For those who looked at my NFL predictions, I had the Broncos losing on the road to Cincinnati. Turns out I was wrong, but that’s a good thing, mind you.
What yesterday’s game showed is that, while the Broncos aren’t going to dominate everyone defensively like last year, they remain a resilient team that finds ways to get it done even when things don’t go well early.
The Broncos gave up a big run play on the Bengals’ opening drive, couldn’t run the football against a Cincinnati run defense that hasn’t been sharp against the run, and lost a couple of key starters to injury, TJ Ward and Russell Okung (thought both returned to the game). Trevor Siemian looked shaky early on and, in the third quarter, had two passes that should have been picked off.
But the Broncos never folded. Siemian settled down and played very well in the fourth quarter. He showed he could hit deep throws, and while his first deep throw to Emmanuel Sanders forced Sanders to adjust, his second deep throw to Demaryius Thomas was the best pass Siemian has thrown thus far. And the Denver defense did a better job containing the running game and its pass rush broke through in the second half.
It’s becoming clearer that the Broncos are a playoff contender and will be one of the teams to beat in the AFC. And the thing is, the Broncos haven’t even reached their peak yet. That’s what really makes Sunday’s win exciting. As good as the Broncos played overall, we know this team can still do better.
Here are my takeaways from the Cincy game.
1. For those who are grumbling about Pro Football Focus not grading Trevor Siemian highly, this is one of those times in which you have to remember that the stat line from the box score doesn’t tell the whole story. Siemian’s throws were not good through most of the first half and the two near-interceptions were not good throws – the second one, in fact, was a bad read all the way (not to mention tight end John Phillips was ineligible as a receiver the way he lined up). With that said, we should remember that Siemian is still developing as a player and hasn’t reached his ceiling, and that when he did play well, he showed he can make tough throws and he continues to show good poise in the pocket. The only thing you have to remember with PFF is that site isn’t going to use a stat line to determine a grade, but what happens on each play (nor will PFF grade players on a curve). At the same time, PFF’s grade doesn’t mean the book is already written on Siemian; it’s just a reminder that you take the bad with the good to determine an overall game performance. But Siemian does deserve credit for a strong fourth quarter and he is doing plenty to silence those who thought Paxton Lynch would be starting by Week Four.
2. Von Miller is one of those players who won’t have much showing up in the stat line this week, but one only need watch the game to know he’s still making his presence felt. He gave Bengals right tackle Cedric Ogbuehi fits, drew one holding penalty, might have drawn another had the referees not flagged another Bengal player for holding on that same play, and got a sack near the end of the game. Regardless of what the box score says, Miller has earned his paycheck each game.
3. Shane Ray still needs some work on his run defense, but he’s better as a pass rusher this season and got better against the run game in the second half. When Ray fell down the draft board last year, he found himself in a great situation, able to spend a year learning from the likes of Miller and DeMarcus Ware, and is now taking his next steps in developing into becoming a top pass rusher. I think we can feel good about what he’ll bring next year when he steps into the starting lineup for good.
4. Demaryius Thomas’ fumble will go down as one of those plays in which everyone debates what is supposed to be a catch. We’ve already seen similar plays in which the ruling was an incomplete pass. I’ll leave it up to you to debate what a catch really is, but the good thing is Thomas dismissed the mistake and made several key receptions to keep drives going.
5. But after that Thomas fumble, the Denver defense showed how quickly it can put a team out of good field position. You just don’t expect that teams getting the ball on their own 37-yard line are going to end the drive with a punt. Part of that came from a Bengals’ penalty, but Ray’s back-to-back sacks played a significant role.
6. The move to bring Shiloh Keo back may have surprised some people, but it’s easy to see why the Broncos did. Not only was his presence needed with Justin Simmons sidelined, but he had a couple of key defensive and special teams plays, particularly his tackle on Tyler Boyd to prevent a third-down conversion and his heads-up play on the fumbled punt to get the recovery.
7. Cody Latimer should not have returned the opening kickoff, because he was too far back in the end zone. His second return probably could have been downed, too, but it turns out he was right that a lane was developing for a long return, one which might have led to a touchdown had he not been tripped up. His third return looked like the Bengals trying to force a kick return, but he caught it just around the goal line, putting him in a tough situation. Commenting generally, though, it’s becoming clearer that the new touchback rule isn’t going to reduce kickoff returns because teams just aren’t going to boot the ball into the end zone every time.
8. It’s a good thing Russell Okung was able to return to the game because Michael Schofield doesn’t look comfortable at left tackle. Right guard suits him fine, though, and Schofield is a good example of why sometimes you need to be patient with a player, especially when he never takes a snap during his rookie season.
9. Perhaps the same could be said about Jeff Heuerman, though one would have to go back and look at the film to see how many times he took the field in a blocking role. But he made the most of the one time he was targeted. Let’s give him time and see if he can keep progressing.
10. I’m also giving Ty Sambrailo the benefit of the doubt, but it’s clear that not playing a snap in the preseason hasn’t helped him. He had his moments in run blocking but his pass protection needs work. But perhaps he’ll improve the more he plays.