Browns defense may have no answer for Joe Burrow, Bengals offense

Cleveland Browns, Myles Garrett. Mandatory Credit: David Dermer-USA TODAY Sports
Cleveland Browns, Myles Garrett. Mandatory Credit: David Dermer-USA TODAY Sports /

Should the Cleveland Browns blitz the Bengals and Joe Burrow, leaving single coverage on Ja’Marr Chase?

Joe Burrow has never beaten the Cleveland Browns, but he catches the visiting AFC North rivals this Sunday in a defensive slump. Debate in the Dawg Pound has centered around the Joe Woods defense, with a sizeable contingent recommending that the Browns’ defensive backs should allow less cushion and use the blitz more often, based on the premise that Woods plays a soft defense. In other words, we’re just not that worried about the Bengals and the deep ball.

Actually, this idea has some merit against the Bengals. They’re notorious for letting Burrow get sacked. Despite significant upgrades on the offensive line, Burrow has been sacked 30 times in 12 games.

The Bengals like to station him in the spread formation about seven yards deep and plant him there like a tree. Offensive coordinator Brian Callahan (son of Browns offensive line coach Bill Callahan) doesn’t do very much to let him roll out or move the pocket laterally.

The plan is to basically get rid of the football or take cover. Perhaps Brian C has watched too much film of Ben Roethlisberger. It seems like an unnecessarily restrictive game plan for a young quarterback with decent mobility and a deadly accurate long-range cannon. That may be a weak link in the Bengals’ offense.

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However, as tempting as it is to send extra pass rushers, we’re still stuck with only 11 players on the field. So what we are really saying is that the Browns should be willing to leave Ja’Marr Chase in single coverage or leave someone else uncovered and hope that Burrow doesn’t notice.

Does anyone see a problem with this?

The 2021 version of Denzel Ward was up to the task. That dude was a Pro-Bowl cornerback with 4.3 speed, capable of matching Chase, who clocked 4.38 at his Pro Day. However, that version of Ward has not shown up this season.

Among cornerbacks graded by Pro Football Focus, he is not first or second. Not top five. Rather, he grades 107th of 119. You’re not sending that dude against Ja’Marr Freaking Chase.

We don’t know what the reason is for Ward’s performance. He had a severe concussion this season, and may have played with other injuries that are not reported. He has been a star in the past so we should probably cut him a break rather than try to get inside his head and question his effort.

Let’s just say that it appears that he is unable to play at his normal high level right now. It may be a mistake to count on him to shut down Chase unless he has miraculously healed up.

Based on the assumption that there are 64 starting corners in the NFL, only rookie Martin Emerson is graded as above average. However, Emerson clocked 4.53 in the 40-yard dash at the 2022 Combine. Maybe this one-on-one matchup isn’t such a great idea, either. And maybe moving up closer to the line of scrimmage in tight coverage might be a worse idea.

Chase has missed four games healing a hip injury but is now believed to be 100 percent, which is bad news for the NFL. As a rookie, he torched the league for 81 catches in 128 targets (63.3 catch percentage) for 1,455 yards, or 11.4 yards per target. This is the guy we propose to not worry about while the Browns send extra blitzers against Burrow?

Then there’s Tee Higgins, who already has 861 receiving yards and Tyler Boyd who has 655 yards and also appears to be on track for 900 plus receiving yards this season. Other bad news is that running back Joe Mixon is healthy again, and Samaje Perine did not miss a beat while Mixon was down.

They’ve combined for 1,508 yards from scrimmage this season. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, by comparison, have combined for 1,61 yards. Cleveland an edge at running back, but the Bengals are not exactly helpless. Mixon is extremely tough between the tackles, and the Browns don’t have run-stoppers at defensive tackle.

Cleveland doesn’t have a second sackmeister other than Myles Garrett, who has 10 sacks and 16 QB hits. The next best is Taven Bryan, who has 2.5 sacks and four hits. No other Brown has more than two sacks.

Overall they’re 20th in the league with 25 sacks. The Browns like to use the zone blitz in which they send a pass rusher from the secondary or linebackers and drop a lineman back into zone coverage to compensate, hoping that the opposing offense will not pick up a pass rusher coming from an unexpected position. To some extent that has worked, as 19 different players have had at least one hit on the quarterback. However, the team total of 48 is the second lowest in the NFL.

Maybe Chase Winovich can help. He was dangerous in 2020 with New England, producing 5.5 sacks and 12 QB hits while playing in 58 percent of the defensive snaps for the Patriots. If his troublesome hammy holds up, maybe he can apply some additional pressure. The Bengals’ plan is to double-team Garrett on every team and to commit offensive holding on top of that, and so far that plan has generally been successful versus the Browns.

Still, this isn’t a good matchup for the Browns. It’s true that Joe Burrow has never beaten them as they use smoke and mirrors to always play a great game versus their rivals from the other end of I-71. But why do analysts disbelieve in Burrow?

He was only a record-setting quarterback in college and made it to the Super Bowl in his first injury-free season. What’s there to not like about Burrow and the Bengals’ offense? The Browns’ best hope for victory is probably for the 2020 version of Deshaun Watson to miraculously show up and help the team score 40 points and win in a shootout because the defense seems ill-equipped to slow down Cincinnati’s offense.