BROWNS // BENGALS OVERVIEW
With the AFC North (and Marvin Lewis’ job) quickly slipping out of the Bengals’ grasp, they will return home this week to host the upstart, 3-6-1 Browns in a meeting between two teams that rank in the bottom half of the league in yards per game on offense (Cincy ranks 26th; Cleveland ranks18th), and that have struggled to prevent points on defense (only six teams have allowed more points per game than the Browns; only one team has allowed more points per game than the Bengals). Each team has been especially bad against the run, with the Browns allowing the fifth most rushing yards in the NFL this year, and with the Bengals allowing the most. Only the Bucs have allowed more running back touchdowns than the 15 the Bengals have allowed, and the Browns are not far behind them with 13 touchdowns allowed to backs. Only six teams have allowed more rush plays of 20+ yards than the Bengals, and only nine teams have allowed more such plays than the Browns.
This game has been awarded an aggressive total of 47.5 — with Vegas betting on the defensive ineptitude over the offensive issues. Helping this game toward this total is each team’s red zone defense, as both of these squads rank bottom 10 in the league in red zone touchdown rate allowed.
BROWNS PASS OFFENSE
The Bengals have had a rough year against the pass, allowing a 5.8% increase on the league-average aDOT and a 2.8% increase on the league-average catch rate, while failing to make up for this in the YAC department, where Cincy is merely a middling unit — leading to a yards allowed per pass attempt mark that ranks 26th in the NFL (though to be fair to the Bengals: their 7.9 yards allowed per pass attempt is not too far off the league’s middle-of-the-pack mark of 7.5). Cincinnati has struggled to defend running backs (12th most catches allowed, eighth most yards allowed, second most touchdowns allowed), wide receivers (eighth most catches allowed, eighth most yards allowed, 11th most touchdowns allowed), and tight ends (third most catches allowed, fifth most yards allowed, fifth most touchdowns allowed). The Browns can pick and choose how they want to attack in this spot.
In less exciting news for upside-hunters: the new Freddie Kitchens offense has Baker Mayfield spreading around the ball with the best of them, as he targeted 10 different players in Week 9…and he proceeded to target nine different players in Week 10, in spite of throwing only 20 passes. This has capped upside across the board, with only Duke Johnson in Week 9 (nine targets), Jarvis Landry in Week 9 (seven targets), and Breshad Perriman in Week 9 (six targets) topping five looks in a game. With the Browns preferring to lean on the run and the Bengals inviting them to do so, volume projects to be an issue for all pass catchers on this team.
If you are set on attacking through the air on this squad, your best bet for consistency is Landry, who has seven and five looks in the Browns’ last two games, and he is seeing a few of these looks more than 10 yards downfield, giving him some room for optimism. The matchup is not a concern, but the consistency and upside of the volume is.
Behind Landry, you could say that Njoku is the pass catcher likeliest to see guaranteed work, but he was targeted only once in a great tight end matchup in Week 10 against the Falcons. All bets are off in this offense beyond Landry.
BROWNS RUN OFFENSE
The Bengals have been one of the most attackable run defenses in the league, with 113 more rushing yards allowed than any other team, and with the third most yards allowed per carry in the league. Only six teams have faced more running back rush attempts this season, and we should expect the Browns to lean on the run early and often in this one after feeding Nick Chubb 22 carries in a double-digit loss to the Chiefs and 20 carries in Week 10 against the Falcons in a game in which the Browns ran only 50 plays. Chubb encouragingly saw a season-high three targets in that game against the Falcons as well, and while his looks this year have been primarily of the dump-off variety, he has acquitted himself well in the pass game, hauling in six of the last seven targets that have come his way. While Duke Johnson continues to soak up snaps in obvious passing situations, he has only four carries across the last two weeks to Chubb’s 42, locking in the rookie as the clear lead back in one of the best running back matchups in football. As a primarily yardage-and-touchdown guy, he’ll need a score in order to provide value at his rising price tag, but with three touchdowns in his last two games, a score (or two) is not an outlandish bet.
Duke should soak up three to five targets — with upside for more work if the Browns fall behind. His explosiveness gives him upside on these looks, but his floor will remain low.
BENGALS PASS OFFENSE
Cleveland has been tough against the pass, shaving almost 5% off the league-average catch rate and shaving almost 3% off the league-average aDOT, leading to a yards allowed per pass attempt mark of 7.3 — 10th best in the league. Only two teams have more interceptions than the Browns, and only nine teams have allowed fewer passing touchdowns on the year.
Without A.J. Green, the Bengals’ pass offense crawled into a coffin, with 182 passing yards per game against the Saints and Ravens, and with a yards per pass attempt mark of 6.5 (only three teams have a lower mark on the year). “Barring any setbacks,” Green is on track to return this week (which would be at least a week or two earlier than expected), so we’ll approach this game as if Green will be out there — which will open up this offense enough to matter once again. It’s not an accident that the Bengals rank 26th in yards per game, but they do rank 12th in points per game, creating some cause for optimism.
If Green plays, he’ll see plenty of stud rookie corner Denzel Ward, but with a five-inch height advantage on Ward, Green should still carry plenty of room for upside. Andy Dalton has a long track record of targeting Green regardless of matchup, and on the year Green has only one game below eight targets and only two games below 76 receiving yards. Unlike other elite receivers: Green rarely sees double-digit looks (only three such games this year), and he rarely pops off for monster yardage games (he’s topped 100 yards twice this season, and he has yet to go over 120), but his 14 red zone targets rank seventh among wide receivers, and his locked-in usage provides him with a high floor.
The return of Green will open up the field for Tyler Boyd as well, who has been stifled the last two weeks (seven catches on 15 targets) without Green available to space out the defense. During Green’s healthy games, Boyd carried target counts of 5 // 9 // 7 // 15 // 7 // 9 // 4 // 10. He has a respectable eight targets in the red zone, which he has turned into eight catches and four touchdowns. He will primarily match up in the slot with Briean Boddy-Calhoun, who has struggled this year — allowing a 78.8% catch rate and 111.9 QB rating.
Behind Green and Boyd, volume on the Bengals is thin, and upside is thinner. Your best course here is to bet on floor and hope for ceiling from Green, or to hope the Bengals involve Boyd enough for him to hit the higher end of what has been a broad range this year.
BENGALS RUN OFFENSE
Last week in a close loss to the Ravens, Joe Mixon disappointingly played only 34 snaps while Giovani Bernard mixed in for 26 snaps of his own, one week after Mixon played 29 and Gio played 12. On one of the lowest-volume attacks in the NFL (Cincy ranks 30th in plays per game, one year after ranking 32nd), every snap counts, and we would optimally want Mixon on the field for at least 90% of the plays given his price tag and the 22+ touches we would like to see in that range. Across the last two weeks, Mixon has touched the ball 13 and 16 times, and he has topped 16 touches only once in his last five games. Even more disappointingly, he has totaled only five targets across the last two games (without Green on the field) since Gio returned, and he saw zero snaps at wide receiver last week (after seeing three the week before) — the first time all year he was used strictly out of the backfield, while Gio soaked up six snaps out wide. A bet on Mixon in this beautiful matchup is a bet on extreme efficiency or a rise in workload. With the Browns finally starting to slow down their pace of play on offense, we will likely see the Bengals remain in their standard range of 55 to 58 plays, which projects to build up around 14 to 16 carries and two to four targets for the Bengals’ lead back.
I’ll be surprised if the Bengals are able to jump out to a big lead here — and as such, I’ll be surprised if we see a pass-heavy game from the Browns, which takes the Browns’ passing attack out of consideration for me. While it’s not crazy to think you could land a serviceable score from this unit, the chances of a week-winning score are low, and the floor is lowered by the expected volume dip. If betting on this spot, the first guy I would consider would be Mayfield (without a stacking partner), as this spread-the-wealth offense could lead to him posting a big game without any of his individual pass catchers being carried with him.
I don’t typically pay for a running back priced in the top 10 on the slate with a “one to three target” role on his team — but Chubb’s locked-in 20+ touches and his touchdown upside make him interesting in this spot. He’s highly likely to get his 20+ carries, which makes him likely to push for 100+ yards and to have opportunities for scores. He’s not a priority play, but right now he’s looking like a strong Tier 3 option for me (reminder: Tier 3 = lower point-per-dollar floor than we would love, but just as much point-per-dollar upside as the Tier 1 guys).
This is the first game I have researched and written up on the Main Slate, but after messing around with rosters and pricing a bit on Monday, it is evident that this is a thin week at wide receiver — which will keep both Boyd and Green in play. Neither guy projects for a monster game in this spot, but Boyd carries upside (with a thinner-than-lovely floor), while Green is a fairly safe bet (if truly healthy) with a fair amount of upside. Neither guy pops off the page, but it seems likely this week that both guys will need to be considered.
Behind these two, I would have a difficult time going elsewhere on the Bengals — but I’m certainly a fan of the matchup that Mixon has, if you want to hope he breaks of a long run or punches in a couple touchdowns on 15 to 18 touches (or if you want to hope his volume rises this week). There will be better on-paper plays on the slate, but it won’t be a shock if Mixon churns out a respectable score.