2012 AFC North Preview (cont.)
What the Bengals do best: Make the most of what they have.
In coordinators Jay Gruden on offense and Mike Zimmer on defense, Cincinnati is fortunate to have two smart and creative coaches who see the glass as half full, and seem to consistently draw the best out of their players.
When conventional wisdom last year said the Bengals couldn't win by starting a rookie quarterback in Andy Dalton and a rookie receiver in A.J. Green -- especially coming off of the lockout -- Gruden paid it no mind and put the youngsters in the best possible position to thrive in 2011. Same for Zimmer, entering a year in which his defense watched top-flight cornerback Johnathan Joseph walk out the door to Houston in free agency. The resourceful Zimmer went back to work and got a very respectable season out of veteran cornerback Nate Clements, coaching the Bengals defense to a No. 7 finish and doing his share of the heavy lifting in Cincy's unexpected wild-card playoff run. The best coaches take good players and make them even better.
What the Bengals have to improve: Their downfield passing game.
Gruden has been focusing on Dalton taking more downfield shots this season, believing the Bengals missed out on some points and big plays in 2011 because they didn't get Green enough chances to use his athleticism to go up and get the ball, even if the receiver was well covered. While Dalton doesn't have the strongest arm in the NFL, Gruden believes he can be more accurate on Cincy's deep patterns with better footwork, and has harped on Dalton staying aggressive and ready to pull the trigger. Look for the Bengals to play it less safe with Dalton this season, asking him to stretch defenses and make some of those outside-the-numbers throws that often bedeviled him as a rookie.
Which Bengal needs to step up: Marvin Jones, receiver.
The fifth-round rookie out of Cal has stepped up so far in the preseason, even though he wasn't expected to be the guy to ease some of the playmaking burden from Green's shoulders in the passing game. But through three games in August, Jones has forced Cincinnati to consider finding ways to get him on the field. Jones has a team-best five catches for 111 yards and a touchdown in the preseason, with two catches of more than 40 yards and an impressive 18-yard punt return the other night against Green Bay. He's one of those training camp surprises that no one saw coming, but he might wind up claiming the team's wide-open No. 2 receiver role.
Predicted record: 8-8.
The Bengals are doing things the right way, and there's a lot to like about the direction they're heading as an organization. But they won't sneak up on anyone in the first half of the season like they did in 2011 (when they started 6-2), and their struggles to beat good teams last year was telling. The Bengals went 9-0 against non-playoff teams and 0-8 against teams in the postseason, meaning they were a classic overachiever that maximized their potential. Even though Cincinnati looks better on paper, that's usually a tough winning formula to repeat, and a slight step backwards is likely in order for Dalton and Co. in 2012.
What the Browns do best: Defend the pass.
You can call it a statistical quirk or a byproduct of the team's 30th-ranked rushing defense (why throw when you can run?), but the Browns fielded the second-best passing defense in the NFL last season, limiting teams to just 184.9 yards per game, trailing only AFC North rival Pittsburgh in that department. That's tough to do without much of a pass rush, and the Browns had just 32 sacks as a team in 2011, tied for 23rd in the league. The two cornerstones of Cleveland's pass coverage are easy to spot: Third-year veteran Joe Haden is a legitimate star at cornerback and his 2010 draft classmate, strong safety T.J. Ward, is a player the Browns have learned to count on in his first two seasons in the league. Since the start of the 2010 season, Haden has 37 passes defensed, tied for third most in the NFL over that span.
What the Browns need to improve: Their passing game.
The selection of 28-year-old Brandon Weeden in April's first round was the acknowledgment that Cleveland's passing game has to join the big leagues if the Browns ever hope to compete in the stacked AFC North. With second-year quarterback Colt McCoy running the show (13 starts), the Browns were anemic. Cleveland's passing game wound up completing just 56.1 percent (way low for a West Coast ball-control-style offense), with only 5.8 yards per attempt, and a 72.8 passer rating. That gets you beat in today's NFL. Weeden has yet to provide any answers at the position in the preseason, and gets closer to looking like a real Browns quarterback every week. His reaction to pressure in the pocket is particularly troubling. But Cleveland clearly wasn't going anywhere with McCoy either, so Mike Holmgren's roll of the dice was a move he felt compelled to make.
Which Brown needs to step up: Josh Gordon, receiver.
One of the few players to flash on offense for Cleveland this preseason has been Gordon, the former Baylor standout who was taken with a second-round supplemental pick in July. He and Weeden appear to have growing chemistry together, and Gordon's three catches for 50 yards in a Week 3 preseason loss to Philadelphia included a highlight-reel reception that beat Eagles cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. As starved as the Browns are for offensive playmakers, Gordon has moved himself firmly into the first-team receiving picture, catching five passes for 88 yards the past two weeks. Weeden looks more comfortable throwing to Gordon than he does to second-year veteran Greg Little, the team's leading receiver in 2011.
Predicted record: 5-11.
If first-round rookie running back Trent Richardson returns healthy from summer arthroscopic knee surgery and is everything the Browns hoped he'd be, Cleveland at least has a chance to run the ball effectively and keep games close while Weeden and the passing game develop. But even if that scenario unfolds, the Browns are a long shot to avoid their fifth consecutive season of double-digit losses, and yet another last-place standing in the AFC North.