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Commentary: Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns still face questions marks

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After two games, surprisingly enough, the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns find themselves in a similar position – looking for answers.

Bengals fans expected great things out of their team this year, as they should. The Bengals made the playoffs last year with a young roster glittered with talent and a solid coaching staff. But while Cincinnati (1-1) managed to beat its Ohio rivals Sunday, it cannot be satisfied with its team’s performance so far, particularly on defense.

Meanwhile, Cleveland (0-2) was considered to be in rebuilding mode from the very start of the season. But after a strong showing on offense, the Browns look to build on the momentum of an encouraging loss.

The team’s Paul Brown went head to head last week, hoping that a little sibling rivalry would help it bounce back after losing its openers. The fans in observance at Paul Brown Stadium were treated with a high scoring affair in which the younger sibling won out, 34-27. But the fashion in which Cincinnati eventually prevailed was not convincing, nor was it enough to compensate for the thrashing it suffered at the hands of the Ravens in week 1.

The Bengals’ secondary got lit up by Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden. This is after Weeden could not crack the double-digit mark in quarterback rating the previous week versus the Eagles after he was 12 of 35 for 118 yards, no touchdowns, and four interceptions – a 5.1 quarterback rating.

As if that weren’t enough, Cleveland rookie running back Trent Richardson rolled over Cincinnati for 145 total yards and two touchdowns.

Richardson is undoubtedly talented. However, the Eagles managed to hold him to 39 yards just a week earlier. It is highly doubtful that the Bengals want to be known as the team that cures all offensive ails.

Meanwhile, Cleveland left the game feeling confident that its offense is not as far behind its defense as its week-one performance would indicate. Playing on the road against a team looking for redemption, Weeden looked aggressive from the very start. After studying Cincinnati’s opener, Weeden knew to attack the Bengals secondary, an element of their team that is most likely now their biggest question mark.

The previous week, Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco had a nearly flawless game in his team’s opener against Cincinnati (21 of 29, 299 yards, two touchdowns and a 128.4 quarterback rating). At the time, experts were gushing over Flacco’s improvement and some even went so far as to say that his infamous offseason proclamation that he was the NFL’s best quarterback was not as far-fetched as once imagined.

However, the next week at Philadelphia, Flacco came back to Earth, posting a 66.8 quarterback rating.

So let’s see, Weeden and Richardson are embarrassed and shutdown respectively by the Eagles, then have prolific offensive performances versus the Bengals. Meanwhile, the Ravens look unstoppable on offense in their opener against Cincinnati, then put up 16 points in a loss at Philly.

Sure the Eagles are impressive defensively, but the Bengals can no longer feel confident that their defense will win them games. Giving up 27 points in a home opener to a struggling quarterback is not exactly the ’84 Bears.

Up next for Cincinnati are the Redskins. Washington is averaging 34 points a game under the guidance of rookie Robert Griffin III, a true anomaly at the quarterback position. Wily veterans dream of his 70.9 percent completion rate while many running backs will fall short of the near-1,000 yards Griffin is on pace to gain on the ground. Griffin delivered a near-flawless performance in his team’s season-opening win in New Orleans. The Redskins then fell just short last week in St. Louis to a Rams team that exploded for 28 points in the second half. One can only imagine how the disappointment of that loss combined with the added enthusiasm of playing at home will motivate Griffin.

What do the Bengals, ranked 29th in pass defense, plan to do to stop him? With zero interceptions on the year, will Griffin feel intimidated? Unlikely. Their five sacks in two games don’t exactly strike fear into opponents’ hearts either. 

If the Bengals want to win, they will need to match the firepower of the Redskins. Last week, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and the Cincinnati offense showed signs of life. The second-year quarterback threw for 318 yards and three touchdowns against an imposing defense. And now they get to face a Redskins defense that is ranked 31st against the pass.

But there is no guarantee that the Bengals will be able to pick apart Washington’s secondary. After all, the Bengals have allowed more sacks than any team in the league. And Dalton has looked uncomfortable at times this year, unable to connect with favorite target wide receiver A.J. Green.

That is where free-agent addition, running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, comes into play. The former Patriot has provided consistency and grit and proven to be a clear upgrade over predecessor running back Cedric Benson. He helped Cincinnati finish off Cleveland last weekend and was the only bright spot in that horrendous loss in Baltimore.

Playing on the road, convention would say: mix Green-Ellis in with the pass early on, turning to the short passing game to pick up first downs until the opportunity presents itself to take the occasional shot downfield to Green. With a young offense like the Bengals, it is better to start slowly, so as to avoid falling behind early against the (surprisingly) prolific offense of the Redskins.

Meanwhile, the Browns are at home to face Bills. Buffalo features the latest NFL sensation, running back C.J. Spiller. Despite not starting the opener, Spiller leads the league in rushing and shows no signs of slowing down. He is averaging a Madden NFL-like 10.1 yards per carry. Oh, and the Bills are thin at wide receiver and feature an inconsistent quarterback. Yeah, we might see them run the ball.

But Cleveland cannot afford to stack the line of scrimmage as they were forced to reshuffle their secondary after the suspension of cornerback Joe Haden.

Fortunately, the Browns feature a defense that can make plays. They are first in the league in interceptions and tied for second in sacks. They might be wise to pound the ball with Richardson and wait for something to happen on defense or special teams.

While the Bills are ranked near the bottom of the league in pass defense, Cleveland’s coaching staff should avoid the temptation of allowing Weeden to air it out. They shouldn’t read too much into last week– the Bengals’ secondary looked confused, as they did against the Ravens. It would seem that Weeden is closer to the turnover prone rookie we saw in the opener than the passer who threw for over 300 yards in Cincinnati. Besides, Weeden’s success was a direct result of Richardson’s breakout game anyway.

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