Sometimes during the course of a long NFL season, matchups come along where the two offenses simply aren't likely to be the driving force behind the outcome.
When the Cincinnati Bengals visit the Broncos this Monday in Denver, it's a clash of two teams that were once much more offensive minded, but now rely mostly on the play of their defenses to keep things rolling toward the playoffs.
The Broncos haven't had Peyton Manning for several weeks, and although the play of replacement Brock Osweiler has been steady and even impressive at times, they've risen and fallen on the shoulders of their defense.
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Last week against the Steelers, the usually stout Denver defense blew a 27-10 lead, spoiling the best half of football yet seen from the Osweiler-led Broncos offense.
At earlier points in the season, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton was an MVP candidate and their offense was as deep and explosive as any out there. With the loss of Dalton, the concussion issues with stud tight end Tyler Eifert, and an inconsistent running game, the Cincy defense has been stellar and often overlooked.
In a game where defensive play should rule the day, no group's work will swing the contest one way or the other more than that of the Bengals interior defensive line -- specifically the interior line work of Pro Bowler Geno Atkins and veteran defensive tackle Domata Peko.
OFF THE SPOT
Osweiler has some athleticism to leave the pocket if necessary, but the tall, strong-armed quarterback's best work comes when the area in front of him is clean and he's able to step into and drive balls down the field off play action.
The importance of "getting the quarterback off the spot" was an idea that my former coach Bill Belichick would hammer from time to time when the opposing quarterback had a similar profile as Osweiler -- tall, upright throwers who thrive in the absence of clutter in their front yard. In studying Osweiler, I see some makeup and style similarities to my former teammate Drew Bledsoe. If Osweiler -- much like Bledsoe -- is able to step into throws, he has the ability to pick defenses apart (see below).
Obviously, when the running game is rolling, play action becomes exponentially more effective. A great example of this was in the second half of the Broncos-Patriots game. In the example above, one of the biggest factors in keeping the defensive linemen from blowing up the field is making them honoring the run fake.
They're forced to address the run possibility with their initial punch before transitioning into pocket penetrating pass moves.
That ample 6-ish yards of real estate in front of Osweiler's feet provide two big advantages he needs: 1) a clean 'windshield' to wait for and evaluate any deep, inside-breaking options and 2) space for the 6-foot-8 quarterback to use his God-given long stride and throw javelins.
In the upcoming game against the Bengals, a clean front porch is going to be hard to come by based on the last month of work by the Cincy interior defensive line. Atkins is one of the most disruptive interior defensive linemen in football. He doesn't get the national attention like JJ Watt -- or even Aaron Donald in St. Louis -- but Atkins' tape glows with jaw-dropping plays that cause tons of problems right smack in the middle of the action.
ATKINS (AND PEKO) DIET
Atkins is one of those rare interior NFL defensive linemen who can dominate both the run and pass game. He's versatile enough to run-stuff on one down and then smoke guards in pass protection the next. He also has a knack for penetrating on run plays and either making the tackle or drawing flags -- that kind of early down penalty that forces long get-back-on-track situations the current iteration of the Denver offense would be especially taxed to overcome (see below).
Bootlegs or moving the pocket are elements that Gary Kubiak loves to use in his offense. There are plenty of examples on tape of Atkins killing these kinds of schemes in both the pass and run game because he has the rare big man quickness to go "back door" (to a gap away from the point of attack) and still make it back down the line to ruin the play (see below).
But what makes Cincy's front so potentially disruptive is it's not just Atkins that can pull off the backfield bomb. Peko isn't as quick or athletic as Atkins -- he's much more of a traditional NFL defensive tackle. That said, he's very strong and crafty with his hands to counter over-aggressive blockers and put himself in the backfield just the same (see below).
What really makes this work is the back-and-forth between these two players -- neither having too definitive a role on the inside. They move around and change their front up enough to where it's not always the same guy drawing the double. When the single block comes, either is capable of ruining the scheme in front of them -- and in this case, exactly where Osweiler will need it most.
Scrolling through all the ways the Broncos can hurt you offensively, each is predicated off some initial space and clarity for the quarterback. Taking that away is a specialty of the Bengals defensive line.
Which side wins that particular battle consistently play in and play out will go a long way towards deciding who succeeds in this critical AFC playoff positioning battle. Osweiler's a very young man, but he still needs the Bengals 'off his lawn.'
Matt Chatham played for the Patriots and Jets over nine seasons in the NFL, winning three Super Bowls. He is also the founder of footballbyfootball.com. You can follow him on Twitter.