If the two main points of emphasis for the Bengals this offseason were improving the running game and the pass rush, then the Broncos are the perfect test to gauge how successful those two efforts have been.
Denver is a new team in many ways. First, Josh McDaniels, 33, replaces longtime Bronco head coach, Mike Shanahan, and brings his New England-style offense and 3-4 defense with him.
Then there’s the new quarterback, Kyle Orton, traded from the Bears for Jay Cutler, and also new backup QB, Chris Simms, who could see playing time this week if Orton’s dislocated and stitched-up index finger proves too problematic to endure. Veteran safety, and future-hall-of-famer, Brian Dawkins, also joined Denver this offseason, providing the Broncos defense with some hard-nosed leadership and a bit of insanity; qualities they sorely need after an awful year defensively in 2008.
Still, with all the new developments happening in Denver, the Broncos are still in the early stages of a rebuilding phase and aren’t likely to intimidate many teams this season.
Defensively, the Broncos will likely have trouble stopping the run, particularly up the middle. Their front seven are mostly no-names and journeymen, and the Bengals offensive line will have their first chance to really maul a team at the line of scrimmage. I’d look for Cedric Benson and Brian Leonard to get some early carries in hopes of wearing down Denver’s d-line. Once the power-run game has been established and Dawkins begins creeping up to help, the Bengals should mix in DeDe and/or Bernard Scott on toss-plays, off-tackle runs and screens, to catch the Broncos off-balanced. That’s also the best time to run play-action passes and go vertical to the many dangerous Bengal receivers.
The one Bronco defensive player that could irritate the Bengals, is the short, stocky and lightning quick defensive end, Elvis Dumervil. This fire-hydrant of a player has developed moves that sneak under and around the lumbering, ogre-ish offensive tackles of the NFL. Bengal tackle Andrew Whitworth, at 6’7”, 335 pounds, is exactly this kind of man and will have to be nimble and alert to the trickery of Dumervil. Even though he is graciously listed at 5’11”, Elvis is Denver’s scariest defensive player, racking up 25 sacks in four years; keep him at bay, and the passing protection should be comfortable for Carson Palmer.
The other defensive notables on Denver are Dawkins, and fellow perennial Pro-Bowler, cornerback Champ Bailey. With these two lurking in the secondary like hungry vultures, it would be unwise to force many throws around their area, especially if the Bengals enjoy the kind of success running the ball that I expect from them.
When on defense, the Bengals and coordinator Mike Zimmer should simply release the hounds on blitzes as many times as the game allows. Kyle Orton is not known as a quarterback that carves up defenses with his talent and ability, instead he is perceived more as a game-manager—and a dubious one at that. It only makes sense to force him into quick decisions by pressuring him on blitzes which increase the already probable odds that Orton will turn the ball over once or twice. Denver does like to run short pass patterns and lots of bubble screens that emphasize receivers gaining yards after the catch, and those plays can be risky to blitz against, but the reward of turnovers is greater than the risk of allowing big plays against a QB like Orton.
Denver’s running game is a question mark too. The Broncos acquired castaways like Correll Buckhalter and Lamont Jordan, and drafted promising youngster Knowshon Moreno. Moreno is banged up and the other two have been career backups on previous teams, so there’s no telling how effective they will play. The Broncos offensive line, under Shanahan, was famous for a zone blocking scheme, designed for cut-back runners to find straight-line running lanes and break big plays; whether McDaniel has kept this kind of scheme remains to be seen.
Something else to look for on special teams is the way the Bengals handle field goal attempts. Franchise-tagged kicker, Shayne Graham, hasn’t kicked in the last three games and, although he’s activated and ready to go, Marvin Lewis may still feel gun-shy on Graham’s longer attempts. How far Graham can kick off should be another indicator of how he is feeling.
Overall, the Bengals open with an opponent they should find a rhythm against, and possibly carry some momentum into Green Bay the following week. Cincinnati starts the season pretty healthy and has finished what’s been reported as one of the better preseasons in years. While there remain concerns, the pluses outweigh the minuses for this week and the Bengals should cruise to an opening day win. Here’s to miracles and the stadium selling out, so that we can all watch it live on television.
Bengals 27 Broncos 13