Prior to the season, the big debate in the AFC North was who would win – the Baltimore Ravens or the Pittsburgh Steelers? A debate that was less interesting but equally valid was who would end up in third – the Cincinnati Bengals or the Cleveland Browns? Eight games into the season, it looked like the Bengals could make it a three-team race for the division crown, but after back-to-back losses to the division leaders, the Bengals are back to third.
Despite the losing streak, if the playoffs were to start today, Cincinnati would still hold on to a wild card spot. With a difficult schedule ahead, the Bengals don’t want to let this opportunity get away. The Browns would be more than happy to help keep their division rivals out of the playoffs. Even though Cincinnati won this battle in Week 1, there are plenty of reasons to why this game will be different.
Browns Running backs vs. Bengals Run Defense
In the first matchup, Peyton Hillis (+3.4) was held to 3.4 yards per carry, and backup Montario Hardesty (-7.4) to 3.6 yards per carry. Due to injuries, it has been Chris Ogbonnaya (-5.1) getting the carries for the Browns. He had a rushing average of 2.7 yards per attempt and two fumbles in his first two games with significant playing time. In his last two he has seen a bit of improvement, with an average of 5.1 yards per carry, and four players missing tackles on him. Hardesty has had limited participation in practice, so if he plays he will likely split carries with Ogbonnaya, but Hillis is likely out again with his hamstring injury. It might not matter who is running the ball for the Browns, as the Cincinnati front seven has been shutting down runners all season. Over the 10 games, running backs have averaged just 3.7 yards per run, which is significantly lower than the league average of 4.3. Outside of Pat Sims (-0.8 run defense), the other seven players in the Bengals’ eight-man defensive line rotation has a positive run defense rating and all eight have at least 10 stops on the year. The three starting linebackers also have positive run defense ratings, and at least 13 stops each. As usual, it looks like the Browns success on offense will come down to the arm of Colt McCoy (+12.2).
Cedric Benson vs. Browns Run Defense
While the Browns are likely to play worse than usual this week in the run game, the Bengals should be playing better. Cedric Benson (+7.7) as usual has some great games and some lousy ones. In his three best games of the season (which includes the first matchup against Cleveland), he’s averaged 4.9 yards per carry, while in the other six he’s averaged just 3.3 yards per carry. There is enough going wrong in the Browns’ run defense to suggest this will be one of Benson’s good games. In the defensive backfield, their star safety T.J. Ward (+6.1 run defense) has been missing action with a foot injury, and still isn’t participating in practice. Their starting four defensive linemen started the season strong, with a combined +11.5 run defense rating in their first six games, but in the last four games have a combined -5.8 run defense rating. This leaves D’Qwell Jackson (+16.2 run defense) as the only player who is still going strong in the run defense. In their first matchup he had six stops, and he’s had at least four stops in seven of the 10 games so far. While Jackson could have his best game of the season and stop Benson, it’s more likely that Benson can have one of his better games of the season again.
Bengals Pass Rush vs. Browns Pass Blockers
While the first two matchups help the Bengals, this one is a reason for optimism in Cleveland. In their first matchup, McCoy was under pressure for 14 of his 43 drop backs, which led to nine incomplete passes, two sacks, and a total of 10 plays where McCoy ended up on the ground at the end of the play. This time around, Tony Pashos (+7.0 pass block) is at right tackle to protect McCoy instead of the duo of Artis Hicks (-7.9 pass block) and Oniel Cousins (-9.9 pass block) which is a significant improvement. Pashos has allowed just 11 overall pressures on 298 pass plays, compared to the combined 23 overall pressures that Hicks and Cousins allowed combined in just 139 pass plays. By far the best Bengal pass rusher has been Carlos Dunlap (+23.4 pass rush) who had three hits and two pressures in the first meeting. He hasn’t been practicing with a hamstring injury, and will likely see his playing time limited. McCoy has a PFF pass rating of +21.0 when not under pressure, and -4.5 when under pressure, so having less pressure on him will give him a better chance to succeed in the passing game.