- Even though the Bengals are 2-4 right now, the blame isn’t being passed down to Andy Dalton too much. I’ve been vocal in the past about the wonderful job I think Hue Jackson did with turning Dalton from an average quarterback to an above average one, as he threw for 25 touchdowns to just 7 interceptions a year ago. In 2016, Dalton is keeping the turnovers down — he has just 2 interceptions. His completion percentage is also at 67.4%, a career high.
- What is the problem, then? He’s only thrown six touchdowns in six starts, an average of one per game. Last year, he averaged twice that. We’ll get to this later in the receivers section, but not having TE Tyler Eifert, and also being without WR Marvin Jones and WR Mohamed Sanu, has been something the offense hasn’t been able to overcome to date.
- I know a lot of people were high on rookie QB Cody Kessler last week, and I agree that his performance in trying to lead the Browns to a comeback was impressive. With that said, there was a stretch of the game (a little more than a half) where I thought it was his least impressive performance of the season. He floated a few of his deep ball attempts, and the ball placement on several of his shorter passes wasn’t the greatest.
- The important thing for Kessler is to continue minimizing the mistakes. He’s taking way too many hits while he’s still in the learning stage of his career, and with the defensive woes this club has, it’d be naturally for any quarterback, let alone a rookie, to try starting to do too much to will his team to victory. He needs to keep doing what he’s been doing to avoid pressing too much.
- The Bengals’ running back rotation is the same as you remember it — Jeremy Hill is the head back and Giovani Bernard is the receiving back. In large part due to the offensive line, Hill had trouble all of last season in generating a high yards per carry average. In fact, he didn’t have a single 100-yard effort in all of 2015, finishing with 3.6 YPC. In 2016, he is still stuck at 3.6 YPC without a 100-yard effort. Over the past two weeks, he’s combined for 17 carries for 50 yards (2.94 YPC). It hasn’t been much better for Bernard, who is averaging 3.4 YPC on the year.
- Bernard’s bread-and-butter is as a receiving back. He is the Bengals’ second leading receiver with 29 catches for 256 yards and 1 touchdown on the year. Against the Steelers back in Week 2, he had 9 catches for 100 yards. In two games against the Browns last year, the team stunningly held him to 2 catches for 23 yards. With the Bengals’ depleted corp of receiving options, his usage in the passing game has increased in 2016. Hill, meanwhile, has just 4 catches on the season.
- While Hill and Bernard have had to deal with run blocking issues all season, Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson have only had the misfortune of dealing with those struggles over the past two weeks. During that two-game stretch, Crowell has 22 carries for 40 yards (1.81 YPC). Johnson has 8 carries for 19 yards (2.38 YPC). Despite that, each back’s season average is 5.2 YPC. Will the struggles of the run blocking continue? Probably, but Cleveland also faces a weaker run defense this week.
- I think it’s essential that the Browns try to get Crowell more looks as a receiver out of the backfield. He’s proven that his hands aren’t an issue when he’s open, and this year he’s been electric in space, making players miss and breaking tackles. Teams don’t seem to expect it much either.
Wide Receiver / Tight End
- Even though the Bengals’ have been thin on the receiving prospect end this year, they still have A.J. Green, who leads the team with 42 catches for 606 yards and 2 touchdowns. That is with teams undoubtedly paying some extra attention to him.
- TE Tyler Eifert has missed all six games this year to various injuries, but he finally participated in full during Friday’s practice and is listed as questionable. That would be so huge for Cincinnati to get his ability as a red zone threat back, and it’d be unfortunate for a Browns defense that has let tight ends ride roughshod on them.
- Let’s take a look at who the Bengals’ other receiving options have been over the fix six weeks. At the receiver position, they have veteran Brandon LaFell and youngster Tyler Boyd. Boyd was the team’s second-round pick in this year’s draft, and he has 19 catches for 242 yards on the year. LaFell has 23 catches for 289 yards and 3 touchdowns. They’ve also had last year’s fifth-round pick, TE C.J. Uzomah, step up as their top receiving tight end with 17 catches for 193 yards.
- Cleveland’s big challenge will be figuring out if Terrelle Pryor is ready to go on gameday. He suffered a hamstring injury in the second half of last week’s game and was laboring in the fourth quarter. He did not practice on Wednesday or Thursday, and was a limited participant on Friday. My best educated guess tells me that he’ll be available for a reduced workload, and as the emergency quarterback.
- Rumor has it that Corey Coleman could be trying to return to action in a week or two, so this could be the final week in awhile for guys like Ricardo Louis, Rashard Higgins, and Jordan Payton to place their stamp on the offense. Louis figures to get the most opportunities again, but had two drops last week. Higgins and Payton still appear to have some difficulty getting separation.
- The Bengals’ starting offensive line includes LT Andrew Whitworth, LG Clint Boling, C Russell Bodine, RG Kevin Zeitler, and RT Cedric Ogbuehi. Whitworth remains one of the league’s top left tackles, but hasn’t been as dominant as he usually is.
- Cincinnati’s run blocking in general has been very suspect. Our Bengals affiliate says that if Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard weren’t getting so many yards after contact, the results would be even worse, because the line simply isn’t opening very many holes. From a pass protection standpoint, Bodine and Ogbuehi are liabilities.
- It’s easy to be patient with most of the Browns’ young players, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to do so with C Cameron Erving. The quality of play at the position just isn’t there, and the general feeling I have is that an undrafted free agent could step in and do better (albeit with a low bar). The team continues to deliver excuses for Erving — i.e. last week was his first time playing football after a serious injury. I’m almost always sympathetic to those things, but I just feel frustration when it comes to Erving.
- The Browns haven’t talked about any changes on the offensive line this week, so I assume everything will remain the same as last week. That would be the same line that let Cody Kessler get killed, and not many holes opening on the ground. From a pass protection standpoint, I think the adjustment this week will be designing plays where Kessler gets rid of the ball within two seconds. Jonathan Cooper is not ready to play yet.
- The Bengals operate a 4-3 defense, and it's a unit that looks just as familiar as it did a year ago: DE Carlos Dunlap, NT Domata Peko, DT Geno Atkins, and DE Michael Johnson. Dunlap, Atkins, and Johnson will be workhorse-type players, while Peko will see a lesser share of time as he splits reps with DT Pat Sims.
- Dunlap is chugging along toward another productive season as one of the league’s best edge defenders. He has 4 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and 10 quarterback hits on the season and has also gotten his hands up to defend five passes. After several years of mediocrity, Johnson is merely viewed as an average pass rusher at this point. It’s scary to think about what Atkins is going to do to C Cameron Erving.
- I can’t fear about how Erving will handle Atkins without savoring the sight of NT Danny Shelton going up against C Russell Bodine. Shelton has established himself as one of the league’s best run stoppers up front through six games, and with every week it continues, he’ll take one step closer to being a Pro Bowler in his sophomore season.
- As for the rest of Cleveland’s defensive line, they continue to do some good work against the run. If DT Xavier Cooper is able to return this week, I hope the team sticks with DE Jamie Meder and DL Stephen Paea. The other big piece is DE Carl Nassib, who has not been able to make much of an impact the past two weeks since returning from a broken hand. It’s hard to tell if the hand is playing a factor in that, or if he’s just not in the same groove he was to start the year.
- The Bengals’ linebacker situation is in flux right now. Vontaze Burfict typically sees the most playing time, but should really have been suspended for his actions against the Patriots last week. We know how hot-headed he is, so he’s always a threat to cause someone to lose their cool, especially a Browns team with so many youngsters.
- Former Browns LB Karlos Dansby leads the Bengals in tackles, and he was always known for his pass coverage skills in Cleveland. However, our Bengals affiliate did not label that as a strength: “He's struggled in coverage and hasn't made many impact plays, if any.” MLB Rey Maualuga, once a strength of the defense, has been terrible. He was even out-snapped by ILB Vincent Rey last week.
- Cleveland doesn’t have much of an advantage at the outside linebacker position, but I couldn’t stand to give Cincinnati an edge across the board because they don’t really warrant it. Cleveland’s unit should be well-tested in coverage this week by RB Giovani Bernard, and the challenge will be even greater if they have to account for TE Tyler Eifert as well.
- Last week, the Browns toyed with Emmanuel Ogbah at defensive end and Cam Johnson at outside linebacker. We’ll see if that trend continues this week.
- The Bengals’ starting cornerbacks are Adam Jones and Dre Kirkpatrick, with Josh Shaw playing the nickel role in recent weeks. Kirkpatrick has finally started to look like a starting cornerback after being a first rounder in 2012, so maybe there still is some hope for Justin Gilbert out in Pittsburgh. The back-and-forth at the nickel position indicates the lack of impact the club has had from that role.
- At safety, George Iloka is still here, but now Shawn Williams is the free safety, replacing the departed Reggie Nelson. Their play can best be described as stable, which is a sharp contrast from Cleveland’s situation.
- With CB Joe Haden doubtful, the Browns are expected to go with the combination of Jamar Taylor and Briean Boddy-Calhoun as their starting cornerbacks and Tramon Williams as their nickelback. The Browns’ cornerbacks have been playing well, but the issue is that I wouldn’t dare place money on any of them being able to win the battle with WR A.J. Green on gameday.
- At safety, with FS Jordan Poyer now on injured reserve, the team will give rookie Tracy Howard a crack at starting in his place, while Ibraheim Campbell and Derrick Kindred will see work at strong safety. Defensive coordinator Ray Horton needs to stick with having Howard as the true deep safety, while Campbell and Kindred operate closer to the line of scrimmage.
- Dare I say that Cody Parkey is now settled in as the Browns’ kicker? He’s hit 40+ yarders with relative ease since his debut game against the Dolphins. Still, Mike Nugent gets the edge at the kicker position due to tenure. Nugent is 13-of-15 on field goals this season.
- Kevin Huber of the Bengals has a net average of 38.2 on punts, while Britton Colquitt is sitting several yards better with a net average of 41.4. Colquitt has so often had to punt from being backed up in his own territory, though -- how often do you remember Colquitt punting with a chance to pin a team inside the ten?
- Duke Johnson had a nice punt return last week that was called back due to penalty. Adam Jones can return kickoffs or punts when Cincinnati wants him back there. If they go another direction, the other players who take reps are WR Alex Erickson on punt returns and Erickson and RB Rex Burkhead on kick returns. All-around, special teams are a push.
This year, we are listing predictions for multiple staff members here at DBN.
Chris Pokorny: “At this point, I expect the formula to be much of the same week in and week out for the Browns: the defense gives up a touchdown on the first or second drive, and then has some general difficulty finding someone to match up with A.J. Green, and Tyler Eifert if he plays.
On offense, if Terrelle Pryor is limited, that takes away a big security blanket for Cody Kessler. Although Kessler wants to get rid of the ball quicker this week, his receivers won’t get open so quick and he’ll continue to take hits as he holds on to the ball. The offense will find some success to pad the game late, but Cincinnati will control this one from the start.” Bengals 31, Browns 20.
Matt Wood: “I am assuming Pryor doesn't play. Browns struggle to find some offense. A.J. Green has a monster day with no Haden to slow him down. I hope Kessler gets to have some time in the pocket.” Bengals 34, Browns 13.
Jon Stinchcomb: “The Bengals have been struggling too, but obviously not nearly as much as the Browns. I think Cinci will take advantage of finally overmatching an opponent and take out their offensive frustrations about the porous Browns.” Bengals 28, Browns 17.
Zach Miller: “A.J. Green has 2 scores and 160+ yards. Dalton throws 4 TDs. Browns can't get anything going on offense. Defense is gassed. This one will be ugly.” Bengals 38, Browns 16.
Who do you think will win, Browns fans? Let us know in the comments section below!