After losing three games in a row, things aren’t going to get easier for the Cincinnati Bengals(3-4) today. The Bengals welcome the Denver Broncos(4-3) to Paul Brown Stadium, a team led by an MVP candidate, Peyton Manning. The Broncos have been improving from week-to-week and are coming off a 34-14 victory over the New Orleans Saints, a game in which Manning threw for over 300 yards and three touchdowns.
Defensively, the Bengals face a test like no other today. Mike Zimmer‘s young defense will face as much of a mental challenge against the Broncos as they will a physical challenge. In order to prevent the Broncos from steamrolling their way to their 29.1 points per game average, they must win the battle in the trenches. That will not be an easy task, as the Broncos offensive line has improved significantly since last season.
Defensive tackle Geno Atkins will need to be at his very best, which he generally has been this season, to disrupt the pocket and force Manning off his spot. Prior to the team’s bye last week, Atkins had notched two sacks in three games and has had at least one sack in all but two games this year. Those two games came against the Cleveland Browns when his primary focus was stopping the run and he was matched up against Alex Mack. The Broncos don’t have a Mack, and while Dan Koppen is a good player, he is long past his prime. Nor will Atkins be expected to worry as much about the running game.
The All-Pro talent alone at defensive tackle won’t be enough for the Bengals today however. Atkins has seven sacks on the season from defensive tackle; he leads the team. But defensive end Michael Johnson is just behind him with six. Johnson has the potential to take over games, as he did with his three sacks against the Washington Redskins, but has to put the performance on tape consistently. He will have plenty of opportunities in this game. The quality of those opportunities may be determined by the play of the opposing defensive end. Johnson and Atkins will rarely leave the field, but the other starters will likely see a lot more rotation than usual.
Robert Geathers is the other starting defensive end, but he is not an overwhelmingly productive pass rusher. Therefore, the Bengals will probably push Carlos Dunlap and Wallace Gilberry into the game more. Dunlap, in particular, is the most intriguing option, because the Bengals know that he has the talent to consistently get to the quarterback. Despite not starting, he has featured substantially this season, but has yet to find his form of his rookie season when he tallied 9.5 sacks in 12 games. Dunlap has shown some promise, but he still needs to have that breakout performance. Today would be as good a day as any from the Bengals’ point of view.
One quirk that Zimmer could come out with today is to try Gilberry, a former 3-4 defensive end, at defensive tackle. The Bengals are somewhat limited because they only have four active defensive ends, but they can’t afford to play any passengers in the passing game. If Domata Peko, Brandon Thompson and Devon Still aren’t performing, Gilberry should be considered for this game alone.
If the Bengals’ defensive line can get the better of their opposition across the line of scrimmage, Manning will have a tough time picking apart the defense. The Bengals should spend a lot of time with five defensive backs on the field which means that Leon Hall, Nate Clements, Terrence Newman and Adam Jones should all see a lot of time on the field. The outside defenders are going to be most significantly tested because the Broncos are bringing Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker to Cincinnati. Decker and Thomas are very different receivers, but both very effective.Decker proved last week that he can beat defenders with his route running alone, while Thomas is a receiver who can simply overpower defenders. Brandon Stokley, Jacob Tamme and Joel Dressen shouldn’t be major issues infield, so the Bengals’ safeties will instead need to focus on how they can best help their outside cornerbacks in coverage.
On the other side of the ball, Andy Dalton needs to have a big day and there is no way around that. Dalton has been very inconsistent this season and the Bengals face what could be a cross-roads for their whole season this week. Standing at 3-4, they risk falling too far behind in the AFC North with another loss today. While the Broncos have lost three games this season, their team overall doesn’t have many weaknesses. They’re an average run defense, but the Bengals don’t have the running game to really expose that weakness. Instead the Bengals will need to pass their way to victory, and even more worriesome, they must do so without completely focusing on AJ Green.
Green is part of the marquee matchup this week as he goes against Champ Bailey. How that duel plays out will determine a lot of what the Broncos can do defensively, but even if Green gets the better of Bailey, it is very unlikely that he alone can carry the passing attack. The Broncos are without starting cornerback Tracy Porter, and while his replacement Chris Harris played well in his absence last week, that area must be perceived as a potential soft spot for the Bengals to attack.
Armon Binns has played more than Andrew Hawkins in recent weeks, but Binns has also shown an inability to escape man coverage consistently. The Broncos won’t fear putting their cornerbacks in man coverage with the Bengals receivers, so Dalton is more likely to look for Hawkins, presuming he is on the field. With Wesley Woodward and Von Miller, the Broncos cover receiving tight ends and running backs very well. That should limit the impact of Jermaine Gresham who is also struggling with consistency this season.
A big day from Gresham, Hawkins, or anyone else for that matter, would alleviate the pressure on Green and go a very long way to helping the Bengals overcome the Broncos. It’s going to be a very tough test for the Bengals, but if this team wants to make the playoffs again this year, these are the types of tests they need to be passing.
Cian Fahey writes for RantSports, Irishcentral, The Guardian, Balls.ie and FootballGuys. You can follow him on twitter @Cianaf