Currently sitting at 2-4 on the season, the Bengals desperately need a win soon if they want any chance of salvaging the season and making a playoff run. Luckily, this week, they are up against the only NFL team without a win in 2016, the Cleveland Browns.
Division games are never as simple as they might seem, but you would hope that the Bengals can handle a team whom they have beaten in four of the last five meetings. The last Browns win over the Bengals was during the 2014 season, and their last regular season win in general was all the way back in mid-December. The win came off the heels of a 37-3 beatdown by the Bengals in Cleveland, so we’re right back to recent history being entirely on the Bengals’ side in this one.
Still, the Browns are an NFL team comprised of some of the top one percent of football talent in the entire world. The Bengals would do well to not completely write them off and approach this game with the same dedication that they do any other game. They will want to make sure to develop a strong game-plan and pay close attention to certain key matchups, such as:
Bengals pass catchers vs Browns No. 26 passing defense
The Bengals have had a lot of issues they have had to work through this season. But, the production of A.J. Green has been one of the few particular bright spots this season. Through six weeks, he is bested only by Julio Jones (656) in terms of total yards for wide receivers (606). He also has the fifth most 40+ yard catches of all pass catchers this season (three), the seventh most first down catches (24), and the 11th most touchdowns (three). Combined with no fumbles, Green is simply dominating this year.
The Bengals also have a number of other reliable pass catchers who can supplement Green’s production when teams start focusing on taking him out. Brandon LaFell, Tyler Boyd, and Giovani Bernard have all recorded 19 catches or more for at least 240 yards this season. Bernard and LaFell alone have combined for four receiving touchdowns. You can also throw C.J. Uzomah in there, who has recorded 17 catches for 193 yards this season.
Tyler Eifert is questionable to play, and while he might suit up, he probably won’t have much of an impact in his first game back this year. But, the remaining pass catchers shouldn’t have much of an issue with the Browns. Though, wouldn’t it be awesome if Eifert comes in and immediately makes an impact like we all know he can?
The Browns’ passing defense just isn’t getting the job done. They currently rank No. 26 in passing yards allowed per game (285.3), No. 29 in first down percentage (40.4), and No. 31 in passing touchdowns allowed (16).
A big part of their problem has been injuries to key players like Joe Haden, who has already missed two games this season. He is currently listed as doubtful for Sunday’s game, so the Browns will likely be without one of the few cornerbacks in the NFL who has been able to consistently keep up with A.J. Green over the years. Don’t look now, but this could lead to a massive day for the Bengals’ star receiver.
RDE Michael Johnson vs LT Joe Thomas
One of the Bengals’ more inconsistent performers this year has been starting right defensive end Michael Johnson. At times, he looks like one of the more ferocious defensive ends in the league. He can put pressure on quarterbacks and stifle the running game with the best of them. But, he also can disappear for long periods of time with enough frequency that you can’t do much more than sit back and shake your head.
On the other hand, one of the standard bearers of consistently good performance in the NFL is Browns’ left tackle Joe Thomas. He has played at a Pro Bowl level literally every year that he has been in the league and never looks like slowing down much at all. In fact, just last year, he received the Bruce Matthews Award for best offensive lineman in the league on top of his Pro Bowl berth.
Don’t expect Johnson to have a breakout game this week against Thomas, one of the best left tackles in the NFL. But, with Thomas not practicing this week due to a knee issue, Johnson could have a window of opportunity. Browns coach Hue Jackson has already confirmed his belief that Thomas will be available to play this week, but the limitations resulting from the issue could cause Thomas to lose quite a bit of effectiveness.
With star defensive end Carlos Dunlap going into a favorable matchup against Browns right tackle Austin Pasztor, all Johnson needs to do is make an average impact to keep the Browns from focusing too much on Dunlap’s side. Up against a limited Joe Thomas, it seems like something to realistically shoot for.
Bengals running backs vs Browns No. 27 run defense
The Bengals’ struggles in the running game have been heavily documented this year. Starting running back Jeremy Hill has averaged a poor 3.6 yards per carry this season and ranks No. 30 in the NFL in average yards per game (45.2), despite receiving the 19th most touches (75). On the other hand, Giovani Bernard has been marginally more effective as a runner, but has done most of his damage as a backfield or check down pass catcher.
That said, the Bengals have only faced off against one team with a worse rushing defense than the Browns this season – the Miami Dolphins. They didn’t perform great in the running game that day, but it wasn’t really necessary as the Dolphins allowed Green to absolutely go off for 173 yards and a touchdown on 10 receptions.
However, a more effective running game could have allowed the Bengals to finish with more than a single touchdown on the day. The Bengals put together six scoring drives, so the fact that five of them were field goals was a bit underwhelming.
Up against the Browns’ ineffective defense, the Bengals could really get the running game going and put up a massive scoreline. In the past three games, the Bengals have outscored the Browns by a combined 68-13. So, there’s no reason to think they don’t have the tools to do it again this week.