It’s upon us. After 18 weeks of stress, anxiety, and joy we have reached the finale. The regular season finale that is. The Cleveland Browns will play their regular-season finale against the Cincinnati Bengals this Sunday and they are looking for the season series sweep against the Cincinnati Bengals.
For the Bengals, a season filled with Super Bowl aspirations has been derailed. The early slow start, then the mini-winning streak followed by the loss of quarterback Joe Burrow pretty much sums up their season. Despite being praised by the national media as “Super Bowl contenders”, ‘“kings of the AFC North”, “An upcoming dynasty”, the team never showed that this season.
Offensively, despite losing their quarterback, the offensive production changed but they will finish 13th in EPA/per play in the regular season. Backup Jake Browning filled in for Burrow and provided some bright spots, and also some rough spots but he is a backup for a reason. Running backs Joe Mixon and rookie Chase Brown are the running back duo but it’s a possibility that Mixon could be gone this offseason (mainly a cap casualty).
This is the last time we will probably see the wide receiver trio Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd on the same field together. Higgins and Boyd are free agents after this season, and both may walk considering that Higgins will command #1 money on the market and that Boyd’s replacement is already on the team. As for the offensive line, another year another disappointment collectively for this group. It’s not a bad unit, but it has underachieved for the second consecutive season.
Defensively, there aren’t many positives to say about this unit. The numbers and the film back it up. 31st in overall defense, 28th in Defensive EPA/per play and 27th in Defensive Rush EPA/per play. Explosive plays are being given up at a premium with this group despite it not being an issue last season.
The unit has some talent, defensive end Trey Hendrickson leads this unit after defensive tackle D.J. Reader was lost for the season with a torn quad. The secondary has some young talent in cornerbacks Cam Taylor Britt and D.J. Turner, and safeties Dax Hill and Jordan Battle. Overall, this unit underachieved this year mainly due to key starters leaving in either free agency or due to injury but the unit should be improved next season.
Here are my 3 players to watch for in this regular season finale.
DE Trey Hendrickson
Hendrickson has been stout for the Bengals this season. Some fans (mainly Bengals fans) believe that he should be in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation but that’s another topic for another day. Cincinnati was able to sign Hendrickson to a contract extension and it has paid off.
His pass-rush skill set is diverse, as he leads the league in sacks currently at 17. In the passing game, he’s the only person on the Bengals that the Browns should actually fear. As shown last week against the Kansas City Chiefs, he finds ways to disrupt the game in any way shape or form.
For Cleveland, it’s imperative that they know where #91 is considering that he is the only true threat on the Bengals defensive line. Hendrickson is a problem and look for Cleveland to contain him.
RB Chase Brown
If there is someone who has emerged as a game-changer, it’s the rookie Brown. The 5th rounder out of Illinois spent most of his rookie season barely being utilized, spent time on injured reserve with a hamstring injury and then he came back and found ways to get involved in the offense. When Samaje Perine left in free agency, it was clear Cincinnati needed a 3rd down back and Brown has emerged as that.
He’s a threat in both the passing game and running game, good speed and acceleration and he could emerge as a lead back potentially next season.
The one thing that Brown is good at that the Browns need to be wary of is the screen game. He’s someone that can turn a 5-yard gain into a 30-yard gain. If Cincinnati is in shotgun formation and Brown is lined up on either side, there’s a good chance Cincinnati will attempt a form of a screen play on a passing down.
Cleveland has tightened up their screen defense as of late so it will be key for them to watch Brown and prevent explosive plays.
QB Jake Browning
In the year of the backup quarterbacks, the one that had a Linsanity run (named after Jeremy Lin who had a brilliant couple of weeks in the NBA before coming back down to earth) is Browning.
As an undrafted free agent, Browning spent most of his career with the Minnesota Vikings (mainly on the practice squad). He was then released and eventually was picked up by the Bengals having never played a single snap.
Once Burrow got hurt during training camp, Browning took 1st team reps for the majority of camp then once Burrow went down for the season he eventually took over. Browning had his moments this season, good and bad but eventually, the luck was bound to run out but you can’t fault him for the job he did while Burrow was out.
Browning has been good in the short to intermediate game but at times he will try to force something that isn’t there which will lead to turnovers.
For Cleveland, regardless of who is out there defensively for them is to make life uncomfortable for Browning. Pressure him, force him to make bad decisions and get to him early and often. He has a decent arm but if you can cause issues for him it will be a long day for the Cincinnati offense.
While the game has no meaning for the Browns, what players do you think should be the focal point against the Bengals in Week 18?