Bengals Preview, Week Ten: Cleveland
Fans love Thursday Night Football, but should they? The television ratings for anything NFL is always strong, but certainly players and coaches can't like it very much.
Typically, professionals like to have as much time as necessary to put forth their best product. Weekday games simply don't allow for this. The preparation is rushed, the bodies only half healed. Game plans are either taped and glued together or are basic carry overs from the week before. It's like reheating last night's dinner.
Nonetheless, a game will indeed take place this Thursday evening along the shores of the Ohio River and neither team can afford a loss in the hyper-competitive AFC North, weekday or not.
The Browns have a good win against New Orleans and perhaps another one against Pittsburgh, but the other three have come at the hands of bad teams and only the Titans win was achieved on the road. The new coaching staff and front-office regime should be credited for hurrying a decent team on the field this season, thanks in large part to the very serviceable job quarterback Brian Hoyer has accomplished so far in 2014. In fact, since Cleveland has been so dismal running the ball of late, if Hoyer were even a mediocre signal-caller in this league, the Browns would be 3-5 and eyeing college prospects for next season at this point.
How good of a team the Browns are is still very questionable. Will they end up with a winning record and really compete for a playoff spot in the season's last month? It's hard to see it playing out that way. The running deficiencies are a real thing and seems nearly impossible that it won't hamstring the entire offense as a whole if the production doesn't increase on the ground. Perhaps the elite quarterbacks can get by on an almost exclusive passing attack, and while Hoyer has done well, he is hardly elite.
Part of the issue with the rushing attack is that the offensive line has not gotten the push required to make a difference in that facet of the game, especially from the center, Nick McDonald, who took over for the injured Pro-Bowler Alex Mack. Last week against Tampa Bay, McDonald kept showing up for getting blasted backwards by the heavy Buccaneer defensive tackles. McDonald is a guard by trade but has made four starts at center.
This week, McDonald will face a nasty rotation of tackles now that Cincinnati's depth has improved in that area as time has gone by and players have become more healthy. Geno Atkins is beginning to flash again on a regular basis and seems just a few more games away from being his All-Pro self. Brandon Thompson has missed a lot of time this year, but returned last year and had an immediate impact. Devon Still continues to get better with more playing time and Domata Peko is still huge and moves around well. With starting linebackers Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga out again this week, help from the defensive line becomes even more paramount.
If this lot is able to disrupt the running game by pushing their way into the Browns backfield, then Hoyer will have another day of having to do it himself if Cleveland is to pull out a weekday Ohio upset. For as good as he's been, though, Hoyer still makes mistakes. He doesn't make a lot of mistakes, but that same safe approach that limits turnovers also at times becomes a hindrance because it keeps him from improvising and making backyard plays that the great ones are able to weave into the game, often times for wins. If the Bengals front four can continue its increase in pressure and relieve the backups at linebackers, Cincinnati will not have to blitz all day and leave their rapidly aging corners in one-on-one coverage. While the veterans usually succeed in limiting the huge play against them, their decreasing speed and inability to pull down interceptions when they get their hands on the ball has fixed the microscope over them for the first time in years. It is imperative that these guys cash in when they get these kinds of chances, because Hoyer will make some bad throws throughout the coarse of the game.
As far as the Bengals offense, the whole passing game had to have enjoyed young Jeremy Hill taking the pressure off of them by gouging the Jacksonville defense on Sunday. Hill showed why he can be an every-down back, even overcoming a leg injury that forced him from the game for a limited time. While he is not the straight-ahead, between-the-tackles type of runner like his measurements might indicate. He's a nimble-footed back with nice field vision that would rather stretch it to the outside and cutback rather than just running over people. No matter how he runs, with Giovani Bernard out again this week, his legs become that much more important and if the line can continue to open lanes up for him, there's no reason to think he isn't going to find them for another day of good yardage.
Adding to that challenge, however, is the fact that Andre Smith is walking around with a boot on his leg and that the chances of him playing on Thursday are a lot slimmer than he is. If he can't go, one would think Marshall Newhouse would get the nod. Newhouse is famed for being Andy Dalton's good friend and college teammate. He got a snap last week in an unbalanced line, but he jumped into a false start and that was that.
There are some out there that would like to see Newhouse at left tackle and reinsert Andrew Whitworth to guard they they way did late last year when Clint Boling got injured and Anthony Collins was plugged in at left tackle. The combination turned the line into a road-grinder supreme and established them as a tough and physical line. The difference there between Collins and Newhouse though, is that Collins spent multiple seasons in Cincinnati before seeing regular playing time and the coaches grew to trust him. It is unknown whether the Bengals coaches feel that same comfort in Newhouse just yet.
The Browns haven't generated the kind of pass rush many assumed they would coming into the season and in fact, have not played great overall defense. Their secondary is arguably their most complete area on the defense, headlined by corner Joe Haden. They are a playmaking bunch that usually intercepts most errant passes and looks to score when they do. Out of all the members of this collection, Buster Skrine is still the most vulnerable and worth picking on. While Skrine is fast and can make plays, he is often beat on double moves and is prone to penalties.
It seems probable that Haden will match up with A.J. Green which leaves either Skrine or first-round pick Justin Gilbert on Mohamed Sanu. The Bengals have certainly missed the dynamic abilities of their all-world player Green, but Sanu has really stepped up his game in Green's absence, making himself a much more valuable commodity than previously thought and likely greatly upping his next payday once it rolls around. Sanu has a terrific combination of skills that allow him to be the big, physical presence he is, but also allow him to make tough catches by demonstrating good concentration when the ball is in the air. He has dropped a few passes this season, but not enough to say it is a problem for Sanu. With the spiked increase of confidence he is currently playing with, leaving him single covered in favor of doubling Green could make for a harder day for any defense.
For some reason, the Bengals have established one of the best home-field advantages in football. They have not lost in their previous 13 games at Paul Brown Stadium, but since playing on Thursday night is so weird for both teams, perhaps it won't hold the same weight playing at home usually has for the Bengals. This should be a game where it becomes clear that while Cleveland is a scrappy young team that avoids the killer mistake, the Bengals have more firepower, better depth and a real-life divisional contender rather than a team knocking on the door.
PREDICTION: Bengals 31, Browns 20
Written by Bryan Burke, associate editor