The NFL can be such a fickle beast. One minute your squad is the talk of the country, and the next, injuries bring a glut of questions.
Such is the case with the Denver Broncos and their presently tumultuous quarterback situation. Peyton Manning was "the guy", even when he appeared to hit an abrupt physical decline at the end of 2014, but then more of the same issues began to surface this year. After an embarrassing performance in a game where he set the NFL record for career passing yards, Manning was benched and fourth-year backup Brock Osweiler took over against the Chiefs.
As it turns out, Manning had been suffering from a torn plantar fascia, that many did not know about and the injury was disallowing Manning to get much power behind his throws. Meanwhile, in Osweiler's first three starts, he led his team to three victories, which led many to believe he was the better option for the team going forward.
But, after two consecutive losses with the youngster at the helm, pundits are crying "regression", with the notion that defenses have enough tape on Osweiler to give him fits. Whatever the case may be, head coach Gary Kubiak has altered the offense to Osweiler's strengths and it has been working for the most part.
The Cincinnati Bengals travel out to Denver for their consecutive week of heading west to face the Broncos on their home turf on Monday night for a gigantic showdown to further determine playoff seeding. Cincinnati currently holds the No. 2 seed in the AFC and the Broncos are right behind them at No. 3, so this game could very well determine who gets a first-round bye along with the Patriots. Obviously, with Andy Dalton nursing a fractured thumb and Tyler Eifert still undergoing concussion protocols this week, that extra week off would be huge for Cincinnati.
While the Bengals' offense has been quite stellar this season, the defense has won them some games as well. Case in point was just last week against the 49ers, where the unit aided AJ McCarron in his first pro start by forcing four turnovers and garnering three sacks. However, Osweiler and the current Broncos system might play right into one of the perceived weak spots of the Bengals defense.
Let's look at the tape to see what I mean.
The Bengals are currently ranked No. 9 in overall yards allowed per game, but No. 18 against the pass in terms of yards per game. Part of that stat has to do with the Bengals getting big leads early on in games leading their opponent to play catch-up and throw the ball more. But, there is more going on than just that aspect. Cincinnati's defense has been impeccable against screen and quick-hitters to receivers this year (see Hall, Leon) and have limited the deep bombs against them, but the medium range throws have given them fits.
Paul Guenther has taken a number of pages out of Mike Zimmer's defensive plan, where he prefers to get pressure with just his front four and allow his back seven to do their job and have a lot of bodies out there to confuse a quarterback. It's largely worked this year, given the team's No. 1 ranking in points allowed, but it's these mid-range plays that have spelled doom for them in their three losses.
Some of the issues have to do with a lack of a great coverage linebacker on the Bengals' roster, while the rest of it has to do with the offensive talent of teams like Pittsburgh and Arizona, coupled with their ability to negate the strong Cincinnati pass rush on these quicker, intermediate throws. Regardless, it's the one area where the Bengals' defense has been picked on this year.
It's also a facet to the Broncos offense with Osweiler under center that is featured often. Though Denver has deep threat players in both Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas, they are using them quite a bit in middle areas of the field. They have been exploiting weak posts in zones and/or beating decent coverage to move the sticks and get points.
Here are a couple of examples from the Broncos' offense last week against the Steelers.
Another notable difference in the overall scheme with Osweiler is Denver's use of him directly under center. Manning greatly preferred working out of the shotgun for a variety of reasons, one of which was to fully see the defense and then do his pre-snap pantomiming and audibles. Osweiler is directly under center in about 30 percent more of the offensive snaps than Manning, while Denver is using the run and play-action a little bit more as well.
Some Perceived Weaknesses of Denver's Offense:
While they have a number of good players on their offense, they have had spells of inefficiency and mind-boggling mistakes. Against Pittsburgh, Osweiler bobbled two snaps causing a loss of yardage, but the inexplicable drops from players have been an issue as well.
A couple of weeks ago, the Broncos hosted the Oakland Raiders, which seemed like it would be a relatively easy road to Osweiler's fourth straight win. While the Raiders are vastly improved this season, Denver usually plays well at home and they had just beaten the Patriots a couple of weeks earlier. Mental mistakes and a lack of care for the football led to a disappointing divisional loss at home. The issue began with Thomas against New England though before the issue plagued the team against Oakland.
Given the Bengals' two interceptions off of bobbled passes last week against the 49ers, this issue could play into the Bengals' favor, should it occur once again on Monday night. If it does and they capitalize, it will again benefit the young and inexperienced McCarron.