This week the Bengals (1-0), fresh off of a win built on the success of the running game and on the defensive front 7, face off against the Denver Broncos (0-1) in another road game. (The Bengals are one of only 4 teams to start the season with two road games.) But in order to get the win, the Bengals will have to exorcise the demons of the past and win in a city where they have not been victorious since 1975. That is pre-Jimmy Carter, people. With an 8-17 record against the Broncos, tradition does not favor the good guys in this one. But there are plenty of mitigating factors to consider that just may help the Bengals break the curse.
John Thornton also has some interesting thoughts from a player’s perspective on the dynamics that the Broncos will face on his blog in a post he titles “Bengals Will Get Tired Broncos”. (Read it, soldier!)
Let’s take a look at how the Bengals and the Broncos stack up.
When Denver has the ball…
QB Kyle Orton v. QB Tim Tebow. I am being a little flip there, but only a little. Talk about your quarterback controversy! The Carson Palmer saga has nothing on this. Until Orton steps into greatness (ain’t gonna happen) or Denver gets rid of one of these guys, QB is going to be a four-alarm disaster for this team.
Orton took over for Drew Brees at Purdue in 2001. He was a step back then. He is a step back now. Orton is not a bad QB. He is no Gus Frerotte. But he is not a good quarterback either. And that is one of the key problems for Denver, because, mediocre as he is, Orton is still Denver’s best chance to win.
Orton has a bigger arm than Colt McCoy, so he has a better chance to test the Bengals in their secondary this week, where they are weakest. But get pressure on Orton, and he can fold quickly. He threw an interception in the second half against the Raiders that got the crowd chanting for Tebow, and then had a critical fumble in Raiders territory late in the game. So pressure is not a friend to Orton. But like McCoy for the Browns, Orton will have to make the plays, because the running game is going nowhere.
So who do you choose? Orton, a 7th year vet who is 5-19 in his last 24 starts? Or Dalton, a knicked-up rookie in his second pro start? I’ll take Dalton, thanks.
Much like the Browns, the Broncos have a very young front line. OG Beadles and C Walton started last year as rookies, and OT Franklin is a rookie this year. It would seem that the O-line should be a little better this year with two sophomores, but it sure didn’t look that way from what I saw of their opening game against the Raiders. (For 2010, Football Outsiders had them ranked #30 against the run, and ProFootballFocus ranked them #22 against the pass. More of the same seems likely based on Monday night’s game.)
The Raiders feature a pretty stout defensive line. But it is not all that big of a drop-off to the Bengals D-line. The Bengals will rotate regularly to keep guys fresh and ultimately exert control over the line of scrimmage in this one.
LT Ryan Clady v. RDE Michael Johnson. Clady is a highly regarded tackle who is finally healthy after struggling with injuries last year. This should be another fantastic matchup for Johnson, who fought hard last week with Joe Thomas and won in the 4th quarter after he and Fanene wore Thomas down.
LG Zane Beadles, C J.D. Walton and RG Chris Kuper v DTs Domata Peko, Geno Atkins and Pat Sims. The Broncos’ interior has struggled to establish the run, which will continue to be the case this week. They are better in pass protection but not significantly. If the Bengals trio can create pressure on Orton without help from the blitz, then Zimmer will be able to use the nickel defense a lot to better defend against the pass. (Holding was a bit if a problem for this crew on Monday night.)
RT Orlando Franklin v. LDEs Robert Geathers and Carlos Dunlap. For the second week in a row, the Bengals face a rookie at right tackle. The Browns’ rookie stood up better than I expected, but Franklin did not fair quite as well to the Raiders. The Broncos need to throw to move the ball, which should give Zimmer extra opportunities to unleash Dunlap. I would not be at all surprised to see Dunlap pick up a couple of sacks this week.
New HC John Fox likes to run a two-back system. But he has a problem. Instead of his lead punch being DeAngelo Williams, he’s got Knowshon Moreno, who collected 779 yards in 13 games last year. That’s 60 yds/game, folks. (Remember those few-but-vocal Bengals fans calling for them to draft this kid out of Georgia a few years ago? Talk about a Chris Perry redux!) So to bolster the running game, Fox brought in Willis McGahee, who was RB#2 in Baltimore the past 4 years. Good luck, Willis. In your 9th season, you are going to need it.
RBs Knowshon Moreno and Willis McGahee v MLB Rey Maualuga. Against the Raiders, Moreno and McGahee combined for 25 yards on 12 carries. That is hideous. Denver never trailed by more than 13, so they did not abandon the game plan and air it out. Their running game just doesn’t work. And to top it off, Moreno will undergo an MRI for an injury to his hamstring sustained against the Raiders. If he cannot go, the Broncos will have to turn to 3rd-year back Lance Ball, who has run the ball 41 times for 158 yards last year, to pair up with McGahee.
Peko & Co. should keep the running game in check. The one danger here is that players and coaches get so pass-focused that they get lax with run support. If the Broncos use the same mix as in Week 1 (46 pass plays to 13 run plays), it would be easy to assume the pass when they are coming 78% of the time. I’m not saying this is a big danger. Just the only one I can find.
Rushing may be negligible, but passing sure is not. Football Outsiders ranked the Broncos at #9 in 2010. (That is only 2 spots better than the Bengals passing offense for 2010.) That is good, but not nearly good enough to make up for an embarrassing running game. John Fox might love the run, but he is going to have to learn to live by the pass.
WRs Brandon Lloyd, Eddie Royal and Eric Decker v. CBs Leon Hall, Nate Clements and Kelly Jennings. Lloyd is the heart of the passing game. He was Orton’s favorite target last year, posting 77 receptions for 1,448 yds. He has the speed to get open in the secondary that the Browns simply do not. Double-coverage is a near must. But Lloyd is undergoing an MRI for a groin injury from Monday’s game, which could limit or possibly bench him. Watch to see how much he practices because the less he is on the field, the less effective their passing game becomes. Decker and Royal are nice compliment pieces to Lloyd. One of them will have to step up big if Lloyd can’t go much or at all.
With Hall prone to giving up a big play now and then, the Broncos will test him. I think they will get him once or twice, but he will pick one back to make up for it. Assuming he is finally ready to go, Kelly Jennings will be the wild card here. I will be very interested to see if Mike Zimmer can begin to coax that first round talent out of him.
TE Daniel Fells v. LB Thomas Howard. Fells was a nice free agent pickup for the Broncos, but he is not type of receiving threat that the Browns’ tight ends are. He posted 3 receptions for 32 yards against the Raiders. Not huge, but not bad. He will move the chains a couple of times. But with the way the Bengals have traditionally struggled with covering tight ends, Fells could get a few more targets this week.
When Cincinnati has the ball…
To begin rebuilding the team, Elway and Fox put their focus on the defense, which was as awful as the running game. Football Outsiders ranked the Broncos’ defense last year as #31 against the pass and #29 against the run. Yikes! But I respect them for starting with the defense. It is far less flashy than starting with the offense, but it is the right way to turn around.
QB Andy Dalton v. Inexperience. Andy looked poised and ready against the Browns, posting a 102.4 passing rating in his first pro game. The coaches need to be just as careful to put him in the right situations to succeed this week. Four parts Cedric, one part Scott/Leonard, and three parts Gresham/Green/Shipley/Simpson = move the ball.
The Bengals’ O-line did a reasonably good job of controlling the line of scrimmage against the Browns. There were some break downs, but more good than bad. By contrast, the Broncos’ D-line did not control the line of scrimmage against the Raiders. That, more than anything else, is an indicator of good things for the Bengals.
RT Andre Smith v. LDE Robert Ayers. Ayers and Smith have been similar so far in their careers. Sometimes they are good, and sometimes they aren’t. Fortunately, Smith seems to be motivated to step up his game and increase the amount of good he gives. Drafted in the same year as Smith, we will see if Ayers has made the same step. He rarely made it to the QB last year (1.5 sacks in 2010). That ain’t getting it done.
LG Nate Livings, C Kyle Cook and RG Clint Boling v. DTs Brodrick Bunkley and Kevin Vickerson. As excited as the Broncos are about the pass rushing capabilities of Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller, they will not get to feature those two as much as they want if their DTs cannot stop the run. As I noted above, Football Outsiders scored them #29 against run last year. Of all the moves made by the Broncos to shore up the defense, run defense was not addressed. Controlling the line of scrimmage by this trio of Bengals will result in a great day for the running game. I think the Bengals will exceed the 139 yards rushing that they put up against the Browns.
LT Andrew Whitworth v. RDE Elvis Dumervil. This should be a marquee matchup. A 15-round slugfest. Or perhaps we will be saying should have been. The Broncos were thrilled to have Dumervil back at full strength, but a shoulder injury limited him to situational duty for most of the game on Monday. So keep your ear open for an injury report on Dumervil. As one of the top DEs in the game, they want to turn him loose on opposing QBs as much as possible. Whitworth has been tasked with neutralizing a number of excellent DEs in the past, and he has always held his own. If Dumervil can’t go, his job will get a lot easier.
RB Cedric Benson v. LB Joe Mays. Cedric had a solid game against the Browns, and the Bengals need him to put up good numbers again against the Broncos so that Jay Gruden can stick to his game plan. The Raiders’ Darren McFadden rolled up 150 yds against the Broncos. Cedric might not match him (unless the Bengals go up big early and then eat up the clock), but he should have another fine day.
RB Bernard Scott v. FS Rahim Moore. Unless he suffered a tweak and I missed it, I was completely baffled by how the Bengals used Scott against the Browns. They pulled Benson for Scott for one series in the 2nd quarter, and when he didn’t get much traction (3 yds on 4 carries), they sat him and never went back. Isn’t the whole idea of a “change-of-pace” guy is that you go back and forth between the two? A mix of Benson and Scott would be nice to see.
FB Chris Pressley v. LB Von Miller. Miller was Elway’s first big investment in the defense. He looks to be a good one. Because of his size and speed, Denver wants to use him more as a weapon to attack the QB than as a shield to protect the middle of the field. (And they should.) Pressley will need to guard Dalton from Miller with his life when he is not opening holes for Cedric.
The Raiders only posted 107 yards passing against the Broncos. Yes it was raining, but with Jason Campbell slinging the ball, are you surprised? The Raiders were not exactly the biggest test of a respectable secondary.
WRs A.J. Green and Jerome Simpson v. CBs Champ Bailey and Andre Goodman. It is amazing that Champ is still one of the better corners in the game. You have to respect that. He is yet another Bronco getting an MRI this week. If he can go, the Broncos will ask him to completely remove the threat of A.J. Green. A.J. will have to bide his time and be patient, and Jordan Shipley will need to make some noise in his place after completely disappearing against the Browns.
TE Jermaine Gresham v. LB D.J. Williams. Gresham was Dalton’s safety valve against Cleveland, and he will be again against Denver. Denver’s linebackers are an improvement over Cleveland’s crew (which effectively consisted of only D’Qwell Jackson), so the yards may come a little harder this week.
K Matt Prater v. K Mike Nugent. Both are solid kickers. Call it a tie.
P Britton Colquitt v. P Kevin Huber. I can’t wait to see Huber unleash that leg in the thin air of Denver. Colquitt’s yardage is a little better than Huber’s, but he has the advantage of playing half his game at 5000+ ft altitude. Another tie.
KR Cassius Vaughn and PR Eddie Royal v. KR/PR Brandon Tate. Is this the week Tate takes one all the way? He’s got one coming. I can feel it.
Final Score: Bengals 27. Broncos 17. (2-0, here we come!)