Browns vs. Bengals: Changes Pat Shurmur and the Browns Must Make vs. Cincinnati
When the Browns faced the Bengals for the first time this season in Week 1, Cleveland fans were expecting a victory over a team with myriad off-field problems that was supposed to be just as underdeveloped—if not more so—than the Browns were.
Unfortunately, what they got was a highly frustrating 27-17 loss fueled by rookie mistakes, penalties and the possible underestimation of what is turning out to be a very solid Bengals team.
It was a sad day for the Browns faithful who, while used to being repeatedly knocked around by AFC North powerhouses Pittsburgh and Baltimore, seemed crushed at the thought of not even being able to beat the formerly hapless, troubled Bengals.
So here we are again in Week 12, where the Browns will get their rematch against the Bengals, this time in Cincinnati at Paul Brown Stadium.
A lot has changed for these teams since that first coin flip back in September. Andy Dalton wasn't even the starting QB for Cincinnati in that game for one, and Peyton Hillis was still the center of the universe for everyone in Cleveland.
It didn't work out too well for the Browns the first time. If they want things to go better this time around, they'll need to make some changes. Even if they still have a long way yet to go to get to where they need to be, the Browns have come a long way since Week 1. Unfortunately, the Bengals have as well.
Here are five things the Browns need to do differently this time around to try to split the season series with Cincinnati and come home victorious in The Battle of Ohio: Part II.
1. Avoid Costly Penalties
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In their first tilt with the Bengals this season, the Browns committed a number of costly penalties that contributed heavily to the reasons they lost the game.
Devastating flags on both sides of the ball for the Browns gave Cincinnati huge advantages they didn't earn, because Cleveland gave them to them.
Between an interference call that led to a Bengals score and a number of infractions on offense that left the Browns unable to convert, Cleveland gave away 72 freebie yards at very inopportune times that Cincinnati happily took advantage of. The yardage ceded was bad, but the real problem was the timing of the penalties for the Browns.
Since then, the Browns have gotten better at sticking to the rules. A lot of the flags thrown were the result of rookie mistakes by the Browns youngsters, and such errors have steadily decreased since the start of the season as they all get more experienced.
Still, penalties have continued to cost the Browns throughout 2011. We haven't seen another game where the effects were quite as devastating as they were in this one since then, but the issue still exists. If the Browns want to keep pace with the Bengals this time around, they'll have to make sure they don't shoot themselves in the foot by simply giving it away.
2. Contain RB Cedric Benson
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All season long, the Browns have had trouble controlling the run and have ceded huge yardage totals to top-notch opposing running backs. Last week was the first time we saw the run defense even come close to containing an elite back, when they kept Maurice Jones-Drew at least somewhat in check.
During their first game with the Bengals, the Browns let Cedric Benson run all over them to the tune of 121 yards and a touchdown. Benson, notorious for his low yards-per-carry totals, posted an average of 4.8 on 25 carries—far better than his usual paltry numbers in that category that are always irritating Bengals fans. Essentially, the Browns made Benson look like a better back than he really is.
Granted, Benson is a pretty solid rusher regardless of who his opponent is, but the Browns made his job look easy in Week 1, just as they have for many opposing rushers throughout the season.
If the Browns want to correct that problem this time around and also continue to improve their run defense in general, they have to do a far better job keeping Benson in check than they did the first time they saw him this year.
Nobody can expect the Browns to completely shut down Benson, but they have to at least contain him. Ideally, they would need to cut his yardage total nearly in half, avoid ceding the big-gain runs they allowed him last time around, and try to keep him out of the end zone.
3. Start Scoring Early
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The Browns' failure to come out of the gate aggressively and score early is of course not specific to facing the Bengals; they've failed to score a touchdown in the first quarter all season and have barely put any points on the board at all in the first 15 minutes of any game in 2011.
Week 1 against Cincinnati was the first time we saw the adverse effects of the Browns tendency to be slow starters, but unfortunately, it wasn't the last.
Last week the Browns showed a little more sign of life early in the game against the Jaguars, at least taking a more aggressive approach even if it didn't get them into the end zone in the first quarter, but it still wasn't nearly enough.
The first time the Browns faced the Bengals this year, they gave up 10 points in the first quarter and didn't score any. Worse still, they gave up two touchdowns in the fourth to seal their unfortunate fate, after making a valiant effort to catch up in the second and third.
The bottom line overall is that the Browns need to be more consistent, whether it's from week to week or quarter to quarter.
They need to come out swinging in the first this week to try to get a jump early on the dangerous Bengals, and perhaps even more importantly in this match-up based on past precedent, they need to try to build up a lead in case Cincinnati tags them for two touchdowns in the fourth again.
4. Take Advantage of Andy Dalton's Weaknesses
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When Bengals QB Bruce Gradkowski went down with an injury mid-game in Week 1, it seemed like a good break for the Browns, who would now be facing then no-name rookie QB Andy Dalton.
Unfortunately, it has turned out that the Browns knocking Gradkowski out of the game in Week 1 was just about the best thing that could have ever happened to the Bengals.
Dalton may not look as impressive as, say, Cam Newton in terms of rookie QB stats, but he's been doing something Newton hasn't that is far more important than yardage totals: winning.
The Browns will have their hands full with Dalton who, while not the most statistically impressive QB, seems to be able to get the job done when it counts.
The fact that he may be without favorite target A.J. Green—who is questionable for Sunday—should help, but that doesn't mean the Browns can afford to focus too much on Benson and the running game and slack off against the pass.
Fortunately, the Browns have the best pass defense in the league, so keeping Dalton and his targets in check in general shouldn't be too difficult for them.
The key will be to capitalize on that advantage and see if they can get something out of it other than just keeping the Bengals off the board. Dalton has thrown five interceptions in his last two games—something the Browns can use to their advantage if they play their cards right.
Because Dalton has a bit of an accuracy issue at times, the Browns might be able to take a few points back off turnovers. These could provide hugely important scoring opportunities for the Browns and a chance to get a few freebies to balance out the fact that they're facing a Cincinnati defense that's been relatively stingy this season.
5. Break Down the Bengals Run Defense
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While the Browns' defense has struggled to defend against the run this season, but has been able to effectively shut down the pass, the Bengal defense's situation seems to be the opposite.
Cincinnati is averaging 222.5 yards given up against the pass this season (not too good), but has held opposing rushers to an impressive average of just 88.6 YPG. For comparison, the Browns are averaging 139.3. To be fair, the Bengals still rank 11th in the league in pass defense, but against the run, they're third.
Obviously this means the Browns need to come into this game prepared to mount a primarily aerial attack, but they still have to be able to mix in the run to be effective on offense.
RB Chris Ogbonnaya did an excellent job against the Jaguars last week, but that was a team that doesn't defend the run well and way stuck playing an away game as a team that cannot win on the road to save its life.
The Bengals, on the other hand, have been fairly masterful at containing the run, and have a huge advantage location-wise because they're nearly unbeaten at home, where they'll be this Sunday.
I don't expect to see Ogobonnaya's best numbers in this particular game against a run defense this solid, but he'll have to be effective enough to draw some of the Bengal D's attention away from McCoy and their receiving targets or—regardless of the Bengals' less impressive pass defense—the Browns' offense will wind up being too one-dimensional to be productive.