The long wait is finally over! The 2011 season is finally here! Bring on real football! First up, the Bengals travel to the Mistake-On-The-Lake. Let’s take a look at what to expect in this game.
TWO SIMILAR TEAMS
Browns fans will protest my saying this, but I was surprised at just how similar the Bengals and the Browns franchises are right now. The Bengals enjoyed good seasons in 2005 and 2009; the Browns did in 2007. Neither have built on that success. Both teams were disappointing last year. The Bengals finished 4-12 and picked 4th in the draft, while the Browns finished 5-11 and had the 6th pick in the draft (which they traded to Atlanta). But the Browns did not have the tumultuous start to the offseason that the Bengals had, so they have not felt as much scorn from fans and the media as have the Bengals.
Both had turnover on the coaching staff because of the teams’ lack of success. The Bengals have new OC Jay Gruden, while the Browns canned Eric Mangini in favor of new HC Pat Shurmur (who is doubling as OC) and new DC Dick Jauron.
Both teams have had good drafts the last couple of years and have a lot of exciting young talent to put on the field this year. The Browns received better grades immediately following the draft, but I believe that was largely because the Bengals were penalized for having to draft QB Andy Dalton in the wake of the Carson Palmer melodrama, not because the Bengals had a weaker draft. More on the similarities of the teams’ personnel to follow.
Both teams went 1-3 in the preseason. Neither team is picked to do very well this year. The teams have similar schedules, with the only differences being that the Browns play the Dolphins and Raiders, while the Bengals play the Bills and the Broncos. (Not a big difference there.) But Browns fans seem to have higher expectations for their team, most looking for 8-8 or so from what I’ve seen, while most Bengals fans are not so optimistic.
Everything starts with the QB, so let’s start there. First, let me preface by saying that I was never impressed with either Derek Anderson or Brady Quinn. I was mocked many times by Browns fans in 2008 when I tried to tell them that the 2008 Browns would be the 2006 Bengals. (I was partly wrong. At 4-12 that year, the Browns were way worse.)
That said, Colt McCoy will be good. He was supposed to sit and learn last year, but injuries to Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace forced him to play the last 8 games of the season, and he did fairly well. I believe he will continue to improve and is a guy the Browns can build around. Bengals fans will love to hate him for a long time.
In 8 games last year, he passed for 1576 yards on 135 receptions (11.7 y/r) with 6TDs and 9 INTs, completing on 60.9% of passes. In looking at his reviews, he actually is similar to Andy Dalton: mediocre arm strength, good accuracy, good leadership, makes smart decisions. Played college ball in Texas. And he is running the West Coast offense. But he has one advantage on Dalton. He has 8 games under his belt already.
Dalton completed 60.0% of passes in the preseason, going 36-of-60 for 328 yds with 0 TDs and 3 INTs. Given that those numbers came over about 7 quarters of play, if we extended that out to 32 quarters (8 games), Dalton was on pace for 1499 yds. Quite similar to McCoy. But nothing changes the fact that this is Dalton’s first real NFL game.
According to Football Outsiders, Cleveland’s O-line ranked #17 against the run last year. ProFootballFocus puts them at #9 against the pass, even though they ranked 22nd in sacks given up, a number that may have been inflated by rookie mistakes from Colt McCoy holding the ball too long.
Cleveland boasts a player with ProBowl potential in LT Joe Thomas. With LG Eric Steinbach lost for the season, Cleveland is forced to start rookie LG Jason Pinkston in his place. The Bengals will certainly test Pinkston, but he may be helped somewhat by C Alex Mack, who has been solid since Cleveland took him in the first round of the 2009 draft. (If Pat Shurmur is able to get Cleveland’s offense on track, don’t be surprised if Mack makes it to the ProBowl.) On the right side, RG Shawn Lauvao has received good reviews as both a big and a smart player. But RT Tony Pashos, according to Bleacher Report, “has slow feet” and is better defending the run than the pass, which ought to make DE Carlos Dunlap salivate a little.
In my opinion, the insertion of a rookie in Pinkston, plus a right tackle who is not strong at pass blocking, hurts Cleveland. McCoy will be forced to throw quickly, which will allow Bengal linebackers to key in on the short throws.
Again according to Football Outsiders, Cincinnati’s O-line ranked #18 against the run last year, while ProFootballFocus puts them at #10 against the pass. (I know, #10 surprised me too.) Having Andre Smith in shape and available for a full preseason should help these numbers.
Cincinnati counters with one of the top LT’s in the game with the freshly-extended Andrew Whitworth. Next to him is the much-maligned LG Nate Livings, who actually had a solid preseason (except for the first game in Detroit). C Kyle Cook does not have the pedigree of Alex Mack, but the Bengals were pleased enough with him to extend his contract. With Bobbie Williams suspended, rookie RG Clint Boling, who had a good preseason, should get the start, or possibly the newly signed RG Mike McGlynn, who started 14 games for the Eagles last year. And of course, anchoring the right side is RT Andre Smith.
Losing Bobbie Williams stinks, but the Bengals have enough options behind him that they should not lose much. Improvement from last year will largely be determined by the performances of Andre Smith and Nate Livings. OL coach Paul Alexander defended Livings stoutly over the offseason. He had better be right.
2010 was a breakout year for Browns RB Peyton Hillis, running for 1177 yds on 280 lugs. So the question is: can Hillis do it again? My guess is yes if he stays healthy. Mike Zimmer will certainly be assuming so. The Browns regain exciting RB Montario Hardesty, who spent last season on IR, but he is still getting back into shape and will likely have little to no impact in this game. If the Browns are to get production from the running game, Hillis will have to do it.
The Bengals have re-committed (again) to the run, and RB Cedric Benson is eager to be the workhorse back again, like he was in 2009 when the Bengals swept the AFC North and when he ran for 1251 yards on a 4.2 y/c average. New OC Jay Gruden should utilize the quick and elusive RB Bernard Scott more often than did He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. And RB Brian “Leapin'” Leonard is a good run/pass threat on 3rd down. A strong running game will take pressure off of Andy Dalton, which will be vital for his early success.
Advantage: Cincinnati (because they have more than one proven back to rely on).
WIDE RECEIVERS / TIGHT ENDS
Browns fans are excited about the young hands on their team, and rightful so. TE Evan Moore, McCoy’s safety valve, has nice hands and is the top pick to lead the team in receiving this year. In fact, the Browns like him so much that they just extended his contract. They are also excited about rookie WR Greg Little, who had an impressive preseason, as did rookie WR Jordan Norwood.
The Browns list WR Brian Robiske and WR Joshua Cribbs, the ever-dangerous returner who has yet to make any real impact in the passing game, as their starters. I don’t look for that to last long. This group must perform well to keep the Browns’ offense on the field, and neither Robiske or Cribbs have been impressive. With how the Bengals’ secondary looked in the preseason, and it doesn’t take a football genius to figure that the Browns will want to go after them early and often.
The Bengals counter with their own sure-handed TE Jermaine Gresham, plus vacuum-like WR Jordan Shipley, to be Dalton’s safety valves. Rookie phenom WR A.J. Green and 4th year rookie WR Jerome Simpson use their size, speed and athleticism. Ball security will be paramount from this group. The Bengals will not rely on their receivers as much as the Browns will need to, but they must come through when thrown to in order to force Cleveland to respect the pass and not load up against the run.
CORNERBACKS / SAFETIES / LINEBACKERS
The Browns have something special in CB Joe Haden, who had a nice rookie campaign. Opposite him is the serviceable CB Sheldon Brown. (Think rough equivalent to Nate Clements.) The Browns put FS Mike Adams and SS T.J. Ward deep. And they field SLB Scott Fujita, WLB Chris Gocong (who may be slowed a bit by a neck stinger suffered in the preseason), and MLB D’Qwell Jackson, who returns to call the shots from the middle after injuries have plagued him the last two seasons.
The Bengals have their own something special in freshly-extended CB Leon Hall, who lines up opposite CB Nate Clements. Newly acquired CB Kelly Jennings will play the nickel. FS Reggie Nelson, with his menacing mane, and SS Chris Crocker play the backfield. And SLB Manny Lawson, WLB Thomas Howard, and MLB Rey Maualuga, who returns to his natural position and played well in the preseason as the signal caller.
The Browns back seven returns everyone to a defense that ranked #16 against the pass and #22 against the run last year according to Football Outsiders. So expecting a similar performance from this group seems reasonable. While FO places the Bengals at #14 against the pass and #25 against the run last year, the overhaul of the linebacking corps will improve the run defense. But losing Johnathan Joseph, plus having backers and safeties who are better run defenders than pass defenders, so a drop in overall pass defense would not be surprising.
It seems to me that the best way to compare the teams is to compare how they did in the preseason. In the running game, Cleveland allowed 523 yards on 135 carries (3.9 y/c average), while the Bengals allowed 379 yards on 114 carries (3.3 y/c average). In the passing game, Cleveland allowed 841 yards on 79 receptions (10.6 y/r average), while the Bengals allowed 835 yards on 66 receptions (12.7 y/r average).
We can also compare stats against the Lions, the only common preseason opponent between the two, who the Bengals played in game 1 and the Browns played in Game 2. The Bengals gave up 70 yards rushing on 33 carries (2.1 y/c) and 280 yards on 23 receptions (12.2 y/r). The next week, the Browns gave up 176 yards rushing on 45 carries (3.9 y/c) and 235 yards on 19 receptions (12.4 y/r). Clearly neither defense was stellar, except for the Bengals run defense.
Both defenses have a weak side, the Bengals in their secondary and the Browns up front. And when it comes to the warts, I think the Bengals’ are just a little bit bigger.
Advantage: Cleveland (ever so slightly).
Here is where the two teams separate. Unless the Bengals continue to put the ball on the ground, or someone’s special teams unit implodes, the defensive lines will be the X-factor of the game.
Going back again to Football Outsiders, Cleveland’s D-line ranked #31 against the run. Ouch! That is probably why they have rookie DT Phillip Taylor and rookie DE Jabaal Sheard starting. The Bengals know what a good rookie DE & DT combo can do, and we may be saying something very different when these two teams meet again after Thanksgiving, but Taylor and Sheard will not hit the ground running. The Bengals will want to run the ball anyway, and Cleveland’s D-line caters to that strategy.
Meanwhile, the Bengals will be starting Geathers-Peko-Atkins-Johnson, with Sims, Dunlap and Fanane rotating in. No rookies here, and we have seen the capacity of this group to control the run and put pressure on the quarterback. This will be a “coming of age” season for this group. The Browns’ offensive line will have a more difficult time controlling the line of scrimmage than the Bengals’ offensive line will.
Browns K Phil Dawson is a proven veteran who will be as solid as ever. He is countered by Bengals K Mike Nugent, who must negate KR Joshua Cribbs through touchbacks.The Bengals brought in KR Brandon Tate to add more potency to their return game, so Dawson will likely employ the same strategy.
We know P Kevin Huber’s ability to change field position with a punt. The Browns have big-legged punter of their own in Richmond McGee, who is in his first year.
Neither the Bengals nor the Browns are the deepest of teams, which is often most visible in coverage teams. The team that does the better job in coverage will give themselves an edge in this game.
The team that wins this game will take a big step toward avoiding ending the season in the basement of the AFC North. Most have assumed that because the Bengals had a 10-game losing streak and because Carson Palmer took his ball and went home, the Bengals are the clearly worse team. I don’t think the gulf is that great, partly because the Bengals are not really as bad as most assume, and partly because the Browns haven’t improved as much as most assume.
Andy Dalton will not be as good as Colt McCoy, but Jay Gruden will make sure that he doesn’t have to be. Cleveland will not stop the run. Gruden has done a nice job of mixing up plays, so he will keep the Browns’ defense guessing. And when defenses are guessing, they give up points.
McCoy will have to make throws, because the Bengals’ run defense will hold Peyton Hillis in check. The earlier that Shurmur gets WR Little and TE Moore involved, the better chance of success the passing game will have. But in the AFC North, the team that can run the ball has the upper hand.
FINAL SCORE: Cincinnati 24. Cleveland 20.