What We Learned
Three things we know after the Bengals' 24-14 victory
By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
CINCINNATI -- In a Battle of Ohio that was largely a bore until the second half, the Cincinnati Bengals simultaneously snapped their two-game losing streak and snuffed out the Cleveland Browns' three-game winning streak 24-14 Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium. Both AFC Central teams find themselves 3-2. Here are three observations from the game:
1. The Bengals found out they can win without their best defensive player, outside linebacker Takeo Spikes.
Not that Cincinnati ever wanted to be without their emotional leader and top tackler for any reason, let alone this one. Spikes missed the Browns game due to the death of his father, Jimmie, who lost a battle with brain cancer Friday. On Sunday, while the Bengals were earning a key AFC Central victory, Spikes was with his family in his home state of Georgia, grieving and preparing for an early week funeral.
After the game, Spikes' coaches and teammates spoke movingly of the team's defensive captain, promising a game ball would be coming Spikes' way in memory of his father. Bengals running back Corey Dillon said his team won the game in part for Spikes and his family, and middle linebacker Brian Simmons described how close Spikes was to his father and how the difficult news reached Takeo on Friday.
Cincinnati's defense held Cleveland to just 211 yards of total offense despite missing three starters for most of the game: Spikes, defensive tackle Tony Williams, who was out with a foot injury, and cornerback Rodney Heath, who suffered a left hamstring injury and left the game midway through the first quarter.
Adrian Ross took over at Spikes' right outside linebacker role and helped shut the Browns down on just 40 yards rushing, 171 yards passing, and a 2-of-11 third-down performance (18 percent). Ross wound up tying Simmons with team-high five tackles, as the Browns’ 14 points represented their lowest total since an opening-day 9-6 loss at home to Seattle.
2. While both have enjoyed success at times this season, neither Cleveland quarterback Tim Couch or his Cincinnati counterpart, Jon Kitna, had the kind of day to write home about Sunday.
Couch’s 96.4 quarterback rating in this one only underlines how misrepresentative that particular statistic can be at times. Couch was a ho-hum 14-of-28 for 194 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions. But he repeatedly missed open receivers, either leading them too far or floating the ball at times.
Even his first scoring pass, which gave Cleveland a 7-3 lead that held up into the third quarter, was a somewhat poor throw that benefited from a superb mid-pass adjustment by Browns wide receiver Kevin Johnson (who had a career-high 153 yards on eight catches). Couch threw the 30-yarder too deep toward the back right corner of the end zone, but Johnson used his body well and made the over-the-shoulder catch, beating just inserted second-year cornerback Robert Bean.
Couch at least played better as the day wore on. At the half he was just 3-of-7 in passing, for 51 yards and the 30-yard touchdown to Johnson. Other than Johnson, only reserve running back Jamel White had caught a ball, and that produced just a 3-yard reception.
Kitna was equally inconsistent. He struggled mostly in the first half, when he was a wild 10-23 for 99 yards and no touchdowns. In the second half, Kitna threw for just 102 yards as the Bengals ground game took over the contest, but it was at least on 10-of- 15 passing and included a pretty 5-yard touchdown on a third-quarter fade pattern to Darnay Scott.
If the Browns (3-2) continue their early season success this year, it'll likely be on the strength of their much-improved defense, which still hasn't allowed a first-half touchdown this season. If the Bengals keep winning, it'll be thanks to Dillon and their sledgehammer running game. As for Couch and Kitna, they remain works very much in progress.
3. Optimistic thinking only goes so far in the NFL.
The Browns have gotten a good deal of mileage this season from good vibes. New Cleveland head coach Butch Davis has stressed a change of attitude within the team, taking many steps to change the Browns’ losing self-image and build confidence. Davis, by his own account, has organized team barbecues and parties this year in order to build a sense of locker room camaraderie and kinship where little existed before.
Before Sunday, those moves seemed to pay off. The Browns entered the Bengals game with their first three-game winning streak in the team’s three-year history, and were tied for first in the AFC Central with Baltimore at 3-1. Cleveland had posted two consecutive fourth-quarter comeback wins -- at Jacksonville and against San Diego -- and were among the early surprises of the 2001 season.
But some Browns' weaknesses were exposed at Cincinnati. Cleveland doesn't have a ground game it can rely on to stay close in games, could use more balance and speed at receiver, and its defense absorbed a beating at the hands of Cincinnati's ground game. Clearly, Browns defensive end Courtney Brown, the No. overall pick in 2000 who remains out with a knee injury, is missed. Cleveland lacked defensive play-making against the Bengals.
And the Browns schedule is about to get tougher. In the next five games, Cleveland will face defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore twice, as well as the Bengals again and surprising 3-1 entries Pittsburgh and Chicago. It'll likely take Davis' best efforts on the positive-frame-of-mind-front to keep the Browns from sinking out of the playoff race.