As we head into the final stretch of the 2015 NFL regular season, the Bengals are looking to start to wrap things up in the AFC North. Technically, the Bengals can't clinch the division until they host the 6-5 Steelers next week, but they can take one step closer to a full division sweep - something they've never done with Andy Dalton. A win would also insulate the Bengals further from an improbable Steelers comeback, but a loss would make next week's game about as close to a must-win as you can get.
Focusing on this week in particular, the Bengals have only swept the Browns once with Andy Dalton. That was in 2011, his rookie year. From the perspective of most Bengals fans, it feels like the Bengals drop at least one game to the Browns every year regardless of how bad they are. But, that's divisional matchups in the NFL for you - they're never simple. This time, the Browns have announced Austin Davis as their new starter with Josh McCown injured and Johnny Manziel in the professional athlete version of a time-out. The last time the Browns made a quarterback change ahead of a game with the Bengals, the Bengals won 24-3.
Last week: 31-7 win vs St. Louis Rams.
The Bengals halted their two game losing streak with a statement win against the St. Louis Rams. Their 24 point win was the kind of win that showed that this team is dangerous and to be taken seriously. Pro Football Focus heard that message loud and clear, placing the Bengals at No. 3 in their weekly power rankings after the win.
There are a lot of reasons to take the Bengals seriously, but one of the most prominent ones is the play of quarterback Andy Dalton. He received a relatively average grade from PFF for his efforts against the Rams (+0.1), but that grade doesn't tell the story of Andy Dalton's season. He posted a passer rating of 121.4 against the Rams, which was good for his seventh passer rating over 100 of the season. Despite the minor slight, he still ranks No. 4 among all QBs entering week 13.
Tyler Eifert, A.J. Green, Giovani Bernard, Jeremy Hill, Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu, and many others are also having pretty good seasons in one aspect or another so far. But, perhaps one of the less talked about great performances comes from Kevin Huber. He was the only player from either the Bengals or Browns to make PFF's Week 12 best players at every position list despite only punting four times. But, he made every one count. He averaged 48.3 yards per punt and downed one of them inside the 20.
Last week: 33-27 loss vs Baltimore Ravens.
Hahahahahhahahaha— Vontaze Burfict (@King55Tez) December 1, 2015
That was Vontaze Burfict's reaction to the way the Browns lost to the Baltimore Ravens last week on Monday Night Football. It was essentially the complete opposite reaction that the Browns players, fans, and organization had to the blocked field goal return for a touchdown, or 'kick six', that abruptly ended the Browns' fourth quarter comeback attempt, led by new starter Davis. You just can't write outcomes any better than that.
The thing is, that isn't the first heartbreaking loss the Browns have suffered this season. In Week 6 they lost to the 5-0 Broncos by a field goal despite intercepting a pass from Peyton Manning at the Broncos' 39 yard line - extremely close to field goal range. Instead of closing the game out, they went backward on every play on downs for a total of -13 yards and punted back to the Broncos who got their act together and drove the ball into field goal range - ending the game 26-23.
Tack onto that a nail biting finish leading to a close loss against the Chargers earlier in the season and just generally poor play all around, and it's been another season to forget for the Browns. It's a shame for certain players who are out there playing their best though, like Gary Barnidge. Barnidge has been a light in a very dark tunnel for the Browns as the third highest graded tight end in the passing game (+9.6), although he has struggled in run blocking (-10.0) which has resulted in a negative overall grade (-2.6).
Keys to the Game
Run the Rock
Stop me if you've heard this one before: the Bengals' run game hasn't quite lived up to expectations this season. That's not to say it has been a particularly bad season for the Bengals' running game, but based on the expectation that Jeremy Hill would continue to improve and Giovani Bernard would compliment him well as a runner, it hasn't been ideal. Jeremy Hill ranks near the top of all running backs in touchdowns and Giovani Bernard has been fairly effective as a rusher. In fact, out of running backs with at least 80 touches this season, Bernard ranks second in yards per carry (5.1) behind only rookie Thomas Rawls (5.6).
The problem is, the running game isn't very flexible at all. According to PFF, the Bengals are a whole 1.78 yards per carry worse when changing the point of attack. That's not good, but if they're going to correct it against anyone - the Browns are probably the team to do it against. The Browns are sporting the second lowest combined grade against the run in the NFL (-47.1), which is bringing their overall defense down (-31.4) despite a relatively good pass rush (+8.7). A solid running game is going to be crucial to completing the season sweep over the Browns.
Despite the heavily documented struggles of the Browns' defense against the run, the rest of their defense is playing well. They rank very positive in pass rush (+8.7), pass coverage (+2.2), and penalties (+3.7). Despite accumulating the second least number of sacks in the NFL (16), they are regularly putting pressure on the quarterback and forcing early throws.
Paul Kruger is having an excellent year so far as a pass rusher. His grade as a pass rusher (+5.9) ranks 15th highest among 3-4 OLBs on account of his 2 sacks, 5 QB hits, and 29 QB hurries. Once again though, the Achilles heel is his performance against the run game, in which his grade (-3.5) puts him as the fourth worst among qualifying OLBs.
Carlos Dunlap (8.5) and Geno Atkins (8.0) are ranked fourth and fifth respectively in terms of total sacks on the season. No other team has two players in the top 15 in sacks, much less the top five. It won't be a cakewalk, though. Joe Thomas (+27.4) is the second highest graded offensive tackle in the NFL and Mitchell Schwartz (+12.0) is the seventh highest graded offensive guard. Michael Johnson is having a good year with 19 tackles and three sacks, but going up against Joe Thomas is going to be a very difficult assignment.
On the flip side, things have not gone well for rookie offensive guard Cameron Erving this season, who has graded very poorly over his two starts (-3.7). It should make up for a very favorable matchup for Geno Atkins or Domata Peko, as Erving may be filling in for Joel Bitonio who's questionable to play an ankle injury.