As the Browns prepare to host their instate rival this week, they have the most unique challenge they have faced this year which will put pressure on the players but also defensive coordinator Ray Horton and the defensive coaching staff as to how they can counter Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. So far this year, the game plan that has required the most preparation to stop one player has been this past week against the Minnesota Vikings. While they certainly did not shut down Adrian Peterson, they did force the game into Christian Ponder’s hands which is what they were hoping to do. The Bengals offense has three mismatches as soon as they get off the bus in the form of wide receiver A.J. Green and tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert.
A.J. Green is as good a wide receiver as there is in the NFL right now and while Joe Haden will certainly be covering him from start to finish, the question the Browns defense has to ask themselves is if Haden will need safety help and even if he does, do the Browns have the ability to give him any. The Bengals have such an impressive collection of weapons that the Browns will not have any defensive resources to waste.
The tight end has been a position the last several years for Browns defenses as well as the NFL in general. It is tough to defend 6’5” 250lb+ players who can run no matter who is on the defense. Kyle Rudolph caught 5 passes for 28 yards, which was good enough to have the second most catches on the team behind Peterson, who had 6. The Browns are not going to complain with that type of effort from a tight end.
In their first three games, Gresham has caught 15 passes on just 18 targets this year for 128 yards. Eifert has been more of a vertical threat catching 9 passes on 12 targets for 120 yards. They have combined for 12 first downs. Getting 82 yards and 4 first downs per game from the tight end position is definitely not something to take lightly and the more this season progresses, the amount they use those two is only likely to increase.
Horton has to come up with a way to try to cover those two on the field at the same time along with Green. It could be that T.J. Ward mans up one while Craig Robertson or D’Qwell Jackson covers another or some combination of box coverage or zone to try to counter those two. It would not be a surprise if they have some situations where they use Barkevious Mingo to cover one of them.
The other option for the Browns is doing what Horton loves to do, which is to try to get to the quarterback before he has time to find their receivers. It is risky and can get them beat but it is more in line with their DNA as a defense.
Whether a product of the other weapons the Bengals have or his own development as a player, Mohamed Sanu has turned into an effective second receiver for the Bengals. He is a strong, tough receiver that just finds a way to make plays. Buster Skrine will draw him in coverage this week and hopes to build on a solid game against the Vikings.
The Bengals have a solid offensive line for the most part but if there is a weakness that stands out, it is Kyle Cook at center. That only looks that much more problematic for them when he is facing up against Phil Taylor. Taylor has shown he can be a great run stopping force but he can also rush the passer and that is going to be extremely important to get pressure on Andy Dalton this week to force him to make decisions quickly and get rid of the football. Dalton is a solid quarterback but he is not an upper echelon passer and if they can make him uncomfortable, it can short circuit their offense.
Last but certainly not least is the Bengals running game. They do have a two-headed monster in BenJarvus Green-Ellis and rookie Giovanni Bernard that can bring completely different looks. Green-Ellis gets behind his pads and tries to power his way into yardage while Bernard is incredibly agile and quick while still being strong. He is also an effective receiving threat. The more this season progresses, the higher the percentage of touches that are likely going to go to Bernard but in the meantime, the Browns have two distinct running styles to try to stop.
The Bengals put so much pressure on defenses with all of the weapons they have. Their big question is determining if Dalton is the right guy to get all of these different players the football, but being able to have Green, Gresham, Eifert, Sanu and Bernard on the field in passing situations is extremely taxing to stop in terms of how to cover it. It will be interesting to see how Horton opts to try to defend it and if he holds back some pressure in favor of coverage or if he can find a way to make plays look covered, even if only briefly, while sending the house at Dalton. This is a big test for Horton and an opportunity to show just how valuable he is.