September 1, 2014

Preview: Browns @ Bengals

My, my, how things change.  Ten weeks ago, as the Bengals were preparing to travel to Cleveland to open the 2011 season, I made a statement that has turned out to be not exactly correct.

I said that the Bengals and the Browns were similar teams.

At the time, the Browns were being projected to go around 8-8 in 2011, although a few prognosticators were picking the Browns to surprise us and make the playoffs. (I bet those guys feel stupid now!) With 5 of Cleveland’s final 6 games coming in the division, Arizona may be their last shot at a win to equal last year’s 5-11 record. (Check it… they have not played Pittsburgh or Baltimore yet this year. How’s that for a kick in the arse by the schedule-makers?)

Meanwhile, the Bengals were expected to be a total disaster, with a few insinuating that they would be so bad that they might be the first team in NFL history to finish with less than 0 wins. But instead of becoming an NFL black hole (that role is being filled by the team to our immediate northwest), they have already met or exceeded the win total of nearly everyone in the country, have a legitimate shot at 10 wins or more, and are in position to secure at least a #6 seed for the playoffs.

So to all of you WhoDeyFans, I apologize for making such a comparison.

When the Browns have the ball…

The Browns’ offense has been surprisingly bad this season. They have scored the fifth fewest points (145) in the league so far, leading only the Rams (120), the Jaguars (125), the Colts (131), and the Chiefs (144). By contrast, the Bengals have scored 236 points.

The Browns have scored over 20 points just once this year, against the Colts in Week 2. Since scoring 17 in Week 6 against the Raiders, they have not scored more than 14 in a game and have scored 54 in the subsequent five games.

QB Colt McCoy v. criticism. I expected Colt McCoy to be good. If you are laughing at me for that, be careful because his numbers are strikingly similar to Andy Dalton’s.

  • Yards Passing       McCoy: 2057        Dalton: 2146
  • Completion %        McCoy: 59.3%      Dalton: 59.6%
  • Interceptions          McCoy: 7                Dalton: 12
  • Sacks                       McCoy: 24             Dalton: 14

McCoy is taking a fair amount of the blame for how the season has gone for the Browns. But he is losing while Andy is winning with nearly identical numbers. Blame and responsibility don’t always corrolate.

McCoy threw for 213 yds against the Bengals in round 1, and he is going against a Bengals’ secondary that is now without Leon Hall but has Adam Jones back. For McCoy to improve his stats this week, he will need to get out of the pocket and extend plays like the creeper in Pittsburgh.

Offensive Line

Culprit #1 in the Browns’ offensive woes. Like the Bengals’ O-line in the Eric Ghiaciuc era, they simply are not protecting their QB very well. They have given up 25 sacks and a whopping 58 QB hits in 10 games. Although the line may have finally begun to gel over the last couple of weeks, with 5 division games left against fierce D-lines, we will see if that improvement remains.

LT Joe Thomas v. RDEs Michael Johnson and Frostee Rucker. Thomas sparring Johnson will be a fun matchup to watch for the next few years. Thomas may be closer to ProBowl caliber, but it will be interesting to see if his stamina holds up as Johnson and Rucker rotate through the game to stay fresh.

LG Jason Pinkston v. DT Geno Atkins. This could be a long, difficult game for the rookie Pinkston, who has been struggling this year. If he starts, that is. I would not be at all surprised if the Browns choose to start veteran Artie Hicks, who took over for Pinkston in round 1 and allowed McCoy to begin finding success in the 2nd qtr.

RT Tony Pashos v. LDEs Robert Geathers and Carlos Dunlap. Pashos has been slowly improving after struggling with an ankle injury in the preseason. He must continue his improvement for Colt McCoy to have a successful day. If Dunlap and Atkins are allowed to knock McCoy around, the Browns’ offense will struggle even more than normal.

Running Game

Culprit #2 in the Browns’ offensive woes. The punch in their running game, Peyton Hillis, has not played since mid-October and is out again this week. His absence is the primary reason that the Browns are 29th in rushing.

RB Chris Ogbonnaya v. LB Rey Maualuga. RB Montario Hardesty has been a disaster this season, gaining only 244 yds. Ogbonnaya has given their running game a little pop, gaining 205 yds in the last two games. But FO rates the Bengals’ D-line as far better run-stoppers than either the Jags or the Rams.

Rey Maualuga must do a better job of containing than he did last week. He is still prone to over-pursuit, and he must remain patient in his responsibilities.

Passing Game

The Browns have plenty of options to throw to. Greg Little, Joshua Cribbs and Ben Watson are McCoy’s favorite targets, plus Mohamed Massaquoi, Jordan Norwood and Evan Moore make their own contributions.

But quantity and quality are not always correlated.

WRs Greg Little and Joshua Cribbs v. CBs Nate Clements, Kelly Jennings and Adam Jones. Little received a lot of praise to start the season, and he has done decently as a rookie, catching for 438 yds, which leads the team by nearly 100 yds. Cribbs has contributed another 350 yds. But this duo is not nearly as potent as Boldin and Smith, who got the Bengals for 200 yds last week. If the Bengals can limit Little and Cribbs, the defense will get off of the field quickly.

TE Ben Watson v. LB Manny Lawson. Watson got the Bengals for a 34 yd TD in round 1. While the Bengals’ defense has made strides in defending TEs this season, Watson is always dangerous, being as frequent and as productive a target as is Cribbs. His counterpart, Evan Moore, has not been the factor that many anticipated this year, but his 9.1 yd/rec average says he will move the chains once or twice a game if the Bengals are not aware of him.

When the Bengals have the ball…

As Andy Dalton and Jay Gruden have gone through the season, the ranking of the Bengals’ offense has slowly but steadily improved. After hovering in the mid-20s early and the high 20s through the middle of the season, the offense is now ranked #17 in passing. And FO ranks them as #11 in passing effectiveness.

Dalton had his best day against a solid Ravens defense, carving them up for 373 yds in what should have been at least a game-tying performance if not for a lame overturned TD catch by Jermaine Gresham. I wish I could predict another 350+ yd day for Dalton, but those are pretty rare. I do think 250+ yds is coming, though.

QB Andy Dalton v. fatigue. We are coming to that point in the NFL season when rookies, who are used to 12-game college seasons, sometimes begin to fade. Including the preseason, Dalton has played 14 games already, with 6 games still to be played. The Bengals need him to remain strong, focused and smart with the ball over the final stretch if they want to control their own destiny as the head toward the playoffs.

Smart with the ball is my main concern. The Steelers and Ravens have shown the league how to read Dalton, and the Browns surely have taken note. It is time for Dalton (and Gruden) to adjust back and take more advantage of the middle of the field. Another pair of interceptions to the short right could put the game in jeopardy and might just lead to Andy’s first pick-6.

Offensive Line

The O-line did not have its finest game against the Ravens, especially in the final minute, so we will see how well they bounce back. They have done a good job of keeping Dalton clean, and they should continue that trend against the Browns.

RG Bobbie Williams v. DT Phil Taylor. Taylor started the year strong but leveled off quickly. In Week 1, he was matched against Clint Boling, but this time he gets the seasoned veteran in Big Bobbie. Taylor was drafted to shore up the run defense, but at #29 in the league, that hasn’t happened.

RT Andre Smith v. LDE Jabaal Sheard. Smith kept Sheard largely contained in Spetember, and he must prove himself again to be a solid run blocker against Sheard. If Williams and Smith win their match ups, the RBs will have a good day.

Running Game

Cedric Benson punched the Browns in the mouth in Week 1, gashing them for 121 yds and a TD. And you may recall that Bernard Scott was only in the game for one series and got 3 yds on 4 carries. Since then, the Bengals have begun to balance the attack. A good mix of Benson and Scott, with a dash of Leonard, should bake up a delicious rushing dessert.

RBs Cedric Benson and Bernard Scott v. LB D’Qwell Jackson. Jackson is the heart of the defense and is having a solid year with 91 tackles. (Maualuga has only 49 tackles, although he was out 3 games.) He has so many tackles because teams are running on the Browns a lot (322 times… 3rd most in the league) and the line is not making the stops.

I will predict that the Bengals call 35 running plays for 160 yards.

Passing Game

I listed the options that the Browns have for passing, but the Bengals are just as deep. And even though their total passing yards are similar, the Bengals’ game is more productive because when they get a drive going, they are more likely to finish it with points.

WRs A.J. Green and Jerome Simpson v. CBs Joe Haden and Sheldon Brown. While the Browns’ top two receivers have combined for 788 yds, Green and Simpson have combined for 1197 yds. The potency of the Bengals’ recipe is simply stronger. And then add in the emerging Andrew Hawkins as well as Andre Caldwell, and Jay Gruden may find success in sending more guys than the Browns can cover.

Haden and Brown have been a good CB combo. The Browns lead the league in fewest passing yards at 1665 yds, 560 yds less than the Bengals have given up. I suspect that some of that has to do with the fact that they have not faced the potent passing games of the Steelers and Ravens yet.

TE Jermaine Gresham v. LB Scott Fujita. Gresham has been up-and-down this season. He was the leading receiver with 58 yds in the first go-around. He must own the middle of the field against the Browns. Three receivers plus JG running free is just more than the Browns can contain.

Special Teams…

K Phil Dawson v. K Mike Nugent. Dawson has missed 4 field goals out of 20, while Nugent has missed only 1 of 19. Nugent has forced 24 touchbacks, while Dawson has forced only 6. Advantage, Nugent.

P Brad Maynard v. P Kevin Huber. Despite his 15 yd shank that turned the momentum of the game against the Ravens, Huber still averages 44 yds/punt, which is 2.5 yds better than Maynard’s average.

KR/PR Joshua Cribbs v. KR/PR Brandon Tate. Cribbs is always dangerous, but he has yet to return a kickoff for a TD this year. Tate has not broken open as many big returns as we had hoped, but he has been decent at his job. His kick return average is 3.8 yds lower than Cribbs, but he is 1.1 yds better than Cribbs on punt returns.

Keys to the Game…

The Browns know that if they lose to the Bengals this week, then they are in serious trouble against the Ravens and Steelers in the coming weeks. But they face a mountainous problem: they can’t score. That’s a bad thing when their AFC North foes are averaging scoring 8-11 more points a game than they are. With that kind of advantage, I think the Bengals game plan should be pretty simple.

1) Get an early lead. The surest way to keep Ogbonnaya from having a third good game is to take the ball out of his hands by forcing the Browns to the air. The Browns are not built to rally like the Bengals are accustomed to doing. A 14 point lead could feel nearly insurmountable given their offensive output and will put a lot of pressure on McCoy. So turn up the pressure and watch them crack.

2) Team up the horses. They are facing one of the worst run defenses in the game, so exploit their weakness. This could be the big running day that they (and we) have been waiting for.

3) Defend the pass first. Not only are the Browns one of the worst run defenses, they are also one of the worst run offenses. And they are going up against the #3 run defense in the Bengals. They will have to pass to move the ball, and they have 3 real targets: Little, Watson, and Cribbs. Double up on Little, and dent one of the other two. One and a half of that trio can’t beat the Bengals.

Enjoy 7-4, my brothers and sisters! WhoDey!

FINAL SCORE: Cleveland 13. Cincinnati 24.