By Vic Carucci, Senior Editor
When the Browns last faced the Bengals, they came away with feelings of embarrassment and emptiness.
Embarrassment, because the decisive score in the Bengals’ 27-17 season-opening victory came on a play that caught the Browns’ defense napping.
Emptiness, because the Browns were left to wonder what might have been if Brad Maynard were their punter in that game rather than Richmond McGee, whose injury related struggles went a long way toward costing Cleveland the game.
For the Browns, it felt like a game they should have won. But since then, the Bengals have hardly performed as a team whose wins should raise any questions about their legitimacy.
The Bengals are 6-4. They’ve successfully moved on without quarterback Carson Palmer, and are very much in the thick of postseason contention in the wide-open AFC.
Andy Dalton, the rookie who officially began his career as an NFL quarterback against the Browns, has made steady improvement since his first game. He actually had one of his few poor showings last Sunday, during a 31-24 loss against the Ravens. Dalton threw a season-high three interceptions, with two setting up consecutive Ravens touchdowns.
It didn’t help that his best target, A.J. Green, was out with a knee injury. On Dalton’s first interception, he forced a throw intended for Andre Caldwell into double coverage. Green is a larger and better athlete who might have been able to come up with the ball instead of Ravens safety Ed Reed.
Even without Green, though, the Bengals have some pretty good pass-catchers. One is Jerome Simpson, who had a career-best 152 receiving yards against Baltimore and is capable of making athletic receptions. Andrew Hawkins, tight end Jermaine Gresham, Simpson, and Caldwell excel at route-running, have good hands and run well after the catch.
Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden will no doubt look to have Dalton throw safer passes this week, especially when the Browns try to turn up the heat with blitzes. Gruden also is likely to often go with spread formations to help create seams for a running game that averages only 3.8 yards per carry.
Until last Sunday, the Bengals were steadily applying strong pressure to opposing quarterbacks. Their inability to consistently get heat on Joe Flacco made things difficult for a secondary that lost one standout cornerback, Jonathan Joseph, to free agency and another, Leon Hall, to a season-ending Achilles injury. In the last four weeks, the Bengals have allowed 16 passes of 20 yards or longer.
However, the Bengals have been stout against the run, allowing only two backs to rush for more than 100 yards this season.
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