With his team having lost two straight for the first time in two years, Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan feels his team is in need of a spark. He is hopeful that rookie quarterback Jay Cutler can provide one.
Cutler will try to inject some life into the Broncos’ struggling offense in his NFL debut when Denver (7-4) faces the Seattle Seahawks (7-4) at Invesco Field on Sunday night.
Shanahan ended speculation Monday by naming Cutler his starting quarterback for the rest of the season, sending veteran Jake Plummer to the bench.
Cutler, the 11th overall pick in the draft last April, hasn’t played since the preseason, but Shanahan believes the rookie can help an offense that ranks 26th in the league in passing yards per game (171.5).
“There’s a lot of pressure on a first-year quarterback, no question about it,” Shanahan said. “I think this kid can handle it. I think he gives us the best chance to win.”
Although Plummer ranks 13th in the AFC with a quarterback rating of 70.5 and has thrown 11 touchdowns with 12 interceptions this season, he was instrumental in leading the Broncos to the AFC championship game in 2005. At 39-15, Shanahan and Plummer have the fifth-best regular-season winning percentage—minimum 50 starts—since 1970.
Shanahan said Plummer handled the demotion as well as could be expected.
“I don’t think he obviously likes the move,” he said. “Any competitor would not like the move. He’s going to do everything he can to help this football team.”
The strong-armed Cutler was impressive in the preseason, throwing for 561 yards with a league-best 108.3 passer rating, but even he knows that doesn’t mean much anymore.
“Preseason is preseason,” Cutler said. “I don’t put a lot of stock in it. This is a different animal. We’re playing for real now.”
Plummer wasn’t terrible in a 19-10 loss at Kansas City on Thanksgiving, but he did throw his fifth interception in three games, one week after the Broncos squandered a 17-point second-half lead against San Diego. Back-to-back losses to division rivals have dropped Denver two games behind the AFC West-leading Chargers and into a second-place tie with the Chiefs.
The Broncos haven’t lost three straight since Oct. 19-Nov. 3, 2003.
While several key contributors will be missing from Denver’s lineup Sunday, the team’s leading rusher should be ready to go.
Safety Nick Ferguson, defensive end Courtney Brown and offensive tackle Matt Lepsis are out for the season. Tatum Bell, the team leader with 649 rushing yards, is expected to start Sunday after missing three of the past four games with turf toe.
While Plummer’s ineffectiveness has played a part in Denver’s current struggles, it’s certainly not the only factor.
With Bell sidelined, the Broncos managed just 38 yards rushing against Kansas City, their second-lowest total since 1995. It marked the third time in four games Denver was unable to reach the 100-yard mark on the ground.
The Broncos’ defense also has slipped lately, allowing 12 touchdowns in the past five games after giving up only two in the first six.
The Seahawks have been dealing with injuries of their own, but must feel a lot better now that Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Hasselbeck has returned and running back Shaun Alexander has displayed the form that made him the NFL MVP in 2005.
Hasselbeck was responsible for four first-half turnovers, but redeemed himself with three second-half touchdown passes in a 34-24 victory over Green Bay on Monday night in first game after missing four weeks with a sprained right knee.
The star of the game, though, was Alexander, who finished with 201 yards on a career-high 40 carries. That performance came one week after he was held to 37 yards on 17 rushes in a 20-14 loss at San Francisco, his first game following a two-month layoff due to a broken foot.
“I’m definitely tired, but I feel good,” Alexander said after Monday’s win. “I’m probably in better shape than even I thought I was.”
Alexander became only the third running back in league history to rush 40 times for 200 yards in a game, joining Walter Payton in 1977 and Terrell Davis in 1997.
Seattle improved to 4-0 this season with both Hasselbeck and Alexander in the lineup.
Now that their two most important players are healthy, the Seahawks appear poised for a run at a third straight NFC West title. Seattle has a two-game lead in the division with five to go and has only two games left against teams with winning records.
The Seahawks are also tied with New Orleans and Dallas for the second-best record in the conference behind 9-2 Chicago. The No. 2 playoff seed gets a first-round bye and is guaranteed at least one home playoff game.
Sunday’s game will be the first meeting between these former AFC West rivals since the Broncos’ 31-9 victory on Nov. 17, 2002. Denver has won six straight matchups at home and 12 of the last 13. Seattle hasn’t won in Denver since Dec. 10, 1995.