For Once, Monday Night Is Must-See

Monday December 28th, 2015

Plan A for this week’s Extra Point was to write about how the Steelers are (were) the most dangerous team heading into the AFC playoffs. Part of me still thinks they are, but after they failed to negotiate Baltimore’s two-deep safety coverages on Sunday, or stop Javorius Allen in the zone running game, they may not even make the playoffs.

Plan B was to write about how the Seahawks are looking like their usual dominant selves again defensively. And that they might be better than ever offensively thanks to a refined approach ripe with crafty route combinations and Russell Wilson’s newfound pocket proficiency, which has been nothing short of mind-boggling. However, the Seahawks stumbled at home to a Rams team that they’ve often had trouble matching up against. The problem was their offensive line, which isn’t athletic enough to compete with St. Louis’s furious front four. Seattle is still in the playoffs and, in the bigger picture, trending up, but this hiccup is enough to pump the brakes on their coronation as the most dangerous team entering the NFC postseason.

And so we called an audible and went with Plan C: a preview of what (thank goodness) is finally a superb Monday night matchup with significant playoff implications for both teams (not to mention other teams who will be watching from home). Both teams, Denver and Cincinnati, have been great with audibles over the years, and have had to amend their approaches with their professorial quarterbacks, Peyton Manning and Andy Dalton, sidelined with injures.

Whichever replacement QB, Brock Osweiler or AJ McCarron, plays better could very well decide Monday’s contest. Making his sixth NFL start, Osweiler is the less enigmatic of the two. So let’s first evaluate how he and Denver’s 20th-ranked scoring offense match up to Cincy’s top-ranked scoring defense.

Broncos Offense vs. Bengals Defense

At halftime in Pittsburgh last week, Osweiler was 14-for-18 for 214 yards and three touchdowns. In the second half, he went 7-for-26 for 82 yards and an interception. It was the second week in a row that Denver blew a halftime lead by getting blanked in the second half. The week before it had happened in a home loss to the Raiders. Noteworthy is that both second half disappearing acts came against defenses that had played zone coverage—often some version of Cover 2, with two safeties split over the top.

Osweiler struggled to process Pittsburgh’s help coverage concepts out of zone in the second half. To be fair, his supporting cast also floundered. Several different Broncos receivers had numerous route running snafus and dropped passes. Denver’s offensive line also rattled along the lines of inconsistency, most glaringly inside, at guard and center. The week before it was outside at tackle, where Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack ate up Michael Schofield and Ryan Harris for four second-half sacks. (Mack also had a fifth sack on an out-of-structure play.)

Two-high-safety zone coverages happens to be Cincinnati’s forte. We think of the Bengals defense, once coordinated by Mike Zimmer, as a blitz-heavy, double-A-gap pressure unit, with two linebackers walked up in the A-gaps between the center and guards in order to eliminate double-team possibilities on any specific pass rushers. However, under coordinator Paul Guenther, the Bengals have played more traditional, coverage-based football, in part because the key actor in the double-A-gap pressures, linebacker Vontaze Burfict, has been in and out of the lineup the past two seasons.

Burfict is in the lineup now, but given Denver’s ups and downs against zone, there’s little incentive to bring interior pressure. This is especially true when you consider that Denver’s stretch rushing attack naturally targets the perimeter. You can’t play double-A-gap against outside runs—the alignment gives blockers inherently favorable angles. The Bengals won’t even consider these inside blitzes unless it is third-and-10 or further. And in those instances, it makes more sense to keep bodies in coverage, giving the inexperienced Osweiler more to decipher.

Based on how conservative Denver’s approach has been in the three weeks since the upset over New England, it reasons that Gary Kubiak and his staff don’t want to risk putting their QB in long-yardage situations. Osweiler has been used as a complementary player, nothing more. The question this week is whether he’ll complement the offense with more play-action rollouts. That’s Kubiak’s M.O., but we saw little of it against the Steelers. Cincy’s aggressive linebackers and safeties can be over-reactive to misdirection; fake handoffs with bootlegs and crossing patterns would be a good way to attack them.

• UNDERSTANDING THE GREATNESS OF A.J. GREEN: An afternoon watching film with the Bengals superstar receiver.

Bengals Offense vs. Broncos Defense

As for McCarron, presumably the Bengals view him as a complementary player, as well, though technically we don’t yet know for sure. McCarron’s first NFL showing was off the bench two weeks ago versus the Steelers. Evaluate that with a grain of salt because he hadn’t taken many practice reps that week and he was assuming a gameplan that had been built for Dalton. McCarron’s second showing, last week at San Francisco, offered very little to evaluate. Cincinnati’s three touchdowns came on drives that started inside San Francisco’s 40-yard-line, two inside the red zone. And thanks to two connections on deep fly routes (Marvin Jones a 47-yarder and A.J. Green a 37-yarder), the Bengals did not have to attack the intermediate levels with progression reads.

Intermediate progression passes reveal a quarterback’s true makeup. McCarron did have two nice intermediate connections last Sunday: to Jones for 19 yards on a Cover 3 zone-beating combination, and to tight end Tyler Kroft (playing for an injured Tyler Eifert) on a 20-yard touchdown to beat another Cover 3 down the seams. Nice throws these were, but both were largely defined reads, with the play design dictating where the ball went. There’s nothing wrong with that; it just puts a ceiling on a quarterback evaluation. There are still questions to answer about McCarron.

The Bengals won’t see much Cover 3 Monday night. Despite getting torched by the Steelers the previous week in man-to-man, the Broncos should stick with their foundational man-to-man approach. Aqib Talib typically matches up to the opponent’s biggest receiver, with Chris Harris on the quickest. That means Talib will be on A.J. Green and Harris on Jones, leaving Bradley Roby to spar with Mohamed Sanu. All are compelling matchups. And for that matter, so is Denver’s dynamic pass rush against Cincinnati’s stellar veteran offensive line.

Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has shrewdly given defenses a lot to sort out this season, showing massive pre-snap shifts and various formations, particularly early in games. This week, those formations will feature receivers in motion at the snap or aligned tight to the ball, as opposed to split out wide. That forces defenders to fight through traffic, which is how you defeat man coverage.

The Prediction

People love this part of a game preview, but it’s foolish to dabble in it. If individual predictions were any good in the NFL, this article would have been about either the Steelers or Seahawks.

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