Josh Kirkendall from CINCY JUNGLE, SBNation's excellent Cincinnati Bengals Blog took some time to chit-chat with me about this week's matchup --
Josh Kirkendall: Champ Bailey vs. Chad Johnson. Who wins?
TheSportsGuru: Johnson owned Bailey the last time these two teams met, though Champ still came up with a pick. I think there is a huge difference between that Champ, who was a bit injured at the time, and the Bailey we are seeing this season who should receive some Defensive Player of the Year consideration. 8 picks for a guy teams try to avoid throwing to. 6 of those have come inside his own 5 yard line. I won’t say that Bailey will shut Johnson down, but I think he will up his game a notch because of what happened the last time. Early in the game will tell the tale, because like most great receivers, if Johnson isn’t part of the game plan early he has a tendency to disappear a bit.
Kirkendall: If I remember right, Johnson hauled down a 50-yard pass AFTER Champ Bailey fell down. Even so, if you take that 50 yards away, Chad still had 99 yards receiving. I have the utmost respect for Bailey who I believe is the best shutdown corner in the league. But Chad was embarrassed in front of a national audience Monday. Like Bailey, Johnson will raise his level of their play simply because he's going against the league's best and this game has tremendous implications. I believe if the Broncos get too confident in single-coverage against Chad, then I think Chad wins.
TheSportsGuru: I think Johnson, and the Bengals as a whole, were a bit of an unknown that Monday Night, no to mention the excitement surrounding the first Monday Night appearance in 10 year or so. As for going single coverage, the Broncos really don’t have a choice due to the injuries in the secondary. John Lynch has lost a step or three in coverage and really plays like and extra linebacker and the Broncos are on their 3rd Safety in Curome Cox. Darrent Williams didn’t play last week due to Deltha O’Neal syndrome…errr…injured toes. The Broncos will need to help on T.J. and Chris Henry. If the Bengals were smart they would go 3-wide every play and force Denver to single-cover someone and my guess is it will be Bailey on Johnson.
Back to that Monday Night, Bailey was battling some groin and ankle issues, which slowed him down a lot more than he’ll admit. He’s as healthy now as at any time in Denver. Again, Johnson owned him then, no doubt, but Champ will rebound. A big key will be the pressure the Broncos can get on Carson Palmer with the front four. If they give Palmer time to survey the field we’re dead. The Colts did a great job of having someone in his face all the time, and like most quarterbacks Palmer can get frazzled.
Kirkendall: That's going to be a fun match-up.
TheSportsGuru: When I watch Carson Palmer I still se a guy worried about his leg. Do you think he is mentally and physically back to 100%?
Kirkendall: Yes, I do. He had a stretch of games that reflected his '05 form up to the Monday Night game against Indy. Even so against Indy, that was a Bengals team I haven't seen before. You're right, earlier in the season his technique was off causing his throws to go errant because he was more worried about guys hitting him low. He'd rush his throws on blitzes and threw it a mile over the receivers head.
We hear about how great Jay Cutler will be. Even some have said he reminds most people of John Elway. Now, I hate it when analysts use Hall of Fame quarterbacks as examples for a guy that's only started a few games. But what are your impressions of Cutler? And after watching the Bengals pass defense Monday Night, are you convinced Cutler will eat the Bengals up?
TheSportsGuru: You and me both. I avoid those types of comparisons at all costs, but one thing that has jumped out to me is Jay’s confidence in his right arm and his ability to shake off a bad play or throw. Elway was the same type of quarterback. The same thing that makes guys like Elway great is their confidence that they can make any throw at any time. Cutler has been compared to Favre in that way as well, a bit of a gunslinger, but Cutler already makes better decisions with the football than Favre did at the same point. When Cutler does make a bad throw he is able to come right back and play like it never happened. If the was a huge knock against Jake Plummer it was he let things get to him. Yea, he made some bone-headed plays, but you could almost tell from the first snap of the game what kind of performance to expect. When I look at a quarterback I need a guy that can overcome the deficiencies of team any certain Sunday. Jake could not, Jay Cutler can. Look no further than last Sunday, when Tatum Bell fumbled on his own 10 yard line and it was returned for a touchdown. That quick momentum had changed and a 10-0 lead was cut to 10-7. Jay Cutler proceeded to lead the team on a scoring drive, killing momentum. That, to me, is what being a top notch quarterback is all about.
To be honest, if I had to compare Cutler to anyone in the league right now it would be Palmer. Both have excellent size and freakishly strong arms. When it comes to the Bengals defense, I think they are very similar to Denver’s. Bend but don’t break, make the opponent drive the field to score. Don’t give up the big play and count of the other team to make a mistake, then capitalize. Cutler and the Broncos offense will need to do a good job being patient, and taking advantage of what the Bengals give them. One thing is for sure, pressure does not affect Cutler the way it affect Jake Plummer. Jay will stand in, and he recognizes quickly where to go with the football.
Ok, I have to ask. We all know about the transgressions of the Bengals in 2006. How has Marvin Lewis kept it together, and has the fan base reached the point of "Enough is enough" or does winning make everything ok?
Kirkendall: Excellent question. You hear about the "eight men out" all the time -- and justifiably so. They've done a horrible job representing their city, team and fan base. If you combine all the arrests, you could fulfill the first semester of Criminology 101.
Now obviously winning has put the "eight men out" in the back seat. Up until Deltha O'Neal's latest transgression, the issue of players getting arrested was really a distant memory. No one spoke about it. It was in the past and this team started winning.
But a lot of that has to do with Marvin Lewis. He's done a tremendous job holding this team together; keeping focus. He hasn't thrown any of the guys under the bus and never kept those lynch-mob fires burning. Now a lot in the NFL wonder if this could have been prevented because most of the guys arrested were picked up by Lewis. And there might be something to that. Lewis tends to have a heart with hard luck kids which is also presented with his community service work.
The Broncos are sixth in scoring defense. How would you best describe the Broncos strengths and weaknesses this season?
TheSportsGuru: The Broncos do a good job of avoiding the big play. They will give up yards. They will give up first downs. They rarely give up a long TD, or a play over 40 yards – what I call a momentum changer. When a team does get into the red zone the Broncos defense has done a good job of forcing them into field goals. Take out the two games against the Chargers and the defense has actually played pretty well. The linebackers do a great job of pursuit and rarely allow a runner into the second level.
Where the defense struggles is in pass coverage. At times I feel they play a bit too soft, which allows teams to flip field position. Case in point is the fact the Broncos rank dead last in the NFL in average starting field position. They frequently allow teams to get 2 or 3 first downs before forcing them to punt, and when a team is punting from mid-field you are usually going to pay. There have also been times that the tackling has been less than satisfactory. D.J. Williams, in particular, has a tendency to over pursue, allowing the cut back. L.T. ate that up for 7 TDs against the Broncos this season.
Lastly, the Broncos just don’t get enough pressure to the quarterback with their front four. This is a team that does not blitz a lot, relying on the speed and athleticism of the linebackers to remain in coverage. Obviously that puts a lot of pressure on the DB’s who are forced to stay in coverage for a longer period of time. When the guys up front do get pressure this defense is tough to face. It has been up and down all year and will need to be up this Sunday.
Similarly, the Bengals defense has had it’s share of issues this season. What concerns you and what should Broncos’ fans expect to see?
Kirkendall: Against the Colts, the Bengals defense was so worried about the deep pass that Peyton Manning ate us alive underneath. Against the Falcons, the Bengals defense was worried about the legs of Michael Vick that he nearly had a career passing day. Against the Chargers, the Bengals were worried about LaDainian Tomlinson and Phillip Rivers had a "coming out party". If the Bengals defense is forced to focus on one dimension, then they'll get burnt on the other.
My biggest concern going into Sunday is that we'll focus so much on the Broncos rushing offense that Jay Cutler may eat us up.
Kirkendall: I think this game is the biggest of the year for both teams. Lose, and we're likely out. Win and we'll have the leading edge on the Wild Card.
TheSportsGuru: This is the biggest game, no doubt about it. I look at the health of both teams, and there is no doubt the Bengals come in a bit battered. In the end, with the two teams being so similar, I think it will come down to which secondary has the better day. Both team play an opportunistic style of defense, especially against the pass. I also think someone neither of us is thinking of will make a big play, whether it is a kick-off/punt return, or a backup that has a career day. In games like these it is usually a play like that that makes all the difference.
TheSportsGuru: Denver hasn’t lost four home games in a row since 1990. That’s a long time and a big sample. If the game were in Cincy I would probably lean that way, but in Denver I gotta go with the Broncos in a classic – 27-24.
Kirkendall: Bengals go back to their offensive philosophy and win with a last second field goal... 31-30