A Christmas Wish For Leah

December, 21, 2014
Dec 21
9:56
AM ET


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Bengals defensive tackle Devon Still gets ready for the holiday with his daughter Leah, who continues her battle with a rare pediatric cancer.

Broncos' Defensive Firepower

December, 20, 2014
Dec 20
4:15
PM ET


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Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden discuss the Broncos' defense, which they say will be the key to their "Monday Night Football" matchup against the Bengals, 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN.
CINCINNATI -- Hue Jackson admitted this week that it took longer than expected for the Cincinnati Bengals to find the ground-game identity he vowed to establish last January when he took over as offensive coordinator.

"We all share a hand in that," Jackson said. "But at the end of the day, we've got to get there, and I think we're getting there. That's the most important part."

Hill
lastname
Bernard
Cincinnati does appear a little closer to showcasing that side of its offense. This story from Wednesday highlights in sharp detail some of what has gone differently in the past seven weeks to make the Bengals' rushing offense go from being mediocre to one of the best in the league.

After eight weeks, the Bengals ranked 16th in rushing average. Entering Monday night's showdown against Denver, they are sixth.

Some of what has helped was deciding on going with a one-back system over the two-back scheme the Bengals tried to force at the start of the season. Injuries to Giovani Bernard sped some of that up in the middle part of the season, when the second-year back was shelved for three weeks in favor of rookie Jeremy Hill. The budding young star rushed for more than 150 yards in two of those games.

Last week, with Bernard healthy, the Bengals opted to finally shift primary backfield duties onto Hill's shoulders. The two-man tandem still existed, but with greater emphasis placed onto Hill. He proved he was more than able to accept those responsibilities, rushing for 148 yards and two touchdowns in the 30-0 win against the Browns.

For his own peace of mind, Jackson believed he needed to name one back the starter over the other.

"Maybe for me in my own mind, that's part of it," he said. "But the attitude which you play at and the mindset which you play at and the type of runs which you run also have a lot to do with that, too. Everybody's not built to run the same kind of runs all the time. You do things a little bit different for guys, but we have two guys that have been playing in our system and who have done everything."

Read between the lines of that comment, it appears Jackson is starting to feel differently about relying upon Bernard as a regular interior rusher.

But it's not that Bernard's smaller size affects his ability to be an effective inside runner. It's more that Hill simply knows how to do it better. Besides, from the outside looking in, it seems the offensive line has meshed more consistently on those runs with Hill.

"The back has to get a feel, the linemen have to get a feel for the back and vice-versa, and the next thing you know you've got something good going," Jackson said, referring to the difficulty of establishing rhythm when running backs are rotated often.

Make no mistake, though, as much as Hill has been the story of the rushing offense of late, the Bengals' identity still very much relies on Bernard to be the change-of-pace runner who can pick up chunk yards in the passing and rushing game.

"We need them both," head coach Marvin Lewis said. "[Bernard] was a tick from breaking a couple of those runs last week where they just ticked an ankle, and he could turn that into a 70-yard run very quickly. We have to keep after it."

Bengals Ready For Broncos

December, 20, 2014
Dec 20
3:33
PM ET


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WR A.J. Green, RB Jeremy Hill and LB Rey Maualuga break down the keys for the Bengals to beat the Broncos on "Monday Night Football," 8:30 ET on ESPN.
CINCINNATI -- If Peyton Manning ends up playing for the Denver Broncos on Monday night, the Cincinnati Bengals could be without one of their best weapons for combating him.

Lamur
Lamur
Although he practiced Saturday morning for the first time this week, linebacker Emmanuel Lamur was listed later in the day as doubtful on the Bengals' final injury report of the week.

He could be a game-time decision.

"He's made a lot of progress," coach Marvin Lewis said. "With the extra day this week, obviously that helps a lot."

Lamur had an extra day early in the week to rest his sore hamstring, and he will have time even early Monday to get it treated several hours before the game if need be.

"It wasn't real severe, and we shut him down right away," Lewis said of the injury.

Lamur was run from last Sunday's 30-0 win against the Browns because of the issue.

If Lamur is ruled unable to play, the Bengals likely will use a combination of backups Marquis Flowers, Chris Carter and Nico Johnson at the "Sam" linebacker position he occupies in the base defense. When Cincinnati shifts into nickel packages as it likely will do often against the Broncos' multi-receiver and tight end sets, safety Taylor Mays likely will come off the bench and shift into Lamur's role as the cover linebacker. Despite playing the "Sam" in base, it has been Lamur's responsibility to defend tight ends in passing situations this season.

Last season, with Lamur out for the season, Mays moved down into a linebacker role. He was covering tight ends in a similar capacity before suffering his own season-ending shoulder injury in Week 8.

In addition to watching Lamur, eyes will be on Manning before Monday's game, too. After fighting through a thigh injury and an illness this week, the quarterback was listed as questionable on the Broncos' Saturday injury report.

Here is Cincinnati's full injury report*:

DOUBTFUL
WR James Wright (knee)
LB Lamur (hamstring)

QUESTIONABLE
QB AJ McCarron (illness)

PROBABLE
WR Brandon Tate (illness)
OL Mike Pollak (knee)
CB Dre Kirkpatrick (Achilles)
DE Carlos Dunlap (calf)
TE Jermaine Gresham (toe)
DE Margus Hunt (ankle)
CB Terence Newman (ankle)
OT Marshall Newhouse (illness)

Receiver A.J. Green was taken off the injury report. He's healthy after dealing with an illness this week.
CINCINNATI -- Inside the meeting room run by Cincinnati Bengals linebacker coach Matt Burke is a large poster that features a pair of wide tiger eyes.

It's a fitting poster because of the team's mascot, but it also is fitting because of what the eyes represent to the players, specifically on defense. As perfect as the poster is for the room's decor, this is real reason behind it being in the room. It's a tool used often to illustrate proper playing technique.

Manning
When it comes to getting players to keep their eyes trained on a particular target or route or assignment, secondary coaches like seeing "clean eyes," just like the unflinching, straight-ahead-staring pupils on the poster in the linebacker room. What they don't want to see are the eyes Burke and co-defensive backs coach Vance Joseph loathe: "dirty eyes."

Those are the ones that result from players looking in places other than the assignment they have been asked to carry out. Against the Denver Broncos' Peyton Manning on Monday night, Bengals linebackers and defensive backs must avoid having those, pre- and post-snap. If they get caught looking in the wrong spots during the nationally televised game, they could end up getting beaten, and soundly, by one of the smartest players the NFL has ever seen.

"You can't have dirty eyes, keep your eyes clean," Burke said. "Especially this week because he's the master of trying to trick you in some of that stuff."

Before he requests the ball from center Will Montgomery, Manning has made it a habit of going through a series of twitches, ticks, gyrations, shouts, motioning, audibling, hutting and fake-call yelling. He's an actor, often calling out words that mean absolutely nothing to the play the Broncos are going to run. But sometimes, there is a functional tweak that comes from his many movements and line calls that do alter plays and have real meaning.

The problem is deciphering what's real and what isn't.

Eight days isn't enough time for the Bengals to even try figuring that out. All they can do is execute the play defensive coordinator Paul Guenther has them prepared for and not overreact to Manning's mannerisms. The Bengals' minds will be tested in ways they maybe haven't been this season.

"A chess match? It's more a chess match between him and Guenther," linebacker Vincent Rey said. "I'm not even involved. I'm just a pawn, I feel like. I get communicated to from coach and I get the call to everyone, warn everyone about pre-snap keys that I see, and go play as hard as I can because [Manning] knows what he's doing."

Yes, Manning does. After all, he's been running through his pre-snap show for 17 seasons, has been to 13 Pro Bowls and won a Super Bowl.

"He's smart," cornerback Terence Newman said. "Really, really smart."

Add Manning's movements with the play-actions the Broncos run, and the focus on maintaining clean eyes becomes even bigger.

Still, there are pre-snap modifications the Bengals can make that might get Manning thinking a little more.

"You want to throw some disguises at him even though he's seen it all," safety George Iloka said. "Just try to throw different coverages at him. You don't want him back there, 'Oh, they're in Cover 4, we'll hit this. They're in Cover 2, we'll hit this.' You want to hold your disguises as long as possible."

Because Manning, the actor, certainly will.
CINCINNATI -- It's late December, meaning it must be time for the yearly tradition Andrew Whitworth has grown far too accustomed to.

When the Pro Bowl teams are announced Tuesday night, the Cincinnati Bengals left tackle may not hear his name called. If that indeed happens, it will be just the latest in a series of times when the deserving Whitworth has been snubbed.

And that's a shame.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Whitworth
Darron Cummings/Associated PressAndrew Whitworth has basically been inpenetrable for the Cincinnati Bengals this season.
At 33, Whitworth has arguably had his best season and has done so by accomplishing feats the majority of other tackles could only dream of doing.

But the days when rejection from the all-star game might bug him are long past.

"I'm used to that," Whitworth said earlier this week. "I don't know how many tackles haven't given up a sack all season, but I doubt it's many. But hey, I don't worry about that. I know all the guys who will be on it."

He wasn't in the top 10 of the Pro Bowl fan vote that closed Wednesday. The Browns' Joe Thomas led all offensive tackle vote-getters with nearly 343,000 votes. San Francisco's Joe Staley was the 10th tackle on the ballot with 118,050.

Still, there's a chance Whitworth could earn his second Pro Bowl selection through coach and player voting.

Whitworth wasn't Cincinnati's only top-10 snub. Punter Kevin Huber, who has been first or second in net punting average all season, wasn't in the fans' top 10. The only Bengal who was a top-10 fan selection was punt returner Adam Jones. He finished sixth in the fan balloting.

According to Pro Football Focus, Whitworth is one of four offensive tackles who haven't allowed a sack all season. Thomas and Staley have permitted one and four sacks, respectively. The other eight top-10 vote-getters have allowed a combined 26, an average of 3.3 per player.

Per PFF, Whitworth hasn't allowed a single pressure in eight games this season. On 463 pass-block snaps, he's given up just nine pressures, giving him a 98.7 pass-blocking efficiency rating, the highest in the NFL. Thomas isn't far behind with a 98.1 efficiency rating.

"I can't say enough about him and what he means," Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said of Whitworth. "He's having fun and he's really taking the mentality of leadership with that group."

According to Whitworth, health has been the key this season. After experiencing knee pain parts of the last two seasons and struggling with figuring how to address it, he began this season feeling better than he recently had.

"It's just a night and day world from playing on one leg like I did for two seasons," he said. "I get to explode, I can do what I want to do, and I can really pull anything out of the bag every week. I'm a lot more confident, and not really cocky -- I respect everybody I'm playing -- but I don't have a fear of anybody that's lining up across from me."

Even the player who will be paired against Whitworth on Monday night, Denver Broncos LB DeMarcus Ware, can see that.

"When you think about tackles, they'll say another name [first]," said Ware, who played against Whitworth often in college. "Usually they don't say him, but he's one of those guys that needs to be put in that echelon with the top tackles in the league."
CINCINNATI -- As they face yet another tough tight end matchup, the Cincinnati Bengals may be without their top cover linebacker Monday night when they host the Denver Broncos.

That's because for the second straight day, Emmanuel Lamur missed practice, working instead Friday on the rehab portion of the practice field. The base strongside linebacker typically lines up with tight ends in certain passing situations. He's drawn his fair share of good ones this year, too.

After facing Rob Gronkowski, Delanie Walker and Jimmy Graham among others, Lamur would be expected this weekend to defend Julius Thomas, Denver's big red zone passing target.

If the hamstring injury Lamur suffered late in last Sunday's 30-0 win over Cleveland hasn't calmed by Monday night, then he'll likely be replaced by Taylor Mays, a safety who has been used as a linebacker in the past. There are other options available to the Bengals, too, including backups Marquis Flowers, Chris Carter and Nico Johnson, linebackers coach Matt Burke said.

Burke acknowledged that Mays has been in his meeting room all this week in the event Lamur can't go.

Before a season-ending Week 8 injury last season, Mays was beginning to emerge as a solid enough option at the nickel linebacker spot. He spent much of his time before the injury playing there with Lamur shelved from the preseason due to his own season-ending issue.

As far as the health of the linebacker positions are concerned, it's been a year to forget for Burke. Lamur's latest injury comes after he, Rey Maualuga, Vontaze Burfict and Jayson DiManche have all already missed games. Maualuga missed four, Burfict is on season-ending injured reserve after finishing just two games, and DiManche went on IR two weeks ago.

"That's just how it goes. We're cursed this year," Burke said. "We know that's part of sports, it's part of the game. If you deal with injuries, it's 'when.' So you always have to have those contingency plans. We're not changing what we do. Next man up. Those guys have been here. They're responsible for knowing what they're doing to play and it's time to go."

Along with Lamur, receiver James Wright, who has missed the last two games with a knee injury, also didn't practice Friday. Like Lamur, he got in work on the rehab and conditioning parts of the practice field. Fellow receiver A.J. Green, who was sick Thursday, returned to full practice participation.

Here's the full Friday injury report:

DID NOT PRACTICE
LB Emmanuel Lamur (hamstring)
WR James Wright (knee)
OT Andrew Whitworth (veteran's day off)
WR Brandon Tate (illness)

LIMITED PRACTICE PARTICIPATION
CB Dre Kirkpatrick (Achilles)
DE Carlos Dunlap (calf)

FULL PRACTICE PARTICIPATION
WR A.J. Green (illness)
TE Jermaine Gresham (toe)
DE Margus Hunt (ankle)
CB Terence Newman (ankle)
OL Mike Pollak (knee)

Stop the run to stop Peyton Manning

December, 19, 2014
Dec 19
3:00
PM ET
CINCINNATI -- It's the most odd formula for beating a quarterback the caliber of the Denver Broncos' Peyton Manning, but it may be the Cincinnati Bengals' best hope for claiming a crucial 10th and playoff-clinching win.

The Bengals believe if they can stop the run and force Manning to pass, they will have a chance Monday night when the teams meet at Paul Brown Stadium.

An utterly absurd concept, right?

Maybe not.

"[That's] crazy to say with the quarterback they have," safety George Iloka said, "but you don't want them to have the running game and the passing game going."

It's all about forcing the Broncos into having a one-dimensional offense. If the Bengals can get the Broncos to pick an aspect of the game to lean on early, it could bode well for the home team by the end of the night.

With the way things have been going of late for Denver, it makes sense the Bengals would want to make the Broncos rely on their passing attack -- as bizarre as that might sound. One reason why? Because, across the past three games, Manning hasn't passed as well as he did in the first 11.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Manning has averaged 15.7 fewer passing attempts in the past three games than in the first 11. He also has thrown for 128.5 yards per game less in the past three weeks than he had at earlier points this season.

Manning's accuracy has been an issue, too, particularly overthrows and under-throws. Per Stats & Information, his off-target passing percentage skyrocketed in recent weeks from 16 percent across the first 11 games to 27 percent in the past three. That accounts for the second-worst off-target passing percentage in the league across that stretch. Only Colin Kaepernick's 33 percent is worse.

The veteran quarterback also has had problems inside the opposing 20. After leading the league in red-zone completion percentage, touchdown passes and total QBR in his first 11 games, he ranks outside the top-20 qualified signal-callers in those same categories the past three games.

Inside the red zone, his completion percentage has nosedived from 77.8 percent the first 11 games to 42.1 percent in the last three. Also, after averaging two red-zone touchdowns a game in the first 11, Manning has averaged just 0.3 in the last three. Part of those drop-offs could be attributed to tight end Julius Thomas missing three games due to an ankle injury and getting used in a limited capacity last week against San Diego.

While the Broncos' passing numbers have gone down, their rushing numbers have soared. Since Week 12, they lead the league in rushes (148) and rushing yards (659). Running back C.J. Anderson has been the ground game's spark, gaining more than 160 yards in two of the four games in that stretch. That's yet another compelling reason why the Bengals must focus on shutting down the run early.

"You stop the run in November and December, it puts your team in a good position," Iloka said.

Hey, it did work last week against the Browns. After rushing 52 times in a 21-point win over the Bengals in November, Cleveland could only muster 53 yards on 17 carries in last week's 30-0 Cincinnati win. The game plan: stop the run to stop Johnny Manziel.

Do the same thing this week, and maybe, just maybe, the Bengals can beat Manning for the first time in his career.
The prediction below may come as a surprise.

Defense ultimately will decide Monday night's game for the Cincinnati Bengals as they face one of their toughest challenges this season.

But sometimes, the best defense can be a really good offense. Cincinnati's best course of action against the Denver Broncos will be to play keep-away from Peyton Manning by controlling the game clock. Only twice this season have the Bengals won a game without leading in time of possession. All of their losses and the lone tie came when they lost the time of possession battle.

The best way a team can keep the clock on its side is to run the ball well and often. That means being effective on the ground on first and second down, and to avoid third-and-long scenarios as much as possible. In last week's win over the Browns, the Bengals committed early to the run, rushing 11 times for 71 yards in the first quarter alone. With Jeremy Hill now their decided featured back, the Bengals will put on another rushing clinic this week and shock the league with a win at home that will put them in the postseason for a franchise-record fourth straight year.

Bengals 28, Broncos 24
CINCINNATI -- It was Russell Bodine's knack for physicality that impressed Cincinnati Bengals coaches during the pre-draft process last winter and spring.

Bodine
 Film of his blocking ability in college at North Carolina, along with his impressive strength (he led all players at last year's combine with 42 bench reps) impressed the Bengals.

When they made him a fourth-round pick in May, they envisioned having him for games like Monday night's.

Although they are facing the No. 2 rushing defense in the league, it's clear the Bengals still would like to run the football when the Denver Broncos come to town for ESPN's "Monday Night Football" 2014 finale. Any success they have could hinge on Bodine and how physically he plays against one of the league's toughest and largest defensive tackle matchups.

"Terrance Knighton is 'Man Mountain Dean,'" Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said, comparing the Broncos' 330-pound interior lineman to a famed 1930s wrestler of similar size.

Knighton may not get the widespread praise from national media that pass-rushing tackles like Geno Atkins receive, but that doesn't mean he isn't respected by his peers. Bengals rookie running back Jeremy Hill wants to avoid tangling with Knighton as much as possible. That's why he believes the Bengals' rushing success will fall on Bodine's shoulders.

"The run game is going to [predicate] on how he blocks Knighton," Hill said. "If he can get him blocked up and we can get everybody else on to the second level, up on their linebackers, there are some holes to be had in there. But if [Knighton] is having a game, you're not going to get any rushing yards."

Part of the issue is that Knighton's massive size and strength makes running backs avoid going directly up the middle if they can help it. They'd rather find holes along the outer edge. But the problem with doing that against Denver is that the Broncos' outside linebackers and defensive ends, long lauded for their pass-rush ability, are pretty good against the run, too.

When those edge defenders can seal off the outside, a running back gets forced back into the inside. That's when Knighton is there to swallow him up.

"People look at these guys as pass rushers, but they're also very disruptive in the run game with their athleticism and ability," Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said. "They're going to make you earn things."

So, why is all of this important? And why is Bodine the lineman worth focusing on?

Because it has been behind him that the Bengals' rushing offense has primarily operated. Of the 1,824 rushing yards the Bengals have, 72.4 percent have come between the tackles. A separate 27.5 percent have gone specifically behind Bodine. The interior run has, quite simply, been a hallmark of Cincinnati's ground game.

All season the Bengals feel good about Bodine, and this week they are confident he's up to the task of beating back Knighton.

"He's what we hoped he would be: a really, really tough, physical guy that's going to do nothing but grow and continue to get better and be like the top centers in the league, we hope -- the [Eric] Woodses and Alex Macks, and these guys who have excelled," Lewis said. "They're big guys, physical guys. You like to be around that, and that's what you want in the center of your football team."

Broncos vs. Bengals preview

December, 19, 2014
Dec 19
8:00
AM ET
video
When: 8:30 p.m. ET Monday Where: Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati TV: ESPN

Peyton Manning is good. Under the lights, the Cincinnati Bengals are not.

But if the Bengals have plans of joining the Denver Broncos as a playoff-bound team, they will have to overcome the future Hall of Fame quarterback and put to rest their atrocious recent prime-time showing.

Since 2011, the year Andy Dalton became its starting quarterback, Cincinnati is 2-9 in nationally televised playoff games and night games on Monday, Thursday and Sunday nights.

Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold and Bengals reporter Coley Harvey are here to preview this week's "Monday Night Football" game:

Harvey: Manning is 8-0 against the Bengals, including a 3-0 mark against them in December. He has thrown 10 touchdowns and no interceptions against them in December. For the Bengals to have any hope of stopping him, what are two things their defense must do?

Legwold: As an opposing defensive coach told me this season, "I don't know why anybody needs to list the stats for him; let's just assume they're good against everybody and go from there." Manning has won at least eight games against 10 different teams in his career. And defensively, the formula is not complicated, yet difficult to do. Defenses who succeed against him generally create some kind of consistent pressure in the middle of the field -- they win the A gaps -- keeping him from setting his feet, and they don't give him room to climb the pocket to step into his throws. Those defenses also limit the Broncos' ability to use their variety of crossing routes. They play physically against the Broncos' receivers and limit yards after the catch because they tackle well. Not rocket science, but difficult to do because the Broncos are creative in play design. Manning delivers the ball quickly and consistently makes defenses pay for sending extra rushers (game video shows Manning had five completions this past weekend against the Chargers' blitz for 111 yards and a touchdown). So, a defense has to get all of that done largely by rushing four players, and it can't miss assignments behind that rush.

Defending a rookie in his first NFL start is one thing, and the Bengals did well in a 30-0 win against the Cleveland Browns with Johnny Manziel behind center last week, but how do you expect them to defend Manning?

Harvey: You just summed it up perfectly, Leggy. I'll add this. A defense can best stop Manning by sending a standard four-man rush and hope and pray the coverage downfield holds up. Last week, in fact, this was exactly what allowed the Bengals to bully Manziel. Only twice did they send blitzes on the mobile young quarterback. The rest of the time, they did exactly what you prescribed: They attacked the A gaps with great interior pressure from the line and forced Manziel to roll to his right. Obviously, Manning isn't rolling anywhere, but the Bengals have to hope Geno Atkins is up to pushing back the line the way he has finally started doing in recent weeks. With the Bengals also expected to use a lot of nickel defense to counter the Broncos' multi-receiver and tight end looks, don't be surprised if defensive end Wallace Gilberry goes inside to give some extra athleticism to the interior rush.

Jeff, it seems like over the past seven weeks, running back C.J. Anderson has exploded onto the scene for Denver. First, why did it take so long to get him involved in the run game, and second, what did Buffalo do so well to hold him in check two weeks ago?

Legwold: During the Broncos' offseason work, especially in minicamp, there was some thought around the team that Anderson's spot was pretty tenuous and that he might not make the roster because he had tried to bulk up a bit and looked sluggish. Anderson showed up to training camp leaner and looked far better, but Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman had already pushed their way in front of him. Anderson had routinely flashed in practice and in his limited game work, at least enough to stay in the mix, and when injuries forced the Broncos to hand him the ball, he showed patience and vision as a runner -- perhaps more than they thought he had -- and he almost always made the first defender miss or powered through the attempted tackle. If you're looking for a play that got everybody's attention, it was his 51-yard catch-and-run touchdown in Oakland when he made a one-handed grab on a screen pass -- a play Manning said he thought was "going to be a 1- or 2-yard loss" -- and five different Raiders had a chance to bring Anderson down and did not. In terms of Buffalo's plan, it was a sound group that was assignment-disciplined and tackled well; defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has faced Manning plenty over the years because of Schwartz's time with the Titans. The Bills came into the game against the Broncos leading the league in sacks, and they didn't sack Manning in the game. Anderson did pound the ball into the end zone three times, but his 2.8 yards per carry were the lowest since he became starter.

The Bengals are one of six teams averaging more than 30 rushing attempts per game this season; the Broncos are No. 2 in run defense. Do you think the Bengals will still try to pound away some to limit the Broncos' possessions, or because they believe they will be able to make some running room?

Harvey: One of the Bengals' most recent additions is NFL Players Association president Eric Winston, an offensive tackle who, before coming to Cincinnati three weeks ago, spent six seasons with the Texans and one with the Chiefs. He had an up-close look at Manning twice a season during the Texans' AFC South games when the quarterback still played for the Colts, and saw him twice in Kansas City in 2012. This week, Winston said those teams' mindset against Manning always involved running. So yes, I believe the run should, and will, be the Bengals' approach. Besides, Jeremy Hill has been running well in the past six weeks, topping 140 yards three times in that span. His hard running and guard Kevin Zeitler's constant pulling made for a nightmare day for Cleveland's defense. Also, I noticed that of the four times this season when teams have run 25 or more times against Denver, they beat the Broncos three times. To me, Cincinnati's best hope of winning is to run well, run often, get a late lead, and play keep-away from Manning.

Jeff, I'm sure the Broncos' many pass-rushers will be hounding Dalton all night, but why has Denver's front seven been so good against the run?

Legwold: Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton is -- even nationally, perhaps -- an undervalued player when it comes to what he means to the Broncos' run defense. He's disruptive, ties up blockers and doesn't get turned in the hole. He stays square and takes away run lanes. The Broncos also have plenty of team speed across the front and pursue the ball well. Even their pass-rushers, like DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller, are disciplined in their run fits. Ware especially has shown himself to be reliable in how he sets the edge, and as a result, offenses haven't been able to run the ball to the inside shoulders of Ware and Miller because they play with some vision as they move up the field. That wasn't always the case earlier in Miller's career, when offenses would catch him at times being a little too aggressive as he tried to get upfield. The Broncos have tackled well for the most part, too. They have helped themselves with good work on first down, as well. Offenses are routinely facing second-and-8 or third-and-7, and that takes those offenses out of any rhythm to run. For example, the Chargers ran the ball 10 times on first down last Sunday. Only one of the runs went for more than five yards -- an 11-yard run by Branden Oliver early in the fourth quarter -- and six went for three or fewer yards.

Few players take as much heat for their prime-time and/or postseason performance as Dalton. Is there significantly more pressure on him in this one given it is the "Monday Night Football" regular-season finale and the Bengals need the win to keep the inside track for a shot at the division title?

Harvey: It's more of the latter, Jeff. The pressure will be raised on Dalton this week because the Bengals simply have to get it done. Though there is an outside shot they will sneak into the playoffs as an AFC wild card if they lose the next two games, they would do themselves so many favors if they won at least one. The finale at Pittsburgh next week won't be a cakewalk, either. The heat Dalton has taken is real and deserved. It seems like he's mostly great at 1 p.m. on Sunday afternoons. But turn on the lights and he's not. From a personal standpoint, Dalton wants to make up for his last nationally televised outing. The Bengals lost to Cleveland 24-3 in a Thursday night game last month in which Dalton registered a 2.0 passer rating.

video
CINCINNATI -- It's been easy -- convenient, really -- to put all the Cincinnati Bengals' prime-time problems in recent seasons on quarterback Andy Dalton.

But the fact of the matter is, the issues the Bengals have had extend far beyond the quarterback. Sure, he's had his hand in some of the troubles, but the entire team hasn't been good on the national stage the last four seasons.

Heck, they haven't been good in prime time in 12 seasons under coach Marvin Lewis.
There have been wins here and there -- the Bengals hope there will be one more Monday night when they host the Denver Broncos -- but they have been few and far between. Numbers from ESPN Stats & Information support that.

Since 2011, the year Dalton was drafted, the Bengals have gone a combined 2-9 in the playoffs, and on Monday, Thursday and Sunday nights. This season alone, they are 0-2 in prime-time games. Ahead of Thursday night's tilt between the Titans and Jaguars, the Bengals own the third-worst points margin (minus-47) and turnover margin (minus-six) among the 31 teams that have played night-time games this season.

In non-prime-time games this season, Cincinnati has a 9-2-1 record with a plus-69 points margin and plus-four turnover margin.

Before we get too deep into how far beyond Dalton the prime-time woes go, keep this in mind: Since 2011, Dalton has a .250 winning percentage in prime time, tied for second-worst among qualified quarterbacks in that span. Only Minnesota's Christian Ponder has a worse winning percentage (.200).

As you can see in one of the charts, Dalton has been pretty miserable after 7 p.m. But thanks to Stats & Information, we can see that this season, so has the rest of the team:
  • Cincinnati's rushers are averaging 82.5 yards per game in their two prime-time games (that's the eighth-worst), and 138.3 yards per game in the 12 afternoon games (third-best). The Bengals are one of three teams without a rushing touchdown in prime-time games.
  • The Bengals' run defense has allowed 195 yards per game (second-most) and four rushing touchdowns in two prime-time games. In the 12 daytime games, the unit is giving up a more modest 113.1 yards per game and 11 touchdowns.
  • Cincinnati's combined total allowed QBR (85.3) in prime-time games against Tom Brady and Brian Hoyer is fourth-worst in the NFL. In the afternoon, though, they have the seventh-best opposing QBR (44.7). That includes games that have featured Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Andrew Luck, Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger.

As previously mentioned, this isn't all that recent of a phenomenon for the Bengals, either. Historically, Lewis' teams have struggled on Sunday, Monday and Thursday nights. Since Lewis became head coach in 2003, the Bengals are 6-15 in such games. That .286 winning percentage ranks 28th in the NFL in that stretch.

Cincinnati also has a minus-8.4 point margin per game in those 12 seasons that ranks 30th in the league. Only the Bills and Raiders have worse point margins per game in prime time than the Bengals under Lewis.

Since the QBR was first tracked in 2006, Lewis' defenses have allowed an average 70.7 total QBR to opposing quarterbacks in prime-time games. In the daytime, that number dips to 48.2.
CINCINNATI -- It's the question Cincinnati Bengals fans have been wanting answered the past four seasons.

Why has this team struggled at night?

"I have no idea," defensive end Wallace Gilberry said Thursday.

"I guess we're afraid of the dark."

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
AP Photo/Steven SenneCount defense against opposing quarterbacks among the Bengals' prime-time woes.
It's either that, or something else. What is known is that Cincinnati's struggles in prime time are well-documented, and the Bengals have no one to blame for that but themselves.

Since 2011, the year Andy Dalton was drafted and made starting quarterback, they are 2-6 in games played on Monday, Sunday and Thursday nights. That includes losses earlier this year to the New England Patriots on a Sunday night and to the Cleveland Browns on a Thursday night. The Bengals also have lost their last three playoff games, making their big-game showing the last four seasons an abysmal 2-9 overall.

The last time Cincinnati won in prime time in the regular season, they knocked off the Pittsburgh Steelers in a Monday night game at Paul Brown Stadium. Monday's game on ESPN against the Denver Broncos will be the Bengals' first on that night of the week since.

With the looming nationally televised game, this is now the third time this season Bengals players have had to answer questions about their struggles when the sun goes down. They may be tired of hearing these questions but many admitted that until they do something to change the narrative, they know the questions will come.

"It is annoying and it's our job to make it unannoying," safety George Iloka said to reporters. "If we lose this game, the talk will come back again. But that's you all's job to do. If you feel like you see something that the team is lacking or having a problem with, you have to write about it. And if we want to silence the critics, so to say, we've got to put up or shut up. That's how it goes. It might be annoying, but that's on us."

Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson had similar sentiments.

"Until we do it, you guys are going to keep writing about it. So it doesn't matter what I say or what I think, at the end of the day, we just have to go out and do it," he said.

Pressed during his news conference Thursday about the reasons behind the Bengals' prime-time problems, head coach Marvin Lewis chalked it up to two things: poor defense of the opposing quarterback and turnovers.

"We haven't had any effect on the other team's quarterback," Lewis said. "We also haven't made enough plays effectively on offense, we haven't been very good on third down in some of those games, and they make a big difference."

He's right. In their 11 prime-time and playoff games since 2011, the Bengals have given up an average opposing passer rating of 93.8, and an opposing total QBR of 69.2. They also have lost 17 turnovers, while retained 12 themselves. On third down, the offense has converted at a 29.5 percent clip in these games.

"I don't know why we haven't played as good on defense in those games, but we need to," Lewis said. "I don't know why we haven't played as good on offense, or why we've given up on a play on special teams in those games, but we need to do better."
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The NFL Live crew make their picks for Denver at Cincinnati.

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