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Three Keys to Broncos-Bengals

CINCINNATI -- When the Bengals placed quarterback Andy Dalton on injured reserve and announced that backup Jeff Driskel would make his first regular-season start, the dynamic of Sunday's game changed.

Driskel's straight-line speed -- he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.56 seconds at the 2016 Scouting Combine -- offers a dynamic element for which the Broncos can't lean on much regular-season film in order to prepare.

But Dalton possessed the ability to run, as well.

"It's kind of the same thing, it's just that [Driskel] is a little bit faster," defensive end Derek Wolfe said. "So we've got to make sure that we keep him in the pocket, get him to the ground and don't let him extend the play with his legs."

This would have been a priority against Dalton, as well, so it's not as though the Broncos had the ability -- or the need -- to junk the rest of Cincinnati's game film in their preparation.

"They're not just going to change the offense out of nowhere," Wolfe said. "They might do a couple of things here and there. Every team puts something new in every week, anyways. So obviously we have to worry more about the read-[option] plays, where he'll pull it and run, and stuff like that.

"Everybody has to do their job this game. It's one of those games where, whatever guy you've got, you got him. If you've got man coverage on somebody, you've got him. If you've got one-on-one with the guard or tackle, make sure you try to win that one so we get to the quarterback and get him on the ground, because that's what's most important -- getting him to the ground."

Of course, Driskel's feet could make getting him down difficult.

"It makes it very tough, but in this league, you can't underestimate anybody. It just can't happen," safety Will Parks said. "I've been in games that I lost where the quarterback wasn't hurt, but a certain player was hurt, and the other player came in, stepped up and made big plays."

It happened against the Giants last year, when they overcame a depleted wide-receiver corps to deal the Broncos a 23-10 loss that started an eight-game losing streak.

"You've got to go in with the same mindset as if Andy Dalton was there," Parks said. "Jeff Driskel is in the NFL for a reason. He got drafted for a reason."

But the Broncos won back-to-back games over teams in playoff position for a reason, too. So what are some other keys to the Broncos getting their fourth win in their last five trips to Paul Brown Stadium?

Win on the ground

Only Oakland has permitted more rushing yardage so far this season than Cincinnati, which concedes an average of 147.5 rushing yards per game. Meanwhile, the Broncos rank 10th in total rushing yardage (124.7 yards per game), but sit second in average per carry (5.2 yards).

For Cincinnati, running backs Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard present a solid one-two punch, having played 17 games together over the last two years. When they have 24 or more combined touches in a game, the Bengals are 5-1. With fewer than 24 touches, they are 2-9.

"We've got to make sure that we do what we've been doing," Wolfe said. "Play our gap, don't be getting up the field when you're not supposed to be getting up the field. If it's a run, play the run."

The struggles of early October appear to be well in the past for Denver's run defense. After the Jets and Rams gashed the Broncos for 593 rushing yards in back-to-back weeks, Denver's run defense has dominated, allowing just 386 rushing yards in the last five games.

"In those other two games, we were getting so many [run-pass option plays] that we were like, 'Let's just go nickel defense,' and everybody's zooming up the field because they're used to thinking it's going to be a pass, and that creates huge lanes for the running back to cut back into," Wolfe said. "That's what was killing us -- the cutback.

"So now that we've got that cleaned up, we're going to be all right."

Contain the Bengals' pass rush

Six teams have two pass rushers with at least seven sacks apiece, and two of them are the Broncos and Bengals. Cincinnati's rush is powered by nine-year veterans Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap, both of whom have seven sacks.

However, Atkins' sack production has dropped as the Bengals' overall defense has struggled. After averaging 1.2 sacks per game during the Bengals' 4-1 start, Atkins has just one sack in the six games since then, when the Bengals lost five times.

Atkins and Dunlap have played 126 games together. In those games, when neither posts a sack, the Bengals are 9-21-1. But when they combine for at least two sacks, the Bengals are 22-7 -- including all five of their wins this season, when they had 11 sacks between them. In their six losses, Atkins and Dunlap combined for just three sacks.

"They're great pass rushers," left tackle Garett Bolles said. "They put a lot of money into those up-front guys. They're big and long and [Dunlap is] probably one of the longest defensive ends in the league at 6-foot-6, and they're really good. They like to spike inside. They like to bull-rush.

"You've really just got to be prepared and it doesn't matter what you have, just go out there with the same mindset to punch them in the mouth. You look what Cleveland did to them last week; we can do the very same thing as long as we take care of business."

Continue limiting mistakes

Denver's improved ability to avoid penalties starts with the play of its offensive line. In two games since the bye, officials whistled the Broncos' offensive line for just three penalties -- with only two being accepted for a total of 15 yards. In the last game before the bye, Houston accepted four penalties against Denver's offensive line for 25 yards.

"Technique, man. That's just really what it is. We drill technique day in and day out. If we're up on the board or watching film, we're drilling technique," Bolles said. "We're on the field, we're drilling technique. Before the games, we're drilling technique. In the locker room, we're drilling technique. So it's really about all technique and hand placement and eyes and the way we move our feet."

Bolles' improvement is a significant part of the success. After officials whistled him for six holding infractions from Week 2 through Week 6, he hasn't had a holding penalty in his last five games.

"I feel like I'm in a nice, smooth little rhythm, just continuing to use both of my hands in the punch game, just coming off the ball and not being too wide with my hands and staying with tight feet," Bolles said. "You have tight feet, your hands are going to shoot tight and you're going to hit the target on the [defender]."

Winning the turnover battle also remains essential. After posting an even giveaway-takeaway margin through the bye, the Broncos are plus-6 the last two weeks, rocketing them to seventh in the league. Cincinnati has lost nine of its last 10 games with a minus-2 margin or worse -- including its last two home games, which they lost 35-20 to Cleveland and 51-14 to New Orleans.

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