Surprise Unbeatens: Breaking Down the Broncos, Bengals, Bucs and Dolphins

Has Denver finally found its QB? Comeback wins from Case Keenum in the first two games are reason for optimism. Plus, early reads on the other unexpected 2-0 clubs—Cincinnati, Tampa and Miami. players in the spotlight in Week 3 (that means you, AB84) and your questions on Josh Gordon, Baker Mayfield and more
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Less than a week of training camp was in the books before Broncos coach Vance Joseph put into words what he’d been thinking. His audience was senior personnel advisor Gary Kubiak, who was Joseph’s boss during Case Keenum’s two seasons as a Texan. His point was built off shared experience with their new/old quarterback, and just how far the quarterback had come from Point A to Point B.

“I turned to Coach Kubiak, and said, ‘Koob, I think he’s better than what we thought.’ And Koob agreed,” said Joseph over the cell just after Wednesday’s practice. “And Koob knows quarterbacks, and so does [GM] John [Elway] and so does [offensive coordinator] Billy Musgrave. In our building, we’ve got four or five guys who’ve played NFL quarterback. I played college quarterback.

“And we’re all looking at it and saying, ‘Man, I think we’ve got the guy. He’s better than what we thought.’ And in my opinion, he’s going to play better for us.”

So far Keenum has given the Broncos just what they needed coming out of a rough 2017 season. “It’s hope, and not just to the receivers, not just to the offense, it’s there for our team, for our coaches, for everyone,” Joseph says. And there’s so much more that Denver believes it can do as a result.

Consider, first, that Keenum was able to compartmentalize three picks and lead the team on a seven-play, 75-yard drive to beat the Seahawks in Week 1. Then, think about how the offense was shut out in the first half against Oakland, and came back to score on its first four possessions of the second half en route to a 20-19 win.

The 2017 Broncos weren’t capable of this kind of stuff, largely because they couldn’t make it happen from the most important position.

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In this week’s Game Plan we’re going to take a look at the surprise 2-0 teams—we’ll get to our players to watch for the weekend and your mail in a bit—and what got the Broncos, Bucs, Dolphins and Bengals through two weeks without a blemish. In each case, quarterback play comes into the equation. And in each case, there’s a coach who’s had his job security called into question over the last few months.

It goes without saying that, across the NFL, the former most certainly ties into the latter, and that was absolutely the case in Denver as the 2017 season wound down. The rumor mill was spinning on Joseph going into the season’s final weekend, and Elway conceded at a press conference the day after the season ended that change was a consideration. Joseph, for his part, understood it.

“I knew I wasn’t going to have time to ease into this job, I wasn’t going to have time to get it right,” he said. “This is the Denver Broncos—they’re used to winning. We have demanding ownership, and we have demanding fans. I’m OK with that. I knew taking this job, it wasn’t going to be easy. Those things last year, I’d say, deservedly so, we won five games, and I was the head guy in charge.

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“But that’s over. That’s behind us.”

It’s behind them largely because, at least for now, there’s a locker room in Denver that believes in its quarterback, because it’s been given reason to believe in its quarterback. As Joseph’s moment with Kubiak in late July would indicate, it started with Keenum’s teammates seeing him work in spring and early summer. It was bolstered by a near-flawless preseason effort against the Redskins.

And it’s been kicked into overdrive the last couple weeks.

In the opener, Keenum followed a first-quarter interception with a seven-play, 75-yard march to his first touchdown pass as a Bronco (29 yards to rookie Philip Lindsay). Denver then started the second half with 31 yards, a pick and two punts in its first four possessions, but after Seattle took the lead, Keenum responded with another seven-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to put the Broncos ahead for good.

Last week it was more of the same. The Broncos mustered just 112 yards and three first downs and punted four times in the first half against Oakland, only to score on all four of their second half possessions to turn 12-0 and 19-7 deficits into a 20-19 win. In the process, they’ve taken on their quarterback’s personality—to keep swinging no matter how tough things get.

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“How he leads our team has been breathtaking,” Joseph said. “Obviously our team believes in him, but when you have a guy who has so much confidence in his own game, but a toughness, and he’s a winner, it gives you hope. It allows his teammates to continue to play, knowing that, if we get the ball back to Case, we’re goint to be fine. If we’re driving in the fourth quarter or we need a field goal to win, we’re going to be fine. He provides hope.”

There are other factors here, of course. Garett Bolles has developed at left tackle. The rookie class—behind Bradley Chubb, Courtland Sutton, Josey Jewell, Royce Freeman and Lindsay—has shown promise. Low-profile veteran additions, like Pacman Jones, Jared Veldheer and Tramaine Brock, have paid off.

But in examining the difference between last year and this year, and what Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch were versus what Keenum is, Joseph isn’t trying to fool anyone. It’s evident everywhere.

“Obviously his receivers who played with Peyton [Manning], I’m not saying he’s Peyton, but those guys know what a real guy looks like,” Joseph said. “And to watch [Demaryius Thomas], watch Emmanuel [Sanders] show up every day with so much energy, it’s all because of Case. Receivers want the ball, they want yardage, and when a quarterback can get them the ball, it motivates those guys to practice harder, to practice faster, to put more into it.

“We all know if we just do our job, if we do our part, he will do his part. The quarterback, in this league, is obviously the guy who can make or break a season … It’s a league that’s built for parity, and there’s one position that can make your team different and that’s quarterback. We all understand that. We all fight with a deeper passion because of our quarterback on Sundays.”

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The coolest part, as Joseph explains it, is that neither Keenum nor the team has come close to playing their best yet. “We’re thankful to be 2-0,” he says. They’re there despite some uneven stretches, some turnovers from the quarterback, and some holes they’ve had to dig out of.

Which means there’s still plenty more out there for the Broncos.

Same for the other surprise 2–0 teams? Let’s take a look …

Bengals (won at Colts, v. Ravens): While much of the focus has been on Andy Dalton’s improvement and Joe Mixon’s emergence, the stabilization of the offensive line is probably the biggest difference for this year’s Bengals. Remember, the franchise went through serious attrition up front in losing cornerstones like Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler the last couple years. So bringing in Cordy Glenn via trade and Billy Price with their first-round pick has re-established what was long a team strength. New line coach Frank Pollack, imported from Dallas, has been a factor too. The challenge now: Price is down for a couple weeks with a foot injury.

• Buccaneers (won at Saints, v. Eagles): The easy place to look is at quarterback, and Ryan Fitzpatrick has been fantastic. But opposing coaches are also pointing to offensive coordinator Todd Monken getting play-calling authority this year, and how aggressive Tampa has been as a result. It showed up on the Bucs’ fourth play, a first down, against the Saints, with a 58-yard touchdown strike to DeSean Jackson. It came even quicker against the Eagles—75 yards to Jackson. And it shows up across the board in the numbers. Fitzpatrick has thrown the ball more on first down (24 times) than he has on second (20) or third (17). And Fitzpatrick has a perfect passer rating on those 24 first-down throws, completing 20 of them for 460 yards and four touchdowns without a pick. Which is a credit to what Monken’s doing.

• Dolphins (won v. Titans, at Jets): This offseason, Adam Gase committed to culture over talent, and Miami’s already seen the fruits of rebuilding the locker room around veteran imports like Danny Amendola, Albert Wilson, Josh Sitton, Frank Gore and Robert Quinn. One problem last year was that Miami handled neither adversity (Hurricane Irma, Chris Foerster, Ryan Tannehill’s injury) nor prosperity (witness the team laying an egg in Buffalo after a big win over New England) well last year. Now? The Dolphins opened the season by winning a seven-hour, three-part, storm-ridden marathon against the Titans, and then came back off that to outlast the Jets on the road in a rockfight. That’s two good signs, and Tannehill’s play thus far would be another.

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Players under the spotlight in Week 3:

• Steelers WR Antonio Brown: Pittsburgh plays the 2-0 Bucs on Monday night, but that’s almost irrelevant. What matters is that the Steelers are winless, and Brown has put himself in the crosshairs. Fair or not, how he plays, and by extension how the team plays, will be seen as a referendum on where the Steelers are amid all the tumult.

• Falcons S Damontae Kazee/MLB Duke Riley: Kazee’s coming back off his Week 2 ejection (his hit on Cam Newton was way over the line), and Riley will be trying to help the front seven rebound after being gashed for 6.7 yards per carry in last week’s win over Carolina. And the Saints offense will most certainly provide challenges for the replacements for Keanu Neal and Deion Jones.

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• Panthers QB Cam Newton: The Panthers offensive line has been a M*A*S*H unit over the first couple weeks of the year, and that group gets Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins and a fearsome Cincy front this week. That’ll put the onus on Newton to get rid of the ball in a timely manner, and move to avoid punishment.

• Giants LT Nate Solder: Thus far the Giants’ offensive line issues do not appear to be solved, and J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus are up next. And at $15.5 million per year, Solder is firmly the face of a group that took a nationally  televised pantsing in Dallas last week.

• Eagles QB Carson Wentz: Obviously.

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College players to keep an NFL eye on this weekend:

Oregon QB Justin Herbert (vs. Stanford, ABC, 8 p.m.): Reviews coming out of Eugene from scouts have been mixed through summer and early fall. On-the-ground scouts, the guys who’ve watched Herbert practice, see all the traits there and rave about how physically impressive he is in person. The problem? He already has a pair of two-interception games against mid-majors (Bowling Green and San Jose State), and completed fewer than half his throws in those games. He can erase a lot of that this week with a big game against a very tough Stanford defense that has allowed 16 points through three weeks.

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Alabama LT Jonah Williams (vs. Texas A&M, CBS, 3:30 p.m.): There’s some question as to what position Williams will play when he gets to the NFL—in fact, there was some question if he’d stay at left tackle this year—and this is one of those game wherer that could get sorted out. Scouts will keep a close eye on the occasions during which Williams is locked up against Aggies senior Keke Kingsley, who is a mountain of a defensive line prospect in his own right.

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Reader questions heading into NFL Week 3 (send to @AlbertBreer). 

From Taylor Ozieczanek (@OsieczanekT): How did Philip Lindsay go undrafted?

Since we’re Broncos-centric this week, let’s start by introducing you to Lindsay, who has piled up 178 yards on 29 carries and happens to be wearing Terrell Davis’s old No. 30. Lindsay was born in Denver, raised in suburban Aurora, and played collegiately right down the road at Colorado.

So I asked around on how he went undrafted, and the answer I got back was the obvious. He measured out at just 5’7” and is well under 200 pounds. Once you get past that, what happened isn’t that uncommon—the Broncos simply grew to love a kid at a program they’re close to and see a lot of. And this isn’t revisionist history, either. He got the biggest signing bonus ($15,000) in Denver’s college free agent class.

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From Josh G (@Birdfan86):Will Josh Gordon be the highest-profile trade of the year?

I think he will be, just because of his outrageous 2013 season, his physical ability, his checkered past, and his landing spot. But there are players I would ask about ahead of the Oct. 30 trade deadline if I was a buyer. And the place to start is with teams that could be looking to build towards 2019, like Arizona or Buffalo, or even clubs like Seattle or Oakland that might be trying to shuffle the deck.

Long way to go until we get there.

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From Danny (@BigLope85): Team (at) 0-2 with best chance to make the playoffs?

There are currently seven two-loss teams—Seattle, Arizona, Detroit, Oakland, Houston, Buffalo and the Giants. And I’m going to say that, based on the depth of the NFC, this sort of resurrection is more likely to come out of the AFC, leaving us with Houston, Oakland and Buffalo. That makes the call easy.

Give me the Texans, and not just because I picked them to win their division before the season. I’m still uneasy about their offensive line and corner issues, but the front seven is stout, and Deshaun Watson will get more comfortable on his reconstructed knee. It was always unrealistic to expect Watson to pick up where he left off last year. But with DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller alongside, he’ll be better as the season wears on.

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From Adam P (@yournextboss11): When the Browns switch to Baker [Mayfield], will it be in step with a coaching change, or do you see Hue making the change to save his job?

Whoa there, Adam!!! We’re really getting out in front of our skis here … I’d say that a potential switch to Baker Mayfield will be tied to the Browns’ fortunes. I’ve brought this set of facts up before, and I’ll bring it up again. Twenty-seven QBs went in the first round between 2008 and ’17. Only two (Jake Locker, Patrick Mahomes) were true redshirts. The common denominator? Both played for contending teams.

Tyrod Taylor was shaky last week in New Orleans, but if he can find a way to keep the Browns alive in the AFC North over the next few weeks, he keeps his job. If Cleveland slides out of contention, it almost won’t matter what he does, BakerWatch 2018 will be on. So stay tuned!

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From Elliot Baker (@ElliotBarker6):Do you think [Blake] Bortles’s recent form is sustaininable for the rest of the season and into the playoffs? If so, how far can this team go?

Elliott, we’ve done a couple stories on Bortles’ development during this calendar year—check out this week’s MMQB for the latest—and it sort of hit me, after a bunch of conversations with Jags OC Nathaniel Hackett, that there are real parallels between what Alex Smith went through early in his career and where Bortles is right now.

Smith came into the league raw, from a spread offense, and was afflicted by constant coaching turnover through his earlier years. Then Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman got to San Francisco in 2011 and basically stripped down the offense to quiet all the different voices in his head, and built him back up from zero. And it has absolutely worked.

That’s to some degree what happened with Bortles. He had three OCs in his first three years, and Hackett said it meant that, going into ’17, he was still just playing football rather than playing quarterback. Like Smith’s process, Hackett went back to the basics with Bortles in trying to build him back up via checkdowns, easy completions and quarterback runs. Now? You’re seeing the next steps. So let’s leave it at this: There’s reason to be encouraged. (Again, check out the MMQB for more.)

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From Zach (@Zackeesh):Do you think Carson Wentz or Alshon Jeffery will make a bigger impact for the Eagles upon their return?

I understand the spirit of the question. And yes, the Eagles are in a tough spot at receiver, as evidenced most recently by the return of Jordan Matthews to the roster. Which means that, sure, Alshon Jeffery coming back will be a very big deal for Doug Pederson’s offense.

But Wentz was right there with Tom Brady in the MVP race when he tore his ACL and LCL in December, and he’s the kind of quarterback who can make up for deficiencies elsewhere on your roster. Jeffery can create problems for defenses. Wentz can fix problems for his own team, and the Eagles have been patient with him, which means it’s reasonable to expect that he’ll play at a pretty high level pretty soon.

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From GoBlueFB (@GoBlueFB): In terms of priorities in life, how far behind the NFL does your wife rank?

What time of year are we talking? (JK … BIG s/o to Emily Breer!)

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