8:30 PM EST, CBS/NFL Network – Line: Cincinnati -6
Bitter in-state rivals face off tonight with the lead in the AFC North on the line, as the Cincinnati Bengals host the surprising Cleveland Browns on Thursday Night Football. Tonight’s meeting is a significant one, for this is the first time that these teams have met with both combatants above .500 this late in the season since 1986. With a victory tonight, the Browns (5-3) can take another step towards advancing to the postseason, something they’ve only done once since returning to Cleveland in 1999 (2002). However, that will involve doing something they’ve struggled mightily to do of late, which is win within the division on the road; losers of seventeen consecutive road games, the last time this team has beaten an AFC North opponent on the road was back in 2008 against these same Bengals. Winners of four of their last five contests, including two straight, Mike Pettine’s charges have largely overachieved in 2014, in spite of a rash of injuries, suspensions, and the controversy of a certain Quarterback drafted in the First Round this past May, lingering on the bench. Reigning receiving leader Josh Gordon (1,646 yards) was suspended ten games for running afoul of the league’s Substance Abuse Policy, while starting Center Alex Mack (knee/ankle), Tailback Ben Tate (leg), and Tight End Jordan Cameron (concussion) have all missed time, and in Mack’s case, the two-time Pro Bowler will miss the remainder of the campaign on Injured Reserve. With that said, the Browns have been in nearly every game this season, and after years of ineptitude, are finally coming out on the positive end of such contests; six of their eight outings have been decided by ten points or less, with four resulting in victory.
Much of Cleveland’s success can be attributed to the rapid improvement of their offense, particularly under the stewardship of New Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who has done a tremendous job in his first season with the franchise. Pettine hired Shanahan with Johnny Manziel in mind, the popular Heisman-winner who was selected with the Twenty-Second Overall Pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. However, thanks to the play of the incumbent Brian Hoyer, Johnny Football has been relegated to the sidelines, as the Browns offense has in turn flourished. Through eight games, Hoyer and Co. are averaging 23.1 points (16th overall) on 363.1 total yards (14th overall), including 251.8 through the air (14th overall) on a healthy 7.2 net yards per attempt (5th overall), and another 111.3 on the ground (15th overall) on 3.6 yards per carry (28th overall). The sixth-year journeyman has enjoyed a career year, completing 57.9% of his passes for 2,104 yards, ten touchdowns and four interceptions, while averaging 8.0 yards per attempt. The Ohio native was signed last season by the previous regime, and immediately injected this offense, and by extension the team as a whole, with an injury that has been missing form the position for ages; before tearing multiple ligaments in his knee last season, Hoyer was undefeated in his three starts for the Browns. Cleveland has also showed staunch faith in their rushing attack, which has been Shanahan’s bread and butter throughout his career as a coach; while not the most prolific on the ground, the Browns have been very persistent in that regard, averaging 31.0 attempts per game, third-most in the NFL. Ben Tate, Isaiah Crowell, and Rookie Terrence West have each received plenty of carries in a crowded backfield, with Crowell proving to be the most explosive of the trio, averaging 36.6 yards per game on 4.9 yards per carry, and a team-high four touchdowns. It should be interesting to see how this unit continues to develop with the impending return of Gordon next week alongside Cameron, who will miss tonight’s tilt with the aforementioned concussion.
On the flip-side, Pettine’s defense has improved with each passing week, progressing from a bend-but-don’t-break outfit to a more complete unit. In his first season as the Browns’ Head Coach, Pettine has personally overseen the development of his defense, which while loaded with talent, has been subject to changing philosophies and schemes over the past few years. Pettine served as Rex Ryan’s defensive Coordinator for four years from 2009 to 2012, before spending one season in Buffalo in the same capacity in 2013. Through eight games, the Browns have allowed 21.1 points (8th overall) on 391.7 yards (28th overall), including 252.1 yards versus the pass (18th overall) on 6.4 net yards per attempt (14th overall), and another 139.6 versus the rush (30th overall) on 4.8 yards per carry (29th overall). And while they’ve been downright bad against the run this season, they have improved in that area over the past two games, allowing 92.0 yards in victories over the Raiders and Buccaneers, compared to 155.5 over the first six games of the campaign. Thankfully, the equalizer has been turnovers, which Cleveland has been very adept at forcing; the Browns rank ninth in the league with thirteen takeaways, including ten interceptions (4th overall). With half of the schedule in the books, the pass rush has already amassed seventeen sacks, creating havoc for opposing Quarterbacks which the Secondary has lived off of. Third-year Safety Tashaun Gipson has been a bonafide ballhawk with six interceptions, adding to his total of twelve in twenty-six starts, including four over the last three games. And we haven’t even mentioned Joe Haden, who after making his first Pro Bowl in 2013 has been excellent despite no interceptions; Quarterbacks have gone out of their way to avoid the Cornerback, who remains a fixture with 41 tackles and eight defended passes.
Meanwhile, the Bengals (5-2-1) continue to set the pace in the AFC North, holding a slim lead on the division after winning each of their last two games. Coming out of their Bye Week, Marvin Lewis’ charges struggled mightily with a disappointing tie at home to the Panthers bookended by blowout losses to the Patriots and Colts, in which they were outscored by a whopping 53 points. However, with a narrow 27-24 victory over the Ravens two weeks ago decided on a very controversial Pass Interference Penalty in the waning moments, this team was able to collectively pick themselves up off the mat. Most recently, they were able to build off such a significant victory as they welcomed the lowly Jaguars to Paul Brown Stadium, issuing a 33-23 beating that was a bit closer than the final score would have indicated; Cincinnati accumulated a very balanced 423 yards, with 232 through the air and 191 on the ground, but committed a pair of turnovers that kept the visitors alive. And that’s oftentimes been what has decided their fate this season; Andy Dalton and Co. have turned the ball over ten times this season (11th overall), while the defense has racked up thirteen takeaways (9th overall). Furthermore, in their five victories the Bengals are plus-five in turnover differential, but in their other three outings have mustered a minus-two difference. With that said, this team has defeated the Browns in each of their last five meetings in Cincinnati, and looks to be on the fast track towards advancing to the Playoffs for the fourth consecutive season.
More so than ever, the Bengals’ offense has revolved around Andy Dalton, the fourth-year Quarterback who Management resigned to an extension shortly before the season began. While he certainly has his critics, Dalton has proved successful under Center, where he has amassed a 34-20-1 record as the starter, and taken this team to the postseason in each of his first three campaigns, something that the Queen City hasn’t seen in franchise history. However, pressure is quickly mounting on him to win in the Playoffs, where he and the Bengals have been one-and-done in each of the past three years. Thus far, Dalton has completed a career-high 64.9% of his attempts for 234.3 yards per game on 7.6 yards per attempt, also a career-best, but has tossed only eight touchdowns to six interceptions. Turnovers have been an issue, for he has seen his interception total increase with each passing season, including a career-worst twenty in 2013. Dalton got off to a very efficient start this season, throwing just one interception in the first four outings, but since then has been picked off five times over the the following four contests. Granted, injuries have taken a toll on this side of the ball, with perennial Pro Bowl Receiver AJ Green missing three consecutive games with a bad case of Turf Toe. Coming into the league together in 2011, Green and Dalton have developed an excellent chemistry together, hooking up on 280 occasions for 4,191 yards (15.0 yards per catch), and a whopping 32 touchdowns. The former Fourth Overall Pick returned last weekend against Jacksonville, and put together a modest day, registering just three catches for 44 yards and a touchdown. Sophomore Tailback Giovani Bernard has been nicked up as well, and is listed as Doubtful for tonight’s clash after missing last week’s game with a nagging hip injury. Nevertheless, Cincinnati has been very effective rushing the ball, ranking ninth in the league in both attempts (28.9) and yards (121.4), and first in rushing scores (12). Rookie Jeremy Hill has been stellar in his limited opportunities, racking up 349 yards on 74 carries for 4.7 yards per attempt,including a career-high 154 against the Jags last Sunday.Look for him to get a wealth of carries against Cleveland’s beleaguered run defense.
However, that injury bug hasn’t been exclusive to the offensive side of the ball, for Lewis’ defense has experienced many pains throughout the first half of the season. Cincinnati could be without four starters on defense, with Cornerback Leon Hall (concussion), Linebackers Vontaze Burfict (knee), and Rey Maualuga (hamstring), and Defensive End Robert Geathers (shoulder) each listed as doubtful or worse. In addition, this unit may also be without the services of Cornerbacks Terence Newman (chest) and this year’s First Round Pick Darqueze Dennard (hamstring), leaving the Secondary dangerously thin on healthy bodies. Without so many quality players this group simply haven’t lived up to the standard that they’ve set over the past two seasons. With half of the campaign in the books, the Bengals have allowed 23.4 points (17th overall) on total yards (394.9), and have been the third-worst defense against the run (139.6), and next-to-last in yards per carry (4.8). Since their Bye Week, Cincinnati has been gashed for an average of 155.4 yards on the ground, coinciding with a 2-2-1 record over that span. Furthermore, due to their collective inability to stop the run, Lewis has seen his defense relinquish the third-most First Downs in the league. Simply put, the defense can’t get off the field because they can’t get the offense into unfavorable Down and Distance situations. Like their counterparts tonight, the Bengals have been able to circumvent those issues by forcing turnovers, with thirteen takeaways, including ten interceptions. Six different players have logged a pick, with versatile Safety Greg Iloka totaling three. Iloka has received plenty of snaps with all the injuries in the defensive backfield, and was responsible for drawing the Offensive Pass Interference Penalty that ultimately decided the victory over Baltimore two weeks ago.