The Cleveland Browns hold the unique distinction as being the only team who the Cincinnati Bengals have faced more than 28 times and hold a winning record against. The Bengals have faced the Browns 87 times (second to the Steelersat 93), and the Bengals hold a 48-39 all-time head-to-head record against the Browns.
Recent dominance in the series has strongly steered this series into the Bengals’ advantage. Since Thanksgiving weekend of 2004, the Bengals have gone 19-6, won five straight games, and their last six victories have come by an average score of 31-10. But the 2017 Browns aren’t the Browns you’ve come to expect to write off as an automatic win. Despite the 0-3 start, Hue Jackson seemingly has them going in the right direction, and the game in Cleveland this Sunday will be anything but automatic. So what can we expect from the 2017 Browns? We spoke with Chris Pokorny of Dawgs by Nature to find out.
Scott Schulze: Despite being 0-3, the Browns are very close to being a 2-1 team, having lost two of their games by only three points. What seems to be the key factor in these games resulting in close losses and not close victories?
Chris Pokorny: First, let me clarify that the Browns have earned their 0-3 start. By that, I mean we are not looking at the three losses and saying, "this team could have easily been 1-2 or 2-1." Cleveland didn't have an answer for Antonio Brown in Week 1's loss to Pittsburgh, but that was the closest game the team was in. The big difference maker in that one was the Steelers' blocked punt for a touchdown on Cleveland's first drive of the season. This past week against the Colts, the Browns were stunningly down 28-7 to what I consider to be a bad football team in the first half. One big reason the final score was close was because the Colts did not take an aggressive offensive approach in the second half -- they were content to run the ball, bleed clock, and trust that the Browns couldn't make up a three-possession lead quick enough.
The key factor that has prevented the Browns from being as competitive as they could be in the past two games have been turnovers. Cleveland turned it over five times against the Ravens in Week 2 and three times against the Colts in Week 3. That includes several red zone opportunities too, and often times, the receiver was pretty wide open only to have the ball be thrown well behind them on a crossing route. If those opportunities were taken advantage of, then all of a sudden we're talking significant point swings (add a field goal or touchdown for Cleveland and subtract one for the opposition, and you can see how quickly a 7-14 point swing can take place). Such is life when you're dealing with a very young football team led by a rookie QB.
Scott Schulze: The Browns managed to deal their way into three 1st round picks in the 2017 NFL draft. Despite Myles Garrett missing the start of 2017, how have he, Jabrill Peppers, and David Njoku looked since being drafted? Is there reason for optimism that the Browns managed to grab three great players?
Chris Pokorny: Myles Garrett looked fantastic and even exceeded expectations of a No. 1 overall pick with how well he played in camp and the preseason. That's why his injury leading up to Week 1 was so demoralizing for fans, and without him, Cleveland doesn't have a pass rush. We're hoping the fact that he practiced on Thursday means that he can make a triumphant return on Sunday.
Jabrill Peppers had an exciting preseason, mostly due to his work on punt returns. On defense, Cleveland only allowed one touchdown all preseason, so there really wasn't an opportunity to evaluate Peppers (because preseason opponents' offenses were so bad or bland). During the regular season, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has decided to use Peppers as a single-high deep safety (i.e. 30 yards downfield) on nearly every play. The point is to take away the deep ball, but other teams have started taking advantage of what is an 11-on-10 situation for everything in front of Peppers. Additionally, Peppers has had two plays the past two games in which he whiffed as the last line of defense, turning field goal situations into walk-in touchdown type of situations.
David Njoku has a touchdown in each of his past two games, but the team was slow all of camp in working him into the lineup. Therefore, we haven't seen him be able to use much of his athleticism. Fans are optimistic about the season-long prospects of all three first-rounders, but there's still some waiting to do before they all come out of their shell.
Scott Schulze: Speaking of 2017 draft picks, second-round pick DeShone Kizer is the latest in the infamous sting of starting quarterbacks for the Browns since rejoining the NFL. I know it’s early, but at this point, do you think he’s just one more name in this list, or does he seem like a legitimate starter who could be the Browns quarterback for years to come?
Chris Pokorny: He's got the size, the arm, and the mobility that I like to see in an NFL quarterback. For being a rookie, he seems to be processing things OK. The top concern I have for him is his accuracy. It's one thing if he didn't anticipate a throw, or if he was fooled by a linebacker dropping into zone coverage. But there have been way too many crossing patterns that he has either thrown well ahead or behind the receiver, showing difficulty in consistently hitting them between the numbers. For an on-target quarterback, these would all be big plays with YAC potential. With Kizer being off-target, it's led to too many costly interceptions. But Kizer is going to get a really long leash from Browns fans this season. We want to see him work through the growing pains. Regarding job security, it also helps that there really are no other viable options on the roster at this point in time. He does not need to look over his shoulder like so many other Browns quarterbacks have had to do.
Scott Schulze: I think many outsiders were surprised in Week 1, when the Browns rush defense held Le’Veon Bell to 32 yards on ten carriers, and the Steelers to 35 yards on 17 carries. And the Browns backed that up in Week 3 by holding Frank Gore to 57 yards on 25 carries. What has been the key to this success, and if you were game planning against the Browns, how would you attack their rush defense?
Chris Pokorny: Sometimes, unforeseen things just seem to happen in the NFL. The Browns changed defensive coordinators and went to more of a base 4-3 look this year, but with the personnel the team added, no one really thought, "Hey, this Browns run defense is going to be great compared to the past several years!" We saw traces of the running defense being improved in the preseason, and it's carried over to the regular season. Part of that success is operating a defense that only plays with one deep safety. Part of it is a guy like rookie defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi, who has been a great run-stuffing role player. Even though the defensive ends (without Myles Garrett) have sucked at pass rushing, they've been good at not letting backs get to the outside. A combination of everything has come together, so I don't really suggest that teams attack the Browns on the ground. Right now, they've been vulnerable to the one-on-one match-ups against a team's best receiver (i.e. A.J. Green this week), and two tight ends on quick-hitting routes.
Scott Schulze: Bengals have won 5 in a row, all by double-digit margins. Do the Browns end that streak this week? Who wins this Sunday and what’s the score?
Chris Pokorny: Don't do this to me -- I already feel like a fool for picking the Browns to win the past two weeks. I don't have a score in mind yet, but with Cleveland being at home, the jolt of energy that a returning Myles Garrett can provide, and Cincinnati's offensive line woes, I'll go with the Browns to win again and just cross my fingers.