6 things to watch for in Bengals game vs. Broncos

The Cincinnati Bengals begin a stretch of back-to-back games against teams with records as bad or worse than their 3-6 mark today in Denver against the 3-6 Broncos.

Even though the team hasn’t won more than two in a row since starting the 2015 season 8-0, the Bengals are holding onto hope they can put together a streak that would get them with a game of .500 and make the Dec. 4 Monday night game at home against Pittsburgh meaningful.

But it has to start Sunday.

Here are some things to watch for in the game against the Broncos:

Third-down tries

If the Bengals are going to have any chance, they’re going to have to be better on third down than they’ve been the last two weeks.

With two conversions in 18 attempts in back-to-back losses at Jacksonville and Tennessee, the Bengals have fallen to 31st in third-down efficiency, ahead of only the winless Cleveland Browns.

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“We have to keep looking at how we’re (going about third downs), what we’re doing with them, and how we can convert them better,” coach Marvin Lewis said. “And also understand how we’re being defended (on third downs) in each game. (It helps with) the adjustments that need to be made in the play-calling or formations, or whatever we need to do to get us a better opportunity to convert (third downs).”

Not only is the inability to keep drives alive hampering an offense that ranks 32nd in total yards, 32nd in rushing yards and 30th in points, but it's having a ripple effect on the defense.

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The Bengals have run an astonishing 75 fewer plays than their opponents the last two weeks, leading to a defense-draining discrepancy in time of possession that is almost unbelievable at 80:23 to 39:37.

Receiver roulette

Brandon LaFell is listed as questionable with a knee injury, but he is expected to play, which would give the Bengals all seven wide receivers to choose from for the second week in a row.

Various injuries elsewhere led the team to dress six last week, which is rare. It’s more likely they go with the normal five against the Broncos, which will leave two players inactive.

Tyler Boyd was the only receiver who didn’t dress last week after returning to practice for the first time since injuring his knee Oct. 8 against Buffalo.

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Boyd led the NFL with 22 third-down catches last year, and given the team’s struggles in that area, he should be on the field in Denver.

That means rookie receiver John Ross, who drew the condemnation from Lewis following his mistake Sunday in Tennessee, will probably be in street clothes for the eighth time in 11 games.

If LaFell, who is coming off season highs in catches and yards last week, is able to play, rookie Josh Malone would be the odd-man out after making his first career start last week.

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Miller time

The biggest deficiency the Bengals have this season — pass protection — will get its biggest test in Denver with linebacker Von Miller rushing off the edge.

Miller, who has gone to five Pro Bowls in his six seasons, owns 81.5 career sacks, eight of which have come in 2017, tying him for seventh in the league.

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Andre Smith, a 30-year-old who began the year as a backup guard, will be tasked with slowing Miller. After six weeks of working in a three-man rotation at tackle, Smith took over as the full-time right tackle in Tennessee after Jake Fisher was lost for the season due to a heart issue.

Lewis said he was encouraged by the way Smith played against the Titans.

“He played well on Sunday, and he has to play better this week,” Lewis said. “(Miller) is exceptional — both against the run and pass. Everyone wants to talk about him as a pass rusher, but he’s an excellent player in the run game and makes a lot of unscripted plays.

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“Sometimes (offensive linemen) can over-reach, and he ends up underneath (the block),” Lewis added. “We have to be conscious of that. But, when you’re as explosive as he is, you can do that and get back on point. That’s what he has. Obviously he’s a very smart player as well, and he’s very talented.”

Negate the negative

The Bengals have been on the wrong side of the turnover margin since the season began with five giveaways in a 20-0 loss to Baltimore.

But they have showed signs of turning things around the last two weeks, even though it hasn’t led to victory. The Bengals won the turnover battle for the first time this year two weeks ago at Jacksonville, and last week at Tennessee they forced multiple turnovers for the first time.

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There should be more opportunities for takeaways Sunday based on how careless the Broncos have been with the ball. Only Cleveland (23) has more turnovers than Denver’s 21. And the Broncos rank last in turnover margin at minus-14.

Denver quarterback Brock Osweiler has thrown at least one interception in six of his last seven starts dating back to last year.

Double doom

The Broncos have lost five games in a row for the first time since 2010 and will be trying to avoid their first six-game skid since 1994.

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But what has made the losing streak more improbable is that they have lost all five games by double digits. The last team to experience such a run of futility was the Jacksonville Jaguars, who lost nine consecutive games by double digits from the 2012 season finale and first eight of 2013.

Mile high odds

Not only have the Bengals not won in Denver since 1975, going 0-10 in that span, the Broncos have been dominant against everyone at home.

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Since owner Pat Bowlen bought the team in 1984, the Broncos are 210-79 for a .727 winning percentage. That’s the best mark in the NFL, ahead of New England (.695), Pittsburgh (.691), Baltimore (.691) and Green Bay (.677).

Even in a down year in 2017, Denver is 3-2 at home.

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