The Tale of the Tape
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
RT Willie Anderson vs. LE Orpheus Roye
The Bengals' best vs. the Browns' best. Two 10-year vets banging it out in a smashmouth game on a dreary offensive line day. The 6-4, 305-pound Roye is having a Pro Bowl year no one knows about. The 6-6, 340-pound Anderson is having a Pro Bowl year everyone can see because his offense is ranked No. 1.
Roye is coming off his third nine-tackle game of the season, and got credited for two sacks against Jacksonville, but his M.O. is being a point of force against the run. Anderson is leading the Bengals offensive line through a marvelous stretch in which it has allowed just nine sacks in the last seven games in a run that began against a Titans team that was leading the AFC in sacks on Oct. 16. Five of those games came against teams in the top 10 in sacks per pass.
The Browns aren’t much of a sack threat (they are the league’s fourth worst in generating sacks per snap), but Anderson’s guys can do more than protect the passer. In the last three division games against a No. 2 defense twice (the Ravens) and the No. 8 Steelers, the Bengals have consistently run it in the tight spots. They’ve scored nine touchdowns in 12 red-zone trips that didn’t end in a kneel down, with six coming off line smashes that includes an eight-yard shovel pass to rookie wide receiver Tab Perry up the middle.
And the Browns are very good in the red zone, where they are ninth best in the NFL at preventing touchdowns. You can sense the tough, Patriotic mindset settling in.
RB Rudi Johnson vs. MLB Andra Davis
This is Johnson’s kind of bang-it-slog-it game. The Browns figure to take away the Bengals’ long passes with a Cover Two defense which Johnson must exploit to take over the afternoon. Cleveland is struggling in the running game. But they’ve only given up four 100-yard games, starting with Johnson’s season-high 126 yards in the opener.
Johnson loves the AFC North games. His two 100-yard games have come against the rivals, and he had two more taken away on three negative carries late in the game. In the five North games, he’s averaging 100 on the nose, 71 against everyone else.
If it’s getting colder, it must be Rudi Time. In the four November and December games, he’s averaging 96 per game. In his last 13 games in November, December and January, he’s averaging 104.
WR Chad Johnson vs. Browns head coach Romeo Crennel
Crennel is truly one of the finer defensive minds of his generation and he has a track record of stopping sleek offenses like the Bengals. When his Patriots were faced with the scorched-earth Rams offense four Super Bowls ago that did Bengal-like damage with three receivers, Crennel and head coach Bill Belichick responded by flooding the field with defensive backs and getting physical with the Rams receivers. The formula took Belichick from NFL Record and Fact Book anonymity to Mount Rushmore in the time it took the Pats to finish off the Rams, 24-21.
Of course, the Bears, Ravens and Titans all tried to get physical with Johnson in key junctures of games and have been burned for touchdowns or long passes this season. The Browns have allowed only 15 touchdown passes in 12 games this year, but since the Bengals have added the No Huddle as a staple in the three games after the bye, the Bengals have used it to spring Johnson for two touchdowns of at least 54 yards.
But if the Browns want to make the Bengals nickel and dime it out of the No Huddle, they can do that, too. Last week against the Steelers, Cincinnati had three drives of at least nine plays for 10 points. And when the Bengals pretty much called off the No Huddle in the red zone, or near the goal line, they scored four touchdowns once they got inside the 20.
WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL
SS Ifeanyi Ohalate vs. RB Reuben Droughns
The Bengals know exactly what they’re getting with a rookie QB on the road in bad weather and a rugged back (5-11, 215 pounds) closing in on the best season by a Browns running back since Jim Brown’s last sprint in “The Dirty Dozen.”
Ohalete has taken the brunt of Bengaldom’s wrath lately with two highly visible missed tackles in the last couple of weeks, the first one a whiff on Colts tight end Dallas Clark’s 56-yard play and the other a miss last week of Steelers wide receiver Quincy Morgan that turned into a 25-yard touchdown instead of merely a 10-yard pickup on third-and-six.
“He knows he's got to do a better job of tackling,” Lewis said earlier this week. “He's had a couple of opportunities in the open field to make tackles and get the guy on the ground. Those so-called SportsCenter hits don't quite cut it. Your job is to get the guy on the ground. We've allowed two explosive touchdowns that should never have happened because we don't make the tackle there in the open field on the receiver. Those things need to improve. He's got to work hard at that. We have to as a football team.”
LE Justin Smith vs. QB Charlie Frye
Frye is making his second NFL start after last week’s impressive debut in the first half melted in Jacksonville’s five sacks as Frye appeared to hang on to the ball. The Bengals are wary of Frye’s athleticism and his ability to throw on the run. Smith is part of the battalion that has to contain him and make him throw his rookie mistakes from the pocket toward a secondary that has an NFL-high 26 interceptions. Frye has thrown just 32 NFL passes, so that numbers game can’t be comforting for the Browns.
One of the reasons Frye may hold on to the ball and make him vulnerable to Smith’s rush is he doesn’t have a lot of options downfield. The guy he threw his two touchdowns to last Sunday, rookie wide receiver Braylon Edwards, is done for the year with a torn ACL. Frisman Jackson, the big guy replacing Edwards, hasn’t scored a touchdown since the Bengals botched a short crossing pattern and turned it into a 68-yard touchdown pass in the opener that still stands as the longest pass against them this season. Antonio Bryant has some speed, but he, Jackson, and Dennis Northcutt have just 1,246 yards combined this season, barely ahead of Chad Johnson’s 1,139.
WR Tab Perry vs. KR Josh Cribbs
A true Golden Flash out of Kent State, Cribbs is a good match in this all-rookie battle. Perry is coming off his AFC Special Teams Player of the Week award that came courtesy of his 94-yard Red Badge of Courage return in Pittsburgh, but his most important job Sunday may be tackling the 6-1, 192-pound Cribbs.
Perry is a staple of the Bengals kick cover team ranked second in the NFL, and they have to get to Cribbs in a hurry. He has two 150-yard plus return games, his most recent two weeks ago when he averaged 31 on five returns in Minnesota. He returned one for a 90-yard touchdown in the Oct. 23 game against Detroit on his way to 152 yards. Wide receiver Kevin Walter, one of the men who helped spring Perry’s 94-yarder as well as his 46-yarder last week, compares Cribbs to the 6-3, 220-pound Perry.
“Both guys are fearless and are going to take you on physically,” Walter said. “They’re big, and they get to you fast.”
Walter on why the Bengals are so good covering kicks and have consistently been among the league leaders in tackles inside the 20: “We compete among ourselves. I want to be the first guy down there. I want to make the tackle. We all want to be the best at it.”
At the moment, it’s a heated competition for that overall special teams tackling crown: Walter and Perry lead with 14 each, but linebackers Marcus Wilkins (13), Hannibal Navies (12), and safety Anthony Mitchell (12) are right there.
Perry is eighth in the NFL with 25.9 yards per return and Cribbs is 13th at 24.3. But there are three rookies ahead of Perry in Houston’s Jerome Mathis (No. 2), Tennessee’s "Pac Man" Jones (No. 5), and Jacksonville’s Derrick Wimbush (No. 6).
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis vs. The Intangibles
The greatest NFL rehab job in recent memory is on the verge of completion. Everyone agrees. Lewis has done virtually everything right and now his team has to follow through on one of the foundations he built the program: Finish.
Finish blocks. Finish plays. Finish practices. Finish games.
Now the Bengals have to finish this division run Sunday at 5-1, which gives them the tiebreaker and virtually their first division title in 15 years because the magic number will be one with three to play.
But they are coming off their most emotional win in the 44 games of Marvin Mania to a cold home field against a team that has a punishing running back and nothing to lose. The Bengals could see everything but a drop kick.
Lewis has been brilliant in getting this team loose and fast and not playing with the chains of ghosts.
Now, he has to finish, too.