Numbers matter. Yes, the game is played out on the field — not on paper — but a quick look at the statistical profile of a team can show tendencies, strengths and weaknesses that shine some light on what can be expected when the teams take the field. This series is an examination of how the Broncos can gain an advantage against their opponent from a statistical perspective.
Here are the numbers that matter in this Week 13 matchup against the Bengals.
The Broncos have held opponents under 100 rushing yards in five consecutive weeks, the longest active streak in the NFL.
“We still haven’t played our best ball; we still haven’t played a complete game,” defensive end Adam Gotsis said Wednesday. “We’ve got to keep putting things together and keep that hungry mentality and keep working.”
But that streak will be tested by a Bengals team that features do-it-all running back Joe Mixon as well as speedy quarterback Jeff Driskel, who is taking over for an injured Andy Dalton. Driskel ran for a touchdown last weekend after replacing Dalton, and he ran for 35 yards in a Week 10 matchup against the Saints.
“We have gone through every clip he’s played in the league, and he is a special athlete,” Head Coach Vance Joseph said Wednesday. “He was a 4.56 (40-yard dash time) guy at the Combine, and he’s been clocked this year at 21 miles per hour in an actual game. … Obviously [having] a rush plan for a guy like that is going to be critical, [as will] just playing good defense. We’re not going to discount this guy’s ability.”
The Broncos have experience facing mobile quarterbacks such as Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson this season, and the defense held up well against those players.
Mixon, meanwhile, is averaging 74.8 rushing yards per game, ninth-most in the NFL, and he’s also an able receiver out of the backfield with 31 catches on the year.
“He can take it out the strong side [and] out the weak side,” Gostsis said. “You’ve really got to play gap-disciplined with him. He’ll be back there bouncing around, and then he sees a hole and — boom — he’s gone. He has that kind of speed to get away as well.”
Though Mixon presents a tough challenge, that’s nothing new for the Broncos. They’ve come across talented runners such as James Conner, Melvin Gordon and David Johnson and managed to limit each one.
“Every week that they’re coming in, we know as a front, we need to stop the run game,” Gotsis said. “We need to shut the run game down. If we do that, we can help our dudes make plays.”
34.3 and 55.1
The Broncos’ ability to convert third downs this season has been inconsistent, and they currently rank 27th in the NFL with a 34.3 percent conversion rate. This week, though, they’ll face the league’s worst third-down defense. The Bengals, meanwhile, allow opponents to convert on 55.1 percent of their third downs.
In wins, the Broncos are converting 37.1 of their third downs, a slight improvement over their season average. And Vance Joseph believes the team is improving in that area as Case Keenum has improved.
“Case has done a good job with the red zone and third downs,” he said Monday. “That goes through the quarterback.”
60 and 67
The Broncos have generated 60 “explosive plays” — classified as runs of at least 15 yards and passes of at least 20 yards — this season. That’s the sixth-most in the NFL. The Chiefs, meanwhile, have allowed 67 such plays, which is tied for second-most in the league.
A large part of the Broncos’ big-play success has been Keenum, whose 41 completions of over 20 yards is tied for seventh in the NFL.
“I just think he’s getting comfortable,” Emmanuel Sanders said Wednesday. “He’s a smart player, and he’s played a lot of football. … I just feel like he’s getting comfortable — getting comfortable with the system — and he’s giving guys opportunities, and we’re making those plays for him as well.”
The Broncos are at their best when they can mix runs and short passes with an occasional deep ball or two. Last Sunday against the Steelers, the Broncos produced just four explosive plays, but they made those four count; each of the Broncos’ four scoring drives featured an explosive play.
Getting the ball to the Broncos’ top playmakers — namely Sanders and Phillip Lindsay — with space to operate could be a key against a Bengals defense that is liable to give up some big plays. If the Broncos can capitalize on a few opportunities, they can gain a distinct advantage on offense in Cincinnati.
In the past two games combined, the Broncos have forced six turnovers, which is tied for second in the NFL during that stretch. The Broncos’ offense, meanwhile, has not turned the ball over. That’s been a major factor in the team earning a 2-0 record despite being out-gained by a considerable margin in both wins.
“It’s called ‘takeaways’ for a reason, right?” Joseph said Monday. “You’ve got to make it happen. You can’t hope it happens. That’s been a key. … That’s why we’re 2-0 in two weeks.”
Putting pressure on Driskel — who has yet to throw an interception as a professional but struggled at times with ball security in college — in his first career NFL start can help set the tone and perhaps give the defense an opportunity for a big play.