CINCINNATI — One by one, key Denver defensive players went down with injuries.
Eleven as one, the Denver D buckled up its chin straps, tightened their shoulder pads and held the Cincinnati Bengals to just three points through the first half.
The Broncos beat the Bengals, 24-10, on a bright, temperate if windy Sunday afternoon here at sparsely attended Paul Brown Stadium. The paid attendance was 44,392.
The Broncos lost their best cornerback, Chris Harris Jr., to a regular season-ending fractured fibula, and two other starters, defensive end Derek Wolfe (badly bruised ribs) and inside linebacker Josey Jewell (left ankle sprain) for the entire second half.
Yet, the Broncos were never really in danger of winning their third straight game to improve to 6-6.
”I think it’s the roster makeup," said Broncos head coach Vance Joseph. "We have good depth with our roster. Even though it’s young, we have some guys who can play. They’re just waiting for a chance, too. And right now they’re getting their chances."
Losing three more defensive starters Sunday was on top of three season-ending injuries to 60 percent of their offensive line and their top three tight ends. And Demaryius Thomas was traded away. And two other significant defensive contributors, cornerback Tramaine Brock and linebacker Brandon Marshall missed the game with their own injuries.
Yet, the Denver defense allowed the Bengals nothing more than a field goal in the final seconds of the first half and one score after the Broncos were already up, 21-3.
"It just shows you that we prepare ourselves during the week – everybody prepares like they’re going to play because everybody might have to play," Wolfe said. "It shows what kind of resilience and what kind of dedication this team has to winning."
Much of this resiliency comes from its rookies. John Elway's draft class was not just for the future but the here and now. Undrafted rookie running back Phillip Lindsay rushed for 157 yards and two touchdowns.
Second-round rookie receiver Courtland Sutton caught four passes for 85 yards,including a 30-yard touchdown. First-round outside linebacker Bradley Chubb picked up his 10th sack of the season. And third-round cornerback Isaac Yiadom, who moved to No. 3 after Brock's injury this week, was No. 2 after Harris went down early.
"I know it’s cliché to say next man up but we have got a lot of great rookies that are going to have to play well to keep us on the wave that we’re on," said Von Miller, who had 1.5 sacks to give him 12 on the season.
The Broncos are 6-6 after winning their third straight. They remain one game behind 7-5 Baltimore for the No. 6 and final AFC playoff spot. The Broncos play at 2-9 San Francisco next week. The 49ers, like the Bengals, are down to their backup quarterback after losing their starter to season-ending injury.
The Bengals lost for their sixth time in seven games and fell to 5-7.
And it's not just the rookies who are selfless in the name of team. Devontae Booker thought he was going into his third season replacing C.J. Anderson as the Broncos' starting running back. Instead, Booker is the No. 3 back behind two rookies, Lindsay and Royce Freeman.
Yet, it was Booker who made the first offensive impact play of the game. The score was a 0-0 yawner with less 3 minutes left in the first half when on third-and-10 from the Bengals' 44, Booker caught a 10-yard out from quarterback Case Keenum, then cut in for a 30-yard gain. Keenum went to Booker again across the middle on the next play to set up second-and-2 at the Bengals' 6.
Lindsay finished off the drive by starting right, stopping and spotting an open lane to his left, and darted through for the touchdown.
Then there was Justin Simmons, selected just ahead of Booker in the third round of the 2016 draft. An every snap safety, Simmons moved down to nickel cornerback, just as Ring of Fame safety Dennis Smith used to do in the 1980s. Joseph Jones, a special teamer by trade, played nearly three quarters at inside linebacker in what was by far the most extensive defensive playing time of his career.
And Colby Wadman, who had never punted in the NFL until he was brought in to replace the disappointing Marquette King, dropped four boots inside the 20 to earn of the game balls.
"I think it's a mindset," said Keenum, who was a modest 12 of 21 for 151 yards in windy conditions, but didn't throw an interception for a fourth consecutive game. "I think everybody that's been playing is giving a little more. It's hard to replace guys like Matt (Paradis), Ron Leary, guys upfront, Max (Garcia). And then on the defensive side, it's hard to replace those guys. But at the same time it's a next-man-up mentality. It's an opportunity for somebody else to get a shot. And everybody else has got to do a little more.
"It's what you call a team. It's 11 guys who are out there together. I think that's what's so great about this room because we stay together through thick and thin."
Early in the second half, the Broncos took advantage of a Bengals' muffed punt to start a series at the Cincinnati 33. On the second play, Keenum lofted a beautiful, 30-yard touchdown pass to Sutton who beat his man on a go route down the right side.
A couple minutes later, Lindsay sped around left end, cut in and raced 65 yards for his second touchdown. The 5-foot-7 1/4, 184-pound Lindsay finished with his second 100-yard rushing game in a row. He now has 937 yards rushing and 189 yards on the season -- giving him 1,126 yards from scrimmage -- with four games remaining.
"Everyone’s amazed because of his body type but I’m telling you he’s a tough guy," Joseph said. "He’s fast through the hole so he’s always avoiding direct contact which is important. He’s getting to the second level with speed and it’s hard to tackle a back like that when he’s not touched at the first level. It’s been impressive."
It should be pointed out the Bengals’ offense was similarly decimated as they played without quarterback Andy Dalton, left tackle Cordy Glenn and star receiver A.J. Green seemed to reinjure the toe that kept him out the previous three games.
But clearly, the Broncos' bench was better than the Bengals'.
"Since Day 1, coach Joseph has done a good job of making sure everyone on the team knows -- it doesn’t matter if you’re a practice squad guy, a backup,it’s next man up," said Billy Turner, a part-time starting right tackle until he switched to left guard to replace the injured Leary and Garcia. "It’s a mentality. You have to adopt it. That’s been the case with us all year. It didn’t matter who got hurt, it’s been a next-man-up situation and we’ve been able to handle the adversity very well."