The Denver Broncos currently find themselves caught between an encouraging blow out win over a banged up Detroit Lions team and their closing AFC West gauntlet. Up until this point this season, these are the kind of games Denver’s blown against vulnerable opponents like the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns. If they do so against the Cincinnati Bengals today they can probably kiss the playoffs goodbye.
Here’s what I’m watching for.
1. Will Tom McMahon cost Denver the game?
It’s incredible that I’m still writing about Tom McMahon 13 games into 2021, and the Broncos’ special teams remain one of the worst in football despite advantages such as Mile High’s thin air. Making it out of a game without a monumental blunder is cause for celebration this year. Diontae Spencer’s muff in Kansas City is the most recent mistake. The Broncos have also allowed two punt blocks and a field goal block, allowed a 102-yard kickoff return touchdown, struggle to cover punts, and lost the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in part because of a leverage penalty on their field goal block unit.
Today’s one of those matchups where McMahon has an opportunity to “stave off the wolves,” so to speak. The Bengals’ return units have been quite poor all season and last week’s two muffed punts cost 10 points.
The Bengals second muff came after their defense forced a 4&O with a minute left before the end of the first half.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 16, 2021
49ers got a touchdown out of it. pic.twitter.com/czgl3zO5zg
2. What’s Fangio’s plan?
3. Who plays LB?
4. Can the Broncos pressure Burrow into mistakes?
5. Will the secondary slow down Chase and Higgins?
6. Can the run defense hold up in the redzone?
The Broncos run defense is a lot worse than the traditional measures would suggest because their methodical offense eats up enough time to prevent most opponents from playing smash mouth football. They rank among the worst run defenses in football by Football Outsider’s DVOA metric and look especially vulnerable in the redzone where they’re the fourth worst team in the NFL. They’ll have their work cut out for them today: Joe Mixon’s already scored 12 touchdowns on the year.
If the Bengals are able to maintain something resembling a 50-50 run/pass balance, they are going to be really tough to stop. Zac Taylor’s offense is an offshoot from the Kubiak/Shanahan/McVay system, meaning it’s at its best when the barrage of outside zone runs puts the defensive line on roller skates to set up play action bombs downfield. Burrow isn’t a huge threat on boot action, but Taylor will use the threat of receivers on a jet sweep to force edge rushers to play honest off the backside.
Should Kenny Young miss the game, the Broncos will start their seventh off linebacker of the 2021 campaign. Baron Browning has looked promising since he found his way into the starting lineup in week eight, and he should be a factor against Joe Mixon. Griffith is a wildcard. The Broncos traded a ‘22 sixth and ‘23 seventh round pick to acquire him and a ‘22 seventh at the end of August, yet he didn’t see a defensive snap in his career until Young’s concussion last week. Playing him over the alternatives at linebacker could hint that Fangio and the coaching staff see something in the supremely athletic 6’4”, 250 lb. 24-year-old, or it could simply be a testament to how far Justin Strnad has fallen since his disastrous performance against the Cleveland Browns.
Today is going to be an exciting test for the Broncos’ pass defense. Burrow is a bit of a throwback passer in that his best traits are subtle. He’s a better athlete than given credit for, and tries to use his legs to buy himself time to pass. He’s savvy enough to manipulate defenders with his eyes. He displays very good ball placement and does a masterful job throwing his weapons open with anticipatory passes. His aggressiveness can get him into trouble, however, and Fangio could cause him issues mixing up pre and post snap looks on the back end.
In Jamar Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd, Burrow has a very good receiving trio that’ll be able to test any individual matchup in the Broncos’ secondary. It starts with Chase, who is Burrow’s favorite target and big play threat: he has 15 20+ yard catches, including six for 40+. Higgins is cut from the Tim Patrick mold in that he’s a tall, long strider who can win above the rim or pull down passes in traffic. Boyd’s a slot machine who has the route running chops and toughness to make plays across the middle of the field.
The Cincinnati pass protection is abysmal and they’re prone to missed assignments if there’s any changeups post-snap, so the Broncos should be able to heat up Burrow. There’s a decent chance the broadcast mentions Jamar Chase over Penei Sewell today because the Bengals will start Isaiah Prince in relief of the injured Riley Reiff. Prince and left tackle Jonah Williams will be the weakest set of bookends Denver’s faced since their trip to Dallas, so it could be a good day for Bradley Chubb, Stephen Weatherly, and Jonathon Cooper. The Bengals’ interior offensive line is pretty weak, especially on the right side where Hakeem Adeniji should be an easy mark when Fangio dials up games.
7. What’s Shurmur’s plan?
8. Can the offensive line win consistently?
9. Does the ground game find traction?
10. Who wins in the passing game?
11. Can Bridgewater deliver while limiting mistakes?
The Bengals defense could be trouble because so many of their strengths match up against the Broncos’ weaknesses. They’re the best run defense Denver’s faced since the Ravens in week four with the personnel to shut down the Broncos’ inside zone runs. They also have the secondary to withstand the inevitable Shurmur two-man route concepts with little issue, and will take advantage of long yardage situations with a nasty pressure package.
It starts in the middle with D.J. Reader, who chose Cincinnati over Denver in free agency last year because he preferred Burrow to Drew Lock. He’s a world-eater with the play strength to give Lloyd Cushenberry fits when they’re matched up in one-on-one situations. It isn’t just Reader, as Sam Hubbard’s also a tremendous run defender who looks like a poor matchup for Bobby Massie because he’ll be able to use Bobby Massie’s height against him.
Cincy’s front isn’t one dimensional either. Trey Hendrickson is pushing for the Pro Bowl with his 12.5 sacks and 56 pressures, and he’s one of the better edge rushers Garett Bolles will face this year. Hubbard’s no slouch himself, and between them the Bengals have Larry Ogunjobi, who combines a good burst with the strength to bull rush the pocket, which makes him a potential issue for Cushenberry and Quinn Meinerz. B.J. Hill is also a rotational piece that can’t be overlooked.
If the Bengals can get ahead of the sticks, defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo will try to break the pocket with extra rushers and beg Teddy Bridgewater to complete passes short of the sticks. Cincinnati plays a mix of cover one, three, and four behind this depending on the down and distance, but will typically sit back and rally up to prevent first downs. No. 24 is going to be one to watch both pre- and post-snap because Von Bell is a chess piece who can do a little bit of everything. By Sports Info Solutions’ charting, he’s held opposing passers to a 56.7% completion when in coverage and he’s generating pressure on 45% of his rushes this year. Officially he’s forced three fumbles, but also had what looked like another knockout in the 49ers’ game. He tends to mug the line of scrimmage on these blitz looks, even if he’s dropping into coverage.
The best ways to move the ball on this Cincy defense is to run at the edges and throw at the middle. For all Trey Hendrickson’s strengths as a pass rusher, he’s a subpar run defender who can be overwhelmed at the point of attack. Injuries to Chidobe Awuzie and Logan Wilson will also sap the secondary and linebacker corps. because neither replacement inspires a ton of fear. Trae Waynes was a promising first rounder back in 2015, but his return to play today will give him just three games since 2019. Meanwhile Wilson’s absence will lead to significant playing time for Joe Bachie, who is a replacement level backup that struggles in pass coverage.
The Bengals have a franchise quarterback who is surrounded by weapons and an aggressive pressure scheme on defense that could make life miserable for Teddy Bridgewater if Shurmur’s early down offense looks as it has all season. Cincinnati has a strong running game that could be a problem in the redzone and a stout run defense that looks like it’ll bottle up Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams. They’re a tough matchup, though not an unbeatable one. The Bengals have routinely showed they’ll beat themselves with their own blunders, such as drops that turn into picks, muffed punts, and blown blocks in pass protection. If Denver can capitalize on those while generating enough pressure on Burrow to keep him off balance, they have a good chance.
At 7-6 in a crowded AFC playoff field, the Denver Broncos will almost certainly need to win three of their last four to make the dance. They still have a trip to Vegas ahead, and their remaining schedule includes rematches against the Los Angeles Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs, two teams that look as if they’re getting hot at the perfect time to make noise in the postseason. They simply can’t afford to lose this game.