On Sunday, the Cincinnati Bengals look to win their fifth consecutive home opener. Standing in their way is the defending Super Bowl Champion Denver Broncos, who head to Paul Brown Stadium after back-to-back home victories to start the year.
Last Sunday, the Broncos flexed their defensive muscles in a win over the Indianapolis Colts. While the offense sputtered to 16 points through three quarters, Denver’s defense put the game out of reach with two defensive touchdowns in the final 14 minutes.
Sunday’s Bengals-Broncos matchup features two of the best defenses from a year ago. Sure, Denver’s ranked 1st against the pass and 3rd against the run. Compared to the Bengals 20th and 7th ranking, respectively, in those two categories. But by season’s end, Cincinnati’s defense was tops in the AFC in scoring, holding opponents to 17.4 points per game; Denver ranked third at 18.5.
Those numbers from a season ago make for a grinding, low-scoring affair on Sunday.
Good news on the Bengals’ end, quarterback Andy Dalton leads the NFL in passing yards. Bad news is the sixth-year signal caller had to throw a career-high 54 times last week in Pittsburgh. Through two games, Cincinnati has been held to an AFC-worst 103 rushing yards. Jeremy Hill has managed just 53 rushing yards on 20 carries. Hill’s 2.7 yards per carry is third worst for any running back with over 20 attempts, beating out TJ Yeldon (2.4) and Adrian Peterson (1.6).
Hill does have a good history against Denver, however, running for 210 yards in two games.
Dalton dropping back to throw that many times fits right into the game plan of Wade Phillips‘ defense. Last season, Denver ranked first in the NFL with 52 sacks. Dalton was sacked a career-high seven times in the opener against the Jets, and if the Bengals can’t establish the run against the Broncos, he could once again spend too much time on his back.
On the other side, Denver’s offense is 16th in the NFL with 707 total yards of offense. Trevor Siemian, who inherited a championship roster when Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler left this offseason, has been a game manager in his first two NFL starts. The former seventh-round pick has thrown for 444 yards in two games, with one touchdown and three interceptions.
Siemian now goes on the road for the first time, into a venue where the Bengals have posted an 11-4-1 record over the past two seasons. If your Paul Guenther, you hope your defense (as well as a sold out crowd) can rattle the young starter into multiple mistakes. In order to do that, the Bengals must stop the run.
CJ Anderson, the Broncos bowling ball running back, rushed for 92 yards and a touchdown against Carolina in the opener, followed by a 74-yard, one-touchdown performance versus Indianapolis. Last year in week 16, the Bengals had the Broncos on the ropes, holding Denver to just 14 rushing yards in the first half. Denver’s 14-point comeback came on the heels of 70 rushing yards by Anderson in the second half, including a 39-yard touchdown that gave the Broncos a 17-14 lead with 11:17 left in the game.
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The Bengals are dead last in the NFL against the run to start this season, allowing 138 yards per game.
The Magic Number
When the 2016 schedule came out, the Bengals knew they were in for tough games in the beginning. Sunday marks the third straight game Cincinnati plays a team that had 10-plus wins a year ago. If they want to go 2-1 before a date with Miami next Thursday, they have to be thinking about the number 21.
Since 2014, the Bengals are 21-2-1 when they score 21 or more points. Compare that with a 17-2 record in the same span when they allow 21 points or less (with one of those losses coming at Denver).
The Bengals are 9-2-1 in afternoon games at PBS since 2014, too.
Don’t underestimate the importance of Sunday’s game. With a loss, the Bengals run a risk of falling behind in the division by two games to both Pittsburgh and Baltimore, who have favorable matchups in week three (PIT @ PHI, BAL @ JAX).