DENVER • They snatched a necklace and brought home a ring. But the blingy glare from all the jewelry in the NFL can’t mask an uncomfortable development: the Broncos’ “No Fly Zone” right now is the friendly skies.
At its peak there was no more synchronized and beautifully disruptive force in professional sports — clearing airspace, taking the biggest names and often making the impossible appear pedestrian. Aaron Rodgers, 77 total passing yards over a full game; Philip Rivers, a quarterback rating of 57.1; Tom Brady, ever-so-slightly less handsome with a rating of 56.4, his second-worst mark in 36 career postseason games.
That was then, this is now: “We’ve got to figure out who’s going to be up (playing) for this game,” future Ring of Famer Chris Harris Jr. said on Wednesday with more than a twinge of concern in his voice.
Hey, it’s just Joe Flacco and the Ravens hosting the Broncos on Sunday. What could go wrong?
OK, don’t answer that. Too soon, still. But the Broncos must answer a question that’s threatening to doom a season that’s off to a groovy start: with the Broncos’ secondary short on healthy bodies and one Aqib Talib, who’s going to cover all these fast and furious wide receivers popping up all over the schedule?
Lost in the drama and resiliency of the Broncos’ one-point escape from the Raiders was a stat that suggests Talib was correct and the No Fly Zone is no more: Oakland quarterback Derek Carr completed 29 of 32 passes against the Broncos. No matter the distance of the throws, would it be likely for a man off the street to complete 29 of 32 passes, even without Von Miller bearing down on him?
“Not the level that we want to play,” Harris said. “We’ve still got a lot of room to improve.”
Case Keenum didn’t practice Wednesday. The Broncos quarterback said it’s going to take more than a little knee soreness to keep him from playing at MT&T Stadium in Baltimore on Sunday, when the Broncos will be a Vegas underdog for the first time this season.
“I’m just making sure I can play 16-20 weeks, not just a few weeks,” Keenum said of his precautionary absence, vowing that he would return Thursday.
Of greater concern is the health, talent level and cohesiveness of the Broncos secondary. Don’t expect much from Adam “Pacman” Jones, who is ailing from a thigh injury that’s kept him off the practice field this week, or veteran cornerback Tramaine Brock, who got beat out by the 34-year-old Jones during training camp.
Once the strength of a Super Bowl champ, the secondary is the thinnest spot on the field.
The current trajectory of the “No Fly Zone” has Harris clearly frustrated. Harris, who can often claim to be the best player out there when Von Miller is watching his guys from the sideline, went on to explain how the Broncos were “playing too (far) off” and allowing wide receivers room to operate. The results are befitting of a secondary that needs to earn its nickname back: the Broncos’ defense ranks in the bottom third of the NFL in quarterback rating, passing plays of 20-plus yards, yards per pass, completion percentage, yards per play and passing yards per game allowed. Whatever the root cause, those areas must be fixed. And fast.
The Ravens and Chiefs are next on the schedule and bring with them 15 passing touchdowns through two weeks of the season. If my math checks out that’s nearly four passing touchdowns per game. Then there’s the tee-it-high, let-it-fly nature of the AFC West, where the Chargers, Chiefs and Raiders rank among the top 10 passing offenses out there. Or are Oakland’s stats skewed after playing the Broncos?
We all know what happens when Miller, Bradley Chubb and Shaq Barrett are afforded time to bend around blockers to cause havoc. It’s not pretty for the quarterback and sometimes ends with Von crawling across the field. That guy even crawls faster than normal humans run.
But when Harris is worried about the state of the secondary, it’s time to explore options. Broncos fans with a sharp memory recall it was Harris who picked off Flacco and raced 97 yards for a touchdown in their most recent trip to Baltimore, way back in December 2012.
“When you play on the road,” he said, “you have to pack your defense.”
One of two things must happen if the 2-0 Broncos are for real or really just pulling our chain, since Michael Crabtree now plays for the Ravens: trade luxury pass-rusher Shane Ray for a cornerback or cross your fingers rookie Isaac Yiadom turns out to be a quick learner.
A third-round draft pick, Yiadom is one of those sweetheart rookies everyone keeps talking about. The Boston College grad is so polite the staff at Top Golf looks forward to his weekly venture to the driving range down the street from UCHealth Training Center, and Yiadom is built like one of those long, physical cornerbacks that grew the Seattle Seahawks into a power.
“He has to be ready to go,” Harris said.
Right now the No Fly Zone is an open runway.