The Cincinnati Bengals had a seemingly easy task coming into Week 12.
But with the team coming off a win on the road in Denver, and only being one game out of the final Wild Card spot in the AFC, could this be a trap game for the Bengals?
No. And while there will be those who will say “it’s just the Browns,” the Bengals don’t get any say in who they play, so you have to just beat the team in front of you.
Cincinnati did it in convincing fashion too, with the offensive line perhaps having their best game of the season. The boys up front opened holes in a very good Cleveland run defense all day, leading to the team rushing for over 150 yards. This increased rushing attack let the team win the time of possession battle which went a long way in keeping the defense rested.
Paul Daugherty of the Cincinnati Enquirer wrote about the importance of Mixon’s big game as the games get colder and the weather more demanding of a good ground game.
Whether the weather is brutal or fair, running does matter. On Sunday, Joe Mixon ran 23 times for 114 yards. That’s a 5-yard average against a team previously allowing 3.1 yards a try.
Mixon is shedding his rookie impatience, just in time. This isn’t Oklahoma, and those guys in the other uniforms aren’t the Kansas Jayhawks. You aren’t going to bust every run, so don’t try. “He’s sticking with the runs,’’ guard Clint Boling said. “He’s running north-south.’’ Instead of squirming and dancing laterally and losing two yards, Mixon is cutting his losses and gaining two.
This week, he showed he didn’t need huge holes to make big yards. He just needed holes big enough to drive a Mack truck through. One of those little, die-cast Mack trucks.
Mixon’s 11-yard TD run with 2:54 left removed any suspense from a dull game.
However, things were getting interesting in this one even before kickoff, as the media caught A.J. McCarron meeting and having a small conversation with not only Hue Jackson, but Browns owner Jimmy Haslam.
YOU'RE MY BEST FRIEND! #Browns #MakeHueLive pic.twitter.com/fBDAWWPzEe— Glenn Moore (@GlennMooreCLE) November 26, 2017
Their conversation didn’t last longer than a few minutes and was reportedly just making light of the trade blunder that had happened at the deadline a few weeks prior. Still, with McCarron potentially becoming an unrestricted free agent after this season, it probably doesn’t hurt the Browns to try to put a good impression on the guy with free agency in mind.
Once the game began though, all pleasantries were put aside and this was a battle between in-state rivals rather than a gathering of old friends.
The Bengals were extremely efficient all day, averaging 6.1 yards per play on the day, but it was Joe Mixon’s breakout performance that was the story of the day. The rookie topped 100 yards rushing for the first time in his career on Sunday.
ESPN’s Katherine Terrell caught up with Joe later to talk about his big game, with Joe suggesting that the once crowded Cincinnati backfield made it difficult for him to develop early in the year.
“Mixon said some of the things he needed to do to improve were ‘a little bit shaky’ earlier in the season due to lack of timing with the starters because of the Bengals’ crowded group of running back. But even though he was competing for snaps with Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill, the group clearly had a bond.”
But make no mistake, Joe Mixon is giving credit where credit is due, and said the offensive line made it all possible. For being so young in his career, it’s nice to see a guy be so humble when it comes to his successes. The Bengals have a good thing going with Mixon after this week so it’ll be interesting to see if they can keep it going.
Through the air the Bengals were efficient if not dynamic. Andy Dalton completed 18 of 28 passes for 214 yards and two scores. Dalton has done an excellent job of taking care of the football over the past few weeks, as he hasn’t thrown an interception since the Bengals’ last game against Pittsburgh on October 22nd. Bill Lazor is getting some great play from Andy Dalton compared to what Ken Zampese was getting, and Dan Hoard has the numbers to prove it.
Updated stats for Andy Dalton in 9 games since Bill Lazor became offensive coordinator: 165-for-258 (64%), 1,978 yards, 18 TD, 4 INT for passer rating of 104.1 pic.twitter.com/KdI7URopxT— Dan Hoard (@Dan_Hoard) November 27, 2017
Defensively, the Bengals didn’t have a great outing against the Browns. Cleveland gained over 400 yards of offense and 21 first downs which is atypical of a Browns offense that has looked anemic at points this year.
Isaiah Crowell notably had an impressive performance running for 95 yards on only 16 carries. Rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer had perhaps his best pro performance and was especially effective attacking Cincinnati’s linebackers in coverage.
Pro Football Focus has the details on just how bad the Bengals linebackers were.
“Browns quarterback DeShone Kizer was very efficient when targeting Bengals linebackers (Vontaze Burfict, Jordan Evans, and Nick Vigil), he threw for 145 yards, 54 percent of his total yards, and 9 completions, 50 percent of his completions, on 10 targets.”
A lot of that might have to do with tight end David Njoku, another Browns rookie being perhaps their most talented receiving threat, but the story of Bengals linebackers in coverage has been poor all year.
Kevin Minter was brought in to help with that but he hasn’t factored into as large of a role as was expected during the offseason. In fact, it’s Nick Vigil who has been victimized in coverage on a weekly basis.
#Bengals LB Nick Vigil received one of the worst @PFF grades today before suffering an ankle injury. He finished with a grade of 28.5— Kyle Kelly (@KyleKellyCLE) November 26, 2017
That said, the Bengals defense has been playing very well lately as a whole and still only gave up 16 points, the lowest total they’ve allowed all month.
Things are looking up for this team and while not everyone might be a believer in this team yet, it’s next week against Pittsburgh that will be a season-defining game for Cincinnati.
The fate of this team’s 2017 campaign, as well as the fate of the Marvin Lewis era, could be on the line in prime time. History tells us that the Bengals fall flat when the lights are shining bright, especially against Pittsburgh.
But, if this team can play like they did on Sunday and pull out a victory they’d certainly make a believer out of me, as well as many other fans across the country.