In Cleveland, quarterbacks come a dime a dozen. Ever since the Browns returned to existence, there have been a dross of failed QB experiments to find themselves under center. There have been old ones (Jake Delhomme), young ones (Tim Couch), old young ones (Brandon Weeden), squirrelly ones (Jeff Garcia), and stoic ones (Trent Dilfer). Even this year we've already seen three.
The newest variation is not new in many regards. Jason Campbell knows a thing or two about the NFL and has played under a litany of offensive coordinators. He has tasted some success but mostly failure in his three stops in Washington, Oakland and now Cleveland. He has some mobility and can be fairly slippery in the pocket, but, to me, he is very much a pocket passer.
In fact, Campbell is most comfortable with long drop backs, especially in the play-action game. Quick deliveries are possible but not his thing. To make the big plays Cleveland is looking for, he needs ample time to let Josh Gordon and Greg Little separate from defenders and find open bubbles, typically deep across the middle of the field.
Mike Zimmer knows this. His defensive gameplan doesn't need to be so different from last week against Baltimore. Flacco is another deep-dropper, and even though the team lost the game, the Bengals defense kept Delaware Joe firmly in check. Vinnie Rey blitzing up the gut was perfect. I would expect the Browns to keep backs in to block as a counter to the middle linebackers shooting the A-gap. Besides, I've seen Campbell roll right on play-action bootlegs too often to expect a linebacker to seek and destroy him out in the flats. Instead, I would think safety and corner blitzes coming from the right side would do the trick and force Campbell to step back into a collapsing pocket for the sack.
The Cleveland ground game is non-threatening. Willis McGahee is running on fumes these days and never really scared me much to begin with. Fozzie Whittaker is a scrappy speed back with a name like a jazz guitarist and is honestly more threatening than McGahee in regards to explosive runs, but at the end of the day, he too is just whacka whacka.
Their line is anchored by the iron brute at left tackle, Joe Thomas. The man has never missed a snap in his career and his play is as reliable as tomorrow's sunrise. The other parts have improved around him, particularly the right side that had so much trouble for so many years. Coordinator and coach Rob Chudzinski has the Browns playing with more competence and confidence than most of his predecessors and they are certainly capable of putting up enough points to win the game.
Yet for them, enough points can be 17 thanks to a revamped and tremendous gameplan from new defensive coordinator Ray Horton week in and week out. These men have grown into a considerable force and are getting after opposing quarterbacks at an alarming rate. They are strong up front with stuffy tackles and speed rushing ends. They bring a delayed linebacker blitz nearly every down with Craig Robertson, something Giovani Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis must take note of, and generally don't give quarterbacks much comfort to hang out and look downfield.
To make matters more difficult, their secondary is a sterling bunch of players who have grown up together to be one of the best in the league. Joe Hayden is a consistent technician who seems up for any challenge. When people discuss the best corners in the league he is still notably absent from the conversation and that just doesn't seem fair. The man does what he is asked and then some; he closes down large sections of the field as if they were under construction.
The man opposite of Hayden has also developed nicely. Buster Skrine plays with tremendous energy. He is not the all-pro Hayden is, but from what I've watched this year, he has stepped up his game and demands attention for the plays he makes. Even Chris Owens deserves praise for his play so far in 2013.
This trio promises to frustrate the mercurial Andy Dalton on Sunday. As frustrating as it's been lately to see the Bengals wide receivers struggle to separate from their defenders, this week's matchup seemingly provides no such relief in that category. A lot has been placed upon the striped shoulders of Mr. Dalton this season and his production has been anything but a straight line of consistency, but the struggles in the quick, short passing game have a lot to do with receivers not getting space on their routes. Even the great quarterbacks can't fit it in perfectly when defenders are blanketed on the backs of their targets. Marvin Jones has terrific straight-line speed but his lateral quickness on slant routes may now be in question. Mohamed Sanu, Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert typically rely on simply being big and catching passes in traffic, only to learn that size alone does not promise results under duress.
The Bengals offensive line needs to play one of its best games of the season this week. If the Dalton Gang can't find a rhythm on the ground and can't get the intermediate passing game in order, the big play will become their only hope and to do that, Big Red needs time to let his guys finally get free in space.
The good news is that the Cleveland defense is not good at stopping third down. Killing the clock and gaining first downs are sometimes more important than scoring touchdowns in a defensive battle. Time of possession becomes magnified in such a struggle and kicking field goals on sustained drives can win ugly games.
Turnovers, penalties, missed field goals and an inability to convert short-yardage pickups have frustrated an otherwise immensely talented offensive group. In short, they are killing themselves. All teams hit these bumps in the road. Negative trends have surfaced and been identified, now it's up to the group-including Jay Gruden-to adjust and overcome these issues before it spirals out of control. Scoring 20 points shouldn't be so hard for a divisional favorite but has sadly become a mountain of a task-especially against a top-5 defense.
This game has the makings of an old-school slug-fest of sacks, hand-offs and punts. Any touchdowns scored from special teams or defense is almost certainly to be the deathblow for the other team. Simply avoiding turnovers and penalties alone can win a game like this.
The Bengals don't need a statement game, just a win. The bye week awaits afterward and is sorely needed to give this battered team some rest and recovery time before the stretch run to the postseason. They must man-up for three hours and take care of business before they are permitted to exhale though. A loss would make for a needlessly close race for the division. Cleveland is a team on the rise, to be sure, but they are not built as soundly as Cincinnati. The Bengals were already bitten once in the dog-pound and simply cannot let a now serious divisional foe take them out twice. Not only would it close the standings gap to an uncomfortable margin, it would sap the confidence of this young but powerful Marvin Lewis team. If they don't believe they belong, then they don't belong. Simple as that.
Bengals 21, Browns 20
Mojokong-gleaming the cube.