Broncos leave Cincy victorious but battered

With the Broncos’ 24-10 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, they extend their win streak to three, the longest under head coach Vance Joseph.

The win was huge for the Broncos, as the victory keeps Denver’s dreams of the playoffs alive for at least one more week.

The defense had one of their best outings of the season, holding their opponent to ten points or fewer for the second time this season; an increasingly impressive stat in an increasingly offensive league.

But it wasn’t all good news for the Broncos and their defense. Sunday saw the Broncos lose three defenders, two of which had to be carted off the field, including Chris Harris Jr., who is likely done for the year with a fractured fibula.

Harris’s loss is a costly one that will hurt the Broncos’ already long playoff odds. Entering this week’s game, Harris was graded by Pro Football Focus as the best defender for the Broncos outside of Von Miller and Shelby Harris.

Unlike both Miller and the other Harris, Chris Harris Jr. was the leader of a very shallow position group. The Broncos released cornerback Adam Jones on Nov. 20th and free-agent acquisition Tramaine Brock missed the Bengals’ game with a rib injury, but was disappointing even when healthy.

Now down the stretch, the Broncos will have to rely on a trio of underperforming corners in Bradley Roby, Isaac Yiadom, and Brendan Langley. A concerning thought, to say the least. Entering this week’s game, Roby and Yiadom were graded as two of the five worst Broncos defenders according to Pro Football Focus, while Langley hadn’t played enough snaps to qualify.

Though despite the understandable concern from Broncos fans everywhere, the trio stepped up. After Harris Jr. was carted off the field, the Broncos allowed Bengals quarterback Jeff Driskel to go 21-for-33 for just over 200 yards, most of which came in garbage time.

Unfortunately, Harris Jr. wasn’t the only critical loss for the Broncos. Both defensive end Derek Wolfe and linebacker Josey Jewell exited the game early, while wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders left the game late after taking a hard hit from Bengals’ safety Shawn Williams. Though Sanders was able to return, Wolfe and Jewell did not, creating more holes and questions along the Broncos’ defense.

The loss of Jewell means the Broncos are down to just Keishawn Bierria, Joe Jones, and Todd Davis at linebacker until either he or Brandon Marshall are able to return from their respective injuries.

Though the Broncos have good depth along their defensive line, the loss of Derek Wolfe could be just as costly if he misses extended time. Wolfe has been one of the Broncos’ best run defenders, earning the 2nd-highest grade from Pro Football Focus in that category among Broncos.

If Wolfe’s rib injury is serious, the Broncos’ run defense could revert to the poor play that saw opposing offenses like the Rams and Jets run roughshod over them to the tune of almost 600 combined yards.

Luckily for Denver, Shelby Harris stepped up and was able to fill the hole left by Wolfe, recording two sacks on the day.

The Broncos will now turn their eyes to the future and their matchup with the 49ers in yet another win-or-go-home game. Fortunately for Denver, San Francisco’s offense has been among the league’s worst since losing Jimmy Garoppolo in Week 2.

Denver’s defensive losses will hurt them eventually, but that time won’t come this week and with any luck, shouldn’t come next week, either.

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