CINCINNATI -- **Prior to Week 15, Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio said that Brandon Marshall was "playing at a Pro Bowl level." And rarely do you simply replace Pro Bowl-caliber players without some bumps in the transition.
But what befell the Broncos in Monday's 37-28 loss at Cincinnati was being without Marshall, plus Danny Trevathan, plus Nate Irving, both of whom were on injured reserve. And by the end of the game, they were without T.J. Ward, a nickel linebacker the last few weeks, after he suffered a neck injury.
That's a lot of missing thump in the back two lines of the defense. And while the Broncos would not use that as a crutch, the Bengals racked up 207 yards on 37 carries. The yardage allowed per carry (5.6) was the most permitted by the Broncos since Super Bowl XLVIII; the first-down rate (one every 3.7 runs) was the second-worst of the season.
Check out photos from the first half of Monday's game in Cincinnati.
"We can't make any excuse about injuries," said cornerback Chris Harris Jr. "I mean, you could clearly see that we missed Brandon today, and that continuity at the linebacker position, but the guys, they had to step up."
Harris said there were "no communication errors" with Todd Davis and Steven Johnson working together as two of the three linebackers to get the plays called to the defense, but smooth pre-snap work wasn't enough.
"They just made the plays on us, and that's really what killed us," Harris said.
Added Johnson: "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."
But before moving on to that process, the Broncos will review the film … and we'll review the Three Keys:
1. GENERATE TAKEAWAYS.
Cornerback Aqib Talib was in perfect position to take advantage of a pass that skipped off A.J. Green's hands, turning an errant throw into an early pick-six, and Von Miller prevented at least three points -- and perhaps seven -- by wresting the football out of Jeremy Hill's grasp at the Denver 8-yard-line. That led to a touchdown drive, ensuring the Broncos maximized their takeaways.
But Manning had his first four-interception game in four years, more than negating the two turnovers the defense forced. Two led to touchdowns, one would have probably set up a field goal if it had not been followed by a taunting penalty, and the final one squelched the Broncos' last chance at a comeback at the Cincinnati 5-yard-line with 1:07 remaining.
- DON'T LET CINCINNATI'S RUNNING BACKS GET TO THE SECOND LEVEL.**
Although the defensive line often got a good push off the snap, with Terrance Knighton in particular breaking into the backfield on a consistent basis, the Bengals were consistent on the ground, and not just spectacular as Jeremy Hill showed on his 85-yard touchdown sprint through Denver's defense.
Although Hill, Gio Bernard and quarterback Andy Dalton averaged just 3.79 yards on their other 33 carries (not including two kneeldowns), they picked up first downs on nine of those 33 runs, a rate of one first down every 3.67 carries that was better than their one-every-4.06-carry average coming into the game, which was sixth in the league.
Four of the other 33 runs covered at least 10 yards: a 23-yard gallop by Bernard, runs of 10 and 14 yards by Hill and a 10-yard scamper from Dalton.
But the 85-yard touchdown was a stunner for a defense that allowed no runs longer than 27 yards in the previous 14 games.
""We've got to get [Hill] down before he breaks," Harris said. "He ended up breaking, man. That's something we try to eliminate every week -- big plays from the run game. We didn't fit it right and it ended up breaking on us."
3. MAKE THE BENGALS DEFENSE TENTATIVE.
The Broncos failed to do this, as the Bengals were able to attack while disguising their looks, showing blitz up the middle and then dropping back. The Bengals were on their heels as the Broncos sprinted to three third-quarter touchdowns, but in the other three quarters,
Their defensive backs were in position to procure errant passes, particularly in the fourth quarter, when the Broncos trailed and often faced long-yardage situations thanks to sacks and penalties; in the final period, the Broncos faced a second-and-11, a second-and-15 and a third-and-18.
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