Plummer thrives in conservative attack

DENVER -- Novembers are defining months in the Mile High City. It's around the time of year when Super Bowl teams gather confidence for the stretch run. And Broncos coach Mike Shanahan thinks only in terms of Super Bowls, having won two with John Elway in the late 1990s.

But in Denver, there's extra intrigue. Because quarterbacks play under the enormous shadow of Elway, whose name is legendary and whose car dealerships appear every other mile, Novembers are when Broncos signal callers determine their fate. Brian Griese faded as the weather chilled and he's now warming his bones in Tampa Bay.

Now, Jake Plummer is facing judgment month. He entered November coming off two losses in which he threw five interceptions and completed less than 60 percent of his passes. With a $6 million option bonus due after the season, Plummer, who signed a seven-year, $40.7 million contract, suddenly finds himself playing for his job.

Plummer stepped up in the pocket Sunday. No, his performance wasn't flawless. Some of his passes in the pocket sailed, but none went into the hands of Houston Texans defenders. Overall, Plummer completed 16 of 24 passes for 234 yards and four touchdowns in a surprisingly easy 31-13 victory over what turned out to be a "Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time" Texans team.

"I didn't do anything different than I did all year," Plummer said. "We had a great game plan. Guys made big plays. This was a big win for us. We jumped out to a big lead. We ran the ball well. And we took some shots when we wanted."

Contrary to his assessment, things were different for Plummer and the Broncos on Sunday. Shanahan's game plan was notably conservative. For the most part, the Broncos operated out of two- and sometimes three-tight end sets to establish the run. Often, only one wide receiver would be flanked to the outside. Tight end Jeb Putzier was the key to this strategy.

Putzier, a 256-pound former Boise State wide receiver, spent most of the day lined up in the slot of what was often a strange spread set. When two receivers were flanked out with him, Putzier lined up in the slot to draw a linebacker, often drawing outside linebacker Kailee Wong away from inside the tackle box.

"Lining up like that gives us cutback lanes for the running game," Putzier said. "You have a linebacker trying to guard me, and if Reuben Droughns keeps pounding it in there, it's going to open up more things later. When they come inside to stop Reuben, that's when we get our big plays."

Plummer was fine with the strategy. His ears have been constantly burning from recent criticism of his turnovers. Though this might be one of Shanahan's most conservative offensive seasons, the Broncos entered the game with a ridiculous minus-7 in the turnover ratio. Everyone around town knows a continuation of the mistakes would eventually lead to a turnover at the quarterback position after the season. Plummer's contract started out as a two-year, $8 million "look-see."

"Jake never wants to cause us to lose a game, and he's always one of those guys who never wants to make a mistake," Droughns said. "He takes all the blame when he makes a mistake. He's a tough guy. He's a fighter. He's the type of guy who never would give up on us."

Droughns speaks for the rest of the Broncos offensive players. They like Plummer. Often, that couldn't be said of Griese, who was said to be much more quiet and less willing to take the blame. As the weather chills in Denver, the heat of the quarterback job intensifies and Plummer's teammates stepped up for him.

"It's nice to win going into a bye week," Plummer said. "You guys (in the Denver press) made it more dramatic than it actually was. I had a couple of bad games. As a quarterback, you fight through those. Look around through the league every Sunday and every all-star quarterback doesn't have Hall of Fame-caliber play every Sunday. Sometimes you have some struggles. My teammates stayed behind me."

The Broncos' first scoring drive actually started at their 1-yard line after the Texans downed a punt near the goal line. Droughns pounded the Texans defense for gains of nine and six yards. Plummer fired a long, safety pass to Putzier, and drew a 36-yard interference penalty by cornerback Aaron Glenn. After two more runs, Plummer caught Putzier open against a Texans zone, and he outmaneuvered cornerback Dunta Robinson for what turned out to be a 34-yard touchdown.

"One guy missed me and another guy two-hand touched me, and I got into the end zone," Putzier said. "I don't have any moves. Whatever moves I have, I must have learned them at the stampede (in Idaho) probably."

The efficiency of the Broncos offense forced Texans coach Dom Capers to make uncharacteristic coaching decisions. An impressive opening drive was wasted by a 37-yard missed field goal. Trailing 7-0, Capers went for a fourth-and-1 at midfield and was stuffed. Plummer drove the team for a field goal.

Plummer executed touchdown drives of 80 and 53 in the final two minutes of the first half to open a 24-7 lead and make it an early rout.

"Today, it was nice not to throw an interception," Plummer said. "We were getting good matchups but I didn't want to risk throwing a pick. Once, Patrick Hape made a double move and was open, I didn't want to risk it so I took a sack. Last week, I made some absolutely bone-headed stupid throws. I corrected that today by not forcing things."

Only once did Plummer get scolded for a gamble. He rolled right and threw a long pass across the field that sailed over the head of Ashley Lelie. A lecture awaited him on the sidelines.

"You go through Jake's mistakes and you say you have to eliminate the mistakes," Shanahan said. "You say, 'You are doing a lot of things great and if we can eliminate some of the mistakes then we have a chance to improve and get better.' The great thing about Jake is that he is pretty tough on himself. People forget that other quarterbacks here did throw interceptions. We have a high standard and you have to work through it."

Bye weeks are for reflection, and Shanahan can ponder some pretty good stats for Plummer. He's thrown 19 touchdown passes in nine games. He's only been sacked seven times. His 58.4 completion percentage is a little low, but he's thrown for 2,282 yards and has a respectable 89.3 quarterback rating. The one down side is those 10 picks.

"He understands the position," Shanahan said. "He understands the expectation level. The thing that's interesting or the thing that I enjoy is that he embraces that type of pressure."

His record as a regular-season starter in Denver is now 15-5. During Griese's demise, Shanahan fretted about a 60-percent passer with a .500 record as a starter. Sunday's victory over the Texans was the rallying point for Plummer.

Over the final seven games, he knows he must take this team to the playoffs and perform well in those contests. Sunday was a start. It's November. Plummer proved he was ready for the first of the final challenges.

"To come back with the pressure he had on him today, I thought he showed great concentration and focus," Shanahan said of Plummer. "A lot of guys fold under pressure."

Maybe "The Snake" is treating this stretch drive like his own personal fourth quarter, a time in which he plays his best.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.