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Broncos pull away from Bengals in second half by playing 'complementary football'

CINCINNATI — To most observers, a defense that surrenders just three points in the first half has done its job, especially against a team debuting a new, athletic quarterback.

To Von Miller, it wasn’t nearly good enough.

“Coming into this game, we didn’t really know what to expect, and I guess [we were] feeling them out for the first quarter-and-a-half,” Miller said Sunday. “It took a little bit too long in my opinion. As a defense, we have to get started quicker than that.”

As it turned out, it wasn’t just the defense that felt it needed to be better. It was the entire team.

After leading just 7-3 at halftime, Denver pulled away for a 24-10 win in which it never trailed.

Though a dominant defense and a strong running game stood out, it was a special teams play that ignited the second-half dominance. After the Bengals and Broncos exchanged three-and-outs to open the third quarter, Broncos safety Dymonte Thomas pounced on a fumble by Cincinnati punt returner Alex Erickson. 

The Broncos offense immediately took advantage, finding the end zone two plays later on a 30-yard toss from Case Keenum to Courtland Sutton.

“I think we’ve been really good at that when we’re playing winning ball: playing some complementary football — takeaways [and] scores,” Keenum said. “That can shift the tide in games when you’re behind and you’re trying to come from behind or when you’re ahead and trying to bury some opponents.”

In this case it was the latter. Thomas’ fumble recovery was the first turnover of the game, and Sutton’s touchdown extended what had been a 7-3 halftime lead to a 14-3 lead just three-and-a-half minutes after halftime.

“Courtland got us going offensively,” Emmanuel Sanders said.

And that was only the start of a strong third quarter. Justin Simmons intercepted Jeff Driskel on the Bengals’ ensuing drive, and four plays later, Phillip Lindsay sprinted into the end zone from 65 yards out, ballooning the lead to 21-3.

Lindsay, who ran for 157 yards on the day and 100 in the second half alone, has averaged at least 7 yards per carry in three consecutive games, the first player do that since Fred Taylor in 2007.

“He ought to be in the Rookie of the Year category, Pro Bowl, all that stuff — he deserves all that,” Keenum said. “He’s not playing for that. After the game the coaches gave him and the offensive line a game ball, and he doesn’t want it — he wants to give it to the offensive line.

“That’s the kind of guy I want around. He’s a special dude. He’s going to be really good for us the last quarter of the season.”

The Broncos’ consecutive touchdown drives came in similar fashion: create a turnover and capitalize. It was just the second time this season the offense has scored touchdowns on back-to-back drives.

“[Creating turnovers] is a momentum changer,” Sanders said. “To be able to create those turnovers, create that momentum and have that momentum come on our sideline, it’s everything.”

After collecting no turnovers in the first half, the Denver defense had a pair of takeaways over the final 30 minutes. Driskel, making his first NFL start, was under siege constantly during the final two quarters. 

“Defensively, it was a tough game for [Defensive Coordinator] Joe [Woods] to call,” Head Coach Vance Joseph said. “We [weren’t] quite sure what they were going to do with the quarterback. … So it took us almost a half to kind of figure out what they were doing with him out of certain personnel groups, and we figured it out. … Great job by Joe and his staff to figure it out.”

The “complementary football” Keenum mentioned has served the Broncos well during their three-game winning streak. The Broncos are averaging 12.7 points off turnovers during that stretch, and that type of opportunistic football was effective once again in the second half Sunday.

“We just knew [the first half] wasn’t us,” said Bradley Chubb, who forced and recovered a Driskel fumble in the fourth quarter. “We came in here as a team [at halftime], and we knew that slow start wasn’t us. … In the second half, we just tried to get back to our identity.”

As the Broncos improved to .500, they did just that.

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