The game against the Cincinnati Bengals mathematically isn’t a must-win game for the Denver Broncos to make the playoffs, but every win counts at this point in the season. With the Chargers and Chiefs coming up, the Broncos need to stack wins and build some momentum.
They go into a game against a 7-6 Bengals team that has been particularly hot and cold all season long. The Bengals are coming off a two-game losing streak to the Chargers and 49ers. both at home and one of them not particularly close.
What did these games show on film that the Broncos might be able to pick up on and copy to win this critical game?
Feed Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick
Denver’s success in this game comes down to their ability to win in the passing game. Cincinnati’s secondary has been good this season, but if I had to choose between hitting their front seven or their secondary, I’m choosing their secondary.
The Bengals DBs have had issues with size and contested catches the last few weeks. Mike Williams, Jauan Jennings, George Kittle, and even Jalen Guyton all won on some contested situations. With the 6’0 Chidobe Awuzie out, that means that the 5’9 Mike Hilton and 5’10 Vernon Hargreaves will likely be playing a lot more. Considering that Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick are each 6’4, well, math was never my strong suit but it appears there’s a mismatch waiting to happen.
The Broncos have really struggled figuring out how to feed these two at all, and a lot of that is on Shurmur. There’s plays where these two are just running nine routes into oblivion for no reason. The Chargers and 49ers both isolated their guys off play-action into one-on-one situations.
I can't get over how easy this throw looks. Just makes it look casual. pic.twitter.com/XeHrmzrb1D— AJ Schulte (@AJDraftScout) December 17, 2021
Keep in mind, the Broncos have already incorporated these kinds of throws into their playbook. They’ve even run them in the past with Teddy to Sutton. It’s just not been their for the last few games, and that’s been a killer for this offense.
Might be a good game to bring back these throws idk pic.twitter.com/sM56TA9ktM— AJ Schulte (@AJDraftScout) December 17, 2021
Outside zone and power is the way to go in the run game
Pat Shurmur loves calling inside zone and has done so repeatedly, even when it isn’t best to do so. I’m not expecting him to change that in this one against DJ Reader. When they do want to run, I personally would suggest copying a bit of the Dallas playbook. Javonte Williams ate up Dallas on those outside zone and power plays. They’ve consistently been able to pop big runs following behind Quinn Meinerz, and Denver should use that in this one. It’s been their best rushing play this season.
Watching Quinn Meinerz rumble from the end zone view is just awesome.— AJ Schulte (@AJDraftScout) November 10, 2021
(PS: you can see the exact moment of regret in the defender he buries at the end of the rep) pic.twitter.com/zR1YTYcElN
Hit the middle of the field and don’t be afraid to go deep
The 49ers routinely abused the Bengals over the middle of the field in the passing game. Look at Jimmy Garoppolo’s passing chart vs them last week.
It wasn’t the only time the Bengals got exploited here either. The Jets, in their infamous upset with Mike White, spammed underneath throws with plenty over the middle of the field.
Cincinnati is 28th in defensive DVOA over the middle of the field. That number falls to 30th (!) in deep middle passes, but rises some to 18th in short throws to the middle. The Broncos need to pick at this matchup and exploit it. This is where Jerry Jeudy should come into play. They’ve gotten Jeudy open on plays over the middle of the field in previous games, and they need to work him open in this one.
More of this to Jeudy please pic.twitter.com/1PWxpGJ5Zd— AJ Schulte (@AJDraftScout) December 17, 2021
What I mean by not being afraid to go deep is essentially this play:
Jimmy, my guy, you gotta send this one deep! Safety bites hard and you have Deebo one on one! pic.twitter.com/OhZj2bolW2— AJ Schulte (@AJDraftScout) December 17, 2021
Don’t be afraid to take shots. You won’t match Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase without them.
Pass rush has to show up
Joe Burrow has been the most sacked quarterback in the NFL so far, and the 49ers and Chargers exploited that. Burrow was hit 11 times and sacked 6 times against the Chargers, and was hit 6 times and was sacked 5 times against the 49ers. Burrow was pressured on an astounding 47.5% of plays against the 49ers, and they blitzed just 10% of the time.
While the Broncos don’t have a Bosa of their own to boast, they have options that can help them win this game. With Riley Reiff likely out, the Bengals are most likely going to play Isaiah Prince at right tackle. Their offense without Riley Reiff has experienced a noticeable dropoff-one that will help the Broncos take this game.
Burrow hasn’t been blitzed a ton this season due to teams having to account for their bevy of weapons (and ability to get home with 4). The Broncos have to pick and choose the best spots to blitz him, much like how San Fran did. They can’t have another game like the Eagles’ game, where they routinely played cover 0 and blitzed frequently. Burrow will dice them up. Some different pressure looks to create confusion against a pretty meh OL can free up additional runners like Baron Browning or even some DBs like Caden Sterns.
San Fran didn't blitz Burrow a ton in this game, but they made it count here. 49ers overload right side, linebackers drop, and there's enough confusion up front for Williams to knife through for the sack.— AJ Schulte (@AJDraftScout) December 17, 2021
Pretty sure I've seen Fangio run a similar blitz quite a few times w/ LBs pic.twitter.com/xQPEhR3c1X
The Chargers deployed a similar look as well. They didn’t get the sack, but Nasir Adderley hammered Joe Burrow, and the Bengals OL committed a hands to the face penalty. A win-win.
Force Cincinnati to be one-dimensional
Having one of my strategies be “force the Bengals to pass the ball” might not be a sound idea when you look at Burrow’s numbers, but the 49ers and Chargers both did a great job of shutting down the run game for Cincinnati. The 49ers held the Bengals to 86 yards rushing and 3.3 yards per carry, while the Chargers held them to 96 yards and 3.8 yards per carry.
While the game did start to get away from Cincinnati in both instances, forcing them to go run-heavy, the Niners and Chargers de-stabilizing the run game messed with the rhythm of Zac Taylor’s offense and forced the Bengals into some third and longs. The 49ers held Cincinnati to just 4 of 13 on third down, and in that game, the Bengals faced a 3rd and 7+ 5 times and converted just one. The Chargers were a little worse, allowing the Bengals to go 6-12 on 3rd downs, but they did force Joe Burrow into 3rd and 7+ 7 times in that game. Burrow converted on just one of those as well.
Letting Jonathan Cooper, Malik Reed, and Bradley Chubb have the ability to just pin their ears back and rush the passer on third and longs against a suspect OL will be key. Hopefully the Broncos will have their best pass-rusher in Dre’Mont Jones available for this one.
Both of these teams have had some pretty remarkable special teams gaffes. The Bengals had 4(!) muffed kicks against the 49ers. The Broncos haven’t had good special teams play in..quite a while.
Should be quite the show.