While the Browns have experienced a bit of a backslide in the last month, the Dawg Pound faithful can at least contend itself with the knowledge that there has no NFL faceplant this season quite like the one experienced by the Cincinnati Bengals over the last two months. After a 2-1 start, Cincinnati's team has lost 10 straight games, and while many of those games have been close, it's clear that the team that surprised everyone by winning the AFC North in 2009 is a distant memory.
You don't lose 10 games in a row with just one problem, but if there's one thing that has upended this team, it's their complete and total inability to run the ball – especially in the second half of the season. Using Football Outsiders' DVOA metric as a guide, we see that the Bengals ranked 21st in rushing efficiency in the first half of the season, and dead last ever since. Cedric Benson put up 124 yards against Buffalo's league-worst run defense a month ago, but in the last three games, he hasn't matched that total … combined.
Against three very solid run defenses – the Jets, the Saints, and the Steelers – Benson gained 41, 49, and 19 yards in that stretch. Now, these three teams bring different levels of run defense quality to the table, but like the Browns, they all play multiple front defenses (alternating between three and four linemen). I thought that the way in which Benson ran against the Saints might be the best preamble, because of the 19 rushing attempts he had in that game, only two were negative plays. Benson never got out of the cage, but for all that mediocre production, he managed to avoid loss after loss, and two of his runs were for short touchdowns.
That's an intriguing balance reflected by a few numbers. The Bengals are averaging just 3.81 running back yards per carry, but they've allowed stuffs (rushing plays of zero or negative yards) 21 percent of the time, which leaves them tied with several other teams in the middle of the pack. Here's the problem, though – while the Saints rank 13th in percentage of stuffs caused (20 percent), the Browns are dead last in the NFL in that same category with just 13 percent of rushing plays against them ending in stuffs.
One thing I noticed the Saints doing against the Bengals, and something Cleveland could benefit from as well, was putting a safety (in their case, Roman Harper) in the direction of the play. The Bengals don't disguise their intentions; generally speaking, when they send a fullback or H-back in set or motion, that's the way the play is run. The Saints played off of that to their benefit, especially on Benson's biggest loss of the day.
This four-yard loss came on first-and-10 from the New Orleans 10-yard line, with 11:45 left in the second quarter. The Bengals went with a two-tight end, two-receiver set in which Terrell Owens (81) motioned from side left to right H-back slot. This game away the rushing lane and tipped Harper (41) off to fill the gap. At the snap, and with that outside gap contained, Benson tried to bust it outside to the right – and that wasn't working, either. Harper and cornerback Tracy Porter (22) (who motioned over when Owens did) had the play read all the way.
They don't engage in a lot of offensive subterfuge, but the Bengals are one of the more dangerous bad teams in the NFL, because their run game gives them the potential for breakout plays even if it's been murderously ineffective in the larger view. The Browns had best be careful to avoid overlooking that positive play potential.