A depleted roster, an uneven spread and a lethargic fanbase aside, the Bengals have a divisional game to play less than two days before Christmas.
The 91st meeting between the Bengals and Browns favors the northern-most team heavily, and with just two weeks until January, Cleveland is still thinking about the playoffs... this year’s playoffs, not next year’s.
In order for that to remain a slim possibility, they need to sweep the Bengals for the first time since 2002, a year when Marvin Lewis wasn’t yet the head coach of the team. If the Bengals want to avoid that, these five players need to play the game of their lives.
John Ross and Alex Erickson
A Bengals offense without A.J. Green was scary enough. A Bengals offense without A.J. Green AND Tyler Boyd (not to mention Andy Dalton and Tyler Eifert) is terrifying to contemplate. But that’s what we’ll be seeing against the Browns — and most likely — the Steelers.
With Boyd on the field, Ross and Erickson were third and eighth, respectively, in targets since Jeff Driskel took over at quarterback four weeks ago. With their combined 24 targets, they produced 76 yards and two touchdowns on 12 receptions, most of that coming from Ross.
The Bengals can’t hand the ball off to Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard 50 times a game; they need to be able to throw the ball at least a little bit. Ross and Erickson will start alongside Cody Core and will likely have more targets come their way as a result. How they handle the increased workload could have a positive effect on them they way it had on Boyd this time last year, but they need to produce first.
When the Bengals played the Browns earlier this year, we were given an unfortunate reminder of what it was like to watch Cedric Ogbuehi play left tackle when he was forced to come in for Jake Fisher, who was only playing because Glenn himself was hurt. Ogbeuhi was dominated by Browns’ defensive end Myles Garrett on several occasions, which wasn’t anything new, and Glenn’s value was displayed perfectly in front of our very eyes.
This will be Glenn’s first game against the Bengals’ in-state rivals, and his first game against Garrett as well. If he plays anything close to the level he played at last week, it should be a fun matchup to watch all game long.
On tape, Willis bounced back from that dreadful Ravens game in Week 11 (where he got ran over near the goal-line) with a decent performance against the Browns a week later. Since then, he’s been nearly invisible.
Since that Ravens game, he’s averaged just over 25 snaps per game, which trails both Michael Johnson (29) and Sam Hubbard’s (28.5) averages in that timeframe. This correlates to the level of play from Willis relative to both Johnson and Hubbard as well, and that’s not a good thing.
The Browns’ offensive tackles are the (relative) weak links on their offensive line, so if Willis wants to re-establish some clout before his disappointing second-year comes to and end, this is a good opportunity. Because right now, Hubbard looks like the clear heir to Johnson’s spot as the “starter” in their base defense.
Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield did his best to spread the ball around when he diced up the Bengals’ defense for 258 yards and four touchdowns, but tight end David Njoku did end up as the team’s leading receiver for that game. Njoku tore apart the Bengals’ linebackers — specifically Jordan Evans and Vontaze Burfict — and since then, the Bengals have been holding tight ends in check.
Now, the Bengals must play Njoku one more time, and they’ll likely have Williams try to contain him this time as Evans will be out and Burfict may not play either. Last week, Williams was the one to go up against Raiders’ tight end Jared Cook, and he managed to keep Cook from breaking off any big plays.
Browns offensive coordinator will surely do a better job of scheming Njoku open down the field against the Bengals defense, but Williams will likely be the man tasked with countering that from happening.