8:20 PM EST, NFL Network – Line: Browns -6, Over/Under: 44
When it comes to their sports, starting over has long been a familiar concept within the state of Ohio, particularly when it comes to football, where the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns meet tonight at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland with both teams in search of their first victory of the 2020 Season. Though they return the majority of their Coaching Staff, for the Bengals (0-1, T-Last in AFC North) 2019 was more like a Year Zero for the franchise, who finally hit the reset button on the sidelines, hiring Zac Taylor to spearhead the rebuild. However, Cincinnati was nothing short of dreadful in the young Head Coach’s first campaign in the Queen City, ultimately netting them the No. One Pick in the NFL Draft, which in this case allowed them to select reigning Heisman and National Champion Quarterback, Joe Burrow (76.3%, 5,671 YDS, 10.8 Y/A, 60 TD, 6 INT, 202.0 RATE in 2019). In many ways, this team is following the same trajectory of their neighbors to the north, tanking their way to the top of the Draft where they hope to transform their franchise on the arm of a charismatic, decorated Quarterback. Well, judging by how it’s gone for their opponent tonight, Taylor & Co no doubt hope for better results in both the short term and the long. With that said, there is reason for optimism in Cincinnati, for a variety of reasons, for even in a strange season in which the COVID-19 Pandemic has kept teams from around the league from preparing for the 2020 term as they are accustomed to, this group is better suited for success than most teams coming off a 2-14 finish.
And this is the difference between how Cleveland handled their nadir and how Cincinnati approach theirs; the Browns got even worse, slumping to a winless season (only the second in NFL History) largely due to a complete lack of talent and depth on both sides of the football, while that notion does not ring true of the Bengals. Not at all, folks, for as much as we’ve love to take shots at the Front Office, they’ve done a solid job of making sure that there are weapons for their young Franchise Quarterback to utilize, which should hep facilitate his growth in a more consistent manner than his counterpart tonight. Versatile Tailback, Joe Mixon (19 CAR, 69 YDS, 3.6 Y/C, 0 TD), was retained on a 4-year, $48 million contract extension, with the 24-Year Old looking to build upon consecutive 1,000-Yard Seasons. The Receiving Corps looks like it can be one of the most explosive in the league, with the continued development of Tyler Boyd (4 REC, 33 YDS, 8.3 Y/R, 0 TD), who is also fresh off back-to-back 1,000-Yard Campaigns, while veteran teammate, AJ Green (46 REC, 694 YDS, 15.1 Y/R, 6 TD in 2018) was convinced to return following a 2019 term that he missed entirely due to injury. Furthermore, Management continued to add weapons to the Offense, selecting former Clemson Wideout, Tee Higgins (59 REC, 1,167 YDS, 19.8 Y/R, 13 TD in 2019), 33rd Overall. Now if the injury-plagued, John Ross (2 REC, 17 YDS, 8.5 Y/R, 0 TD), could actually stay on the field long enough to make some plays there would be no shortage of weapons for Burrow to work with. However, what we all need to keep our collective eye on is the play of the Offensive Line, which was simply dreadful in 2019. Cincinnati tried to address this last year when they selected Offensive Tackle, Jonah Williams (11th Overall), only for him to miss the entirety of the season after undergoing shoulder surgery. As a result, they relinquished Forty-Eight Sacks (23rd Overall), with the Offensive Line as a whole proving to be one of the worst when it came to dealing with standard pressure; all but nine of their sacks were allowed against a simple four-man rush, with their opponents only blitzing on just over a third of their passing plays (34.2%). A healthy Williams should go a long way towards ensuring his Quarterbacks comfortability within the pocket, though it must be stated that this is one of the youngest position groups in the league, with three starters 26-Years Old or younger.
“I made too many mistakes to win the game… I missed A.J. on a deep ball, I missed John on a deep ball, I threw the interception — that just can’t happen.”Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals Quarterback
So with that in mind, how did the Bengals fair against the Los Angeles Chargers, who own one of the most staunch Defenses, in their Season Opener? Well, it was very much a mixed bag for Cincinnati in the 16-13 defeat, and that’s putting it mildly. First, the good in regards to Burrow; the Rookie opened things up with a 23-Yard Rushing Touchdown late in the First Quarter, and ultimately moved the hosts to Los Angeles’ 23-Yard Line in the waning moments, only for their Kicker, Randy Bullock, to pull up lame midway through the would-be go-ahead game-tying Field Goal, which veered wildly wide-right. However, Burrow took a lot of pressure early on, sustaining Three Sacks in the First Half, missing both Green and Ross on what appeared to be clear scoring opportunities, and one really poor decision on an intercepted shovel pass on the drive preceding the missed Field Goal. In the end, he was just 23-of-36 (63.8%) for 193 Yards and an Interception, leading an attack that managed just 315 Total Yards on Nineteen First Downs, was 6-of-14 on Third Down (42.8%), with Seven Penalties for a lost Forty-Four Yards. With that said, Taylor and the Coaching Staff should be satisfied with play of their Defense, which despite yielding 155 Rushing Yards, bent but refused to break, relegating them to 6-of-16 on Third Down (37.5%) and 0-of-2 on Fourth. Coming out of this contest, the Bengals may be without a trio of starters given the quick turnaround; Linebacker, Drue Tranquill, and Guard, Xavier Su’a-Filo, limped off the field with ankle injuries, while former Pro-Bowl Defensive Tackle, Geno Atkins, missed the matchup altogether thanks to an ailing shoulder that kept him out of practice last week.
Meanwhile, another regime change begins in all-too familiar fashion for the Browns (0-1, T-Last in AFC North), who once again hit the proverbial reset button in the Offseason. Instead of starting from scratch following a dismal campaign in which they had won zero games (a la 2017), Cleveland’s latest cleaning of house (in the Front Office and Coaching Staff) came following a disappointing 2019 in which they utterly failed to meet unjustified expectations. That’s right folks, two years removed from only the second winless campaign in NFL History, and Jimmy Haslam is firing executives and coaches wholesale because they didn’t make the Playoffs. On one hand, his team certainly showed growth in 2018, particularly down the stretch in winning five of their final seven contests. But as they typically due in sports, the addition of some major talents (and personalities) created a hype machine in Northern Ohio that never really felt credible at any point last season, and as a result, the franchise found themselves in a familiar position: once again outside of the Postseason at 6-10, with more questions than answers. In a league in which continuity and consistency are the hallmarks of virtually every successful franchise, these guys are the most atypical of all, with the only constant proving to be change. Death, taxes, and the Browns starting over… that’s all that is guaranteed in this life, folks.
So now that we’ve provided some needed context, how has Cleveland changed in 2020, you ask? Well, they’re REALLY hoping that they’ve found the right Head Coach this time around, because the unmitigated disaster that was the brief Freddie Kitchens Era would best be left out of the franchise’s history books. Last season, this one of the most inefficient and undisciplined teams in the league, on both of sides of the football. With Kitchens calling the plays, the Offense could muster just 20.9 Points per Game (22nd Overall), committed Twenty-Eight Turnovers (26th Overall), and was penalized on a whopping 122 occasions for a lost 1,016 Yards, which both ranked as fourth-most in the NFL. Sophomore Quarterback, Baker Mayfield (53.8%, 189 YDS, 4.10 NY/A, 1 TD, 1 INT), whom as we touched upon earlier was selected No. One Overall in the 2018 Draft regressed mightily in his first full term as the starter, completing just 59.4% of his passes for 3,827 Yards on 6.17 Net Yards per Attempt, with nearly as many Interceptions (21) as Touchdowns (22). Standing just 6-1, Mayfield requires a clean pocket to operate within more so than most Quarterbacks, and the Offensive Line in Cleveland rarely provided such a luxury, allowing Forty Sacks, or in other words 7.0% of his dropbacks, which was in stark contrast to his showing as a Rookie, in which he was dropped just twenty-five times on just 4.9% of his dropbacks. Granted, Kitchens’ inept playcalling certainly had an effect in this regard, but the Line has to be held culprit too, and it was as the Front Office aggressively upgraded the unit in the Offseason, adding former Pro Bowl Right Tackle, Jack Conklin, in Free Agency, and selecting Jedrick Wills Tenth Overall in this year’s Draft. As far as the playcalling, that will be up to new Head Coach, Kevin Stefanski, who had spent the previous season and a half coordinating the Minnesota Vikings’ Offense. Highly regarded in many circles round the league, Stefanski was lauded for his balanced approach in Minnesota, which allowed him to simplify things for Kirk Cousins, leading to a playoff birth. Efficiency should be the keyword for this unit moving forward in 2020, with the skipper looking to lean more on the running game led by Tailback, Nick Chubb (10 CAR, 60 YDS, 6.0 Y/C, 0 TD), which should only be bolstered with the addition of Tight End, Austin Hooper (2 REC, 15 YDS, 7.5 Y/R, 0TD), in Free Agency. And as far as the outspoken and flamboyant tandem of Odell Beckham (3 REC, 22 YDS, 7.3 Y/R, 0 TD) and Jarvis Landry (5 REC, 61 YDS, 12.2 Y/R, 0 TD) at Receiver? They’ll get theirs too, but it will come within the flow of the Offense, not like it did last season in which it appeared that Mayfield was attempting to force-feed the former far to frequently.
“Very disappointed, obviously… But credit goes to the Baltimore Ravens. They deserved to win. They outcoached us, they outplayed us. We did a lot of things losing teams do.”Kevin Stefanski, Cleveland Browns Head Coach
And now with all that in mind, how did the Browns kick off this bold new era, you ask? By making the same old mistakes in Sunday’s embarrassing 38-6 loss at the Baltimore Ravens. Granted, the Ravens are a damn good side who have made a lot of teams look dreadful over the past year, but for all their talk about changing for the better, this current incarnation of Cleveland was indistinguishable from the one that preceded it. Let’s take a moment to run down the numbers, shall we? With the contest relatively close at the end of the First Quarter, the visitors were outscored by twenty-eight points the rest of the way en route to amassing just 327 Total Yards on Twenty First Downs, and despite rushing for a solid 138 Yards on Twenty-Seven Carries, they just couldn’t get much of anything else going. They committed Eight Penalties for a loss of Eighty Yards. They were a miserable 3-of-12 on Third Down (25.0%) and 0-of-3 on Fourth. They lost the Turnover Battle three to one. They missed a pair of Field Goal Attempts. They even failed on a Fake Punt. Stop us if this all sounds familiar, folks… And then there was Mayfield, who really needs a strong start to the season, but fell into the same old bad habits against a vicious Ravens Defense; the third-year Quarterback completed just 21-of-39 Attempts (53.8%) for 189 Yards, a Touchdown and an Interception, oftentimes forcing the football into tight coverage towards the aforementioned Beckham, who was targeted TEN times, but only hauled in Three Catches for Twenty-Two Yards. Coming out of this affair, the Browns may be without a number of bodies on a short week; the aforementioned Wills left his first game with a lower leg injury, along with Linebacker Jordan Phillips (knee), while the Secondary was depleted without the services of Defensive Backs Greedy Williams, Kevin Johnson, and Rookie Safety, Grant Delpit.