The Browns, presumed to be in rebuilding mode after trading Trent Richardson last week, won their first game of the year behind QB Brian Hoyer, raising expectations for things to come. Led by Josh Gordon’s triumphant return and a big game from Jordan Cameron, Hoyer’s 54th pass of the day sealed the come-from-behind victory and made some reconsider their opinion on the team. They’ll face a stiffer test this week against the Bengals, whose defense forced Aaron Rodgers into his worst grade (-2.0) since Week 1 of 2010 (-2.7).
The Bengals played a game of massive point swings with the Packers, but ultimately had the last word in a competitive encounter. The Packers came into the game as one of the worst pass rushing and coverage units in the league, but managed five sacks and eight more pressures against the Bengals. This week, the Bengals will face a stronger front seven, as Cleveland boasts a Top-10 graded pass rush and a run defense unit that is the pride of their outfit.
So now Cleveland will be looking to build on last week’s momentum with a signature win to get back in the mix in the AFC North, while the Bengals are hoping to avoid a letdown game after their big comeback. Here are three matchups that may change the course of the game.
Bengals Pass Rush vs. Browns OL and Brian Hoyer
In Hoyer’s first start, his offensive line provided protection that Brandon Weeden could have only dreamed of while he was starting. Weeden saw pressure on a whopping 48.5% of his drop-backs, while Hoyer had to contend with it just 21% of the time.
This week, he’ll deal with the Bengals, whose 22nd-ranked pass rush is a surprise after they were fifth-best in that category last year. Geno Atkins hasn’t been the unstoppable force that we’ve grown accustomed to, managing only eight quarterback pressures in 110 pass rushes so far, but will be looking to get back on track facing a combination of Alex Mack, John Greco, and Oniel Cousins. It would benefit the Bengals to get Atkins matched up with Cousins, whose 93.8 Pass Blocking Efficiency ranks 10th-worst of all guards.
Michael Johnson has been the top pass rusher for the Bengals, and his +8.1 pass rush grade makes him our second-best graded 4-3 defensive end for this year. His clash with perennially elite pass blocker Joe Thomas will be his greatest test so far this year, though he did pick up a sack on him last year. At the other end spot, Carlos Dunlap hasn’t deliver the kind of pressure we expect from him, with his 6.4 Pass Rushing Productivity well off his 10.3 in 2012 and 12.6 in 2011. He has a chance to get back on track against Mitchell Schwartz, whose 89.2 PBE is third-lowest of all tackles.
For the Browns, it will be critical to continue to keep pressure away from Hoyer. Last week they utilized a quick passing attack, which helped to mitigate pressure as Hoyer averaged 2.35 Seconds to Attempt. When pressure got home, Hoyer’s accuracy slipped to 42.9%, and he completed just three passes on 12 pressured snaps. How they manage this aspect of the game to be crucial.
Josh Gordon vs. Adam Jones and Terrence Newman
Hoyer’s first start coincided with Josh Gordon’s first 2013 game. The oft-troubled Gordon hauled in 10 of 17 targets for 146 yards in a big return from suspension, and added a 22-yard run on an end around. A vast majority of Gordon’s work comes outside, lining up wide left for 10 of his targets and 42 of his 72 snaps last week, and wide right for 5 targets and 24 snaps. Due to his alignment tendency, combined with the Browns’ proclivity for 11-personnel (used over 60% of the time last week), Gordon will likely find himself matched up frequently with Adam Jones on the left side or Terrence Newman on the right.
Avoiding Leon Hall, who typically covers the slot against three-receiver sets, could be a big strategic advantage for Cleveland. Hall slowed down the previously unstoppable Randall Cobb last week, and will often find himself matched up with Davone Bess this week. Instead, Gordon will put the Bengals’ outside cornerbacks to the test. Jones has surrendered a 78.6% completion rate, and after a tough week against the Packers, Newman has allowed a 70% rate. Jones has been especially susceptible to quick routes — outs, slants, ins, and comebacks — and can expect to see a lot of those routes if last week was any indication. If Hoyer can get the passes to Gordon, he might find he has an advantage on those quick routes. On the other side, Jones and Newman will look to take away the quick throws and let the pass rush do its work.
Giovani Bernard vs. Browns Linebackers
Giovani Bernard has been one of the most dynamic and productive playmakers on offense this year, and because his playing time has been limited, not everyone knows that. He is in a time-share with BenJarvus Green-Ellis, but Bernard is blowing away Green-Ellis’ productivity per touch. Bernard is easily the Bengals’ top graded runner, with the sixth-highest run grade for running backs in the league, and has a Top 15 receiving grade among running backs. The biggest question has been opportunity. An answer may have come against Green Bay, when he was in on 53.5% of Bengals snaps, up from 37% in Week 1. He was good for 99 yards on 14 touches in Week 3, including an average of 2.4 yards after contact on rushing plays, and 52 yards after the catch on passing plays.
While his 21.4 Elusive Rating isn’t quite elite, his 5 yards per carry is sixth for running backs with at least 22 carries, and his 14 yards per catch is fourth for backs with at least six catches. Bernard uses his speed and vision effectively, often outrunning defenders instead of shaking them outright, as he did on a 31-yard touchdown catch against Pittsburgh in Week 2.
This week, he faces off against a strong group of linebackers in Cleveland. Jabaal Sheard, D’Qwell Jackson, and Paul Kruger each have strong run defense grades, and have contributed 20 run stops against 90 total running plays against the Browns. That trio is just part of the Browns’ run stopping machine, as they have stopped 52% of running plays they have faced this year. In the case that Sheard can’t play with his knee sprain, Barkevius Mingo will see more playing time. There’s not much of a track record on Mingo, but the unproven rookie has big shoes to fill, as Sheard is Cleveland’s top graded defender so far.
Bernard has had a major impact in the Bengals’ two wins this year. With the tough sledding ahead for the running game, the Bengals may get him going in the passing game instead. Cleveland has shown some vulnerability against running backs in the passing game. They have allowed completions on 18 of 20 passes to running backs for 92 yards, and all four starting linebackers have missed at least two tackles in pass defense.
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