CINCINNATI --Defense is a Bengals strength in recent years, and although they give up plenty of yards -- ranking 20th -- their indicators are much better in yardage per play (10th) and points allowed per game (10th).
Their push toward the top of the AFC North standings after 14 games has not been fueled by their front four, as had been expected before the season. But led by Geno Atkins, who has played his best football of the season since the start of November, Cincinnati's defense -- particularly its line -- has momentum, which crested with a shutout at Cleveland last week.
"They played really well," said Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning. "'Dominated' is a good word. From the start, defensively, they didn't give Cleveland any type of momentum, barely let them move the ball, created three interceptions and really played well."
"Their guys are playing well," Broncos Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase said. "We're looking at the tape and you're seeing a team that causes a lot of problems."
That starts with their pass rush, which sacked Cleveland rookie Johnny Manziel three times in 21 pass plays last week.
Cincinnati's sack rate remains among the league's lowest -- one every 30.17 pass plays, 31st in the league. But in the last three games, the Bengals have averaged one quarterback hurry (as tabulated by ProFootballFocus.com) every 3.0 pass plays. They averaged one hurry every 3.5 pass plays in Weeks 1-3, but in the eight games that followed, their rate dropped to one every 4.19 pass plays.
"They've got a great blitz package, and they're playing well in their base defense when they're not blitzing," Gase said. "This is a challenge for us."
The clash between physical freaks Aqib Talib and A.J. Green should be fun to watch, while Terrance Knighton draws another rookie center.
Cincinnati is not timid about using linebackers Rey Maualuga and Vincent Rey in the pass rush, and will involve safety Reggie Nelson, who has 1.5 sacks and has been involved in the pass rush 52 times, according to ProFootballFocus.com. Nelson and fellow safety George Iloka are a sod duo; Iloka is a solid all-around safety with decent range in courage and some thump against the run.
Together, Nelson and Iloka give the Bengals tactical flexibility to confuse opponents.
"It's a different kind of challenge because we haven't really seen a team that's this multiple as far as their nickel package," Gase said. "We have our work cut out for us. It's going to be one of those [games] -- we've got to be really dialed in this week."
CINCINNATI BY THE NUMBERS
- Yards per game: 358.4, 20th
- Points per game:20.64, 10th
- Yards per play: 5.31, 10th
- Takeaways: 19, T-21st
- First-down rate: One every 3.55 plays, 19th
- Third-down conversion rate: 36.98 pct., 9th
- Yards per game: 233.64, 12th
- Yards per pass play: 6.02, 9th
- Sack rate: One per 30.17 pass plays, 31st
- Interception rate: One per 38.79 pass plays, 13th
- Touchdown rate: One every 38.79 pass plays, 1st
- First-down rate: One per 3.23 pass plays, 5th
- Yards per game: 124.79, 24th
- Yards per rush: 4.35, 23rd
- First-down rate: One every 4.10 carries, 26th
- Touchdown rate: One every 26.80 carries, 28th
Do you have a question for Andrew Mason? Ask it here and you might be in this week's Mailbag!