When initially looking at the final month of games on the Bengals' schedule, most saw the re-matches against the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers as the key games towards the playoff push in 2014. While that still is ringing true, the Monday Night Football game that had a bit more of a "fun exhibition" feel to it this summer than those two divisional slugfests is now looming large.
Peyton Manning brings his 2013 AFC Champion crew to Paul Brown Stadium on Monday Night under the brightest of lights, as both teams are marching towards the postseason. The Rocky Mountain Horses have already punched their ticket to January, while the Queen City Tigers are clawing their way through these last two games to get there themselves. Too dramatic or cheesy for you? Well, whatever.
Our own Alex Peterman laid out a wise plan of points for the Bengals to beat the Broncos in Week 16. His Friday post focused on a couple of specific areas, on both offense and defense. This one will do a little bit of the same and attempt to both build off of and look at other areas than those presented in Peterman's quality article.
The Tight Ends Hold The Keys:
How many times have the Bengals let a tight end from the opposition torch them? In Week 5, the New England Patriots, who, in a very Bostonian type of way, were on a mission to prove to the world that they were still tops in the AFC. As fate would have it, the Bengals went east to meet up with the motivated Pats, who hosted anything but a tea party for the midwestern visitors.
The Patriots' key to the Sunday night 43-17 domination of the Bengals was their utilization of the tight ends. Both Tim Wright and Rob Gronkowski combined for 185 receiving yards and two touchdowns as main focal points of Tom Brady's passing attack. With the Broncos sporting a couple of threats at the position themselves, Julius Thomas, Virgil Green and Jacob Tamme will undoubtedly bring match-up issues as well. Thomas has 12 touchdowns on the season, which impressive after missing three games, and while the stats don't show a huge impact from the latter two, Manning always knows how to find secondary and tertiary targets.
On the offensive side of the ball, Jermaine Gresham looks to be returning this week and he plays best when he's angry. It's possible that that is his mindset this week, after a verbal spat with Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham, so big plays from Gresham in the passing game and as a blocker will be needed. Ryan Hewitt will likely be more relied on as a fullback-type, but he did contribute in the passing game last week. To Peterman's point, both of these players could be big weapons on play-action.
Leon Hall Versus Wes Welker:
Though he is having a very un-Welkerian-like season, the little guy in the slot always needs to be watched. The scrappy veteran has only ammassed 43 catches, 392 yards receiving and two touchdowns in 2014, but he's always a threat--especially to move the sticks. He, like others on the Broncos' offense, has seen his receiving numbers dip with Denver's re-commitment to the run. Welker hasn't had a 100-yard receiving game this season, and the dip in numbers can be seen as recent as last week.
It hasn't been a banner year for Hall, either. He has just one interception on the year, and a few poor showings as a whole in games (Jacksonville, Pittsburgh). Still, the Bengals' defense needs him, particularly this week when Hall might be lining up against both Welker or a tight end from the slot. With the mindgames master under center (AKA Peyton Manning), Hall will need to rely on his own veteran savviness to make plays. Being able to take away a first down-maker in Welker from Manning should help Cincinnati.
Embrace The Elements And Atmosphere:
If there is one nick in Manning's superhuman armor, it's the stigma of playing outdoors in cold weather this time of year. It doesn't seem as if it will be completely yucky at Paul Brown Stadium on Monday Night, but it still should be in the 40s. Even though Andy Dalton has had his share of struggles when the lights go on and the temperature drops, the Bengals might need to hope that Manning's postseason struggles in this environment occur again on Monday.
Additionally, it would be nice to see the Bengals feed off of the home crowd's energy and translate that into high-quality on-field performance. Having Paul Brown Stadium look and feel like that chaotic venue in the Pacific Northwest might just get to Manning and his crew. These are intangibles, yes, but home teams have historically used these to propel themselves to a win.
An Unlikely Hero On Offense:
Denver sports two of the better cornerbacks around, in Chris Harris and Aqib Talib. Both have three interceptions apiece on the year, and Talib was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week just a few days ago. It's quite possible that both A.J. Green and Mohamed Sanu have a tough go of it on Monday, so someone else might have to show up big aside from the team's top two wideouts.
Perhaps it is the aforementioned Gresham who shines. Maybe it's Giovani Bernard as a receiver, or the embattled Brandon Tate. Rookie James Wright seems like he would be another candidate, but it looks unlikely that he'll play this week because of a knee injury. Dalton might need someone else not-named Green or Sanu to help him out.
Disciplined On Defense Against Play-Action:
Peterman noted "smart defense" by the Bengals as a key this week. He's right--anytime you've got Manning on the other sideline, a defense has to bring its "A Game". In years past though, defenses have had to figure out the many different routes and passing variations that Manning threw at them. Now, with a reinvigorated rushing attack, the play-action could be problematic.
Compounding that problem is the inexperience and decimation of the linebacker corps. Vontaze Burfict will be out (IR) and Emmanuel Lamur is sounding doubtful as well. If Lamur can't go, rookie Marquis Flowers will go in his stead, adding to the lack of experience. Rey Maualuga will need to position his group correctly and they all need to be aware of what they are seeing. Manning could gouge the Bengals on play-action because of the recent success of C.J. Anderson, the possible return of Ronnie Hillman and his plethora of receiving weapons. Cincinnati can't allow that to happen.