The Cleveland Browns are like an in-law that is largely inconsequential to your everyday life but still irks you to no end with their constant bickering of your shortcomings. Typically, no matter what the records or rosters look like, they always give the Bengals a hard time and make life as difficult as possible in their presence. Cleveland is not important enough to hate, but they are bratty and obnoxious whenever they face Cincinnati, and I just hope we can get through three hours in that city without wanting to choke something.
Like most years of late, they should not be much of a challenge. The talent level on the Browns is very, very low. It seems like this is Year 12 in their rebuilding process. Outside of two offensive lineman, and a very fat defensive one, it is difficult to list off who exactly their players are. They have hired a capable figurehead in Mike Holmgren but his impact is still a few seasons away from being realistically felt. For now, the Cleveland Browns will have to dust off any potential diamonds in the rough and continue to scour the waiver wire for discernible talent. All that being said, this is still not a gimme.
Browns offense vs. Bengals defense
After last week, Browns fans feel they have found something in Peyton Hillis. The fullback-sized experiment at halfback racked up over 140 yards last week in a tough loss to the Ravens. Now Cleveland thinks it has scored that elusive "every-down back"; I remember hearing the same thing last year about Jerome Harrison who has gone gently into that dark night. Hillis is large and a load to bring down but does nothing remarkably well.
When he runs, he runs in one direction: forward. There is nothing tricky to the plays drawn up for him; they hand him the ball and he runs up the gut with it. He is hard to stop behind the line and he never stops churning those legs of his, but loading up the box to stop him shouldn't be a stretch of the imagination when predicting the Bengals' defensive game plan against him. This kind of running back plays right into the hands of the Cincinnati's defense, who is not fast but is big and strong. Yes, the Ravens thought the same thing, but what happened last week seems more of an anomaly rather than an expected outcome.
Therefore, if the Bengals do put bring their safeties up to stop the run, the Browns will have one-on-one match-ups on the outside—no worries. Marvin Lewis eluded to Cleveland's ability to convert "explosive plays" which he defines as a play that gains 20 or more yards. While Mr. Lewis is once again correct that Cleveland has exploded more often than his Bengals on offense, when you watch the tape of the Browns, it's easy to see why. When Cleveland passes, they go long. Seneca Wallace does not throw a great intermediate pass. He can either check off to the backs underneath or lob it high and deep downfield. When he does throw medium passes to the sidelines, they are intercepted and returned for the score (see Kansas City: Week 2). Wallace does have speedy feet, but when he scrambles, he doesn't give up on the play and often times ends up throwing it down field. While this occasionally does convert for positive yardage, better defenses can bait the inexperienced QB into making bad decisions this way, and the Bengals should be no different.
Remember, the Bengals secondary is arguably the best in football. If Wallace is determined to test them deep, he will lose more often than win. If Mike Zimmer sees it fit to bring up defenders to slow Hillis, they will likely also blitz on passing plays since they're so close to Wallace anyway. This should tempt Wallace to go for the home run which in turn, should give the Bengals the advantage. Of course, it's always risky leaving corners alone deep, but with the stockpile of talent Cincinnati enjoys in its secondary, it's a risk worth chancing.
Bengals offense vs. Browns defense
In the two games I've watched Cleveland play this year, I've seen that they don't get gashed by the run, but they rarely slow it down completely. When the running back is consistently picking up four or five yards, it not only tires out the defense, it also opens up play-action passing. Case in point was Anquan Boldin's big day last week against Cleveland corner Eric Wright. Most of Boldin's big yards came on play-action passes and Wright was simply outmatched in single coverage. Against Kansas City, Cleveland did do a nice job of covering deep, but sacrificed the middle of the field on passing routes and paid the price. The key to facing a defense that allows decent run gains on nearly every attempt is to win on third down.
The Bengals have been miserable on their third-down conversions and have made their field-goal kicker a busy man as a result. There is no need rehashing all the criticisms the Bengal offense has felt recently—we know what they are and why they are brought up—so it's up to them to curb all the negativity. If the offensive line can regularly get a push on running plays, and Carson Palmer can accurately deliver the ball after faking the hand off, good things should happen. If the Browns commit to stopping the deep ball like they did against the Chiefs, the rookies, Jordan Shipley and Jermaine Gresham should find space open up for them in the middle. If Cleveland elects to make stopping the run its top priority, the high-profile wide receivers should come free on deeper routes. Of course, any success in the air depends on both the arm (and footwork) of Palmer and the pass protection allotted for him. If he continues to feel rushed and struggles, expect more field-position battles and more three-pointers from Mike Nugent.
Usually, this isn't a section in the weekly previews, but with these teams, the special-teams play may prove to be the decider. Cleveland's best scoring threat remains Josh Cribbs on kick and punt returns. Give this man a seam and he can change a game all by his lonesome. Not only is he fast, he is deceptively large, and simply has a knack for running free. All it takes is one missed tackle to allow him to do his damage, so the coverage team absolutely must stay in their lanes and bring him down when they get the chance.
We know that the Bengals have seemingly found an excellent kicker in Nugent, but the Browns have enjoyed the work of Phil Dawson for many years and are content with their own kicking situation. Dawson can miss an occasional big kick (see Kansas City: Week 2) but he is one of the more consistent players on the team and should be considered a rock when he lines up for three. If the game comes down to a Dawson field goal, I don't like those odds from a Bengal standpoint.
The Cincinnati return squad of Bernard Scott on kick-offs and Quan Cosby and Adam Jones on punts provide plenty of excitement themselves. Scott is worth watching anytime he gets the ball (I still don't know why he isn't used more on offense) and Cosby is safe fielding punts. Jones showed some pop in the preseason but has yet to bust one in the real games—though I think it's just a matter of time before he does. With two struggling offenses, special-teams play is heightened and it's important the Bengals continue to play well in that phase of the game to scratch out a win.
Until the Bengals offense lives up to its preseason hype, I won't predict a high point total on their behalf. The Browns have not played horrendous defense this year, and Cincinnati is not necessarily high-octane. Once Carson can succeed better on third down, I will feel better about all things, but for now, a conservative scoring forecast is appropriate.
I still expect the Bengals defense to carry the team on its back and frustrate the Browns and their fans all day. I can only imagine that this will be yet another contest that is deemed "ugly" and "unspectacular" and I don't think this will be the week that the peanut gallery quiets down and watches the game in quiet satisfaction. It will be closer than it should and any Bengal fan at the game will be worried on multiple occasions throughout the contest. Even when the Bengals win, they won't feel up to engaging in smack talk or fluttering their jerseys around much. It will simply go down in the books as the third win of the season and everyone in Cincinnati will immediately think ahead to the next week against Tampa Bay. But once more, the ugly duckling will have safely crossed the road.
Bengals 23, Browns 16