When Case Keenum took over the starting quarterback duties, the one big takeaway I had was how he defied the stereotype of the backup in one specific area: He was never one to checkdown too often. While most backups are called to manage the game, keep their head above water and not turn the ball over, Keenum had no qualms about taking shots. In fact, several 2017 games started with a perfectly-thrown deep ball to Adam Thielen for a big gain.
Keenum is a gunslinger. And like with any good gunslinger, fans have to take the good with the bad. Limitations of arm strength and accuracy aside, it has been mostly good for Vikings fans with Keenum. But the last three weeks especially, those big completions have fallen by the wayside. Receivers running free downfield are not automatic chunk yardage. For whatever reason, the Case Keenum deep ball is not a threat right now.
Here, we are defining a “deep throw” as any pass attempt of over 20 yards in the air. In weeks 14 through 16, Keenum threw 12 such passes. He went 2 of 9 for 40 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Two passes drew defensive pass interference penalties and one was a free play after an offside penalty. In total he compiled a passer rating of just 43.05 on deep throws. For reference, Keenum’s rating on all throws over the same stretch was 96.06.
There does not seem to be any particular trend to his missed deep throws, either. Of the 12 passes, six went to Stefon Diggs, three went to Thielen, two to Laquon Treadwell and one to Kyle Rudolph. Only three were well-thrown balls, one of which was dropped. Four were underthrown, three were overthrown and two were into heavy coverage. In other words, he was all over the place.
Let us take a look at a few specific examples.
Week 16 at Green Bay
This was a free play after a Packers player jumps early. The safety bites hard on Adam Thielen’s crossing route, allowing Diggs to run free on the post. Keenum does not even need to throw this ball further, per se. He just needs to put it further out into space to allow Diggs to run under it. Instead, he underthrows it just enough to allow the corner to recover.
Week 14 at Carolina
This one is a bit more of a typical Keenum deep ball. It worked a lot earlier in the season, a play action pass with Thielen working a double move. The problem is that it looks like Keenum made a misread of the coverage. He tries to look off the single high safety so he can fit the ball to Thielen working one-on-one. Unfortunately, it is actually cover three so the safety stays true and the corner hangs with Thielen. Even so, a well-thrown ball could have gone for a completion. Instead, it is woefully underthrown (maybe because he got hit) and intercepted.
Week 15 vs. Cincinnati
This is not a prototypical “deep ball” but it is the long pass that Keenum excels at. Instead of having to get air under the ball, he can just rifle it into a window with Diggs running up the seam.
So why did that last throw work when the others did not? The most obvious answer is the safety. From what I can tell, Keenum deep balls work when he can hit a hole between the corner and safeties. This is clear on the Diggs touchdown or other deep balls where he fits it into the Gruden-dubbed “Turkey Hole,” the space along the sideline vacated by the corner and safety in zone. When his receivers burn their man deep and beat the safety over the top, Keenum struggles to get the ball to them.
Arm strength is a weakness for Keenum and it is probably the biggest factor in his deep throw struggles. It is basic sports science; throw a ball as hard as you can you will not be as accurate as when you take a bit off. There are ways to compensate for poor arm strength, and Keenum has shown this in the past. Quarterbacks can throw earlier so the ball does not have to travel as far. They can throw into open space rather than leading the receiver further downfield. It is possible to be an effective downfield quarterback with an average arm.
The concern here with Keenum is that he is missing these throws in the home stretch of the season. While the Rams, Panthers and Saints are hitting their stride right at playoff time, the Vikings are showing a few cracks on offense. Their pass pro has not been as good and as a result, Keenum is a bit more antsy in the pocket. Keenum has also been just generally a bit less accurate. Receivers are dropping balls a bit more often. But hitting big plays would go a long way to making up for offensive deficiencies.
Not every scoring drive can be eight plays and 65 yards. Sometimes you have to break the bank. This is what Minnesota has to find sooner rather than later.
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