Friday, October 21, 2016

Cincinnati misery?

There are few National Football League teams more dangerous than one playing well below its standards coming back home following an embarrassing loss.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet the Browns’ next opponent, the Cincinnati Bengals, as in the 2-4 Cincinnati Bengals. The New England Patriots last Sunday drilled the we-are-no-longer-the-Bungles, 35-17.

The Bengals, highly favored by many at the beginning of the 2016 to repeat as champions of the AFC North, trail Pittsburgh and Baltimore after six games, but there is no way they sink to the division’s basement.

No, that residence is held securely more and more by the game by the Browns, who haul a nine-game losing streak, including the first six this season, into Sunday’s get together.

What seems to be the Bengals’ problem? Well, they have trouble scoring (the Browns have scored four more points) and allow more than 24 points a game. Only two AFC teams have a worse point differential (-36) than Cincinnati. One is the New York Jets at -69. You know the other.

Last season, the Bengals won the division comfortably with a 12-4 record, sporting the AFC’s third-highest scoring offense with 419 points – they are on pace for just 291 this season – and the stingiest scoring defense in the conference. Their +140 point differential was second to New England.

It has been a frustrating 2016 for Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, who confessed earlier this week that he misses Hue Jackson, his offensive coordinator the last two seasons and a member of his staff for the last four. “I miss the hell out of him,” he told the local media.

Why the sudden dropoff with the offense? Could it be Jackson’s absence has made that much of a difference since bolting north to head the Browns? Not really.

Losing wide receivers Mohamed Sanu (to Atlanta, where he has 21 receptions for 242 yards and two touchdowns) and Marvin Jones (to Detroit, where he has caught 29 passes for 529 yards and four    
(Correction: In Monday’s Monday leftovers, I stated losing the first seven games of the season would tie the team mark set by the expansion 1999 team. The 1975 Browns lost the first nine games of the season under first-year coach Forrest Gregg before winning three of the next five to finish 3-11. The current Browns need three more losses to tie that futility mark and four to establish a dubious record.)
scores) in free agency didn’t help quarterback Andy Dalton. And then there’s the lingering back and ankle injuries that have  sidelined tight end Tyler Eifert.

Dalton still has Pro Bowl wideout A.J. Green, who checks in with 42 grabs for 606 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but not much else Not unless you consider Brandon LaFell’s three scoring receptions, which represent half of Dalton’s touchdown total.

He also isn’t helped by a running game that has gained just 446 yards (not including the 93 he has picked up scrambling) in six games under new coordinator Ken Zampese, who definitely favors the forward pass.

Of their 125 first downs, only 31 belong to the running game with 81 gained through the air (opposition penalties added 13 more). An amazing 80% of the Bengals’ 2,189 total offensive yards have been produced by Dalton’s aerial circus.

Their biggest problem is getting into the end zone. They have done so only 10 times in the first six games and cashed in only 42% of the time they enter the red zone. Last season, they checked in at 65% in the red zone with Jackson calling the shots.

After squeaking past the New York Jets in the season opener, the Bengals have dropped four of the last five games. One of the reasons very well could be the Cincinnati offensive line, which has allowed 19 sacks and forced Dalton to run on 25 other occasions.

The remedy to the losing woes? A quick look at the schedule at this juncture of the season, especially after the first six games, and seeing the Browns in week seven ostensibly provides much-needed relief from the rigors of the schedule.

The Bengals have easily handled the Browns the last three meetings, outscoring them, 98-13. But since the Browns returned to the National Football League in 1999, they have knocked off the Bengals 12 times in 34 games, including a 5-12 record in Cincy.

Now that doesn’t seem like much, but it oddly is by far the Browns’ hest record against an AFC North team since reentering the league as an expansion team in 1999.

They are 9-26 against the Baltimore Ravens (4-12 in Baltimore) since then and a miserable 6-29 against Pittsburgh with only two victories in 18 visits to the Steel City. Those are not typos.

So it appears, relatively speaking, the Browns are not nearly as intimidated by the Bengals on the road as they are by the Steelers and Ravens. And there are two more of those visits coming up later in the season.

The big question for the Browns this week is who will manage the offensive huddle. Josh McCown is limited in practice about a month removed from suffering a broken collarbone in the game two loss to Baltimore and likely to remain idle for at least one more week.

That means Cody Kessler most likely draws his faith straight starting assignment. Considering this was supposed to be a learning season for the rookie, he has acquitted himself well despite the club’s winless start. He has completed 80 of his 122 passes for 865 yards, four touchdowns and only one interception.

He came out of Southern Cal noted mostly for his accuracy – he completes 65.6% of his throws – and the ability to diagnose defenses. But his average throwing arm allows opposing defenses to squeeze the field, commit to stopping the run and dare him to stretch it.

Throwing to a corps of receivers dominated mostly by youth doesn’t help. And this Sunday, he might have to work without Terrelle Pryor, the club’s most productive wideout who yanked a hamstring in last week’s loss in Tennessee.

It’s possible the Browns’ starting lineup will include rookie wide receivers Rashard Higgins and Ricardo Louis with Jordan Payton, another first-year man, seeing significant action for the first time this season. The Bengals’ secondary surrenders nearly 260 yards a game and has picked off just four throws.

But the Cincinnati defense has sacked opposing quarterbacks 13 times – Carlos Dunlap and Will Clarke have seven of them – and Kessler is coming off a six-sack beating last Sunday against the Titans.

The Browns’ offensive line is not any better this week than it was last week, so expect Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther to dial up a variety of blitzes and make Kessler uncomfortable.

If the Bengals lose this one, odds of making the postseason dwindle dramatically. And running backs Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard are too good to be held down all season. Look for big games from both.

Also look for the Browns’ infantry problems to continue. After leading the NFL in rushing after week four, the running game has ground out just 67 yards in the last two losses, Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson Jr. have combined for 57 of those yards in 30 carries.

Jackson clearly has major work to do in fixing that aspect of the offense. If the misery continues one more week, Kessler is going to have plenty of company in the backfield.

And let’s not forget the situation in the secondary, where Joe Haden is questionable at best to cover Green, and free safety Jordan Poyer is done for the season after that crunching hit on a punt against the Titans.

Dalton tortures the secondary all afternoon, mainly because the Cincinnati offensive line handles the Cleveland defensive front, allowing the quarterback all the time he needs to shred the defense.

Green scores a pair of touchdowns, Hill runs for 103 yards and scores once, Bernard hauls in a short pass for a score, Dalton throws for 333 yards and enjoys watching his defense shut down Kessler and his crew, sacking him four more times. Cody Parkey’s two field goals account for all the Browns’ points. Make it:

Bengals 31, Browns 6