AFC North: Julius Thomas

W2W4: Broncos vs. Bengals

December, 22, 2014
Dec 22
CINCINNATI -- A few storylines to watch Monday night when the Cincinnati Bengals host the Denver Broncos at Paul Brown Stadium:

Line anchors: Keep your eyes trained on the Bengals' offensive line. Not only will the unit have a massive challenge to contend with in the running game -- both literally and figuratively -- in the form of Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, but it will have a pair of tough-to-block edge rushers in the passing game, too. An athletic 330 pounds, Knighton is adept at plugging holes on interior rushing plays. The presence of DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller on the outside doesn't make it easy for rushers to cut back outside if the inside run is a no-go. Ware and Miller also are among the game's most effective rushers in passing situations. If the Bengals have any hope at moving the football Monday, it will be to play physically with Knighton in the run, and to provide solid pockets when quarterback Andy Dalton is passing. One way the Bengals are doing that on the right side of their line, in particular, is by anchoring the unit with veteran Eric Winston. Expect him to get his first Bengals start there, lining up opposite Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth.

Red zone a factor: Cincinnati's defense will try hard to keep the Broncos out of the red zone, but recent trends show that might not be a bad thing if it happens. According to ESPN Stats & Information, after leading the league in red-zone completion percentage, touchdown passes and total QBR through his first 11 games, Denver quarterback Peyton Manning ranks outside the top 20 in each category over the past three weeks. The absence of tight end Julius Thomas for two of those three contests correlated with the declining production inside the 20. Although Thomas returned last week, he wasn't that effective on his hurt ankle. He is considered healthier this week, which means you should look for him to play a bigger role in the red zone Monday for the Broncos. He entered the week leading the league in red-zone touchdown catches with nine.

Toss it to Green: As much as we have hammered home all week the importance of the Bengals running the football in this game, you simply can't ignore the fact that this is a team with A.J. Green on its roster. Cincinnati has to be smart with the way it runs the ball, but it also has to be savvy about the way it utilizes Green, the Pro Bowl wide out who went on a four-game tear in November and early December, catching 33 passes for 529 yards and three touchdown. He was at his best in that stretch in the deep passing game. Of his 33 catches, 12 came on throws that traveled 10 yards or more in the air. All three of his touchdowns came on such throws, including an 81-yard reception against Pittsburgh. What helped him get open downfield for those catches? The running game. Specifically, the play-action pass that resulted from it. With linebackers and safeties flowing up to the line of scrimmage to stop the run, Green has been single-covered by the end of recent games. Be on the lookout for similar opportunities Monday if Cincinnati's running game gets going early.

Stop the run to stop Peyton Manning

December, 19, 2014
Dec 19
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.
A week after being unable to contain the Denver Broncos' Julius Thomas, the Baltimore Ravens face a similar tight end in the Cleveland Browns' Jordan Cameron. Like Thomas, Cameron is 25 years old, 6 feet 5 and a former college basketball player who is in his first year of starting in the NFL.

So, take a wild guess on who will be the top target in the Browns' passing game Sunday.

"I would expect based on how the tight end played against us last week," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said, "that’ s going to be something that they think they can attack and use.”

Actually, based on how the Ravens have struggled to shut down that position at the end of last season, Baltimore should expect teams to throw to their tight ends on crossing routes and down the seams.

It's kind of an odd trend for the Ravens. During the 2012 regular season, only three tight ends (the Philadelphia Eagles' Brent Celek, the Pittsburgh Steelers' Heath Miller and the Dallas Cowboys' Jason Witten) had more than 60 yards receiving against Baltimore. The Ravens gave up a total of two touchdowns to tight ends.

This success changed in the postseason. In the AFC Championship Game, the Patriots' Aaron Hernandez caught nine passes for 83 yards. In the Super Bowl, the San Francisco 49ers' Vernon Davis had six catches for 104 yards.

San Francisco used Davis to attack Ray Lewis in coverage. But Lewis wasn't on the field in Thursday's season opener, when Thomas produced 110 yards and two touchdowns on five receptions. One of Thomas' big plays was the result of a missed tackle by safety Michael Huff, and another can be blamed on linebacker Daryl Smith, who bit on a run fake and let the tight end run free in the middle of the field.

"On almost every ball that the tight end caught, he was in man coverage," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said of Thomas' big game. "So, that’s not a spot between the zones. That’s somebody playing technique man-to-man on the tight end, and that guy has got to play better technique, or we’ve got to coach better technique.”

Cameron was a non-factor against the Ravens last season. In two games, he was targeted eight times by quarterback Brandon Weeden and caught one pass for 15 yards. But the Ravens figure he's going to be a a bigger part of the game plan Sunday.

“[It’s a] copycat league. Everybody copies whoever they played the week before," Pees said. "So, you better be prepared for any mistake that you made on any formation [or] any particular play the week before. You better have corrected it, because they’ll find out if you have.”

Manning makes huge fantasy splash, too

September, 6, 2013
A look at the Denver Broncos' 49-27 victory over the Baltimore Ravens in Thursday's NFL season opener from a fantasy perspective:
  • Not only did Peyton Manning tie an NFL record with seven touchdown passes, but his 46 fantasy points were the third-most by a quarterback since the merger, according to ESPN Fantasy’s Tristan H. Cockcroft … and 10 more than he had ever scored in a game himself. It was his first game with at least 30 fantasy points since 2004. Not a bad way to start the season for the No. 3 quarterback in the preseason ESPN Fantasy rankings.
  • If you're seeking more historical perspective, here is the link to a story Cockcroft updated last year after Doug Martin's monster game against the Raiders.
  • The Broncos were the only team with three wide receivers ranked in ESPN Fantasy's top 20 at the position (Demaryius Thomas at No. 6, Wes Welker at No. 12 and Eric Decker at No. 20), so it's no surprise that two of them (Thomas and Welker) put up solid numbers.
  • Thomas' 28 fantasy points were a career high, and Welker had 16 in his Broncos debut. But it was third-year tight end Julius Thomas who was the biggest surprise.
  • Thomas, who had only one career catch in his first two seasons, had two first-half touchdowns on his way to 23 fantasy points. The former Portland State basketball forward was the 20th-ranked tight end by ESPN fantasy in the preseason. He is owned in just 26.1 percent of ESPN leagues, and was started in just 9.3 percent of ESPN leagues.
  • Not many positives for the Ravens, but undrafted free agent Marlon Brown took advantage of an injury to Jacoby Jones in the first half and finished with 12 fantasy points. Fantasy first-rounder Ray Rice found the end zone, but did not have a great night, totaling 12 fantasy points on his 20 touches (12 rushes, eight receptions).
  • Danny Trevathan's early celebration not only cost the Broncos (and fantasy owners of their defense/special-teams unit) six points immediately, but probably more than that since the Ravens immediately went downfield for a touchdown.
  • Meanwhile, the Ravens' defense scored minus-6 points. Last season, the unit finished with a negative total only once, in a 43-13 blowout loss in Houston.