The Cincinnati Bengals are heading back to the field after their bye week, hoping to separate themselves entirely from the three-game losing streak they were on before the bye. To do this, however, they'll need to defeat the Denver Broncos, the 4-3 AFC West-leading team with Peyton Manning at the helm.
Manning has never fallen to the Bengals in his career, and if he is going to this Sunday, it will take a concerted effort from Cincinnati's offense and defense. This game is the first of a two-week homestand against very difficult opponents, and it's important for the Bengals to start off on the right foot and turn their season around.
Here's a game plan for how Cincinnati can stymie the Broncos on Sunday.
Controlling Denver's Offense
Though Peyton Manning gets the most attention, the entire Broncos' offensive attack is dangerous and highly effective. It ranks 14th in the league in rushing yards per game, at 112.6, and fourth in passing yards, at 292.9. As such, Denver is fourth in points per game, and it scores a touchdown 68 percent of the time when it reaches the red zone.
The Bengals will thus have quite the task on their hands when it comes to keeping the Broncos from moving the ball. Shutting down Manning can be done—this isn't an undefeated team, after all—but it's difficult. There are few quarterbacks playing better than Manning is presently. He ranks fourth overall in accuracy, is the best deep-passing quarterback in the league, ranks sixth when under pressure and when throwing the play-action pass.
Getting to Manning, therefore, isn't going to be easy. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins and defensive end Michael Johnson will be tasked with bringing the pressure. They have seven sacks each and have combined for nine more quarterback hits as well as 28 hurries. But few quarterbacks in the NFL can read defenses and make the correct adjustments on the fly as well as Manning. It will take more than Atkins, Johnson and the rest of the Bengals' front four to keep him from having a big day.
The best chance the Bengals have to stop Manning is to stop his receivers, starting with Demaryius Thomas. Thomas is Manning's big-play receiver. Of his 39 receptions, 16 of them have been for 20 yards or more, and he's averaging 17.4 yards per reception. Leon Hall will likely be matched up with him, but the Bengals will also need deep safety help to keep him contained.
Manning's other big weapon is Eric Decker, his short-yardage target. Decker has been targeted 59 times—just two more than Thomas—with 38 catches for 484 yards and five touchdowns. If the deep game is shut off, Decker still poses a big threat to not only keep the chains moving but to score points. The Bengals cannot focus their resources primarily on Thomas and hope that Decker won't come up big, because with Manning throwing to him, he most certainly will.
The other issue is Denver's run game. The tandem of Willis McGahee and Ronnie Hillman has been particularly effective this season. McGahee is averaging 4.5 yards per carry and Hillman 4.4, and despite Denver's solid passing game, they're running the ball more than 19 other teams. If the Broncos aren't passing well, they can still run well, and if they cannot run well, the passing game is most certainly there for them.
Presently, the Bengals defense ranks just 22nd against the run and 16th against the pass, and they're allowing an average of 357.1 yards per game. They'll need to do better than that to beat the Broncos this week. Rotating defensive linemen and staying in tight man coverage in the secondary is one way they can do this. But their coverage linebackers, particularly Rey Maualuga, need to stay on their assignments and make tackles, and they'll need to show Manning schemes he is unprepared for.
Beware the Shootout
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton needs to get his confidence back. He's thrown an interception in every game this season, and six of his 10 total picks have come during the Bengals' three-game losing streak. He's Pro Football Focus' 30th-ranked quarterback, though he ranks 17th in accuracy thanks in part to those interceptions as well as his struggles when throwing under pressure.
With the high-scoring Broncos offense coming to town this week, the game could unfold into a shootout if Cincinnati's defense struggles to contain it. In one sense, this might just be what Dalton needs—he's not going to get better at throwing the ball if he doesn't throw it—but it also opens him up to making the same mistakes that has doomed his team in their three previous games.
The Broncos have 19 sacks to their name and just seven interceptions—neither the best nor worst totals in the league—and know how to bring pressure to quarterbacks who falter when facing it. Look at how they managed Drew Brees last week and Philip Rivers the week before that, and it gives some idea of what they'll be attempting to do to Dalton. They're also a top-10 team when it comes to passing yards allowed per game.
As such, the Broncos are going to be looking for Dalton to throw, and he'll likely have no choice but to do so play after play if the Bengals find themselves behind. With the receiving corps not coming together as the Bengals had hoped (beyond, of course, A.J. Green), it won't be smart for Dalton to take too many risks. When his accuracy goes, so does his confidence, and it's hard for the Bengals to dig out of that hole.
The Bengals should instead play a game of clock control as best they can. Time of possession isn't Cincinnati's forte this year, ranking 18th in the league with an average of 29:41, but it isn't for Denver either—it's holding onto the ball an average of 29:07 per game. Clearly, the Broncos are getting more out of their time on offense so the more the Bengals can do to limit that, the better.
This means more running and more short-yardage, high-percentage throws. For Dalton, high-percentage means targets between 10 and 19 yards—this year, the zero to nine-yard range just hasn't been his best area of production. Ten- or 12-yard pickups keeps the chains moving, allow for quicker throws that help defend against pressure and don't generally allow for as many mistakes as long as the receivers catch the passes.
When it comes to the run game, the Broncos are less stout than when it comes to defending the pass. They rank 15th in rushing yards per game allowed, though they're giving up just 3.7 yards per rush. The key to breaking down Denver's run defense, therefore, is to run and keep running until they break down.
For the Bengals, however, that's easier said than done. With Bernard Scott's season over, they've had to rely almost singularly on BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who has power, but is also at the same time easy to tackle—he's averaging just two yards after contact. He's rushed 125 times already (he had 181 carries total last year) for 431 yards and two touchdowns and is averaging a mere 3.4 yards per carry.
If there's one word to describe him, it's "plodding," which is not what you want out of a running back who has been thrust into the role of a feature back. The Bengals desperately need someone with burst and elusiveness to complement Green-Ellis, and that someone could be Cedric Peerman, except they don't seem to have much interest in giving him opportunities considering he has just three carries for 15 yards on the season.
That means it's up to Green-Ellis to get the majority of the carries again this week. This can go in the Bengals' favor, however—mixing up Ellis' short-yardage runs with a few high-percentage passes that lead to first downs is actually an effective way to dominate the clock and keep Manning and Denver's offense off the field. For once, a "plodding" run game might not be the worst thing for the Bengals this week.