Three games into this regular season, the Browns passing defense has held opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of 79.2 and 215.7 yards passing per game -- 12th in the NFL. They feature two good defensive backs in T.J. Ward and Joe Haden, and complimentary players like Buster Skrine and Tashaun Gipson.
But where Cleveland is excelling this year is when their rushing the quarterback. Currently third in the NFL with 12 quarterback sacks, already features two players with multiple sacks, from Desmond Bryant (3.5) to Barkevious Mingo (2.0), who figures to start for the injured Jabaal Sheard (1.5 sacks). Half of those sacks came against the Minnesota Vikings, who feature an insufferable offensive line when protecting quarterback Christian Ponder.
Yet, most of Cleveland's defensive successes this year is coming from defensive coordinator Ray Horton (a former Bengals player and coach) while leaning on a handful of talented defensive players that were already in Cleveland.
"Ray has done a good job, putting the defense together in Arizona and trying to duplicate it here," said Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis. "He’s got further ahead here because he’s fallen into some good rushers, and that’s a good thing. It makes that transition that much quicker and easier. They’re able to bring in (Paul) Kruger, and then they draft (Barkevious) Mingo. They have the kid from Pitt who was already there (Jabaal Sheard).
"They got good rushers, they have the kid Phil (Taylor) at the nose, you add (Desmond) Bryant, they’ve got my guy from Iowa State, (Ahtyba) Rubin, whose been one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL. Kind of unheralded, but if you put on the tape, week in and week out, that man plays great football. Then you’ve got maybe the best inside linebacker in (D’Qwell) Jackson; all he does is play in a different defense every year, and plays his butt off. He’s played for I can’t tell you how many different defensive coordinators, but every year he just plays very sound, good defensive football."
Mingo could make his first start this Sunday.
"He’s a great fit for them going to the 3-4," said Lewis. "He’s that kind of player that if you’re putting together a 3-4 defense, he’d likely be your first pick with that kind of athleticism and ability."
The Bengals protection scheme should help, tied for fourth in the league with only five sacks allowed. Football Outsiders ranks Cincinnati's offensive line with the sixth-best adjusted sack rate (4.8 percent). Dalton has the time and when he checks off A.J. Green, look for the third-year quarterback to have some measurable successes with friendlier matchups persisting from Mohamed Sanu, Marvin Jones, Giovani Bernard and Tyler Eifert.
The greater discrepancy figures to occur (from a Bengals perspective) with Cincinnati's 21st ranked rushing offense against Cleveland's seventh-ranked defense. The Bengals are clearly favoring the pass this year with 120 called passes compared to only 79 rushes; despite maintaining leads or close scores against the Steelers and Bears. Cincinnati's win over the Packers was strange, which highlighted a balanced offense early but required a passing adjustment to overcome a 16-point third quarter deficit.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis is averaging a minuscule 2.8 yard/rush this season with two touchdowns scored and a handful of third and short conversions. Giovani Bernard adds the dynamics of a speed back with surprising power and awesome body control as a duel-threat in the run and pass.
Cleveland, on the other hand, has featured a strong rushing defense, holding Miami to only 20 yards rushing and 0.9 yard/rush average in week one. They couldn't duplicate that production against the Ravens in week two, but they still limited Baltimore to 2.8 yards/rush. The Browns limited Adrian Peterson to 88 yards rushing and a 2.8 yard/rush average. Impressively, Peterson's longest run against the Browns only went nine yards.
Either way, Cleveland held Baltimore close enough to lose within a possession and followed that up with an exciting fourth quarter win against the Minnesota Vikings last week. If the Bengals play avoid their usual mistakes that redirects exciting starts into head-banging depression, Cincinnati should be fine. Cleveland isn't a great team, but they're surrounded with enough talent and coaching to capitalize on Cincinnati's persistent issues that results in lost focus.