Playoff hopes are on the line – and on QBs it can’t pro­tect

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - MARK KISZLA Den­ver Post Colum­nist

The three most danger­ous vo­ca­tions in the United States: 1) Chain-saw jug­gler; 2) Squir­rel-suit pi­lot; and 3) Bron­cos quar­ter­back.

As Trevor Siemian limped through the Den­ver locker room Wed­nes­day wear­ing a boot on his aching left foot, put­ting his avail­abil­ity to play against Jack­sonville in doubt, rookie quar­ter­back Pax­ton Lynch was en­gulfed by me­dia seek­ing an an­swer: You ready for this, kid?

“I feel con­fi­dent in me,” Lynch said Wed­nes­day.

Lynch was given full com­mand of the of­fense in prac­tice as Siemian tried to re­cover in time to run for his life Sun­day against the Jaguars.

“It’s kind of a pain in a butt,” Siemian said. He was talk­ing about drag­ging around the cum­ber­some boot pre­scribed by the team’s train­ing staff. He could have just as eas­ily em­ployed those same words to de­scribe the phys­i­cal pain of his job with the Bron­cos.

In a vi­o­lent sport, one of the NFL’s big­ger health haz­ards might be Den­ver’s of­fen­sive line, which has al­ready got­ten Siemian hurt twice this sea­son and just might kill any shot the Bron­cos have of mak­ing the play­offs.

There’s a stat to break down why Siemian keeps break­ing down. The Bron­cos are among the league’s worst four teams at pro­tect­ing the quar­ter­back. Den­ver has suf­fered sacks on 7.47 per­cent of its pass­ing at­tempts in 2016, bet­ter only than In­di­anapo­lis (8.44 per­cent), Buf­falo (8.86) and Cleve­land (9.22). It’s prob­a­bly no co­in­ci­dence Colts quar­ter­back An­drew Luck is re­cov­er­ing from a con­cus­sion, while the Browns have not found a way to win a sin­gle game but have man­aged to get four quar­ter­backs hurt.

There’s no ques­tion­ing Siemian’s tough­ness. He stood and de­liv­ered three touch­down passes de­spite get­ting sacked five times dur­ing Sun­day night’s over­time loss to Kansas City, when he was dogged con­stantly by Chiefs line­backer Justin Hous­ton, who treated Siemian like a chew toy.

But the dura­bil­ity of Siemian must be con­sid­ered a le­git­i­mate con­cern, whether we’re talk­ing about his im­por­tance to the Bron­cos’ playoff as­pi­ra­tions in 2016 or how well his slen­der body can ab­sorb the shots

ev­ery long-term start­ing QB in the NFL must en­dure. Siemian dinged his right shoul­der dur­ing train­ing camp, sprained his left shoul­der at Tampa Bay and now hob­bles to­ward Jack­sonville. De­tect the painful pat­tern?

So well-versed in the Den­ver of­fense that he doesn’t need to prac­tice to be ef­fec­tive against the Jaguars, Siemian can play through pain. But will the in­jury com­pro­mise the mo­bil­ity of a quar­ter­back who al­ready has been sacked 24 times while at­tempt­ing 325 passes?

When com­ing off the bench to re­place Siemian against the Buc­ca­neers, Lynch looked good, throw­ing for 170 yards and a touch­down. But, the very next week, when Lynch got his lone start of the sea­son, he did not have the lux­ury of ad­just­ing his eyes to the speed and rhythm of the ac­tion from the side­line. As a starter, he seemed over­whelmed by At­lanta’s de­fense un­til the fourth quar­ter, after the Fal­cons had put the game out of reach.

“I’m def­i­nitely up­set that I have a zero on the win col­umn from my starts,” said Lynch, whose lone start be­gan a slow, steady slide for the de­fend­ing Su­per Bowl champs, who have dropped four of their last seven after a 4-0 start.

The Bron­cos traded up in the NFL draft to take Lynch with the 26th pick of the open­ing round, with gen­eral man­ager John El­way out­ma­neu­ver­ing the Dal­las Cow­boys, who also had their sights on the highly touted QB prospect from Mem­phis. The Cow­boys were forced to set­tle tak­ing Mis­sis­sippi State’s Dak Prescott 109 se­lec­tions after Lynch, in the fourth round.

All Prescott has done is ev­ery­thing, lead­ing the Cow­boys to a league-best 10-1 record, forc­ing long­time Dal­las starter Tony Romo to make a con­ces­sion speech and caus­ing some snarky Bron­cos fans to won­der why El­way liked Lynch bet­ter in the draft.

“He’s do­ing well,” Bron­cos coach Gary Ku­biak said, giv­ing Lynch a vote of con­fi­dence. “He’s mak­ing progress.”

Here’s the tricky part for Ku­biak when in­stalling the game plan: Siemian is com­fort­able op­er­at­ing un­der cen­ter, in the run-first sys­tem fa­vored by the coach. In or­der for Lynch to suc­ceed, the Bron­cos might be well ad­vised to let him op­er­ate out of the shot­gun as much as pos­si­ble. For all his in­ex­pe­ri­ence, how­ever, it should be noted that in lim­ited duty, Lynch has com­pleted a higher per­cent­age of his passes and thrown in­ter­cep­tions at a slightly lower rate than Siemian.

A ma­jor rea­son El­way fired John Fox and hired Ku­biak was in the hope a new coach­ing staff would be more ef­fi­cient at de­vel­op­ing the team’s young tal­ent.

Is Lynch ready to step in for Siemian, if need be? Lynch had bet­ter be. “We can’t af­ford to lose this game, pe­riod,” Bron­cos line­backer Shane Ray said.

Bron­cos quar­ter­back Trevor Siemian is tack­led from be­hind by Chiefs out­side line­backer Justin Hous­ton dur­ing the Bron­cos’ over­time loss Sun­day night at Sports Au­thor­ity Field at Mile High. John Leyba, The Den­ver Post

The Bron­cos’ Pax­ton Lynch, pic­tured be­ing hit by Fal­cons out­side line­backer Vic Beasley in the rookie quar­ter­back’s lone start of the sea­son Oct. 9, was in full com­mand of the of­fense Wed­nes­day. As­so­ci­ated Press file

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