BENGALS // BROWNS OVERVIEW
This division clash tells the story of two teams moving in opposite directions, with the 6-8 Bengals having just ended a five-game losing streak, and with the 6-7-1 Browns riding high in the midst of a 4-1 stretch that includes a 35-20 thrashing of this same Bengals team in Cincinnati a few weeks back. The Bengals appear likely to be without Tyler Boyd this week, putting them at a deeper disadvantage on the road. Cleveland opened as 7.0 point favorites before climbing to -9.0. This game carries a mid-week Over/Under of 44.5.
BENGALS RUN OFFENSE
Scheme, rather than talent, is a large part of the reason the Browns have been mediocre against the run this year. As we saw last week against a Broncos team that was missing its top two receivers and clearly wanted to lean on the run, the Browns are capable of collapsing down on the run when they feel a quarterback cannot beat them. In that road spot against a good Denver run offense, Cleveland held Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman to a combined 18 carries for 31 yards. This is a similar setup for Joe Mixon and the Bengals, as the Browns will have every reason to expect this Cincinnati offense to want to lean on the ground with A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd, and Andy Dalton all missing in action. Consider this a challenging matchup for Mixon.
Working in Mixon’s favor is a role that has yielded recent touch counts of 21 // 14 // 31 // 29. His 21 touches came in that 15-point loss to the Browns a few weeks back, with his 14 carries buoyed by seven receptions. He will continue to split time with Giovani Bernard, but with Mixon locked into early-down work all game long and used comfortably in the pass game when the Bengals fall behind, he will have opportunity to matter this week in spite of the tough matchup. His floor is a bit low at his elevated price, but his ceiling keeps him in the conversation.
BENGALS PASS OFFENSE
The Bengals’ pass offense projects to be in a tough spot here against an attacking, aggressive Cleveland pass defense that ranks sixth in DVOA and sixth in yards allowed per pass attempt. The Browns shave 7.5% off the league-average aDOT and an additional 3.3% off the league-average catch rate. Working in Cincy’s favor is the fact that the fast-paced Browns have allowed the most opponent plays per game in the NFL. This has led to the Browns facing the most pass attempts in the NFL, setting up Cincy for potential “war of attrition” production. Of course, with the Bengals ranked 30th in time of possession and 28th in plays per game, there is no guarantee that this team seizes their volume opportunities.
With Boyd expected to miss this game, expect the Bengals to open with plenty of two tight end sets featuring C.J. Uzomah (69 out of 80 snaps last week) and Matt Lengel (40 out of 80 snaps last week), and a run-leaning approach. If and when the Browns take a lead and force the Bengals to the air, we will see John Ross and Cody Core on the outside, with Alex Erickson manning the slot. Erickson should be able to pile up some volume, though his downfield work has been limited and ineffective thus far. Ross has recent target counts of 7 // 7 // 3 // 4 // 5, though he has stunningly turned these 26 targets into only 10 catches for 88 yards across five games. Ross will likely see plenty of rookie stud corner Denzel Ward, making him very boom/bust this week. Core has been similarly ineffective, turning 16 targets in this same stretch into only six catches for 77 yards. A bet on these wide receivers is a bet on broken plays. Tight ends also remain limited-upside options in this offense, with Uzomah (no games above 41 yards since Week 6) merely a hope-for-multiple-touchdowns option.
BROWNS RUN OFFENSE
The Bengals’ run defense continues to present one of the most attackable matchups in the league, with this team allowing the fourth most rushing yards, the seventh most receiving yards, and the second most touchdowns to the running back position. When these teams last met, the Bengals collapsed on the run to try to force Baker Mayfield to beat them, which led to Chubb totaling only 84 yards on his 28(!) carries. He added a touchdown on the ground and a 3-44-1 line through the air. With Mayfield torching the Bengals for four touchdown passes on only 26 pass attempts in that game, we may see a bit more room for Chubb to work this week than he had the last time around in this spot. With his receptions typically capped at three or four, his salary is a bit high for his largely yardage-and-touchdown floor, but his ceiling keeps him in the top-of-the-slate conversation.
BROWNS PASS OFFENSE
The Browns have shown a willingness to lean run-heavy in games they can control, recently holding Mayfield to pass attempt totals of 20 // 26 // 22 // 31 in wins (with 43 pass attempts in the Browns’ lone loss in this stretch). While you can bet on outlier game flow scenarios that would have the Browns playing from behind in this spot, the likeliest scenario calls for Cleveland to take and hold a lead — with their strong offense going up against the Bengals’ weak D, and with their aggressive defense taking on a shattered and depleted Bengals offense. If this proves to be the case, volume will likely be low for this attack once again — making it a difficult unit to bet on in a spread-the-wealth attack.
On a per-play basis, of course, the matchup is excellent for Mayfield, as the Bengals rank 27th in yards allowed per pass attempt, while only three teams have allowed more passing touchdowns this year. As noted above: Mayfield wrecked the Bengals for a career-high four touchdown passes on only 26 attempts the last time these teams met — so while such efficiency cannot be reliably expected, it can be chased in tourneys if you feel like taking a shot.
In the Browns’ four wins in this stretch, targets among primary pass catchers have looked like this:
Landry is the player whose volume is likeliest to spike if volume rises in this spot, followed by Callaway, then Njoku, then Higgins/Perriman. Upside on all these guys is dependent on broken plays or touchdowns with reliable volume so thin — though the matchup is good if you want to bet on that efficiency, or if you want to bet on some outlier scenario in which the Browns are playing from behind.
Pricing is a bit high on both of the running backs from this game — creeping dangerously close to the same territory as Christian McCaffrey, Ezekiel Elliott, Saquon Barkley, and Todd Gurley — making each guy more tourney-worthy for me than “core play in all types of contests.” Chubb’s pass game role is not locked-in enough for him to quite make the top-of-the-slate cut (from a floor/ceiling perspective), while Mixon is a steep road underdog with a pass game role that is strong, but not quite as strong as the guys priced above him. I like both of these plays. I don’t love either.
That’s more than can be said of either passing attack, as the Browns project for low volume in this spot and spread the ball around too much when they do throw for any of their pieces to be reliable. So far, the Browns’ pass catchers have ranged from “not great” to “solid for the price,” but true blowup games have been out of reach, leaving me off them outside of “betting on extreme outlier game flows.” If going to the Browns, Landry would be the first place I would look. I could also see taking a stab on Baker without a stacking partner. As for the Bengals: I won’t have any interest myself, as there are simply better places to look on a 12-game Main Slate. It won’t be a shock if one of these guys posts a usable game, but the chances of a dud from all of these guys is too high for me to feel the need to go there myself.