The Cleveland Browns and the Cincinnati Bengals will face off tonight on prime-time television in a pivotal matchup to establish supremacy in the AFC North. The Browns’ record stands at 5-3 while the Bengals currently own a record of 5-2-1. The Browns certainly need a win tonight if they wish to keep their playoff dreams alive. With that said, the Browns have lost 17 straight divisional road games. In order to come away with a win this week, the Browns must improve in multiple areas.
The Browns absolutely must get this phase of the game fixed. The Browns are 32nd in the NFL with a 2.6-yard average per punt return. The Browns are also just one fumble shy of leading the league in fumbles during a punt return. One way to shore up this glaring weakness is to allow Taylor Gabriel to consistently return punts. Gabriel has the shiftiness as well as the homerun-hitting speed necessary to make an impact in this area. I understand the Browns not wanting to overload the rookie, but he’s handled each challenge gracefully. If the Browns give him a chance to consistently return punts, they will likely be pleased with the results.
With Domata Peko and Geno Atkins lined up along the interior, the Browns would be doing themselves a disservice attempting to force Nick McDonald and John Greco to hold down the fort against them one-on-one. The Browns can generate movement up front is by combo blocking and getting up into the second level. It would certainly behoove the Browns to attempt to get blockers to the linebacker level with Rey Maualuga and Vontaze Burfict unlikely to play due to injury. Combo blocking could definitely influence openings along the Bengals’ defensive front.
While reviewing the Browns’ game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it became apparent that the Browns are making simple, yet critical mistakes in pass protection. The most glaring issue was interior offensive linemen were entirely too lackadaisical getting into their sets. Additionally, the interior offensive linemen should seek to consistently play with a wider base to help them achieve greater balance. A wider base will go a long way toward helping them mirror defenders as well.
The Browns’ porous run defense is rated 29th in the NFL as they are giving up roughly 140-yards per game. While Phil Taylor is on the mend, he is unlikely to play tonight. Billy Winn is listed as questionable with a toe injury, which further damages the Browns’ chances of stopping the run. The Bengals running back Jeremy Hill is a downhill runner who gets north and south in a hurry. The Browns are likely going to have to commit extra defenders in order to hold the Bengals to modest gains on the ground. Donte Whitner has been known to mix it up in the run game. Look for him to lead the team in tackles tonight as a result of his desire to find the ball carrier, and sure tackling ability as an alley defender.
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