Friday, September 29, 2017

One less winless team

If absence makes the heart grow fonder, then rest assured Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton misses Hue Jackson in a far out way.

Dalton, who will lead his Bengals into Cleveland Sunday, hasn’t been nearly the same solid quarterback since Jackson left as his coordinator to take the head-coaching job with the Browns early last year.

He led the Bengals to a 41-19 record when Jackson was on Cincinnati’s offensive coaching staff, the first two seasons as running backs coach and then two more as offensive coordinator.

Dalton thrived and clearly responded well to Jackson’s coaching. He threw for 14,610 yards and 104 touchdowns in that span. So it was interesting to see how Jackson’s departure would affect his performance. 

The jury is in. After 19 games, it hasn’t been pretty. In fact, it has been downright disappointing. The Bengals missed the playoffs last season for the first time since 2010 and are winless in three games this season.

In 19 games since Jackson left, Dalton has thrown for 4,812 yards and only 20 touchdowns. The Bengals are 6-12-1 and heading in a direction that conceivably could see the end of coach Marvin Lewis’ 15-year reign in Cincinnati.

Coincidence? Maybe. But the Bengals bring one of the most anemic attacks in the National Football League to Cleveland.

How anemic? Try 33 points, 12 by placekicker Randy Bullock, who accounted for all of the Bengals points (nine) in the first two games. Dalton & Co. have accounted for just two touchdowns, both in last Sunday’s loss in Green Bay.

How about a meager 47 first downs? Or a ground game that averages just 90 yards a game. It became so frustrating early on, Lewis fired offensive coordinator Ken Zampese because of what was reported as a “near mutiny” by players on that side of the ball after game two and turned the playcalling duties over to Bill Lazor.

Sunday’s meeting will feature teams clearly frustrated by their start out of the 2017 gate. Both have problems protecting their quarterback, running the football, catching the football (except for the peerless A. J. Green of the Bengals) with defenses that have problems stopping the forward pass.

The Browns wish they had someone like Green to haul in some of DeShone Kizer’s passes. The veteran wide receiver, who has had some classic battles with Joe Haden in the past, caught 10 passes last Sunday for 111 yards and a score, upping his 2017 total to 20 receptions for 252 yards.

He is basically the focal point of the Bengals’ aerial game. It’s him and then everyone else. Other Bengals receivers have combined for 37 catches and 354 yards

Count on Dalton targeting Green at least a dozen times Sunday, if not more, against a Cleveland secondary that has allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete an astonishing 70.2% of their passes. The Bengals’ secondary checks in with a 62% rate.

The only way that percentage improves against the Bengals depends on how effective the inconsistent Cleveland pass rush is against a bad Cincinnati offensive line, which has permitted 11 sacks. Defensive ends Emmanuel Ogbah and Carl Nassib have been awful at best.

As a result, don’t be surprised to see a lot of cover two from defensive coordinator Gregg Williams with unexpected and exotic blitzes arriving from different parts of the field. Jabrill Peppers also needs to play a lot closer to the line of scrimmage, maybe even as an occasional box safety.

Key to this one is how well the running games of these teams perform. Both are struggling, making it difficult for their quarterbacks to be effective. Neither team relies heavily on the run game to set up the pass game.

Bengals rookie Joe Mixon has been a disappointment with only 107 yards in three games as the feature back. Jeremy Hill, who has had three (and nearly a fourth) 100-yard games against Cleveland in six games, has been relegated to spot duty for the most part.

It would appear the Bengals mistakenly allowed offensive left tackle Andrew Whitworth and guard Kevin Zeitler, their two best linemen, to escape via free agency. Whitworth is now with the Los Angeles Rams and Zeitler is in Cleveland.

The Browns can’t get the ground game in first gear, either, and show no signs of busting out unless Jackson decides to feature Duke Johnson Jr. as his main back behind DeShone Kizer and an offensive line that has disappointed thus far.

The Bengals showed signs last Sunday that they were starting to emerge from their offensive funk. They were a lot closer to winning their first game of the season than the Browns.

They shot out to a surprising 21-7 halftime lead over the Packers in Green Bay before falling in overtime after the Packers rallied to tie the game in the last 20 seconds of regulation.

The Cincinnati defense will be buoyed by the return of veteran linebacker Vontaze Burfict. The volatile and highly combustible Burfict missed the first three games while serving a suspension for an illegal hit on Kansas City Chiefs fullback Anthony Sherman during the exhibition season.

The Browns catch a break, though, with the news Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert, who has scored five touchdowns in five games against them and is a Dalton favorite, is out indefinitely with back problems.

Cleveland, which has lost the last five games in this series and six of the last seven, has not come close to winning in the first three games this season. (And no, last Sunday's three-point loss in Indianapolis was not that close.) The Browns are still looking put a complete game together where all three elements played well.

In what is being widely considered the softest part of the schedule (winless Indianapolis, winless Cincinnati and one-victory New York Jets in a row), they show few but fleeting signs of taking advantage.

If they don’t take advantage now, it probably will be too late later on when the schedule becomes considerably tougher. No telling where that might lead with regard to the final record.

It seems everything the Browns now is in the back-to-the-drawing-board stage, which is not what fans want to see three games into the season. Correcting mistakes of a major nature should not require continuous correcting by now. The fact this is a very young and inexperienced team mitigates against success on a consistent basis.

This might the first time these two teams have met this far into the season with nary a victory between them. The big difference is the Bengals, based solely on their last game, is a team on the rise. The Browns, on the other hand, are scuffling just to be competitive.

In a game that most likely will be dominated by the passing game, the edge goes to the Bengals. Why? Better offense. Dalton vs. Kizer: No-brainer. Green is far and away better than any of the Browns’ receivers. The defensive edge also goes to the Bengals. Why? Burfict’s return. Make it:

Bengals 27, Browns 14

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