Know Your Enemy
As the (11-3) Denver Broncos lick the wounds sustained in their ultra-physical win last week, they must now turn their attention to a very good football team; the (9-4-1) Cincinnati Bengals, whom they'll face under the bright lights of Monday Night Football.
The Bengals are a smash-mouth team, and well coached by Marvin Lewis and his staff. They currently own a half game lead over the (9-5) Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC North. Also in the divisional mix are the (9-5) Baltimore Ravens. If the playoffs started today, the Bengals would be the AFC's No. 4 seed, and would get to host a game in the Wildcard round. The Steelers would be the No. 5 seed, while the Ravens would be No. 6, respectively.
The Steelers get to host the (8-6) Kansas City Chiefs this week, while the Ravens must take to the road to battle the (7-7) Houston Texans. If the Bengals fail to take care of business vs the Broncos, they could fall to second, or third place in their division. They would still be alive for playoff contention as a Wildcard, but they want to avoid that at all costs.
Going on the road in the playoffs is difficult, obviously, and with the Bengals recent post-season failures, they need every advantage they can get. Translation, they are going to try to hit the Broncos in the mouth and steal a win. But that feat will be easier said than done, as the Broncos are the only NFL team to rank in the top-10 in total offense (4th) and defense (4th).
I say "steal", because even though the Bengals are at home, the Broncos are favored to win by 3.5 to 4 points. In the Broncos last 8 road games, in which they were favored, they've gone 6-2. In the last 4 games, in which the Bengals were home-underdogs, they're 4-0, which illustrates and interesting dichotomy.
Something's got to give this time. However, after pitching a shutout last week vs Johnny Manziel and the Cleveland Browns, the Bengals are riding high and hope to use that momentum as a launching pad this week, and extend that streak to 5-0. Let's take a deeper look at both sides of the ball for the Bengals.
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Andy Dalton is the engine that makes the Bengals go. Some might argue that premise, but without him, they would likely be a sub-.500 team. Despite the fact that he is sometimes the reason that they lose, he's also the primary common denominator to their recent success. It's no coincidence that the Bengals have been to the post-season in each of Dalton's first three seasons.
On the season, Dalton's numbers have taken a step backward from his impressive 2013 numbers, which saw him throw 33 touchdowns and amass 4,293 passing yards. It was a career year, but he also set an ignominious career record for interceptions, with 20.
In 2014, he's gone 265-of-418 for 3,008 yards, 15 TDs and 14 INT. Connecting on 63.4% of his throws (a career high), he has earned an 82.9 QB rating. According to PFF, he is their No. 19 QB, with a -2.4 cumulative grade on the season.
All in all, Dalton is having the worst statistical year of his career and it likely has something to do with losing his offensive coordinator, Jay Gruden, who left to be the head coach of the Washington Redskins. Hue Jackson has stepped in to replace him, and the result has been a significant step backwards for Dalton and the Bengals offense, statistically.
Gruden liked to throw the ball and stretch the field vertically, whereas, Jackson, a longtime running backs coach, likes to ground and pound, and lean on play-action to net the big play down-field.
From a total yards perspective, the Bengals are the No. 13 offense in the NFL. Last season, they finished in the top 10. One of the mitigating factors behind Dalton's step backwards has been the health of his Pro Bowl wide receiver and No. 1 target, A.J. Green (+9.2).
Green has missed three games this season, due to injury, but has still put up great numbers. He has 61 receptions for 959 yards and 6 TDs. Drafted in the same class as Dalton, Green's previous career low for TDs came as a rookie, when he caught 7.
Nevertheless, he is only a few yards away from his fourth-consecutive 1,000-yard season. But whether it's because of being banged up, or a change in scheme, Green hasn't had as many explosive plays as he's accustomed to making. And with how smothering the Broncos secondary have been of late, it'll be hard for him to alter that trend in week 16.
But he is too special of a talent to shut out completely. He'll get his licks in on the Broncos. With Green missing extended time this year, Dalton turned to Mohamed Sanu (-4.5), who ranks second on the team with 54 receptions. He's also nabbed 5 TDs. But he's had some monster games in 2014, going over the century mark twice (BAL and CAR).
With 95 targets, Sanu is only 4 short of Green. He is a formidable No. 2 receiver, and will serve as a tough matchup for whichever Broncos cornerback draws him as their assignment. Tight end, Jermaine Gresham (-0.6), rounds out the Bengals top-3 receivers, having nabbed 50 receptions, 3 of which have been for TDs.
We've seen the Broncos struggle against the tight end this season, especially upper-echelon players. I wouldn't quite put Gresham in that category, but he's toward the top of that next tier. If a guy like Jace Amaro can have a 10-catch day vs the Broncos, and a rookie at that, then Gresham can truly be a weapon for the Bengals.
As an offense, the Bengals rank as the NFL's No. 23 passing unit and the No. 6 rushing offense. Averaging 130.3 yards on the ground, the Bengals have developed a great two-headed monster behind Dalton in rookie Jeremy Hill (+2.8) and Giovani Bernard (-4.2).
Hill leads the team with 877 yards rushing and 8 TDs and is coming off of a huge game vs the Browns (148, 2 TD). He's averaging a cool 5 yards per carry and serves as the "thunder" to Bernard's "lightning".
Bernard has struggled with injuries this year, but has been productive himself, accounting for 884 yards from scrimmage and 5 TDs. With 31 receptions on the season, he is a true receiving threat out of the backfield. The Broncos linebackers, whether it's Todd Davis or even T.J. Ward, must account for him at all times.
The primary reason the Bengals have been so successful running the ball is because of their big boys in the trenches. LT, Andrew Whitworth (+30.6), leads the way and protects Dalton's blindside. He is PFF's No. 3 left tackle, playing at a Pro Bowl level.
The Bengals starting right tackle, Andre Smith, injured his his arm in week 12 and was put on season-ending injured reserve. In his place, the team turned to Clint Boling (+2.3) to replace him. Boling started the team's first 12 games at left guard, but has only allowed 1 sack as a starter at RT.
Von Miller has a great opportunity to bounce back from his disappearing act last week, going against Boling, who lacks experience at the position. Whitworth's battle with DeMarcus Ware will be one of the key matchups of the game and one that bears keeping a close eye on.
Inside, the Bengals sport LG Mike Pollak (+5.0), C Russell Bodine (-12.1) and RG Kevin Zeitler (+12.2). The Broncos are only allowing an average of 71.6 rushing yards per game (No. 2), but they'll be tested to the max vs this stout interior line and excellent running backs.
Overall, the Bengals are a bit more balanced this season than they have been in days of yore. The best defense for the Broncos could be a great offense; getting out to an early lead, which would put the onus on Dalton to go blow-for-blow with Peyton Manning. When the pressure is on, Dalton tends to melt down and make bad decisions. The Broncos have forced 8 turnovers, over the last 3 games. They should be able to continue that ball-hawking trend vs the Bengals.
Last season, the Bengals finished as the NFL's No. 3 defense, but the loss of defensive coordinator, Mike Zimmer, who, like Gruden, left for a head coaching job with the Minnesota Vikings, has hit this unit hard. They've slipped to the No. 20 defense in 2014, but injuries have also played a role in that regression.
They're allowing an average of 124.8 rushing yards on the ground, which comes as great news to a Broncos offense that has recently developed a punishingly effective ground game with C.J. Anderson toting the rock. However, the Bengals still have a good defensive line, anchored by tackle, Geno Atkins (+12.2).
On the season, Atkins has notched 7 tackles for loss and 3 sacks. The former All-Pro knows how to penetrate into the backfield and be disruptive. The Broncos interior offensive line will have their hands full with he and his partner, Domata Peko (-21.3).
Although his PFF grade doesn't reflect it, Peko can clog up running lanes and consume blocks, which allow the Bengals linebackers to pursue downhill. The Broncos will have to be disciplined and execute vs these two veteran defensive tackles.
The Bengals bookend defensive ends, Carlos Dunlap (+6.9) and Wallace Gilberry (-12.9), have only accounted for 8.5 sacks. But Dunlap, in particular, can be very disruptive to the QB, when he's in the zone. However, if Ryan Clady can heal up and be good to go on Monday night, I like the Broncos chances in keeping Manning's pocket clean.
With only 18 sacks on the season, the Bengals defense has struggled mightily to put pressure on the QB. I don't expect that to change on Monday night. Dunlap and Gilberry can bull-rush, but they don't have special quickness off the snap.
The Bengals linebacking corps took a big hit, when they lost Vontaze Burfict for the season. Because of neck/head/knee injuries, Burfict only saw 223 snaps, before being put on injured reserve.
The loss of Zimmer hurt, but losing their on-field general hurt worse. Last season, the Pro Bowler led the team with 171 combined tackles and that level of production has been missed immensely. At weakside linebacker, the Bengals turned to Vincent Rey (-7.7) to replace Burfict, but it just hasn't been the same.
Without their defensive leader, Rey Maualuga (-3.7) has been leaned on to provide the Bengals with more leadership. But that's a facet that he has struggled with since being drafted out of USC. On the season, Rey leads the team with 103 combined tackles, while Maualuga has notched 43.
On the strong-side, Emmanuel Lamur (-12.1) rounds out the group, but hasn't impressed on the season. What was once a position of strength, the Bengals LB corps is now arguably the defense's biggest weakness. They do a solid job down-hill, but in coverage, they can be exploited. If the Broncos choose to give Julius Thomas a healthy dose of snaps, I could see him having great success on Monday night.
The Bengals secondary has picked up some of the slack left by the LBs. Led by free safety, George Iloka (+10.1), they are a talented group, but are getting long in the tooth at cornerback. Strong safety, Reggie Nelson (+4.4), has had a very good season next to Iloka. Together, they are a formidable safety duo.
Terence Newman+2.6) and Leon Hall (-4.2) start at corner for the Bengals and have a combined 20 seasons of experience under their belts. They are veterans and they're unquestionably disciplined and savvy, but can be beaten by the quick-twitch, explosive outside weapon. If the Broncos choose to throw the ball more than 20 times, Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders could have very productive games.
Adam Jones (+0.6) rotates in when they run their nickel sub-package. He is a talented player, and could have really been something in this league, had he not struggled so mightily off the field. On the field, untimely penalties often mar his performances and at times, have put the Bengals defense in a tough position.
The bottom line is that this is not the smothering Bengals defense of yesteryear. They've taken a step backwards, as a unit, but they're still very intense and physical. At home, with the fans at their back, they can play well. The Broncos will have to play smart football and not turn the ball over.
Following their recent successes on the ground, most teams likely are gearing up to stop the Broncos run game. This might be a good opportunity for Adam Gase and Manning to remind the NFL that they know how to throw the ball, as evidenced by Manning's 37 TDs this season, which ranks him just 1 behind Andrew Luck, for most in the league.
Throwing the ball with higher frequency on Monday night would definitely give defensive coordinators who are playoff-bound, something to chew on. I've had a feeling that the Broncos are lulling the opposition to sleep with the intention of knocking them out with a haymaker when the time is right.
Broncos 31 Bengals 19
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