First off, apologies. I’ve been absent for two weeks adjusting to a new schedule that features a lot of hockey broadcasts and a fair amount of travel. Now settled in on a nice long home-stand, it’s time to get back to football. I should mention that I have indeed still been making picks for each game and that my record now sits at 83-51, good for a winning percentage of .619.
Onto tonight’s game.
It’s not that I don’t believe the Browns can win; really I think they have a chance. It’s more about what they lost in recent weeks than what their win-loss record says. Now I know that at the end of the day the latter is all that matters, but the former just can’t be ignored.
Lost in their resounding win over the nemesis Pittsburgh Steelers was the loss of Alex Mack. Now the Browns organization and their fans didn’t fail to recognize what Mack brought to the table. All the California-product has done is start every snap at center from week one in his 2009 rookie season through midway of week six of this current campaign. That’s 86 straight starts. It’s the reason why the Browns were quick to match the Jaguars’ five-year $42 million offer made to Mack in place of Cleveland’s transition tag this past offseason. Beyond that, Mack is great at what he does. Take for instance the Brown’s rushing attack; in the five games in which Mack started, the Browns rushed for 732 yards, or 146.4 yards per game, a mark that would currently rank 3rd in the NFL. In the three games since Mack’s injury, the Browns have rushed for just 158 yards or a pitiful 52.7 yards per game, something that would translate to dead last in the league if it represented a season average.
Why does it matter? The Browns are 2-1 without Mack! Well that 2-1 record comes against Jacksonville, Oakland and Tampa. The loss came at the hands of the previously and since win-less Jaguars and it wasn’t close. Moving forward, the Browns need to supply better balance in their offense if they want to beat teams like the Bengals, Texans, Bills, Colts and Ravens. Now Josh Gordon will return in week 12 against Atlanta, following the conclusion of his 10-game suspension, so there are much-needed reinforcements on the way, but even still, Brian Hoyer is not the type of quarterback who win games while throwing the ball north of 40 times. He’s been solid for sure, but Brady/Manning/Rodgers he is not.
This all figures in nicely for the Bengals. What do they struggle at most? Stopping the run. Who has already returned to give their offense a much-needed shot in the arm? AJ Green, the team’s best player. Where are the Browns most-suspect defensively? Stopping the run. Sure Cincy will be without Gio Bernard another week, but did you see what Jeremy Hill did to the Jaguars last week? 24 carries, 154 yards, and a pair of scores. Keep in mind the Jaguars rank seven spots higher than an injury-depleted Browns run defense, giving up a little less than 17-less yards per game. The Bengals facing a poor run defense coupled with weapons on the edges like A.J. Green and Mohamed Sanu, and you’ve got an equation for a long night for the Cleveland defense.
One thing Cleveland can take solace in, especially given the current state of the rushing attack is that the Bengals are just .7 yards better per game than the Browns are at defending the run. If there’s a week to revitalize your ground game, this would be it. Keeping Andy Dalton and co on the sideline is what the Browns will have to do if they want to win this game, and a strong showing from the running backs is the surest method to produce desirable results.
Look for Cincinnati to make the Browns beat them through the air. Thanks to largely steady play from Brian Hoyer, the Browns are not a disaster in that department, but they will be without Jordan Cameron once again as he recovers from concussion. The Benals secondary and pass-rush have both been disappointing this season-injuries and losing Mike Zimmer to the Vikings may have something to do with that-but expect Cincinnati to try and compensate for their lack of playmaking with consistently bringing more than their standard four-man rushes. Hoyer has done well in the earlier stages of this season in such scenarios but much more so when a play-action set up by a viable running game allows him to roll out in moving pockets. If the Bengals take away the run, I have much less faith in the hometown Hoyer’s chances as a strictly dropback passer.
One last stat to note: Cleveland has lost 17 straight road games within the division dating back to 2008. To put that in perspective, over the course of six-plus seasons, there have been 11 different starting quarterbacks, five different head coaches, five different GM’s, and two different owners that have been unable to figure out how to win the most important games of the regular season. Already o-1 in that department this season, the Browns will have just two more chances to right the ship this year, something they’ll need to do if they want to contend for a playoff spot this season. I’d like to say their due, but I think trend has one or two more gasps left before the Browns have fully turned the corner.
Bengals 28 Browns 24
Tim Mullhaupt (@TimakaHines) is the editor of The Buckets Blog.