Bengals at Broncos: 5 storylines to watch in today’s game

Credit: Paul Sancya

Credit: Paul Sancya

The Cincinnati Bengals are calling every game a “must-win.” At least that has to be the mentality as their playoff hopes remain in the balance.

Cincinnati (7-6) travels to play the Denver Broncos (7-6) on Sunday at Mile High Stadium, seeking to bounce back from an overtime loss against the 49ers and end a two-game losing skid. The Broncos seem to be hitting their stride, particularly with their running game, and have won two of their last three games.

The Bengals are projected to need 10 wins to make the playoffs this season, which means they would need to win three of their last four games. Here are five storylines going into the game.

1. Managing COVID protocols

While teams around the league are dealing with COVID-19 outbreaks, the Bengals weren’t immune but finished the practice week with just two players on the Reserve/COVID list. Other illnesses seem to be a bigger factor right now.

Cornerback Chidobe Awuzie didn’t practice Wednesday because he re-aggravated his foot injury at the end of last week’s game but by Thursday, he was off the injury report and onto the COVID list, where he is joined by backup linebacker Clay Johnston. Offensive linemen Trey Hill, Trey Hopkins and Isaiah Prince and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves were dealing with non-COVID illnesses this week, though Hopkins resumed practicing Thursday. Hill, Prince and Hargreaves were all listed as questionable.

The Broncos also had COVID issues. Running back Mike Boone, safety P.J. Locke and outside linebacker Malik Reed went on the Reserve/COVID-19 last week and hadn’t yet been cleared Friday. Denver also placed wide receiver Seth Williams on the Practice Squad/COVID-19 list on Monday.

Teams moved to Zoom meetings and Bengals coach Zac Taylor said he reminded the players Wednesday morning the need to be extra cautious to stay healthy.

2. Stop the run

Denver’s running game has picked up in recent weeks, as the Broncos have totaled 485 rushing yards over the last three games.

Melvin Gordon and rookie Javonte Williams are both over 700 yards rushing for the season and get a lot of carries. Both were listed as questionable for Sunday because of injuries and were limited in practice Friday; however, Gordon (thumb/hip) played last week after missing the Week 12 game against Kansas City. Williams was listed with a knee injury, but Broncos coach Vic Fangio told media he is fine and will not have limitations Sunday.

“They don’t go down first hit as you look at the tape, especially that rookie, he’s played really well,” linebacker Joe Bachie said. “He’s got a good stiff arm. They’re both physical runners, so we’ve got to get hats to the ball. And that’s kind of what we’ve been talking about.”

The Bengals have allowed just 93.1 rushing yards per game this season, ranking as the fourth best run defense in the league, but injuries at linebacker have put more emphasis on the defensive line’s efforts in that area. Bachie got his first start last week with Logan Wilson (shoulder) and Markus Bailey (neck) unavailable. Bailey is listed as questionable Sunday, and Wilson remains out.

3. Right tackle concerns

Taylor told reporters Friday that Riley Reiff’s injured ankle was not improving and he would likely be going on injured reserve. Prince was expected to start in his place but was unable to practice all week because of illness, so it’s uncertain whether he will be available. Fred Johnson would be next in line.

The Bengals still haven’t been able to keep pressure off quarterback Joe Burrow, as he took six sacks combined over the last two games. Some of that could be because Burrow is having to throw the ball more after falling behind early, but the Broncos’ secondary is good enough to force Burrow into taking extra time on his reads, and that could lead to more opportunities for the pass rush.

“We want to play with a lead and be able to hammer teams with the run and then have the advantage in the passing game where we still feel like we can throw against any coverage in any situation,” Taylor said. “But we talked about this a couple of weeks ago when we won a couple of those games, that’s ideally where it plays out and you get a chance to take the pressure off the offensive linemen to where they aren’t just pass setting every snap. That’s a tough challenge for those guys and I don’t think that’s just our offensive line. I think that’s every offensive line in the league. … I think Joe is tough and our linemen are competing for him and he has a lot of confidence in them. We’ll have another great task this week as we play against this front as well.”

Denver has 30 sacks this season, led by defensive end Dre’Mont Jones with 5.5 sacks and Reed with 5.0. Jones (foot) is doubtful, and defensive end Shelby Harris (ankle) is questiomable.

4. More consistency on offense

The offense still lacks consistency, especially early in games, and the Broncos defense won’t make that any easier. They are allowing just 17.5 points per game, and only one other team is allowing fewer points.

Denver’s secondary especially is solid with free safety Justin Simmons leading the team with five interceptions, and cornerback Pat Surtain having four interceptions.

Burrow said this might be the deepest secondary he’s faced this year. Bengals free safety Jessie Bates has studied Simmons’ game and mentioned him as one of the best at the position.

“He’s not the fastest guy, he’s not the strongest, but he’s always in the right position and he’s a very disciplined player,” Bates said. “I’m sure Joey B and those guys will be alert to where he is on the field.”

5. Special teams concerns

Special teams turnovers last week caused the Bengals to fall in an early hole, and special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons indicated Monday the staff would be considering some changes on returns. Darius Phillips then went on injured reserve to force that decision.

The Bengals likely will be looking to Trenton Irwin and Pooka Williams for those duties, off the practice squad. On top of needing to solve that problem, Denver’s thin air could cause some problems on punts, kicks and field goals.

“It’s pretty significant,” Darrin Simmons said. “It’s been a couple years since we played there, but I do know it does effect in. In Junior College we played at the Air Force academy. I remember it really effecting the ball when I punted, it really carried. It effects the kickoffs for sure, the ball really travels. I don’t think there’s many balls when teams are trying to hit touchbacks that are ever returned in Denver. I think it does have an effect. Justin Tucker made a comment he wanted to break the record for longest field goal in Denver. He didn’t get the opportunity to do it.”

Perhaps Evan McPherson can get a chance at it.


Bengals at Broncos, 4:05 p.m., CBS, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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