Well, the Browns have shown a little competence throwing the football for the first time in about 20 games. Granted, it was against one of the worst defenses I can remember in the NFL, but at this point, we'll take it. Now the Browns take on a team fighting for a Division title and playoff positioning. I'm still waiting for the Bengals to self-destruct, and perhaps that started to happen last week, when the Raiders knocked them off in Oakland. Taking the season as a whole, however, the Bengals look like a pretty strong team.
This isn't your slightly-older-brother-in-law's Bengals. Cincinnati has scored 24 or more only twice in ten games. Carson Palmer, Chad Ochocinco and Chris Henry still are capable of putting up points through the passing game, but the strengths of this year's Bengals is purportedly their defense and the running of Cedric Benson. Let's see if the numbers agree.
A quick note about the stats I'm going to use in this regular column. The full explanation can be found here. Basically, Football Outsiders uses the data from every play and finds the league average (adjusting for yards gained in the redzone, touchdowns scored, and the down and distance- so a 3 yard TD run on 3rd-and-1 from the 3 means a lot more than a 3 yard run on 3rd-and-15 from your own 20.) Then it rates players and teams based on their relation to this league average. The result is meaningful rate stats. They are akin to league adjusted stats in baseball, like OPS+ and ERA+. DVOA is the most common stat they use and 0.0 is exactly league average. A 10.0% DVOA for a QB means a QB that is 10.0% better than average. -15.0% DVOA means 15% below average for a QB. For defensive numbers they are reversed, so negative numbers are better.
Got all that? No? Well, then trust me when I say, higher positive numbers are good for offensive players and lower or negative numbers are good for defenses. 0.0% is always average.
And my personal caveat using these numbers in football: here.
Going into the Raiders game, the Bengals ranked 7th in offensive efficiency, but after struggling against a bad Oakland team, they fell all the way to 17th! That is a huge fall this late in the season. Their offensive DVOA is an average-y 12.0%. Despite what you may hear, they are still much more efficient passing than running. They rank 7th in the league in passing efficiency at 38.6%, but just 13th in running efficiency at 1.4%. The Browns defense seems to rotate games from actually good (Buffalo, Baltimore at home) to bad, but promising (Chicago, Pittsburgh on the road), to just bad (Detroit, Green Bay). It really is hard to say which Browns D will show up, but in total the numbers are ugly, now 30th in Defensive efficiency (down from 29th).
After a quick look at the stats, I'd argue the Bengals are running more than they should. Carson Palmer is a top 5 talent and should be in his prime. While his DVOA ranks 8th in the league (24.9%), he has only dropped back to pass 336 times. In fact, the Bengals are 23rd in pass attempts per game. It isn't because they have been up big in games or have struggled with time of possession. They are simply over committed to the run. More on that in a bit. When they do throw, WR Chad Ochocinco is their number 1 target with 85 passes thrown his way. He is back to Pro Bowl caliber: his DYAR (total value) is 185, good for 12th in the league among WRs and on a per play/efficiency basis he is 21st in the league with a DVOA of 13.8%. Laveranues Coles has been a bit of a disappointment (DVOA 3.1%) and Andre Caldwell is more of a threat in the return game than the passing game. The other big weapon in the passing game is Brian Leonard. The FB/RB has a DVOA of 28.4% (7th in the league among pass catching RBs). The Browns have been bad against the pass overall- 30th in the league with a 31.9% DVOA. Most of the damage has been done by #1 WRs (25.4% DVOA, 30th in the NFL), while holding #2 WRs in check (-12.5%, 13th). So, look for Ochocinco to have a good day and Coles to continue to struggle. However:
I've felt that over the last several seasons the biggest part of the Bengals offense is WR Chris Henry. When he plays and Palmer looks his way, the Bengals offense seems unstoppable. This year is no exception. While only getting 23 passes thrown his way, his DVOA on those plays is a good great 24.3%- which would be top 10 if he had enough passes thrown his way to qualify.
In protecting the QB, the Bengals had fared pretty well before the Raider game- 6th in the league in sack rate at 4.4% (Football Outsiders has yet to update their offensive line stats from last week and the Raiders were able to get to Palmer 3 times in just 25 drop backs). The Browns (not counting the Lions game) have got to the QB a league average 6.6% of the times their opponents have dropped back.
If you have followed the Bengals or the NFL at all through the main stream sources this year, you have heard about the great comeback season of RB Cedric Benson. He is having the type of season that is constantly overrated by these espn-types. He is a "feature back", an "every-down back", a "workhorse". Which sounds nice, but the reason most teams don't have one of these isn't because they are hard to find. It is because most teams realize the more effective way to score is through the passing game and mixing several fresh running backs, usually of different styles. (The exception is if you have a truly great back like Steven Jackson or Adrian Peterson.) So while Benson has racked up a lot of rushing yards (859 in 9 games- good for 6th in the league), he has only done so because he has received a ton of carries (205- 2nd most in the league). Given all those carries, the yards and his 6 TDs aren't too impressive. In fact, his DVOA is just 5.8%, good for just 18th among 37 qualified RBs. And his success rate is just 43%, just 25th among those 37 RBs. The Browns defense is 30th in the league against the run with a DVOA of 11.3%. So even if the Bengals remain stubborn with the run, it will be tough for the Browns to make them pay.
The Browns had an offensive explosion last week, scoring 37 points, thrashing the Lions through the air. But the Browns offense didn't move in the offensive efficiency standings: 31st in the league at -28.7%. DVOA just wasn't impressed with the success against a terrible defense (Detroit did fall from 30th to 32nd in defensive efficiency because of the Browns' efforts- now that's embarrassing!). Still, the Browns showed some flashes of brilliance, especially QB Brady Quinn. Hopefully, they can build on that against a league average defense.
And when I say league average, I mean it. The Bengals are as close to league average on D as you can get: 17th in the league overall with a DVOA of 1.6%, 16th in Pass defense at 6.6%, 16th in run defense at -5.2%. They do have some clear strengths and weaknesses though. CB Johnathan Joseph and Co. have shut down #1 WRs to the tune of -42% DVOA, good for 3rd in the league. So Massaquoi will likely have a tough time Sunday. But CB Leon Hall and Co. have contained #2 WRs too (-14.5% DVOA, 11th in the league). AND they are 7th against TEs. Where they struggle is "other" WRs and RBs. Brady will have to look for WR Mike Furrey, WR Josh Cribbs, RB Jamal Lewis, RB Chris Jennings if he is going to have success. This will likely lead to frustrating checkdowns and short routes, but if these players can break a couple tackles after the catch, it will go a long way to us scoring some points. Also, I'd love to see another play like the one Jennings dropped against Detroit. Or a slot receiver running a skinny post to challenge the deep middle of the Bengals defense, exploiting the young and undisciplined Cincinnati LBs in pass coverage.
In protecting the QBs, the Browns' line ranks 22nd giving up a sack on 7% of drop backs. The Bengals get to the QB 6.5% of the time, good for 19th in the league. (again, these numbers were before last week).
Like the Bengals, the Browns run way too much for my taste. But at least the Browns are more creative about it. Running out of the Wildcat (both Cribbs and handoffs to other RBs), mixing in end around plays, and other RBs with Lewis (be it Harrison or Jennings). Despite the "creativity" the running game finds itself in the bottom quarter of the league, at 25th in the league (-8.0% DVOA). That's close enough to league average to expect a little success Sunday against the Bengals league average run D.
The Browns remain 2nd in the league overall in special teams DVOA (8.8%). They are still lead by a Josh Cribbs' punt return unit (1st in the league at 11.9% DVOA) and a Cribbs' kick return unit that ranks 6th in the league (7.7%). The Browns coverage units are also very good. The kick blocking ability of Shaun Rogers is unfairly discounted by Football Outsiders (it is factored in, but they consider opposition FG and XPs out of a team's control and weight their numbers accordingly), and that is yet another strength of the team. The Bengals special teams are ranked 26th at -3%. They have a decent punt return team lead by Caldwell. But they really struggle in the FG and XP units. They are second-to- last in the league, mainly because of problems with their long snapper (they are on their 2nd of the season, and he hasn't been perfect either) and getting the ball down for Shane Graham.
Besides a couple very, very good young corners and a very good QB, I don't think the Bengals are very good. They have pulled out some close divisional games and destroyed the Bears. Other than that, they have lost to an average Denver team, an average Houston team, and a terrible Raiders team. They seem to play down to their competition (probably because they stubbornly run the ball, keeping their opponents in the game). I don't see this changing this week. The Browns are coming off their best game of the season offensively, the Bengals are coming off their worst. The Browns offense isn't good enough to score a lot of points like they did against the terrible Lions, but their are weaknesses to be exploited. Three big questions that will determine the winner:
1. Can Daboll, Mangini, and Carl Smith come up with two good offensive game plans in a row (i.e. forcing their LBs to cover our RBs in pass coverage and testing their safetys with deep down the middle passes to Furrey)?
2. Which version of the Browns defense will show up, the one that shut down the Ravens or the one that slept through the Lions game?
3. Will the Bengals continue to stubbornly give the ball to the average Cedric Benson more than the very good Carson Palmer?
Prediction: Browns 23 Bengals 24