For the second week in a row, the Bengals have the quarterback matchup that will have the NFL world buzzing - Dalton vs. Hoyer! Ok, maybe not, but this game has huge ramifications in the AFC North. In order to win the division, I believe the Bengals must win this game. Generally speaking, the home team has a huge advantage in Thursday night games, but I don't see it here. Traveling from Cleveland to Cincinnati is hardly a disadvantage, rarely are AFC North matchups blowouts and we all know the Bengals track record in primetime games.
So, here is what to look for on Thursday night when the Bengals take on the Browns...
When the Browns Run the Ball:
Browns Run Offense: 111.3 YPG (15th); 3.6 YPA (28th)
Bengals Run Defense: 30th - 139.6 YPG (t-30th); 4.8 YPA (t-29th)
Prior to Alex Mack going down with a broken leg in Week 5, the Browns were averaging 4.4 YPA and were one of the better running teams in the NFL. In the three games since Mack's injury, the Browns have averaged just 1.9 YPA against three run defenses (Jacksonville, Oakland, Tampa Bay) that are far from superb. If Burfict and Maualuga were healthy, I would give the Bengals the clear advantage here. But, they are not healthy and the Bengals, even with Brandon Thompson back, struggled against the run yet again this past Sunday. If the Browns want to get their running game back on track, the Bengals 30th ranked run defense will provide them the perfect opportunity.
When the Browns Throw the Ball:
Browns Pass Offense: 241.0 YPG (14th); 8.0 YPA (t-5th); 4 INTs (t-5th); 13 Sacks (t-6th); 89.9 Rating (21st)
Bengals Pass Defense: 255.3 YPG (21st); 6.4 YPA (t-3rd); 10 INTs (t-4th); 13 Sacks (t-25th); 75.4 Rating (1st)
After a less than impressive preseason where Brian Hoyer was given the starting job more by default than as a result of his performance, Hoyer has been very solid through the first eight games, and most importantly, he hasn't turned the ball over. Throw in the fact that he has done so with Andrew Hawkins as his number one receiver, and his performance thus far is very impressive.
The Bengals pass defense, despite surrendering a lot of yards and struggling to get to the quarterback, has been solid overall. The Bengals rank in the top five in interceptions (t-4th), YPA (t-3rd) and top the league in terms of opponents' quarterback ratings. The key for the Bengals pass defense will actually be the effectiveness of the run defense. If the Bengals can take away the Brown's running attack, they also take away the effectiveness of Hoyer's play-action passing game and create some opportunities for an opportunistic secondary. Unlike this past Sunday, the Bengals cannot afford to drop interceptions and give the Browns extra chances. With Jordan Cameron out and Josh Gordon still suspended, I think the Bengals will be able to corral the Browns passing attack and create some game changing turnovers.
When the Bengals Run the Ball:
Bengals Run Offense: 121.4 YPG (9th); 4.2 YPA (t-16th)
Browns Run Defense: 139.6 (t-30th); 4.8 YPA (t-29th)
The Bengals and Browns defenses share similar stories in 2014 - both were highly regarded at the start of the season and neither are playing well, mainly because both have been decimated by injuries. The Browns defensive line has been hit the hardest where Phil Taylor, Ahtyba Rubin, Billy Winn, John Hughes, Desmond Bryant, and Armonty Bryant have all missed time this season. Their absence is a big reason why the Browns share 30th place with the Bengals in rushing yards allowed per game. With Giovani Bernard out again, Jeremy Hill will get the bulk of the carries and should find plenty of running room. In Week 9, the Browns gave up 87 yards (4.6 YPA) to Bobby Rainey and the 29th ranked run offense. Expect a big game and more big numbers from the Bengals second round pick.
When the Bengals Throw the Ball:
Bengals Pass Offense: 240.3 YPG (15th); 7.7 YPA (t-9th); 6 INTs (t-12th); 10 Sacks (t-3rd); 90.3 Rating (19th)
Browns Pass Defense: 252.1 YPG (18th); 7.0 YPA (10th); 10 INTs (t-4th); 17 Sacks (t-19th); 80.6 Rating (6th)
Just like their run defenses, the Bengals and Browns pass defenses nearly mirror each other as well. The strengths of the 2014 Browns team is the secondary and the strength of the secondary is Joe Haden. Haden is one of the top corners in the NFL and unlike most corners in the NFL, has a very good track record against A.J. Green (both in college and the pros) and picked off Dalton twice last year, returning one for a touchdown. While Justin Gilbert has been disappointing thus far, the Browns have found a play-making safety in Tashaun Gipson. The third year safety out of Wyoming leads the NFL with six interceptions on the year and is someone that Andy Dalton will have to watch out for. While I think Haden will be able to contain a less than 100 percent A.J. Green, I believe the Bengals will find an advantage on the other side of the field where Mohamed Sanu will be lined up against Buster Skrine. Skrine is a small corner, and at 5'9" 185 pounds, the 6'2" 210 pound Sanu will have a clear size advantage. Last Sunday the Buccaneers and rookie Mike Evans exploited that advantage to the tune of seven catches for 124 yards and 2 touchdowns. Look for the Bengals to do the same with Sanu.
Kickoff Returns: Browns - 21.4 Avg (t-25th); Bengals - 26.6 Avg (5th)
Punt Returns: Browns - 2.6 Avg (32nd); Bengals - 13.1 Avg (3rd)
Kickers: Billy Cundiff: 15/17 (88.2% - 17th) - Long 52 yds
Mike Nugent: 14/20 (70.0% - 29th) - Long 49 (1 blocked)
Punters: Browns - Spencer Lanning: NET 41.3 (15th); Inside 20 - 12 (27.3%); TB - 5 (11.4%)
Bengals - Kevin Huber: NET 45.2 (1st); Inside 20 - 16 (44.4%); TB - 2 (5.6%)
Kick Coverage: Browns - 19.7 Avg (2nd); Bengals - 26.0 Avg (26th)
Punt Coverage: Browns - 7.2 Avg (t-9th); Bengals - 4.8 Avg (3rd)
Despite Mike Nugent's struggles, he has been kicking better as of late (knock on wood) and the Bengals possess, quite possibly, the best punter and punt/kick returner in the game, Adam Jones. Those two are game changing weapons that often go overlooked. I expect Huber to do what Huber does - switch field position - and I expect Jones to have at least one big return.
Mike Pettine has eight career games as an NFL Head Coach (5-3) and zero respect from future Hall of Famer Greg Little.
Marvin Lewis has 184 career games as an NFL Head Coach, a .519 career winning percentage (95-87-2), an unblemished 0-5 in the playoffs (.000) and endless respect from Greg Little (presumably).
Key to the Game:
Turnovers. It sounds cliché, but the team that wins the turnover battle will win this game. The Bengals and Browns are too evenly matched for one team to withstand a negative turnover differential. For the Bengals, Andy Dalton has to be particularly aware of Joe Haden and Tashaun Gipson.
These two teams are more evenly matched than many realize and the Bengals' struggles in primetime are well documented. However, in the end, I believe the Jungle and the Bengals overall advantage in talent give the Bengals the edge. The game is close all night, but a late Mike Nugent field goal gives the Bengals the eight point victory.
Bengals 38, Browns 30