ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- **Thirty-seven points allowed on the scoreboard did not flatter the Broncos, but the ability of their injury-riddled defense to cope with short fields and rally after Jeremy Hill's 85-yard touchdown scamper offered the Broncos hope for improvement next week.
But with the linebacking corps still in flux, a concern for the pass defense is the success the Chargers and Bengals had with underneath routes. While the cornerbacks have been splendid at preventing explosive passes downfield, Philip Rivers and Andy Dalton both exploited open space near the line of scrimmage, focusing on their tight ends and running backs.
Check out the top shots from the Broncos' Monday night loss to the Bengals.
In the last two weeks, running backs and tight ends have amassed 28 catches for 243 yards and three touchdowns against the Broncos -- including two scores Monday. Wide receivers gained just 135 yards on 13 receptions with no scores.
Monday night, tight end Jermaine Gresham and running back Gio Bernard combined for 14 receptions. Cincinnati's wide receivers, hamstrung by the arm injury to A.J. Green, had just three catches.
"I knew that Andy Dalton wasn't going to try me and (Aqib) Talib all game, so you knew he was going to try to force it to the tight end and the running backs," said cornerback Chris Harris Jr.
A play that particularly rankled the Broncos -- and middle linebacker Steven Johnson in particular -- was Bernard's 22-yard touchdown reception early in the third quarter, in which he got a step on Johnson on a crossing pattern and took off.
"I've just got to play with better technique," Johnson said. "Some of that stuff, I feel like was my fault. I feel like I could have done better.
"A lot of that stuff is weighing on my shoulders. It's kind of burning me, I can't lie. I've just got to continue to learn and grow and get better."
One area that did not appear to be an issue was communication, even though rookie Todd Davis wore the green-dotted, radio-receiver-equipped helmet to relay plays for the first time as a Bronco. Davis wore it in the preseason with the Saints, so he had experience.
"Plays were getting out smooth. Everything was fine," Johnson said. "It's just a couple of little things that happened, and they got us, they capitalized on them, and they're professionals too.
"We've just got to tighten up those bolts and screws, that's all."
REVIEWING THE CALL:
Officials' rulings do not win or lose games, but it's impossible to ignore the face-mask penalty against Demaryius Thomas as a crucial pivot point for momentum during the fourth quarter. It wiped out a 27-yard gain on a third-and-6 just 38 seconds after the Bengals reclaimed the lead, a gain that could have set the Broncos up for another lead change.
Instead of first-and-10 from the Cincinnati 49, the Broncos ended up punting after Taylor Mays sacked Manning one play later. After the game, Thomas said that he did not grab Dre Kirkpatrick's face mask, but that he "kind of touched it."
"I never saw that called," Thomas said. "That was a big change of the game, that was a first down, we were moving the ball, had got the ball past the 50. It was tough, but they called it so you've got to live with it."
Head Coach John Fox said there was a "strong likelihood" that he would turn the play into the league office for review. But affirmation in the Broncos' favor would be a hollow victory; the call will stand regardless.
The Bengals' average drive-start position Monday was at their 39-yard-line -- 16 yards better than Denver's. Two of the four interceptions thrown by Peyton Manning provided part of the damage; the rest came from an 80-yard kickoff return and a 49-yard punt return that led directly to 10 points.
"They had great field position most of the game," defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said.
The Broncos have had the better average drive-start position in seven of 15 games so far this season; they're undefeated in those contests. When the opponent has the better average, the Broncos are 3-4.
The Broncos have had a disadvantage of at least 14 yards in three games: at New England, St. Louis and Cincinnati; it's not a coincidence that they lost all three by at least two scores.
Twenty of Cincinnati's 37 points Monday came on drives that began in Denver territory; another seven came directly off Dre Kirkpatrick's fourth-quarter interception return. For the entire season, 118 of the 340 points given up by the Broncos -- an average of 7.87 per game -- were amassed on drives that started on Denver's side of midfield or via returns.
But Monday night also offered cause for optimism, as the defense came up with a three-and-out on a fourth-quarter Bengals series that began at the Denver 38 following an Adam Jones interception and subsequent taunting penalty against Reggie Nelson. Three of the five Cincinnati possessions to start in Denver territory ended in field goals or a punt.
Denver's defense has kept opponents from a touchdown on 12 of the 23 possessions to start in Broncos territory this year.
"We feel like we have the type of defense that can overcome any situation," Knighton said. "We held them to field goals."
- The neck strain T.J. Ward incurred halfway through the fourth quarter forced the Broncos to further adjust their alignments. They used Johnson and Davis together as the nickel linebackers, but also utilized an alignment that put David Bruton in Ward's nickel linebacker spot for one snap, with Omar Bolden lining up at safety.
- Davis played 49 snaps in making his first pro start. Johnson played 39 of the 63 snaps. No defender played 100 percent of the snaps Monday night.
- Left guard Orlando Franklin continued his recent stellar form, and in the last five games has been consistently stellar as a pulling guard to spring C.J. Anderson free for some solid gains. Franklin is now the Broncos' highest-rated offensive lineman this season, according to ProFootballFocus.com, and has graded out in the positive in five of the last six weeks.
- Brandon McManus got every kickoff to at least the goal line, but Adam Jones elected to return two of the four kickoffs that went past the goal line, running it back from six and seven yards deep in the third quarter for returns of 80 and 39 yards. The Broncos now rank 29th in average yardage per kickoff return allowed and 28th in punt-return average allowed.
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