A tough loss, a week full of drama, and a tough opponent ahead. Pretty par for the course for these 2020 Cincinnati Bengals. However, this week had a bit more of an ominous feel; almost like things were teetering on the brink.
— john sheeran (@John__Sheeran) October 24, 2020
Then Darius Philips tweeted and deleted a cryptic message about the team wasting his talent. Then a report said Geno Atkins is frustrated with his usage. Then John Ross asked for a trade.
Add in an embarrassing blowout loss and a blown 21-point lead, and the past two weeks have felt like this:
John Mayer’s “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room” inspired the title of this Week 7 Preview. It’s a song about a relationship that’s dead and has been dying for quite some time, but the two people were slow to realize or accept it. Perhaps this has been the case for several players and the Bengals organization already this season, but it’s ever apparent now.
It’s impossible to know exactly what that locker room is like, but from the outside looking in, it’s got to be pretty toasty. Ever since he was hired, Zac Taylor’s been selling communication and integrity as key characteristics of his team. And yet, two of the franchise’s top defensive linemen–who each signed big, four-year contract extensions a couple of seasons ago–a former top-1o pick who was has the fastest 40 time in combine history and a former top-10 receiver, all appear to want out.
For as long as these frustrated players remain on the team (the trade deadline is Nov. 3), we’ll be watching a burning room.
The frustration isn’t unfounded. Paul Denher Jr. said it best in an Athletic article last week when speaking about the team’s progress: “Being ‘this close’ is as much this team’s defining trait as Burrow being their quarterback. At a certain point, progress gives way to the fact this is who you are. You can’t keep talking about how a group needs to learn to win. It makes you wonder if they are being properly taught how to do so.”
Perhaps the veterans on this team who have hung around from the Marvin Lewis era are growing tired of learning to win with Taylor.
If there’s one thing for fans to cling to, it’s this: Joe Burrow, the team’s brightest beacon of hope and de facto firefighter, doesn’t think think the locker room is ablaze.
From conversations I've had with some inside the #Bengals organization today, the feeling that Zac Taylor has lost the locker room is being driven by one or two players.
Overwhelming majority disagrees.
Joe Burrow echoed that today: "This is a very close locker room." @fox19
— Jeremy Rauch (@FOX19Jeremy) October 22, 2020
Wins have a way of bringing teams together, and the game today is one the Bengals have a good shot at taking. It would be in their best interest, too, as AFC superpowers Pittsburgh and Tennessee loom on the schedule horizon. A loss today and the team is quickly staring down the barrel of a 1-7-1 record. Let’s get into it.
Bengals/Browns talk coming just as soon as I do my best Odell Beckham Jr. impression…
— Mark Slaughter (@MarkVSlaughter) October 21, 2020
Four things to know
1. What was once a two-headed monster has been cut in half. The Browns backfield is the best in the NFL, but it has been down a man since Nick Chubb sustained a knee injury several weeks ago. That leaves the lion share of work to former Chiefs back Kareem Hunt, who is more than capable of sustaining elite production. Last time these two teams met, Chubb gashed Cincy for 124 yards and two TDs. Not having to gameplan for him will certainly help the Bengals defensively, but they’ll still have their hands full with the versatile Hunt, who burned them for two TDs in Week 2.
2. Mike Daniels is back. The Cincy defensive front will get a much needed boost today as veteran DT Mike Daniels is back in the lineup after a stint on the IR. His presence will be important, as the Browns rush for a league-best 170 yards per game. With D.J. Reader out for the season and Geno Atkins on what appears to be a pitch count, Daniels will have to be the man this afternoon.
3. Baker Mayfield has been cold the past few weeks. Mayfield’s thrown four interceptions over the last two games, one a victory over the Colts and another a blowout loss to Pittsburgh. He was banged up last week and played through a rib injury that had him noticeably uncomfortable. He’s been healthier this week and is looking to bounce back, so it will be on the Bengals to match his intensity and determination. In their first matchup versus the Bengals, the Browns relied on the run game to set up the play-action pass attack, which was a very effective strategy. Baker had one of his best games of the season, utilizing tons of rollout passes to create comfortable passing lanes. It’ll be on the defensive ends and linebackers of Cincinnati to contain Mayfield in the pocket and eliminate those plays.
4. Joe Mixon and William Jackson III are OUT. Cincy’s down two of their best talents on each side of the ball today. It’ll be the first time since 2018 Mixon has missed a game after he didn’t practice all week with a bum wheel. It’ll be the Gio Bernard show today. As far as backup running backs go, he’s one of the best around.
Looking at Giovani Bernard getting bulk of the carries, you go back to September 30 of 2018 to find a game he had at least 10 carries.
He's had 11 games with 10+ carries since 2016. In eight of those he averaged 4.6 yards per carry or more. Team went 5-5-1.
— Paul Dehner Jr. (@pauldehnerjr) October 23, 2020
Also absent from practice this week was cornerback William Jackson III, who has been Cincinnati’s best coverage man this season. In an important divisional game, this is obviously not ideal. Despite his relative inefficiency in a Browns uniform, Odell Beckham Jr. is a nightmare for defenses. Without coverage from WJ3, OBJ is going to match up with either Darius Phillips or Leshaun Sims. Advantage: OBJ.
Three matchups to watch
1. Myles Garrett vs. Bengals offensive line: Garrett was a game wrecker in 2020’s first installment of the Battle of Ohio. His 3rd quarter strip-sack of Burrow deep in Cincy territory gave the Browns a two-score cushion they wouldn’t surrender until 4th quarter garbage time. As he was in Week 2, he will be a problem for Bobby Hart and company to handle.
2. Bengals pass rush: Cincy’s defensive line, specifically the pass-rushing department, is as depleted as depleted gets. Philip Rivers wasn’t sacked last week. Mayfield wasn’t sacked once the first time these teams played. Something needs to change, as pressure has traditionally made Mayfield a more inaccurate and turnover-prone passer. It’ll be on rookie Khalid Kareem and Carl Lawson to change the current trend.
3. Joe Burrow vs. Browns defense: This will be the first time our rookie QB will face a defense twice. Burrow had his best game of the season against Cleveland last time, throwing for over 300 yards and 3 TDs on 61 attempts. It’ll be interesting to see how Cleveland gameplans for him this time around. Surely the Bengals won’t want him to throw the ball that many times again, but they may not have a choice. It’s been a couple weeks since Burrow’s thrown a TD pass, and if the game script from these team’s first matchup occurs again, it’s hard to think that streak will continue.
Two names you’ll hear
1. Harrison Bryant, Browns TE
Cleveland’s starting tight end Austin Hooper is missing today’s game with an illness, so there will most likely be a rotation of Browns TEs that see snaps. As for who will receive the lion’s share, my money is on 4th round rookie Harrison Bryant out of FAU. After totaling over 1,000 receiving yards in his final college season, he’s caught one touchdown this season on limited action. However, his main competition for snaps is former first-round pick David Njoku, who has more than once asked to be traded from Cleveland. Methinks Kevin Stefanski and company won’t be dying to get Njoku on the field due to that factor, so I’ll bet they dial up the rook against the Bengals.
2. Trayveon Williams, Bengals RB
Despite picking him in the sixth round of the 2019 NFL Draft and keeping him on the active roster his entire rookie season, the Texas A&M product never once touched the ball last year. This season, he’s been entrenched as the third or fourth string back in the behind Mixon, Bernard, and Samaje Perine. With Mixon already ruled out, however, today could be the day for Williams to see some action. Bernard won’t be able to play 100% of the snaps and Perine will most likely only be utilized in short-yardage situations. Williams led the SEC in rushing his junior year, racking up over 1,700 yards on the ground and scoring 18 TDs. He’s never really had a shot to make a debut in the league, but that chance could come today. And if his college numbers are any indication, he’s got plenty of promise.
One way the Bengals can win
Make Baker Mayfield beat you. If the Bengals can limit the Browns’ run game by drawing up a stellar scheme or jumping out to a lead and making the Cleveland offense one dimensional, they’ll be in a much better position to win.
Granted, they did that last week and still found a way to lose, but the comeback came on the wings of some brilliant passes from Philip Rivers that I’m not sure Mayfield has in him. The Bengals showed in Week 2 that they can compete with the Browns and score on the Cleveland defense; the test this week is proving they can limit their offense.
We need this one. Really bad. Not just for the season-long record, but to douse the flames dancing in the locker room.
Kickoff’s at 1 p.m. on CBS. See you there.