Another Bengals blast?
The Cincinnati Bengals are having a terrible 2017 season, struggling at 4-6. In Cleveland with the Browns, that would be considered progress.
The two AFC North rivals meet up again Sunday down in Cincinnati, where the Browns will attempt to stop a road losing streak that has reached 17 games and a 12-gamer against the division. Based on what happened in Cleveland in week four, that will be a problem.
After losing their first three games, which sort of set the tone for the season, the Bengals came up north and handed the Browns a 31-7 shellacking, which constituted season benchmarks for most points scored and fewest points allowed in a game.
While the Browns have wallowed in the murky winless waters of the National Football League now for 11 straight games, the Bengals have managed to scratch out their four victories without a running game.
But when it comes to playing against the Browns, they become an entirely different team. In their latest six-game winning streak against Cleveland, the Bengals have outscored the Browns, 183-47.
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, in particular, loves loves loves playing against them. In those six games, he has thrown 13 touchdown passes and only one interception. He has gone five straight games against Cleveland without a pick.
In the mauling earlier this season, Dalton was 25-of-30, connected on four touchdown passes and strafed the Cleveland secondary for 286 yards. The only Cleveland score arrived only after coach Hue Jackson mercifully yanked rookie DeShone Kizer for Kevin Hogan midway through the fourth quarter.
The victory spurred a 3-1 run for the Bengals before reality set in with two losses in the next three games. All the while, what ailed the offense continued to make it a one-trick pony.
If it weren’t for Dalton running the show, the Bengals’ offense would mirror the Browns’. Their puny ground attack makes Cleveland’s look good by comparison, which gives you some idea of just how bad it is.
The Browns have rushed for 1,012 yards this season. The Bengals check in with 680 yards in 10 games. It has produced a meager 39 first downs and led to a philosophy that now calls for passes 65% of the time. Clearly an anomaly since they average ball ownership only 27 minutes a game.
By comparison, Isaiah Crowell of the Browns has rushed for 459 yards and two of the team’s eight touchdowns on the ground as fans correctly believe he’s having an awful season.
That’s why the only way the Browns can avoid another season sweep by the Bengals is by not shutting down the running game. That seems to be shutting itself down, no thanks to an offensive line that has also given up 29 sacks.
It’s all about shutting down Dalton. Get him off the field as early and often as possible. Win first down. Create plenty of second- and third-and-long situations, something the Browns didn’t do in the first game when the Bengals owned the ball for 35 minutes.
If given time to throw, and the Browns sacked him thrice, Dalton has quality receivers in A. J. Green, who has 48 receptions, 743 yards and six touchdowns; Brandon LaFell, who has caught 34 passes for 340 yards and a pair of scores; and tight end Tyler Kroft, who burned the Browns for touchdowns twice in the first game.
How defensive coordinator Gregg Williams schemes this game will be a major key in the outcome. It will be interesting to see what adjustments he has made after the embarrassment earlier this season.
In last week’s loss at home against Jacksonville, Williams played mostly zone in the secondary with the corners playing soft against the wide receivers. But that was against a below average quarterback in Blake Bortles. Dalton is quite different.
If Williams somehow uncovers the secret of knocking off the Bengals, he also must get some help from the other side of the ball. The offense has to cooperate. The way it has performed under Kizer makes that a dicey situation at best, though.
One would think Jackson knows how to throttle Dalton, having been the quarterback’s coordinator for two seasons before heading up to Cleveland. He should know his weaknesses, what makes him uncomfortable. That obviously has not worked the last three games.
The lack of consistency on both sides of the football has been the chief contributor to the constant losing in Cleveland. With few exceptions, the offense has been miserable this season. And in those few times it did step up, the defense, which has been the biggest surprise this season, did not show up.
What shaped the Bengals’ earlier victory besides Dalton was the defense. Kizer had the huddle in 10 of the 11 possessions. Six of those 10 lasted five plays or less, which meant the Cleveland defense had precious little time to rest.
If the Browns do not sustain drives this time, the result will not be much different than in week four. The Bengals, who average just 15 first downs a game, racked up 10 more than the average in the initial meeting because the Cleveland attack was neutered.
If the Browns cannot generate enough of a pass rush to cause Dalton to play contrary to his recent successes against them, it will be yet another long afternoon as the season becomes increasingly more frustrating.
If they cannot generate turnovers against a team that has turned over the football 17 times this season, that long afternoon will get even longer.
And that is when you notice the Browns’ turnover ratio of –17, the worst in the NFL as they battle the Denver Broncos for that honor. That includes a league-leading 28 giveaways, 20 of which were interceptions, another league leader (by far).
And so for those reasons, it is difficult to even think the Browns have a chance in this one. It will take a miracle of biblical proportions to sneak out of Cincinnati with a victory.
The heart says maybe, but it’s a weak maybe. The head says no way and it’s not weak. It again will be every bit as homely as the results of the last six games between these two rivals in an era where the word rivalry has little or no meaning with regard to the Browns. Make it:
Bengals 31, Browns 6