more than 30 points lower, at 63.8.
In the first two weeks of the season, Keenum led fourth-quarter comebacks to earn victories. In Week 3 and Week 4, he started well as the Broncos built leads but faltered down the stretch. Against the Rams, Keenum strung together a solid fourth quarter but couldn't quite dig the Broncos out of a big hole. Still, he's completing over 70 percent of his passes in the fourth quarter.
Against Arizona, Keenum must navigate a stingy pass defense that has only allowed six touchdowns through the air, tied for second-fewest in the league.
"He has to play better, but he's had some good moments," Joseph said Monday. "And that's not just Case. That's running the football better, that's blocking the pressures and those things and guys making plays on the ball for Case. So it's not just Case being more consistent. It's our entire offense."