(CBS Pittsburgh) — Both the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals are coming off games they probably should have won. The banged-up Browns were hardly a sure thing heading into Pittsburgh to meet the division-rival Steelers. Running back Kareem Hunt was out. Quarterback Baker Mayfield, nursing an injury to his non-throwing shoulder, was iffy. A healthy Mayfield would have given Cleveland a clear advantage. But he was clearly not 100 percent. And the 15-10 loss suggests maybe a healthy Case Keenum might have been a better option.
The Bengals were a clear favorite over the New York Jets. With a hot Cincinnati team leading the AFC North and Joe Burrow coming off a 400-yard game, the potential was there for a blowout over one of the NFL’s worst teams. Apparently, the potential was also there for a letdown game. And that’s what happened, as their defense allowed the Jets’ backup QB Mike White to surpass 400 yards in his first NFL start.READ MORE: Bucks Rout Short-Handed Heat 124-102 Without Antetokounmpo
The Bengals dropped behind the idle Baltimore Ravens in the division race. The Browns slipped into last place, where they did not expect to be midway through the season. One win separates all four teams in the AFC North, however, and plenty of intra-division matchups remain. The Week 9 Bengals-Browns matchup is the first of two matchups this season. A lot can and probably will change in the coming weeks.
“Right now any of these four teams can win,” according to NFL On CBS contributor Amy Trask. “So obviously the intra-divisional games are tremendously important. We’re seeing Pittsburgh improve… We’ve seen Baltimore both play very, very well, and then play surprisingly poorly at times. And Cincinnati and Cleveland are in the hunt. And that’s exciting. It really is a very exciting division.”
The Browns offense has seemed to be stuck in second gear since their 42-point outpouring against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 5. And injuries may be the biggest reason why. They failed to top 20 points in their last three outings, and reached 100 yards rushing just once. Opportunities presented themselves against the Steelers, but they couldn’t seem to execute. Wide receiver, Jarvis Landry, who tends to be pretty sure-handed, fumbled and failed to catch a couple key passes in the game’s finally minutes. Mayfield spread the ball around, connecting with nine different receivers. But the running game never seemed to really get going. Nick Chubb averaged only 3.8 yards per carry on his 16 carries, with most of the yardage coming on just two carries
“Teams do the absolute bare minimum to comply with league rules with respect to injury reporting,” said Trask. “I don’t believe we really have a sense as to how impacted Baker Mayfield is by the shoulder dislocation and related injuries. And, of course, there have been a tremendous number of other injuries on the team as well.”
“I think injuries are a significant issue for Cleveland,” Trask continued. “And I don’t think we know how significant the team views them.”READ MORE: Florida Panthers Find Ways To Rally Again, Top Blues 4-3 In Shootout
The Browns will face a Bengals defense that struggled to contain the Jets on the ground and through the air. Rookie running back Michael Carter rumbled for 77 yards on his 15 carries. And rookie QB Mike White short-passed his way to 405 yards and three TDs and two interceptions on 37-45. Upgraded in free agency this past offseason, the Bengals defense has been mostly solid against the run so far, allowing 94.5 yards per game. That includes containing a Ravens ground game that puts up 149.4 yards the week prior. The pass defense has also been a little better, though Kirk Cousins, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, and White have all topped 300 yards passing. And maybe most importantly they’re allowing only 20.3 points per game, as compared to 26.5 points last season. The Cincinnati unit clearly had an off week, giving up a season-high 34 points, not to mention an 11-point fourth-quarter lead, to a team that had previously topped 20 points just once this season. They’re better than this.
Second-year QB Joe Burrow has continued to develop after his injury-shortened rookie season He is averaging 276.9 yards passing per game and is coming off another productive outing, going 21-34 for 259 yards, three TDs and one INT against the Jets. The passing game didn’t get much support from a run game that only managed 41 yards. Joe Mixon was limited to just 2.4 yards per carry. Wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase also had an atypically quiet afternoon. After piling up over 200 yards receiving the prior week, he was limited to 32 yards, hauling in only three of his nine targets. Chase is still posting 98.3 receiving yards per game, fourth best in the league.
Joe Burrow and company will face a stout Browns defense that’s held its own this season. They’re giving up a mere 304.9 yards per game, fourth best in the NFL to date, and 22.5 points, which is also respectable. Cleveland does a good job pressuring the quarterback, amassing 22 sacks so far. Myles Garrett has 10.5 of those. They sacked Roethlisberger twice in Week 8 and held the Steelers to just 15 points.
To slow down Garrett, the Bengals will need to do “absolutely anything and everything they can,” Trask emphasized. “It’s a game of 11 on 11, It’s math, and if they need to add extra men to do that, sure, one wants to say ‘add extra men.’ Leave a tight end over there to block, use a back to chip if you need to. Of course, when you do that, it frees someone else up who might otherwise not be as free. And that’s why sacks can be a little bit of a misleading statistic.”
The Browns defense will need to find a way to make big plays when it matters. They couldn’t do that against Pittsburgh. The Steelers converted five of six fourth-down attempts, including a fourth-quarter touchdown that gave them the lead. Similar execution for Cleveland this week could lead to a similar result in Cincinnati.MORE NEWS: Heat Outlast Pacers 113-104
The Browns play the Bengals Sunday, November 7 @ 1:00 p.m. ET on CBS.