By the end of the preseason, we ranked both the Cincinnati Bengals and the Cleveland Browns as the two worst teams in the NFL. Based on the offensive play of both of these teams, that placement still appears to be correct, although both defenses did play quite well.
With that being said, this game was a war of attrition and whether they deserved it or not, someone had to win it. In what turned out to be a very close game, in the end it all came down to a play where the Bengals caught the Browns off-guard, scoring on a 41 yard touchdown pass to rookie A.J Green, on a play where no one was in coverage. While there are reasons to believe that these teams probably won’t make the playoffs, there are at least some reasons to be optimistic as well.
Cincinnati – Three Things of Note
1) Left Pass Rushing
The Bengals were able to get four sacks on the Browns, which helped keep Cleveland’s offense from driving down the field. While that was beneficial, it was the play of Cincinnati’s two defensive ends that got most of their pressure from the left side, as both Robert Geathers and Carlos Dunlap combined for four hits and five pressures. While we came to expect this kind of game from Dunlap based on his play from a year ago, it was a pleasant surprise to see the success of Geathers. On the eight plays that these men brought, McCoy threw seven incomplete passes and helped Reggie Nelson record a sack.
2) Run Benson Run
One of the biggest differences between these two teams, was the Bengals’ ability to consistently run down the field. I have criticized Cedric Benson (+2.6) in the past, wanting to see more carries from Bernard Scott, but in this game Benson showed that he deserved the heavier workload. Over the course of a season, we give elite running backs a positive grade on a little less than half of their runs, and Benson showed this consistency, getting a positive grade on 12 of his 25 rushing attempts. Five of those runs resulted in first downs, and another a touchdown, and while his offensive line didn’t help him as much as they should have, his 4.8 yards per carry is mostly because of his physical abilities.
3) Off-Target Passing
The reason that the Bengals barely won was because of their quarterback’s play. Rookie Andy Dalton (-0.4) started the game at quarterback, and only played the first half before leaving with an injury. While he did throw four passes for first downs and another one for a touchdown, he tried to force a few throws that ended up getting easily, and fumbled the ball which luckily ended up in the arms of his offensive line. If one of those had ended up in a turnover, it very well could have cost the Bengals the game. On the bright side, Dalton was better than Bruce Gradkowski (-1.4), who was consistently overthrowing his targets. Nearly half of his yards came on the touchdown throw where there was no coverage. Without it, he completed four of 11 passes for 51 yards. While it ended up being a winning effort, it wasn’t because of their stellar quarterbacking performance.
Cleveland – Three Things of Note
1) Makeshift Offensive Line
The Browns offensive line looks a bit different than last year, but the results were the same. Both Oniel Cousins and Artis Hicks, who were acquired within the last two weeks, rotated in and out at right tackle. Between the two of them, they allowed seven combined pressures, which was a big problem seeing as how McCoy had an accuracy percentage of 33% when under pressure in this game. While no one on the rest of the line stood out as having a terrible game; as a unit they seemed to hurt the run game. The four other linemen each had a negative rating in run blocking, and on the seven plays that one or more of them graded negatively, the runner was only able to gain nine yards. Some young players on offense showed some potential, but the offensive line needs to improve in order for that potential to be reached.
2) Sophomore Superstar
In his rookie year, Joe Haden (+4.6) improved as the year went on. In his second season, he looks ready to be considered as an elite cornerback. For some reason, the Bengals decided to target him on 11 of their 27 throws, and Haden responded by deflecting five of those passes, with another three falling incomplete and the last three being caught. With that being said, one of those three completions was the 41 yard touchdown to Green, which gave the Bengals the victory, but it’s hard to fault him when the entire defense wasn’t even lined up. It wasn’t against the greatest of quarterbacks, but being able to dominate a weaker opponent is a key component to being an elite player.
3) Stuffing the Run
The Browns had a few performers who played admirably in stopping the run, with some of them being unexpected. In his debut as a Brown, Jayme Mitchell managed four stops and graded negatively on just one play. Rookie first-round-pick Phil Taylor matched the number of stops on run plays with four, and three of them came in the fourth quarter. In addition to those players, strong safety, T.J. Ward was also able to impressively find his way past the Bengals’ offensive line to record two first down stops. You typically don’t think of the Browns as a run stopping team, but they had a combined +7.8 run defense rating.
● Believe it or not, one key difference in this game was the play of the punters. Where Richmond McGee of the Browns was downgraded three times for having short punts, Kevin Huber of the Bengals had a punt downed within the one yard line, and two more within the 20.
● Cleveland didn’t use Evan Moore as much as anticipated, but he was in the game on ten pass plays, and he was targeted six different times.
● The wide receivers with the most snaps for each team, was rookie A.J. Green for the Bengals and rookie Greg Little for the Browns. They only had one catch each.
PFF Game Ball:
Joe Haden, CB, Cleveland Browns
Despite being part of the defensive huddle mess of a touchdown, Haden was fantastic in this game, looking like a Revis clone.