The Cleveland Browns are a mere 1.5 games out of first place and have a chance to make up a game as they travel to Cincinnati this week. With the benefit of the bye week, the Browns had two weeks to prepare for one of their most meaningful games in recent memory — they haven’t won in Cincinnati since 2008, when Ryan Fitzpatrick was quarterbacking the Bengals. While history isn’t in their favor, the Browns hope their recent performance is more encouraging, after hanging tough with the Chiefs at Arrowhead and taking care of Baltimore at home.
At home, the Bengals must be frustrated after dropping a second straight overtime, close, turnover-riddled road loss. They’ll try to stave off the second place Browns at home and create some distance in the AFC North standings before heading into their bye. Facing a defensively-oriented Browns team, Cincinnati will need to eliminate the offensive mistakes that have cost them over the last two weeks if they hope to stay atop the AFC North much longer.
Blitzing Andy Dalton
Since winning AFC Player of the Month honors and posting the best PFF grade of his career against the New York Jets, Andy Dalton has faltered. It’s easy to spin a narrative that Dalton is simply an up-and-down QB in a valley, but we’re Pro Football Focus, so we’ll dig into the performances to isolate the issue as best we can. Let’s start with a pair of caveats. First, Miami and Baltimore are in the Top 4 of our pass rushing rankings overall, so it’s fair to hypothesize that a better pass rush has impacted Dalton’s play. Either the higher quality opponents or poor form from the offensive line has led to more pressure for Dalton than he’s used to. He was pressured 32.2% of the time in Weeks 9 and 10 combined, and just 25.6% of the time In Weeks 1 through 8. Second, he’s dropped back to pass more in the last two games (118 times) than any other two-game stretch of his career. In fact, prior to Week 9’s 60 drop-back game, he topped 45 drop-backs in a game just nine times in 42 career appearances.
The bulk of Dalton’s struggles since the Jets game have been against effective blitzes from the Dolphins and Ravens. Out of his 118 drop-backs in the last two games, 39 have been blitzed. He received a combined -7.7 grade against the blitz in the last two weeks compared to a +1.4 when not blitzed. All three of his interceptions against the Dolphins came against the blitz, and he completed just 4-of-14 passes against the Ravens’ blitz. When these teams met in Week 4, the Browns blitzed 15 times on 46 drop-backs. Dalton was 6-of-14 with a -1.7 grade on those snaps, even though pressure was generated on just seven of them.
A 3-4 team that uses the 3-4-4 and 2-4-5 alignments almost exclusively, the Browns rush five or more out of the base 3-4-4 most often, bringing extra rushers 56.6% of the time. In their nickel 2-4-5 sets, the they only bring extra rushers 23.6% of the time, which works out to an overall blitz percentage of 36.7%, a bit more than the NFL average of 31.8%. If the Bengals opt to run a lot of 12 personnel, tendencies suggest the Browns might blitz even more often, as they’ve blitzed 51.9% of the time against that offensive package. While the Bengals’ offensive line stonewalled the Browns’ pass rush in Week 4, things could be different after Cleveland watched two weeks of successful blitzing against the Bengals. One key difference could be the return of Jabaal Sheard, who missed Week 4, but is the best pass rushing OLB Cleveland offers, with a 10.6 Pass Rushing Productivity rating, which would be Top 15 if he had enough snaps to qualify. Whoever is coming, the Browns might be wise to dial up the blitz to confuse and disrupt Dalton and the Bengals’ passing attack.
Joe Haden vs. A.J. Green, Part 2
The first time these two went head to head this season, Joe Haden got the best of A.J. Green. Historically, Green and Haden have been a great, up-and-down competitive rivalry. In Week 4, Haden saw Green targeted 10 times in his coverage, but allowed only five catches for 41 yards, and broke up two passes. A week later, Aqib Talib did a similar job holding Green to five catches. Since then? The Bengals’ star receiver has posted five straight games with over 100 yards receiving, though that’s come along with four bad drops limiting his overall receiving grade. His 113 targets leads the league, working out to an average of 11.3 targets per game, including 2.5 deep shots per game. He’ll get his targets against the Browns, and the question is whether Haden will again show up to slow him down.
Haden has been a very streaky cornerback in 2013, according to our grades. He’s coming off of a +2.4 performance against Baltimore before the bye week, but prior to that had four straight negative games. He hasn’t been targeted very often, though, suggesting QBs might be avoiding him a bit. Since the Bengals threw double-digit passes his way in Week 4, he’s averaged 5.6 targets per game, and hasn’t allowed more than 48 receiving yards in that stretch. The primary knock has been touchdowns, of which he’s allowed two in the last three games he’s played. Despite the recent woes, Haden’s Week 4 and Week 9 performances remind us that he can be a shutdown cornerback, and he’s simply not allowing a ton of yards this year. His 0.75 Yards per Coverage Snap is fifth-best in the league. While the Bengals have seen other weapons emerge in the passing game in the form of Marvin Jones (coming off a rough week) and Giovani Bernard, Haden vs. Green could go a long way in dictating Dalton’s success this Sunday.
Who Steps Up for the Browns Offense?
Since the quarterback carousel began in Week 3, the Browns haven’t had much consistency from their offensive weapons. But more often than not, at least one skill player has stepped up with a big game. Most of that production has come from Jordan Cameron and Josh Gordon, but last week it was Davone Bess and Greg Little with big receiving games. They’ve only had one rushing performance graded better than +1.0 all year and it came from Chris Ogbonnaya in Week 6. With the Bengals boasting the second-highest graded run defense in the league, on paper it looks like the Browns will lean on Jason Campbell and the passing game.
The last time they met, Cameron had a great game as a receiver with 10 catches on 12 targets for 91 yards. He hasn’t been nearly as productive since then and Campbell has only thrown to him seven times as a starter. The latest Cleveland quarterback has shown an inclination to throw to receivers and halfbacks more than tight ends. Receivers have accounted for 59% of his targets, and halfbacks 26%. The Bengals have been mostly solid in coverage this year but have been vulnerable to hitches, in routes, and slants, suggesting a tendency to try to keep double moves in front of them. That plays into Campbell’s hands, as 70.4% of his passes have been aimed less than 10 yards downfield. Campbell has only completed nine of his 21 passes deeper than that, but will test the Bengals’ short coverage. He could need his skill players to step up and produce after the catch to keep the offense moving against a tough Bengals D.
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