The Cleveland Browns are getting set to host the Cincinnati Bengals this week and the Bengals have a strong defense much like the Miami Dolphins did, so figuring out how to beat them and score points will not be an easy task for Norv Turner and Rob Chudzinski. They have opted for Brian Hoyer, so the quarterback position should make quick decisions and they have Josh Gordon coming off of an incredible performance along with Jordan Cameron to create plays. The running game has to be more productive and this is not a great team to do that with, but they have do appear to have some help coming in Shawn Lauvao. The emphasis for this week has to be on protection and finding a way to make the Bengals defensive line out of the game as much as possible and take advantage of some weaknesses as well as injuries the Browns will have to try to capitalize on this week.
There is a lot of good news for the running game this week. First, Willis McGahee cannot play any worse than he did last week. McGahee had 9 yards on 8 carries last week and it was not terribly surprising that he struggled given that he was signed off of the street and having to pick up the offense, but it was a surprise that he struggled just that much. Additionally, everything seems to suggest that Lauvao will be back and able to start at right guard, thus ending Oniel Cousins’ reign of terror there. . Never has a more average interior lineman been so heralded as Lauvao is, but Cousins was just that bad. Cousins was not a guard and asked to play a spot he was not familiar with, but it was brutal and it really was brutal. Competent, average play would be a huge improvement. The question is how well can Lauvao adjust and get comfortable.
The Bengals defensive line just keeps coming. Starting with Geno Atkins and they legitimately go seven deep. It would be eight if not for a season ending injury to Robert Geathers but they have Margus Hunt who they would like to see live up to his physical potential. The Bengals have strength up the middle and a ton of length on the outside that allows them to play the run and rush the passer effectively. The key is finding a way to neutralize Atkins as best as they can, which is easier said than done as he is arguably the best defensive tackle in the league.
The Browns need to find a way to avoid giving up on the running game entirely because that would allow the Bengals defensive line to pin their ears back and just try to get to Hoyer. Even if is not working, they need to keep going with it not unlike what the Ravens did when they played the Browns. The yardage was relatively mediocre but the Browns had to stop it and it created opportunities for Joe Flacco and he was able to make enough plays to lead them to the win.
The linebackers on the Bengals are relatively lopsided. They can play the run but they really struggle against the pass and it is curious why the Bengals did not do more to address that issue. Rey Maualuga has never been a good pass defender but he is effective against the run for the most part. James Harrison, whatever he has left, rushes the passer or plays dirty. There was no rush for teams to sign him when he was released by the Steelers and the Bengals are finding out why. He just does not give them much. The best linebacker the Bengals have overall and against the pass is Vontaze Burfict at weak side linebacker. He is an incredibly talented agitator that also plays right up on the line when it comes to the rules. It seemed as though the Bengals would get another weak side backer and move him into the middle, but that has not happened yet.
As a result, the Browns can try to take advantage of this group when it comes to the passing game with quick passes and using Jordan Cameron on that area of the field. Especially when they can get him matched up with Harrison or Maualuga, they could look to get him the ball quickly on the strong side with Burfict on the other side of the formation. The question is whether or not Mike Zimmer, the defensive coordinator for the Bengals will just have Burfict follow him around and have him cover Cameron or if they will want to use box coverage with their backers and safeties. The other area the Browns could try to take advantage is with play action and screen passes. Play action requires the appearance of a decent running threat so that may not be viable, but they may be able to catch the Bengals attacking up field and take advantage in the screen game.
The Bengals have a talented secondary. They also have an injury riddled secondary. Corners Leon Hall and Dre Kirkpatrick and safety Reggie Nelson all look unlikely to play in this game and none of them practiced on Thursday. If they cannot play, rookie Shawn Williams is the next man up at strong safety while the Bengals would have Terrence Newman, who is one of their starting corners along with either Adam ‘Pacman’ Jones and Brandon Ghee as their second and third options. And if one of those guys gets hurt, the Bengals are in a world of hurt.
Josh Gordon has been the guy when it comes to getting the Browns offense going and the Bengals being left with Newman to cover him would not be an awful scenario for them. That would leave Jones and Ghee to try to cover Davone Bess and Greg Little. Bess is coming off of a good game and Little is coming off of a competent one, but these matchups could create even more opportunities for them.
In terms of matchups, the Browns might like their chances against the Bengals secondary, but they have to find a way to protect Hoyer from getting decked by any number of talented pass rush threats. It is good that Hoyer tends to get rid of the ball quickly which can hopefully neutralize some of that pass rush, but he needs to avoid misreading coverage and throwing a pass to a defender he does not see coming.
The Browns are probably going to want to keep finding ways to continue feeding Gordon and Cameron the ball. Those are the two players that have clearly shown the most in terms of being able to make plays. The Bengals are trying to scramble enough healthy bodies to counter them. Their best plan of attack may be attempting to disguise coverages hoping to fool Hoyer while they bring the house and try to get him before he can decipher the defense and make the right throw. They cannot give up on the run and become predictable or it plays right into the strength of the Bengals. This game is likely going to be decided in the trenches with the Browns offensive line and the Bengals defense line.