CLEVELAND — The Cleveland Browns will wrap up what has been a very disappointing season on Sunday as the Cincinnati Bengals come to town. The Bengals have already clinched the AFC North thanks to their win over Kansas City last weekend, and the Browns have already been eliminated from playoff contention.
Neither the Browns nor Bengals will have their starting quarterback this week, as Baker Mayfield has been put on injured reserve as he awaits surgery on his left shoulder, while Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow is resting up for the playoffs. In this game, the Browns arguably have more to gain by losing – draft position, easier schedule in 2022 – than they do winning. Despite that, here are three keys to victory for the Browns this weekend.
Get to the quarterback
The Cincinnati Bengals have been wildly successful offensively this year due to the play of Burrow. He won’t likely win the NFL MVP Award, but it wouldn’t come as a surprise if he were to receive votes for it. Burrow’s success is even more impressive when it’s considered that he plays behind a rather porous offensive line. This season, Burrow has been sacked a league-leading 51 times.
Even with Burrow out and backup Brandon Allen expected to start in his place, the Browns should be able to put the pressure on. When these two teams met back in Week 9, the Browns sacked Burrow five times in a 41-16 victory. If everyone is on the field for the Browns defensively, there’s no reason why Allen shouldn’t be under the same type of pressure in the pocket that Burrow has been all season. He’s just far less likely to thrive despite it the way Burrow has.
Stop the big play
The Bengals haven’t said who in addition to Burrow may not be on the field this Sunday. But if wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase is out there, the Browns will have to keep the big play under control again.
This season, Chase has been fantastic as a rookie out of Louisiana State. He’s caught 79 passes for 1429 yards and 13 touchdowns. Despite his stellar season, one of his worst performances came when the Browns squared off against him earlier in the year. On that day in Cincinnati, Chase was targeted 13 times – his highest of the season – and finished with just six catches for 49 yards. Burrow threw a pair of interceptions in that game as well, and on both plays he was targeting Chase (there was a third pass targeted for Chase that was picked off by the Browns, but was negated due to a penalty).
This season, Chase has a league-leading 18.1 yards per reception, but was held to just 8.1 yards per catch against the Browns, his second lowest total of the season. Replicating that effort defensively would go a long way towards slowing down Cincinnati’s offense.
Look for balance offensively
The Browns need a more balanced attack offensively than they have had in recent weeks. It would also come with little argument to say that the most balanced the Browns have looked this season offensively was the win over Cincinnati. The team ran for 153 yards and threw for 218 in that blowout victory. Even without Mayfield out there this Sunday, that type of performance should still be attainable.
How rigorous the Browns will be in terms of giving the ball to Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt – should they play – would be the biggest question here. When adding in the fact that D’Ernest Johnson is on the reserve/COVID-19 list, the backfield could become awfully thin. However, a healthy Case Keenum at quarterback shouldn’t have too much of an issue against a Cincinnati defense that may be missing a few pieces.