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Bengals film room: Notes from the defensive performance in Denver

Andrew Billings stepped up, and Vontaze Burfict was all over the place again, but how much of this effort was due to the struggling Broncos offense?

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Cincinnati Bengals refused yet again to kiss their playoff chances goodbye on Sunday, beating another struggling team on the road without much brilliance. A win is a win, though, and they still looked better than in the previous weeks. Better doesn’t necessarily mean improved, as the Broncos had been really bad prior to this game.

At 4-5 and facing the Browns next, Cincinnati is still in the hunt for a Wild Card spot. But in order to achieve that, they must show more than they did in Denver. The Broncos were a quarterback away from being a contender heading into the season, but they lost their sixth straight on Sunday and fired their offensive coordinator right after.

Oh, and their defense surrendered 92 points combined in the last two games. The Bengals needed to get the W, but it’s fair to wonder if they can build on that to end the season in high spirits.

Paul Guenther’s defense yet again gave up a lot of yards and a lot of third-down conversions. They lost, again, the time of possession battle, although it wasn’t as one-sided as it was in their losses to the Jaguars and Titans.

But they played better. How much of that was because they were facing a pretty bad offense, and how much was due to their own play?

Here are my thoughts:

Andrew Billings could just be what the doctor ordered

The Broncos’ running game is middle of the pack this year, and the combination of a a poor passing game and having to come back from large deficits haven’t helped at all.

The Bengals’ defense contained to an extent, not giving up a run larger than eight yards to a back while allowing only 89 yards on 30 attempts — not even three yards per carry.

One of the keys was the play of their defensive line, including the guy we all thought could be their nose tackle of the future but disappointed a little bit coming back from a rookie year spent on injured reserve. Billings can give this defense the kind of inside penetration they’ve lacked for some time, and he shined a few times on Sunday. He still needs to work on his leverage, but the talent and the physical tools are there.

Billings wasn’t only outstanding against the run; he had a great hit on Broncos quarterback Brock Osweiler on a flea-flicker that could have scored six for them.

For better or worse, Vontaze Burfict can’t be replaced

You might not like Burfict because of his occasional extra-curricular, but the veteran linebacker can play and is one of the best at the position. He not only forced the fumble that allowed the Bengals to increase the lead to 10 points in the fourth quarter, he was just everywhere on the field while putting his body on the line for his team. There’s nobody else that can do what he does or bring the intensity that he brings everyday.

Just watch how he defended the slant route off the double A gap blitz look on third down. He didn’t get the stop and the Broncos converted, but look at him; his eyes on the quarterback for a second, and then he’s on to meet the receiver where the ball is thrown. Amazing instincts.

Bengals keep allowing third-down conversions because of their philosophy

Cincinnati’s defense wants to cover the deep ball, and sometimes that means forgetting what the sticks are. Other teams exploit these at will.

Broncos offense actually schemed their guys open, cough, cough.

We’ve talked about this; the Bengals refuse to put their receivers in the position to succeed. They focus on timing and their guys being able to gain separation by themselves.

Well, Mike McCoy showed on Sunday how to get his receivers open. A better quarterback doesn’t throw the pick in the end zone that Dre Kirkpatrick almost returned for six, for example.

Check out other plays where the Broncos displayed this, including Demaryius Thomas’ touchdown to trim down the lead to three. It doesn’t look much, but the idea was clear:

Or, this throw to Devontae Booker on third down that went for 21 yards.

The double A gap blitz look was quite effective on a number of plays

I’ve never been the biggest fan of this principle of the Bengals defense, but it worked well against the Broncos. My favorite example was this play in which both Chris Smith and Carlos Dunlap dropped into coverage with Cincinnati correctly expecting a quick throw or a screen pass.

And, of course, Burfict’s sack was a huge one.

Now, Sunday’s matchup against the bottoming Browns won’t prove much, so we can’t expect to see if the Bengals’ defense has improved after taking a few steps back since losing to the Steelers.

But with an offense unable to produce much consistently, the only way for Cincinnati to stay alive in the Wild Card race will be for their defense to rise up again.