Perhaps the worst thing to occur during the early stages of the Browns' loss in Cincinnati was an injury to Bengals' star wideout Terrell Owens. The loss of the star-crossed receiver confirmed that the usually erratic Bengals' passing offense would be replaced by a steady dose of Cedric Benson.
Some 31 carries and 150 yards later, the Browns' defense was begging to be thrown on. However, in a return to their 2009 playoff roots, the Bengals simply overpowered the Browns' suddenly shaky front seven – holding the ball for 38 minutes and virtually sucking the life out of a tired defense.
Of course, this is not a new trend for the Browns' defenders.
The past month of games has seen opposing offenses emphasize the run. Last week against the Bills, the Browns' run defense was continually gouged between the tackles. Sunday's game more resembled parts of last month's Carolina contest, as the Bengals' rushers hit the edges of the Browns' defensive wall for a series of consistent gains.
"It's consistency at the line of scrimmage," Browns' coach Eric Mangini said. "There's some of these outside plays where we're allowing them to reach us and get the edge. And there's that little bit of overcompensation when you get reached, and they start playing you wide and they end up hitting it in the C-gap. But, to me, those fits need to be more consistent across the board. It wasn't one defined thing, there were multiple things there that need to get fixed."
Many of the Browns' current problems among the front seven can be traced back to a simple lack of depth. Injuries to starters Scott Fujita and Robaire Smith have gradually impacted the Browns' rush defense. Throughout the entirety of Sunday's game, the combination of defensive ends Brian Schaefering and Derrick Robinson were ineffective at shedding opposing blockers. Robinson, in particular, was consistently pushed out of plays, which at times created massive running lanes for Cedric Benson.
This theme was perfectly illustrated early in the second quarter as Cedric Benson ran untouched for an 18-yard score.
On the play, the Bengals ran off left tackle against the Browns' 3-4 look. The Bengals' Nate Livings pushed Robinson inside, while tight end Jermaine Gresham easily handled Jason Trusnik on the edge. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth was free to charge up field and block Browns' safety Abe Elam out of the play, while both David Bowens and Eric Wright over pursued to the ball carrier.
As Mangini explained in his post game press conference, the result of the play was a total defensive breakdown.
"That hit in the C-gap, and we got too wide on the edge there," he said. "Look, you shouldn't go 18 yards untouched, regardless of whether the edge is set, or not set. Just like we talked about with Peyton, it's not just the outside linebacker — it's the safeties, it's the corners. There's other chances to make that play, and it shouldn't go for 18 yards."
This trend continued for much of the afternoon. The Browns' defensive line was unable to create much of a push throughout the game, which freed the Bengals' interior blockers to get downfield. The likes of Elam and inside linebackers Eric Barton and Chris Gocong were continually punished by linemen who held a near 100-pound weight advantage.
Although the Bengals' game plan wasn't much of a surprise to the Browns' coaching staff, it was obvious that there was little the defense could do to stop the bleeding.
"Yeah. It wasn't just the end of the game this week, it was throughout the course of the game," Mangini said. "We tried different things, but at the end of the day you've got to go up and fit it, build the wall, set the edge — things that we've done well over the course of the season, and it shouldn't be any different now."
After the game, some key members of the Browns' defense sounded almost placid regarding their performance.
"They just played a good game," Browns' nose tackle Ahtyba Rubin said. "They had some guys out. Ochocinco or whatever. They just planned on running the ball. Hats off to them."
As to the run defense's recent slump, Rubin offered the following.
"Teams are scheming better," he said. "They know we aren't having very good success stopping the run, so they are making conscious efforts to run the ball."
Veteran linebacker David Bowens echoed these fundamental flaws.
"But if a guy misses here and there, they have creases," he said. "Those guys are good running backs and the offensive line is massive. We have to do a better job as players just doing our job, getting off blocks and making tackles."
Easier said than done, as evidenced by the Browns' poor effort against the run. In a departure from earlier in the season, it appears that as the season draws to a close and the weather turns colder, the Browns' rush defense is simply wearing down. The combination of injuries, exhaustion and opposing schemes have taken its toll on what previously looked like a team strength.
Of course, this development couldn't be happening at a worse time for the Browns, as they are now entrenched in the depths of December football.
"In my mind, we should be able to stop the run and run the ball effectively, regardless of who we play," Mangini said. "That's something that has to be a big part of playing in this division. Playing at this time of year, you have to be able to do those two things."