Friday, December 12, 2014

Not the same Bengals

So why are the Cincinnati Bengals barely hanging on to first place in the AFC North? Defense. Or lack of same. That’s why.

Mike Zimmer, the architect of a very solid Bengals defense the past several years, is now the head coach in Minnesota. And it appears he took with him the Bengals’ ability to stop the opposition with any regularity.

Yes, they bring an 8-4-1 record into their game Sunday in Cleveland against the Browns. And that tie, a 37-37 deadlock with Carolina in week six, is what separates them from the rest of the pack.

A sharp decline on the defensive side of the football is reason for concern for coach Marvin Lewis, whose club has scored eight less points overall than the opposition this season. In their four losses, the Bengals have been outscored, 136-41, by New England, Indianapolis, the Browns in week 10 and last Sunday by Pittsburgh.

Paul Guenther, promoted from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator to replace Zimmer, does not have his predecessor’s magic touch. Far from it, in fact. And that buoys hopes for the Browns in Johnny Manziel’s debut as a starter in the National Football League.

This season, for example, the Bengals have allowed the opposition 292 first downs in 13 games. Last season, they surrendered only 282. They have coughed up 1,694 rushing yards this season; 1,544 all last season. With three games left this season, the Bengals have permitted 3,305 passing yards compared to 3.623 last season.

And here’s the best – and most alarming – statistic for Bengals fans to chew on: Cincinnati has sacked opposing quarterbacks just 15 times this season. Last season, that number was 43. Defensive end Carlos Dunlap, who will face Browns offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz, has six of them.

One of the main reasons for the drop is the absence of inside linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who has missed most of the season with a knee injury. He played only five games, but the Bengals won three and tied one. Earlier this week, he was placed on season-ending injured reserve.

The Browns exposed the Bengals’ poor run defense by peeling off 170 yards on the ground in their nationally televised 24-3 victory on a Thursday night in the first game in Cincinnati in week 10.

All three running backs – Ben Tate, Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West – scored touchdowns. The Browns controlled the ball for 36 minutes and Brian Hoyer was a workmanlike 15-of-23 for 198 yards and no turnovers.

The Cleveland defense, meanwhile, began to hit its stride with that game, limiting the Bengals to just 165 total net yards, picking off three Andy Dalton passes – two by Buster Skrine – and recovering a fumble.

There is no question that defense is the Bengals’ Achilles’ heel and the switch to Manziel by coach Mike Pettine certainly gives Lewis, whose forte is defense, and his defensive coaching staff something else to think about.

Considering how successful Hoyer was against it earlier this season and in his lone game against the Bengals last season before tearing his ACL, the quicker and much more unpredictable Manziel presents new and quite different problems.

Expect the Bengals, as most teams do with rookies in the infancy of their careers, to throw as much at Manziel as possible. Not only from a pressure standpoint, but from a disguise standpoint as well. The best defense against a rookie quarterback is to crawl inside his head and make him think.

As for the Bengals on offense, Dalton is not having a typical Andy Dalton season. His completion percentage (63.7) is up slightly, but he has thrown only 15 touchdown passes in 13 games and averages an interception a game.

He is 4-3 against the Browns in his career, but has lost three of the last four games, including the last two in Cleveland. In those seven games, he has recorded double-digit passing days on three occasions.

His worst game by far this season was the loss to the Browns when he completed only 10 of 33 passes for a paltry 86 yards and the three picks and racked up just 11 first downs. However, he rallied his team to reel off a three-game win streak before the Steelers blasted them, 42-21, last Sunday.

In the latter loss, Dalton and wide receiver A. J. Green combined for 11 completions and 224 of the quarterback’s 302 yards and a touchdown. Green and Dalton hooked up only three times (in 10 targets) for just 23 yards in this season’s first meeting. You can bet Green will look for revenge against Browns cornerback Joe Haden.

It will be interesting to see how often the Bengals, who go to the ground 47% of the time, choose to run against the Browns. In their first meeting, rookie running back Jeremy Hill was held to only 55 yards in 12 carries, but was not impressed by the Cleveland defense.

“They were worse than I thought to be honest with you,” Hill said after that game. “They didn’t do anything special to me. I mean, respect to them, they won the game. But that’s all I’ll give them.” Sounds like a challenge to the Browns’ defense.

The question now becomes whether Hill will get a chance at backing up his words the second time around. In the last couple of weeks, he and Giovani Bernard have pretty much evenly split carries. Word out of Cincinnati now is that offensive coordinator Hue Jackson wants to place the run workload on just one back.

Whoever that is – or if that’s Jackson just messing with the Cleveland defensive brain trust – could pose a problem for the Browns’ game plan. They are two different types of runners. Hill is bigger and stronger; Bernard is quicker, slightly faster and a better pass receiver.

Even though the switch has been made at quarterback by the Browns, it would not surprise to see them stick to the formula that won the first game. Run the ball on offense, concentrate on shutting down the run on defense and make Dalton throw.

Manziel’s flashy manner, highly anticipated by the fans, probably will be tempered somewhat unless circumstances dictate something different. However, his propensity to take off and run with the ball gives the Cleveland ground game another dimension.

This will not be the lopsided game we saw in Cincinnati. It will be much closer with the Bengals bringing pressure from just about everywhere on defense to confuse and throw Manziel off his game. Play mind games with his reads by mixing and disguising coverages. His ability to adjust will be a key.

On defense, I don’t see the Browns shutting down Dalton a second time. Don’t expect the Dalton-Green combination to bomb again. Haden, who had his problems with Indianapolis’ T. Y. Hilton last Sunday, won’t have it any easier this Sunday.

In close games this season, the Bengals have been extremely competitive. That will continue Sunday. Dalton throws a pair of touchdown passes, Hill scores once and runs for 95 yards, the Cincinnati defense harasses Manziel into two interceptions and drops him twice, making his starting debut memorable and forgettable at the same time, and completely shuts down the Cleveland running game. Make it:

Bengals 21, Browns 10

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