As the Cleveland Browns are now at 4-6, they have beaten one team with a winning record to this point. They have also played that team twice; the Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals look like they are in extremely good shape and should win the AFC North and make the playoffs, making them an interesting measuring stick for the Browns and where they are as a team and where they have to improve as a team. The indication from these two games as the Browns’ defense is playoff ready but the offense has some obvious problems that are going to hold them back until some or all of them are addressed.
Throw the insanity of the second quarter with this latest Bengals game out of the equation. The fact that the Bengals scored an improbable 31 points in one quarter of play is not an indication that the team is not ready for the playoffs. Certainly, the special teams issues have to be cleaned up but that is an aberration in the long term as that unit has not been a problem this season.
The Bengals have an extremely talented offense in terms of their overall personnel. They have one of the deepest and most talented rosters in the league even if they are not the most productive on offense. Kevin Zeitler being out of the game was huge and Andy Dalton is basically the keystone to their offense. They are as good as he allows them to be. Nevertheless, the Browns show how good they can be, even in situations where they are matched up best on best.
The Browns were able to get pressure up the middle and aside from Zeitler being out, Kyle Cook is probably the weakest link on the line and Phil Taylor has really had a lot of success getting penetration into the backfield in this game and in the first matchup. They have been able to generate pressure at times with Jabaal Sheard having a good effort in this game.
As an overall run defense, the Bengals rushed for 165 yards between the two games on 51 carries at an average of 3.31 yards per carry. That is pretty solid. The Bengals really want to be able to rely on that running game to set up the pass. That running game should improve as they transition to using Giovani Bernard more, but it is certainly an average the Browns can give up and win.
The passing defense against the Bengals has been pretty overwhelming. They have given up some plays, but they have really made it difficult for the Bengals to have any consistency in that area of the game. In the two games combined, the Bengals have passed for just 324 yards with 25 of those yards coming on a Mohamed Sanu pass. It is important to point out that in the second game, the Bengals did not need to pass as the game wore on, but in the early part of the game, Joe Haden had two interceptions and scored on one of them. Buster Skrine caught the interception that ultimately sealed the victory in the first game.
There are a few warts on the defense. The Browns have had some problems covering the tight end position. As bad as the Bengals were passing the ball this week, three of their completions and 42 of their yards were to tight ends with Jermaine Gresham scoring a touchdown. In the first matchup, the Bengals tight ends caught 6 passes for 92 yards on just 10 targets.
This is an area that the Browns need to address and try to fix. It is incredibly difficult with how the rules help tight ends and defending a 6’6” 250lb athlete is never an easy task, but this is the division the Browns play and all the teams like to use the position. Craig Robertson has struggled in coverage, so that could be a spot to potentially address if he cannot improve. Ray Horton’s extremely generous complements noted, Tashaun Gipson is able to play in coverage but he is a piss poor tackler which makes it tough to put him on a tight end. T.J. Ward has the ability to help in that area but he cannot be the only one, especially since the Bengals have two tight ends that can kill them.
As good as Joe Haden has been, he saves his best for the Cincinnati Bengals and A.J. Green. In the game today, Haden has as many catches as Green did and for far more than the 7 yards Green had. Green had 7 catches in the first game but they were not all that meaningful in the end. Green has as much claim to any wide receiver to be the best and some of his production or lack thereof is due to the guy throwing the ball. Nevertheless, Haden showing that kind of ability is what makes onlookers think he can be an elite corner. There is a really good chance that Haden will be going to the Pro Bowl this year and his performances against Green are a huge reason.
On the other side, Buster Skrine gets better by the game and gains confidence by the game. There has been quite a bit of talk about Skrine in regards to “he is having a great season, but”. It is getting harder and harder to keep saying the ‘but’. Skrine is not on the level of Haden, though he has outplayed him in a couple games. He is a terrific complement across from Haden and is able to contribute as a run defender as well as in the pass. Skrine has really developed in his ability to break up passes and has been among the best in the league this season. As a microcosm of that, Skrine has deflected 4 passes between the two games against the Bengals.
The big question is the nickel which has been a problem all year. The ancillary skill players have been able to too much success. Whether it has been Bernard, Sanu, Marvin Jones or Andrew Hawkins, the Browns are vulnerable to these types of players. This is not a new development and the Browns have needed more corner help. Leon McFadden needs to try to prove what he can do, but this is likely going to be an issue that needs to continue to be addressed. The Bengals are tough because they have so many of these different types of players and their main weapons demand so much attention that they can get single coverage on guys and take advantage. Cincinnati always seems to be looking for a second receiver but they have so many of these specialists that can frustrate defenses and have a different guy star every week, because of Green and their tight ends.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Bengals make it painfully clear how many holes the Browns have. The Bengals are one of the best defenses in the NFL, especially when they are healthy. Even with Geno Atkins and Leon Hall out, the defense was incredibly dangerous. They have an incredible amount of defensive line depth and just keep coming. Their secondary lacks for star power but they make plays and do their job, which enables the front seven to operate.
The linebackers are the most vulnerable part of the defense for the Bengals and extremely limited. Rey Maualuga is a run player only and really struggles as a pass defender, though Vincent Rey has been a pleasant surprise. Vontaze Burfict is their guy who is likely going to end up at middle linebacker at some point so they can add more athleticism on the outside and while James Harrison made a big play today, he is one of their weakest links.
The Bengals make it incredibly difficult to run the football and while Chris Ogbannaya was able to hit on one big run, the overwhelming impact of the running game was minimal. They do not have a back they can count on to make a big play. Short yardage situations are extremely tough to make for the Browns and they have an extremely difficult time just lining up and getting a yard or two when they need one. The result is the Browns have to rely on the pass far more often than they would like.
Passing when the defense knows it is coming is difficult. The Bengals have been so confident in their ability to stop the run, they are able to put the Browns in passing situations, pin their ears back and go. The offensive line has a much more difficult time in protection and the quarterback is throwing into a defense that is expecting pass. That makes success more difficult and maintaining drives difficult.
The Browns have made some big plays and have some players that can make splash plays, but they are few and far between because of the overall offensive struggles. Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron can make plays and have. In the two games this season, Gordon caught nine passes for 196 yards and a touchdown. Meanwhile, Cameron caught 16 passes for 120 yards and a touchdown.
Those are great numbers and certainly players the Browns can and appear to using as building blocks for this offense. Those two become far more potent with a legitimate running game and more consistent quarterback play. Both are still developing and still have improving to do, but they have also produced with three different quarterbacks throwing the ball, so they appear to be legitimately good. They are also the focus of every defense the Browns face.
Not only do the Browns not have a quarterback they can build around yet as Dalton was arguably as good or better than any the Browns have trotted out this season, but they need more weapons as well. Davone Bess can be a productive third receiver, but Greg Little (as talented as he may be), has not done enough to make the receiver position feel good enough. Little does not need to be gotten rid of but he does seem like a better third or fourth option that could potentially be a surprise. The Browns need an insurance policy for Gordon in case he has any off field problems, but they could also use another legitimate weapon across from him.
Cameron is a great receiving threat, but Gary Barnidge is not a good second option. The Browns need someone who can be a legitimate second tight end who can block as well as be a receiving threat. They can use him to run block but make the play action a more viable weapon for the offense. Both Rob Chudzinski and Norv Turner love tight ends, so the more the merrier. Considering the success of Chud’s first run in Cleveland as offensive coordinator, finding Steve Heiden to Kellen Winslow (Cameron).
If running back was not an obvious need before the Trent Richardson, it was painfully obvious after. The loss of Dion Lewis hurt and maybe he can come back and help. The Browns could legitimately use two running backs in the draft. Regardless of who the quarterback is, the offense gets much easier when the running game can at least be a threat. Being able to dare defenses to stop them would be great but just making it so defenses have to be honest would be a huge step in the right direction.
Last but certainly not least is the offensive line. The offensive line is not bad; so much of what makes the line look like a problem is what has been going on around it. Having unbelievably slow running backs and quarterbacks who sit back and get themselves sacked has been a huge problem. That does not mean the group cannot be improved, especially at guard. There are questions about the long term viability of Mitchell Schwartz at right tackle but it has been night and day since Oniel Cousins’ carcass was removed from right guard. Shawn Lauvao is better in that he is actually a guard but neither he nor John Greco are overwhelming in their effectiveness.
The Browns have Garrett Gilkey and really like what he can be among a pile of young offensive linemen on their roster but they could look to add in another guard like Gilkey to give them a big, strong unit. The question is if the Browns will try to take another mid-late round pick or if they might like to put a hammer on the position with someone like Gabe Jackson potentially in the first or second round to take over at left guard.
All in all, if the Bengals are a measuring stick for where the Browns are as a team, the defensive side of the ball is ready for prime time and the playoffs. The offense is able to do enough to win when they avoid mistakes and can make a few big plays but have not shown the ability to win a shootout or come back in tough games, especially against good teams. Until that happens or at least some of the issues are addressed on the offense, the Browns are going to be this team that can be good in stretches but are ultimately going to fall short over the long haul.
The good news is the Browns do have a young, talented defense that should only get better with time and development. They have some huge potential with players like Billy Winn, Barkevious Mingo and Armonty Bryant, but they do have a few potential spots that can be upgraded if they cannot improve on their own. The offense has a lot of work to do, but because of the defense, the Browns can focus much of their attention on it and while it may not be an overnight change, it would be tough to imagine they cannot make major strides in a few key areas next year, especially at the running back position. The Browns are not there yet as the Bengals have shown but they are not as far away as the game today suggests. They do have some major issues to address and need to do correctly if they want to make a claim for the best in the AFC North in near future.