How important is this game? The loser is likely looking at a top 5 pick and should begin their search for their next head coach. The winner is right back in the hunt in what is likely to a very tight race for the AFC north crown.
It wasn't long ago when the Cincinnati Bengals possessed one of the most potent offensive units in professional football. The combination of QB Carson Palmer and his dynamic receivers Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh were the envy of the league. Now this offense can barely muster a decent drive.
The Bengals offensive line is a shadow of itself. When LG Eric Steinbach was allowed to walk via free agency, he seemed to take the continuity of the line with him. The Bengals line is still capable and talented but they lack that valuable chemistry. It is hard to place individual blame on the continuous parade of hits Carson Palmer is taking because it isn't necessarily the individual but the group as a whole. They lack communication. This should improve over time but until it does, the offense is not likely to improve.
RB Rudi Johnson is no longer a Bengal and while the oft-injured Chris Perry is playing fairly well, he doesn't wear down defenders. With defenses showing little fear of a running game, more pressure is placed upon the quarterback and offensive line.
The line play has not allowed Carson to gain his rhythm as a passer. This puts more pressure on timing between quarterback and receiver. For various reasons, that timing was not able to come together this off season. Watching this offense reminds me more of the second preseason game than what you expect heading into the forth regular season game. Receivers and quarterback are not on the same page when it comes to adjustments made before the snap.
While the offense improved versus a very good Giants defense, opportunity was there to do more. It is just a matter of time before the pieces of the puzzle begin to fit. Look for the Bengals to use the dump down pass to keep the Browns defense in check.
When the Browns defense is attacking with aggression, they look like a very formidable defense. When they sit back waiting for the opposition to make a mistake, they end up looking like a mistake. Against the Bengals, you have to bring pressure. If you allow Palmer and his weapons to gain confidence, they will turn this one into a shootout.
OLB Alex Hall made his first start last week and although mistakes were made, he seemed to bring emotion to this defense. His ability to bring pressure to the pocket will be beneficial across the front seven. He is likely to garner more attention than the struggling OLB Kamerion Wimbley. This should help Wimbley's game and also help the guys up front.
NT Shaun Rodgers continues to play at a high level and he could be the difference in this one despite playing with an injured shoulder. Rodgers is a tremendous mismatch against Bengals C Kevin Cook. Shaun could find himself in the backfield throughout this contest.
The Browns have to find an answer at inside linebacker. D'Qwell Jackson is playing well but the Browns need that intimidating enforcer to fill the middle lanes. Andra Davis and Leon Williams give good effort but neither has shown to be the superior run stuffer. LB Beau Bell was drafted to be that man but knee surgery has stunted his growth. I believe Bell could see some action in this one.
The Browns secondary has struggled at times but they aren't the reason for the Browns woes. S Brodney Pool is playing the best football of his pro career. CB Brandon McDonald is making strides every game out. CB Eric Wright is giving up some plays but he has also avoided giving up the big play. This is a young secondary that will continue to improve throughout the season. If the Browns are to have success the young corners must disrupt the routes of the Bengals receivers, if they are running free, it will be a long day for the Browns defense.
It is official - the Browns have gone from one of the most dynamic offenses in football to the worst offense in football in just one season. While excuses abound, there truly is no excuse for the way this unit is playing.
The Browns offensive line has suffered through injuries to both guard positions and while the line is not playing at the same level as last year, they have been adequate. The return of RG Ryan Tucker will certainly help but as Tucker is set to return, it appears as if LG Eric Steinbach could be out for an undetermined amount of time. Look for the Browns to focus on opening up the running game this week with Tucker and LG Rex Hadnot filling the guard positions.
More focus on the ground game is terrific news for RB Jamal Lewis. Lewis is getting healthy and with the run blocking of Tucker and Hadnot paving the way, he could be in for a huge game against the Bengals defense.
The Browns continue to leave fans scratching their heads over running back Jerome Harrison. His two touches of the football has been the highlight of the Browns offense. His highlight reel plays have been followed by a return to the bench. This is one of the many reasons fans are questioning the coaching decisions.
Another reason is the play of quarterback Derek Anderson. Anderson struggled down the stretch last year. He looked horrible in the Pro Bowl. He struggled in preseason and through the first 3 games this year he has been the worst starting QB in the league. Despite those struggles Anderson was not pulled against the Ravens and he will be given another chance versus the Bengals.
Derek is struggling to read opposing defenses and becomes too focused on a single target. The mid to deep pass is what Derek does best but that has been taken away with deep help. For Derek to have success he must learn to use the entire field, use all of his available weapons and also use the pump fake to open up his intended target. It has been suggested that Anderson is likely on a short leash but unless it is a total meltdown, do not expect to see a change at quarterback this week.
The Browns receivers are also in a slump but two areas concern me most with this group. There has been a lack of effort in the downfield blocking and also a lack of discipline as they have been racking up penalties at an alarming rate. Drops will happen but penalties and poor blocking is deserving of time on the bench. If this unit wants to be special, they first must learn to take care of the little stuff and let the game come to them.
The Bengals defense is slowly piecing it together thanks in large part to rookie LB Keith Rivers. Rivers is slowly changing the mentality of this defense with his all-out hustle. A gang mentality is developing amongst this unit.
The play up front has also improved under the more attacking style of defense run by defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. Zimmer uses a bit of a 3-4/4-3 hybrid type defense. It is primarily a 4-3 but he mixes and matches to find something that he can use to his advantage. Zimmer is a very creative coach but his biggest impact is in the attitude of this defense. They like to get after people and make plays instead of hoping for a turnover to come their way.
The Bengals secondary is a bit banged up with injuries to CB Jonathon Joseph and SS Dexter Jackson. Look for Joseph to be ready however. He will likely find himself one on one against Braylon Edwards. This match up is vital for both teams. If Joseph can control Braylon without a lot of help, the Bengals will look to get after quarterback Derek Anderson but if Joseph is struggling the safety will be assigned to provide over the top help.