3TFO: Broncos @ Bengals, Week 9
No position characterizes the play of these two teams better than quarterback. For the Broncos, Peyton Manning’s resurgence has been a major storyline this season and he’s been great in the past few weeks. On the other hand, the Bengals have lost three straight after starting 3-1 as Andy Dalton has really struggled in his second season, coming in as PFF’s fifth-worst rated quarterback.
The Bengals are coming off a bye week and, though Marvin Lewis is a career 3-5-1 after a bye, this game should be competitive with the Cincinnati crowd providing a tough environment for the Broncos.
Covering Demaryius Thomas
While Manning has been on fire of late, the outstanding play of his receivers has been a large part of his success, and they’ve been led by Demaryius Thomas. Coming off a monster performance Sunday night against the Saints, Thomas has caught 23 of the 27 passes thrown his way for 457 yards and two touchdowns in his past four games. On the year, only five WRs average more yards per route run than the 2.61 of Thomas, and Manning has a remarkable rating of 134.2 when targeting him.
Often switching between sides of the field, he’ll see time matched up against each of Cincinnati’s starting corners, Leon Hall and Terence Newman. Though neither was outstanding against Pittsburgh this past week, both have been solid this season with surprisingly similar numbers. Newman is being targeted slightly more often, with Hall missing two games due to injury, but both players have allowed just 62.5% of passes into their coverage to be completed. The two have excelled in limiting big plays, having given up just 13.2 yards per reception and two touchdowns between them. This will be a key in defending Thomas, who is averaging over 17 yards per catch. With Manning looking Thomas’ way an average of eight times a game, these two will have to be on point for Cincinnati to pull the upset.
And, whether it’s with Thomas or another receiver, look for Denver to attack Rey Maualuga in coverage. Maualuga is PFF’s worst graded linebacker in coverage to this point, and has allowed all but three of the 31 passes targeting him to be completed.
Of course no matter how well Cincinnati covers on the back end, they won’t have success against the Bronco passing attack unless they can get to Manning up front and disrupt his rhythm in the pocket — which will be a tough task in itself. The Broncos’ offensive line ranks second in Pass Blocking efficiency — interestingly the Bengals are first — with just five sacks and 40 total pressures given up in 271 passing plays this season. Manning is partly responsible for their success, as he’s adept at identifying the rush and getting the ball out quickly.
Ryan Clady leads the line at left tackle and he’s been the best of the group, with a clean sheet against the Saints this past week and just two hits and three hurries given up on the season. And Manning shouldn’t expect any significant pressure from his side against the Bengals, as Clady will primarily face Michael Johnson. Johnson has disrupted opposing QBs 24 times on the season, but considering the amount of snaps he plays (85% of defensive snaps), that number isn’t too impressive.
The battles on the interior and right side will be much more interesting to watch. Inside, the trio of Zane Beadles, Dan Koppen, and Chris Kuper will have the task of blocking Geno Atkins, who leads all interior linemen with 22 stops and 27 combined sacks, hits, and hurries. He’s extremely powerful and, since he plays almost equally at DRT and DLT, will see plenty of snaps against all three Broncos who’ve combined to give up 16 disruptions on the season — 11 of them coming from Beadles at left guard. On the right side, Orlando Franklin, who hasn’t been quite as good as Clady yet is still our third-ranked RT in pass protection, will match up against Robert Geathers and Carlos Dunlap. Dunlap is the better player of the two, with 18 pressures in just 107 pass rushes, but inexplicably plays fewer snaps than Geathers at DLE.
Can Green-Ellis Get Going?
There are myriad reasons why Cincinnati should focus on running the football on Sunday. It would slow down the fierce Bronco pass rush, take the ball out of Dalton’s hands, and keep Manning off the field as much as possible. The only problem? Denver has been one of the stoutest defending the run, while the Bengals have been one of the worst rushing teams in the NFL this season. A large reason for that has been the poor play of BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The Cincinnati running back has been rushing the ball over 17 times per game and not doing much, averaging just 3.4 yards per carry and yet to break 100 yards in a game. Some blame should fall on the offensive line, where only RG Kevin Zeitler has been above average in run blocking. But Green-Ellis has not helped by being one of the least elusive backs in the league, having forced only 13 missed tackles on 133 touches.
For the Bengals to have success running the ball, they may want to rush to the left side, which will be anchored by Elvis Dumervil, who has been Denver’s worst run defender. They will definitely want to avoid running behind center Jeff Faine (if he’s not kept out by his hamstring injury), as he’s been the team’s worst run blocker by far, and in fact the worst blocking center in the league.