This week, the Bengals face a team on the complete opposite side of the spectrum from their Week 6 opponent, the New England Patriots, in the Cleveland Browns. Ever since the Bengals’ disastrous 2014 performance in a 24-3 blowout under the lights on a Thursday night in early November, Cincinnati has been nothing short of dominant, smoking Cleveland in all three matchups since. The smallest margin of victory the Bengals have had in those three games was 21 points, with the other two matchups being a 30-0 shutout in Johnny Manziel’s first ever start and a 37-3 blowout late last season to complete the Bengals’ first sweep of the Browns since Andy Dalton’s rookie season. We spoke with Chris Pokorny of Dawgs by Nature to see how much fight is left in this winless Browns team and determine whether this game will be closer than those in years past.
Connor Howe: Terrelle Pryor looks like the biggest surprise in Cleveland this year. What has he done to improve so drastically in such a short time, and what's his upside as a receiver?
Chris Pokorny: This offseason, he posted workout videos and preached how hard he was working to improve his craft as a receiver. It's one thing to say it, but it's another thing to actually see the results. When training camp started and fans laid eyes on him for the first time since the end of the 2015 season, the results were already evident that his commitment to the position had paid off. His route running was crisp and his hands looked reliable. The only question left for the regular season games was how he could handle press coverage, and he's handled that better than anticipated as well. Every site that I do this five questions exchange with asks me about Pryor, so I'm repeating myself a bit week after week, but I also know the information is new to your audience.
The weaknesses in Pryor's game come down to two things. First, we know he has the speed to run routes downfield, but I cornerbacks are able to force him to run too close to the boundary on those go routes, making it difficult for quarterbacks to hit him downfield. Second, there have been a handful of crossing routes in which Pryor is coming back toward the ball as he makes the catch. His long strides on these routes means he loses any momentum he had going upfield, which defeats the purpose of a crossing route (being able to catch and use your speed to turn upfield). Pryor is currently dealing with a hamstring injury, so we'll see if he plays this week or not. His upside as a receiver should be extremely high, to the point where he could be a top-10 player at his position in the NFL. At 27-years-old, he's at the right age where signing him to a long-term deal won't be a concern. He's already on pace to be a 1,000+ yard receiver in his first full season as a wide receiver, and once this team gets more weapons and experience in general, he'll only see more opportunities.
CH: Another huge surprise was the emergence of Isaiah Crowell. He and Duke Johnson have looked really good so far, racking up a ton of yards. After a couple of down weeks, do you think the run game will get back on track against the Bengals?
CP: Over the past two weeks, the Browns faced run defenses that were among the top 10 in the NFL (Patriots and Titans). That played a factor in the Browns' run blocking struggling, but the bigger issue was the turnover on the offensive line. Some teams are able to handle that change fine, but the Browns have had a different center starting in each week for about five games now, and we lost our starting left guard who had the makings of being a Pro Bowl player. Being stuck with a backup like Alvin Bailey at left guard, plus an overall disaster in Cameron Erving at center, doesn't leave me too optimistic that the team's running game will return to form against the Bengals. I'd predict that the Browns will have a so-so game on the ground -- not as disastrous as the past two games, where we struggled to even get 2.0 yards per carry, but maybe they'll get a little closer to 4.0 yards per carry.
CH: The Browns have been the best team in the AFC North when it comes to containing A.J. Green. The receiver is looking to get back on track after consecutive games without a touchdown. Make an argument for why Cleveland will or won't shut down Green.
CP: All things considered, the Browns' cornerbacks have played pretty darn well the past several weeks, given the circumstances. The big issue has been at the safety position, where the level of play from a coverage perspective has been the worst I've ever seen since the club returned to the NFL in 1999. It makes sense, as the team entered the league with three safeties who had never started in the NFL, but also Ray Horton has had some odd set-ups in which our strong safety is playing the roaming free safety role. It's failed miserably, allowing tight ends to tear apart the Browns every week, and receivers are able to get wide open in two-man routes if the Browns are in zone coverage and the cornerback releases the receiver to the safety in the middle of the field.
If Tyler Eifert isn't able to return this week, though, that eases some of the burden off of Cleveland, and I think they'll pay some extra attention to Green. Assuming Joe Haden remains out with a groin injury, I believe Green can still beat our cornerbacks because of how good he is, but I also wouldn't be surprised if a receiver lower on your depth chart is the one who gets the wide open catches downfield.
CH: Players I've mentioned excluded, can you give us two guys who has shown signs of promise?
CP: On offense, that honor goes to rookie quarterback Cody Kessler. Expectations for him were absurdly low this preseason, where he was buried as the third quarterback on the depth chart for all of camp and just looked lost whenever he was thrown into games. In four starts, though, he's played much better than expected. When you hear the strengths of a scouting report for a player coming out of college, those strengths typically represent the ceiling of a player. Kessler has stepped right in and hit on all of his strengths from day one: he's accurate (65.6% completion percentage) and is a smart player (four touchdowns to just one interception for a 93.8 QB rating). The scouting report was also right on his weaknesses, though: he's primarily a short-yardage passer, and throwing downfield isn't his forte.
For the first time last week, Hue Jackson seemed to try to incorporate some more downfield shots for Kessler. Although the balls were relatively on target, most of them fell incomplete because they were thrown too close to the sideline, or they were floated too much, giving the defensive back a chance to defend the pass. Fans have gone from saying, "it'll be a disaster if Kessler sees the field this season" to "Kessler should start the rest of the year." On defense, it looks like the Browns have themselves a good one in nose tackle Danny Shelton. The 2015 first-round pick had some ups and downs as a rookie, which was enough to question whether he was a borderline bust. He's been a big asset in the team defending the run this season -- I know the team stats don't necessarily reflect that, but Shelton's impact has been consistent against the run and Pro Football Focus has taken notice on a weekly basis.
CH: NFL Network's Marc Sessler pledged to eat only raw foods until the Browns (his favorite team) win a game this year. When do you think he'll finally be able to splurge?
CP: I don't think the Browns are going 0-16. This team has already come so close to winning three of their games, and the Bengals, Jets, Ravens, and Steelers are among four of their next five opponents. The Bengals still have the most talent of that bunch and the game is on the road, so the win probably won't come from there. The Jets and Steelers games will both be at home against teams either playing terrible right now or with a backup quarterback, and I think the Ravens aren't a very good team. The Jets game in Week 8 might be when Sessler can start to splurge.
CH: And finally, can you give us a final score prediction?
CP: I still have some more background work to do on the Bengals -- each week, I try to do a position-by-position breakdown by Friday or Saturday, so I'll have my final score projection by then. However, I can say that I won't be picking Cleveland to win because the defense hasn't shown the ability to consistently stop the opposition. Although Kessler and the offense have played fairly well, they aren't really built to come from behind, and between the current run game struggles and Pryor's hamstring injury, predicting a win right now just wouldn't make a lot of sense.