When I was growing up many of the biggest stars in the NFL were running backs. Guys like Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, and Thurman Thomas were not part of a committee, they were feature backs.
These guys were workhorses for their teams. They would get the ball over and over relentlessly tiring out the defense until what started with 3 and 4-yard gains started to produce 5 and 6-yard gains, and then they would pop a big one.
Times of course always change and today’s NFL is different. Running backs wear down, and the best defenses no longer tire.
Why is that? It’s because in today’s NFL the best defenses don’t have 4 good starters on the defensive line, they have 8. One running back and the same 5 offensive linemen cannot wear them out like Smith, Sanders, and Thomas once did because top NFL defenses are like hockey teams who can now bring in a fresh new line that is just as good as the first group.
The Bengals went into their first matchup with the Cleveland Browns beaten up on the defensive line and as a result the Browns were able to grind the defense down until running the ball on their final drive was a piece of cake.
Unfortunately, the Bengals enter Round 2, still hurting on the defensive line.
Let’s talk about that first matchup.
The Browns invested in their offensive line heavily this offseason, adding one tackle in free agent Jack Conklin and drafting another with Jedrick Wills Jr.
Stopping the run was bound to be a tough matchup for the embattled Bengals defensive line. In the 1st half, the Browns averaged 4.5 yards-per-carry. This is not very good, but it’s not fatal.
The Browns started the 2nd half with a long 14-play drive. It nearly ended on a 23-yard touchdown run from Nick Chubb, but a review of the play made it a 22-yard run to set up 1st and Goal.
The defense was showing signs of fatigue on that drive, but fought through, making a goal line stand. The Browns attempted 3 runs and a pass but the Bengals kept them out of the end zone and gave the ball back to their offense.
The Bengals trailed by 8 at the time and this was a huge potential momentum swing.
The offense got a 1 first down, but a strip sack a few plays later gave the Browns 1st and Goal from the 1 again. Whether it was the physical impact of the long drive and short turn around or the mental “here we go again” draining them, they could not repeat the goal line stop of the previous drive. The Browns scored on a 1-yard run on 2nd Down.
Just like that, momentum swung violently back towards the Browns.
When the Browns got the ball again, they went back to grind the game out with the ground game running the ball 5 times for 35 yards. This defensive front was cooked, but an interception by William Jackson III bailed them out. The Bengals scored a touchdown on the ensuing drive to put them within 5 points.
The Browns got the ball back with just under 6 minutes to play. The defense needed a stop, but they were done. The Browns moved quickly down the field for the decisive score, with notable runs of 26 yards and 33 yards.
It hurts losing guys like D.J. Reader, but the secondary impact on the team’s depth is almost as bad. Defensive line may be the most important position to have great depth. It prevents teams from being able to wear you down running the ball and gives you a plethora of pass rushers. The team was already thin on the defensive line, but injuries to Sam Hubbard and multiple defensive tackles have put them in a bad spot.
Game script is huge in this game. The offense needs to come out strong and get an early lead. This will force the Browns to pass the ball and prevent them from wearing down the thin defensive line.
Of course the Bengals took an early lead against the Colts and then proceeded to struggle in pass defense last week. They need to have a better pass rush than they did a week ago and vary their coverages in order to force Baker Mayfield to make mistakes.
They will give up points, so they need to be able create turnovers to give Joe Burrow and the offense more opportunities.