If transitive properties applied to the NFL, then the Cleveland Browns would be better than the Kansas City Chiefs. Alternatively, we get interesting anomalies between teams that have equally interesting contrasts.
The Cincinnati Bengals have not beaten the Browns in a meaningful game since... a while. They last came out on top at the end of 2019, when they had already locked up the pick they’d use on Joe Burrow. You’d have to go back to 2017 for the Bengals’ last victory in the Battle of Ohio while they were still in playoff contention, and even then, they were not a great team by any measure.
A five-game winning streak for Cleveland in the rivalry boggles the minds of most Bengals fans, but they’ve simply played better in each of those games. For the tides to turn, the opposite will have to be true. Here are the matchups the Bengals need to win for that to transpire.
DJ Reader vs. Hjalte Froholdt
Everyone knows the Browns are on their second quarterback, but did you know they’ve already been through two centers as well? Preseason starter Nick Harris was placed on Injured Reserve back in August. Ethan Pocic, who was Pro Football Focus’ second-best center in blocking grade, injured his knee on the second play of their Week 11 game against the Buffalo Bills.
All of that has led to Froholdt taking over, who’s allowed seven pressures in 121 pass blocking snaps since Pocic’s injury. For reference, Ted Karras has given up 14 in 535 passing snaps.
Enter one of the best pass-rushing nose tackles in Reader, who’s reputation as a run defender overshadows his effectiveness pushing the pocket. The best way to ensure a struggling quarterback continues to struggle is throwing interior pressure at his face. Sometimes the game is as simple as that.
Germaine Pratt vs. David Njoku
If not for an untimely knee injury, Njoku would be having one of the best seasons for a tight end. He’s seventh in receiving yards at the position despite missing three games, one being the Browns’ previous win over the Bengals. But his recent history against Cincinnati isn’t too promising. He’s had 11, 18, and 20 yards in his last three games in the rivalry.
Game-planning for athletic tight ends is not new for Cincinnati. They just got done prying the ball away from Travis Kelce and holding him to four receptions for just 56 yards and that fumble, caused by Pratt. The fourth-year linebacker has become the de facto zone defender that ends up taking on these players over the middle since Tre Flowers just isn’t being used very much nowadays. He’ll be seeing Njoku often in-between the hashes.
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Ja’Marr Chase vs. Martin Emerson
Chase vs. Denzel Ward may draw bigger headlines, but Ward’s not playing like the top corner up in northeast Ohio. It’s the rookie third-round pick.
Cleveland has to be smart about this. Emerson has the ninth-highest coverage grade in man coverage this year, but do you know how many receivers have a higher yards per route run against man coverage than Chase? The answer is zero. Chase has the upper hand in a close battle, and that should limit the amount of times the Browns play that way.
Surely Ward will see Chase a few times in this game, but Emerson is the one to watch out for now and in the coming years.
Joe Mixon vs. Tony Fields II
The return of Mixon should look like he never left. We last saw him trample an objectively stout defensive front, which is what the Browns do not have, as a matter of fact. It may not giving him the ball continuously right out of the gate, but when the 60 minutes expire, expect to see a stat-line considerably better than the last time he faced this team.
Cleveland will be shorthanded at linebacker with Sione Takitaki now out with a torn ACL. Takitaki nearly beat Cincinnati all by himself last time they played with his 13 tackles and strip-sack on Burrow. In his place will be Fields, a second-year player who’s been up-and-down against the run this year.