If the season were to end today, there is little doubt that the Broncos game against Pittsburgh last Sunday was the most exciting win of the year. While the Chargers game had its thrills, it took some serious mistakes by Los Angeles for the Broncos to pull it out at the end. Despite what Ben Roethlisberger may think about his final pick to Shelby Harris, Denver went blow for blow with the Steelers from the opening kickoff ‘til the final whistle.
There’s no doubt that the fumble out of the back of the end zone helped, but throughout the game, Denver accomplished all three keys I laid out for them in last week’s GIF Horse.
1. Keenum needs to channel his inner Texan
It wasn’t as pretty as the raw yardage total Ben Roethlisberger put up, but Keenum isn’t necessarily a pretty stat kind of quarterback. As I mentioned before, Keenum at his best is a similar kind of QB to Jake Plummer in his hey-day and it showed last weekend. When Denver got into Pittsburgh’s side of the field, Keenum was 10-of-12 for 139 yards, eight first downs, and two touchdowns. Even better, he had another week where he avoided giving the opposition extra chances through turnovers, which can’t be said of the Hall of Fame quarterback he faced.
He did this with little to no help from Courtland Sutton and behind a line that couldn’t hide Elijah Wilkinson. The Broncos were 3-11 on third down in part because they were pretty conservative. Musgrave elected to protect his QB and play the long game Sunday. It meant relying on the defense and special teams, but that game plan also meant they could do enough to help Denver seal the win instead of being sunk by a mistake on offense.
In both plays above, Pittsburgh chose a cover 3 shell. In the first, the 17 yard strike to Matt LaCosse, the swing route by Emmanuel Sanders occupies the flat defender while Courtland Sutton’s post draws the attention of both deep defenders, leaving a vacated space where Keenum can hit his tight end.
On the touchdown, the Broncos again use a swing route, this time by Phillip Lindsay. In response, Pittsburgh sends a 5 man zone blitz and Terrell Edmunds is forced to come up on the swing, leaving space for LaCosse to sit down underneath the deep help. As I highlight in red, Sanders actually broke open for a touchdown too. There’s no help that could make it in time on his out and up, but Keenum had already found an easier completion, making the kind of quick read he was celebrated for when Elway signed him.
2. Trench Warfare
Last spring, Elway resigned Todd Davis for a 3-year $15 million contract to keep him in Denver. At the time, it seemed like a reasonable deal for a 2 down thumper but one that looked like a short term fix as it had an easy out in both 2019 and 2020. With Josey Jewell added through the draft, it seemed entirely possible that the Broncos could move on in the near future.
Of course I can’t speak for the future this far out, but if 2018 is any indication there’s every reason to believe Davis will play out the life of his deal. His 82 tackles lead the team by a country mile and he’s been the unsung hero of the revitalized Bronco run D in recent weeks. What’s more, he’s a much better pass defender than he’s given credit for.
Davis will never be confused for Luke Kuechly but he’s the best underneath defender the Broncos have in their linebacker corps this year. Yes, better than Josey Jewell, who still bites on play action far more than he should. There’s a reason Davis stays on the field in the Broncos’ dime packages when Su’a Cravens is subbed in. He’s the glue guy in the middle and showed up big again Sunday when he led the Broncos with 8 solo tackles.
I mentioned last week that Conner has been good, but isn’t the same kind of weapon that Le’Veon Bell was. That became evident on plays like the one above. In the past, Bell proved himself shifty enough that the contain by Simmons above may not have been enough to prevent a foot race to the pylon. However, Conner elected to take what was in front of him, leaving Davis to stop him for a minimal gain. It speaks volumes about what the Steelers thought of the Broncos run D that they decided to throw for the touchdown on 3rd and 2.
In fact, the entire Steelers game plan centered around attacking the Broncos through the air while doing everything they could to minimize the Orange Rush. Ben Roethlisberger completed 41 of 56 passes for 462 yards, but if you take out the big play to JuJu Smith-Schuster, Big Ben averaged a measly 6.6 yards per attempt. Even then Von Miller, Bradley Chubb, and especially Shaq Barrett made their presence known.
3. The secondary needs to show up
There’s little doubt that this was the key to the victory on the offset. In many ways the Broncos accomplished this through turnovers, even as they gave up monstrous numbers. I already mentioned how big the 97-yard touchdown was for Roethlisberger’s numbers, but outside the deep bomb, Smith-Schuster had 12 catches for 92 yards and averaged 7.6 yards a catch. Brown averaged about the same and his longest catch of the day went for 14 yards.
Outside of the dynamic duo, Roethlisberger went to Switzer, as well as Conner and his tight ends. I mentioned last week that it was unlikely they had enough juice to beat the Broncos, but they came awfully close.
If Will Parks hadn’t made the best play of his career Sunday, the Broncos weakness to play action would have probably cost them the game. In a similar vein, I wouldn’t be shocked if James Conner is forced to watch Tiki Barber ball security drills for the next several months. His fumble stalled a drive when the game was tied and Pittsburgh was a yard from the redzone.
That said? Parks did do the Anti-Rahim Moore and Roby did capitalize on Conner’s bread loaf carry. In a game where Roethlisberger made a 97-yard bomb off his back foot and the Steelers pulled off the ballsiest fake field goal in recent memory, Broncos Country should gladly take it.
Which brings us to this Sunday and one of the most obvious trap games since Peyton Manning was wearing orange and blue. Andy Dalton left the Browns game and 2018 behind with a thumb injury bad enough that the Bengals placed him on injured reserve. Jeff Driskel steps into his first start with 36 passes on his resume and A.J. Green probably returning from a foot injury that’s sidelined him since the Cincinnati’s victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Key 1: Let Lindsay carry the day on Offense
Phillip Lindsay's (@I_CU_boy) 32-yard run against Pittsburgh clocked in a 22.36 MPH, per @NextGenStats. It's the fastest carry in the league this year.— Nicki Jhabvala (@NickiJhabvala) November 26, 2018
Which makes the ending even more mind-numbing. How did he land on his feet? pic.twitter.com/suTU2GUc0b
The Cincinnati Bengals are not a good defense this year. It hasn’t helped their cause that they’ve played one of the toughest slates in terms of opposing offenses, but Musgrave and the Broncos should see on tape that this is the weakest run defense Denver’s faced since the Kansas City Chiefs. Yes, they held Nick Chubb to 84 yards on 28 carries, and in doing so they let Baker Mayfield torch them for 4 touchdowns. This despite the fact that the strength of the Bengals defense lay in their secondary where William Jackson III remains a threat, even on a down year.
In light of that, Royce Freeman, Devontae Booker, and Lindsay should have every opportunity to control the game and grind out both yards and the clock. The Bengals are among the worst teams in the league at defending rushes right up the middle as well as off the right end, both areas where Denver has excelled all year.
In addition to the soft run defense, Cincinnati has been abysmal at defending backs through the air on the year. A big reason for that is their pedestrian linebackers, who struggle in space. Lindsay should be given ample opportunities to punish that.
Key 2: Minimize Mixon
While it’s no contest that A.J. Green is the best player on the Bengals, Joe Mixon has done a solid job of proving himself a talented back this year. There’s little doubt he would have been a first rounder a year ago if not for the video of him punching a woman had not given teams significant character concerns. He’s a workhorse back as adept in the passing game as he’s been solid on the ground. He’s tough to bring down at nearly 220 pounds, comfortable attacking a defense in the middle of the field, as well as the lateral mobility to make a defender miss in space.
The last time Denver truly blew a game against an inferior opponent, Bilal Powell and Isaiah Crowell combined for 35 carries and 318 yards. Since then, Denver’s held opponents under 4 yards a carry, but if the Bengals are going to reliably hold off the Broncos O, they’ll need to get ahead and grind out a lead. As good as the Benglas pass pro has been this year under Dalton, Driskel shows on tape that Woods and Joseph should be able to force mistakes.
If the game is left in the backup’s hands, there should be a turnover or two. Especially if the pass rush gets home, which leads us to the final key.
Key 3: Dump Driskel into the dirt.
It goes hand in hand with the key above, but Driskel shows a propensity to rush throws under pressure and he could collapse under duress. Von and Chubb should also find favorable matchups against tackles. It’s vital they harass Driskel because the Broncos pass D this season is completely predicated on the Orange Rush getting home. Minus Shaq Barrett, it is imperative that Shane Ray and DeMarcus Walker do a satisfactory job relieving Miller and Chubb so Woods can send the dogs in waves.
If the Broncos fail to get home, Green and Tajh Boyd will likely feast on the Denver safeties. One area where Driskel showed some skill last week was in his ability to push the ball down the middle of the field, an area where the Fly Zone has been abysmal all season. The Bengals also utilize play action often, something that Denver’s D has flailed against time and again this year.
After the last three weeks facing three teams on huge winning streaks, it could come as a bit of a relief to see a backup quarterback on a crumbling team. That said, this Bengals team has the horses to prematurely end Denver’s playoff hopes. Their pass defense is good enough to force Keenum into mistakes and their receiving corps is in the upper echelon of the league. In order to keep the postseason dream alive, Vance Joseph needs to lead his Broncos past a team they clearly outclass on paper.
Let’s hope he does so.