There was quite a bit of hype leading up to Thursday’s matchup between the Cincinnati Bengals visiting the Cleveland Browns. It was two first round overall draft picks and Heisman-winning quarterbacks battling it out for bragging rights over Ohio in Joe Burrow and Baker Mayfield.
Along with the hype came a lot of questions. Could Burrow continue to keep his cool under pressure? Could Mayfield lead the Browns to a victory in a must-win matchup after the punishment they received at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens? Would WR Odell Beckham Jr. get involved in the offense and finally give fantasy GMs hope for the 2020 season?
While a matchup between the Bengals and the Browns isn’t too exciting on paper, the game carried implications that could resonate throughout the entire season for both teams.
A Run-First Mentality
This week saw the Browns live up to a run-first offense under new HC Kevin Stefanski. Chubb and Hunt rushed a combined 32 times for over 200 yards and three rushing touchdowns. If we compare that to last week against the Ravens when they rushed 23 times for 139 yards and zero touchdowns, you can see an obvious disparity.
To be fair, the Browns faced Baltimore's defense in Week 1 who keenly remembered last year’s matchup in Week 4 when Chubb rushed 20 times for 165 yards and three touchdowns by himself. The Ravens weren’t going to let that happen twice. The Bengals don't have the defensive chops of the Ravens and the Browns were able to exploit it.
With a reliance on the run, some of the pressure on Mayfield eased. He completed 16 passes on only 23 attempts for 219 yards and threw two touchdowns. He did throw an interception, but it happened in the fourth quarter, instead of on his first possession like last week.
On the other side of the ball, the Bengals struggled in the run game. RB Joe Mixon was ineffective, rushing 16 times but only accruing 46 yards without finding the end zone. His counterpart, RB Giovani Bernard, rushed only once for three yards but caught five passes for 22 yards and nearly scored a touchdown. Burrow was forced to attempt 61 passes for 37 completions and 316 yards. He threw three touchdown passes and no interceptions, but he was sacked three times for a loss of 31 yards.
The lack of production in the run game against the Browns is troubling. In 2019, the Browns were in the bottom 10 in fantasy points allowed to running backs, and allowed a rookie RB, J.K. Dobbins, to score two touchdowns against them in Week 1 this year.
Because of these inefficiencies, Burrow nearly doubled his pass attempts and peppered targets to WRs A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins, Mike Thomas, and TEs C.J. Uzomah and Drew Sample. Boyd, Uzomah, and Thomas all scored touchdowns while Boyd and Sample led in receptions.
Hope for Both Teams
Despite losing the game, the Bengals won on a more cerebral level, watching their rookie QB remain cool and collected after getting sacked multiple times. The coaches trusted him to make passes and take over on fourth down conversion attempts. He used his legs to scramble, rushing seven times for 19 yards.
While the matchup may not have been dazzling like last Thursday’s game featuring the Houston Texans at the Kansas City Chiefs, it did usher in a glimmer of hope for both the Bengals and the Browns. Cincinnati made the right choice with Burrow and he looks to be one heck of quarterback as he learns to play in the NFL. The Browns can breath a sigh of relief at their victory and perhaps start trusting Stefanski’s process and the talent around Mayfield.
The Bengals visit the banged-up Philadelphia Eagles who lost their first game to the Washington Football Team.
The Browns will host Washington next week, and we should see another game featuring Chubb and Hunt dominating the offense. With defenses scheming around a run-heavy attack, Beckham should see more opportunity to find the end zone if the new Browns o-line can protect Mayfield long enough to connect.
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Obviously, you are happy if you started either (or both of the) running backs for the Browns. Both Chubb and Hunt are trending toward must-start status, but a few more games against better defenses will be a better gauge. Either way, Stefanski likes to run the football, so the volume is there. Chubb dominated Hunt in touches so he is the back to start.
After last week’s disastrous loss and Beckham’s disappointing fantasy score, this game was a welcome reprieve for those who drafted him. His future is still murky and you’ll likely still hold your breath when you start him. It will take some convincing to make fantasy GMs comfortable with Beckham in their lineup. If the offense can continue on its current path, he could be the beneficiary of deep passes and touchdowns while WR Jarvis Landry will continue to work the slot when healthy.
I said this in the offseason and not much has changed my mind, but I am wary of TE Austin Hooper. His production in Atlanta had a lot to do with their high-flying offense. With so many mouths to feed, I am afraid Hooper will be a boom or bust tight end, trending more on the bust side. I would pivot or try to stream the position until he can prove otherwise.
With so much reliance on the run, Mayfield and the passing game may play second fiddle. Either way, if he avoids being sacked and throwing interceptions, he is an intriguing play in two quarterback and superflex leagues.
Burrow is another candidate for that position. I want to keep my eye on his growth. If he can limit interceptions and turnovers and the Bengals' run-game remains lackluster, he may have streaming viability moving forward.
After Uzomah was carted off the field, TE Drew Sample picked up the slack in targets. It’s clear the young quarterback likes the TE position and he targeted them often.
As I mentioned earlier, the run game in Cincinnati needs help. Either Mixon and Bernard simply can’t get it done, the o-line needs to improve, or both. If you have Mixon, you most likely drafted him in the first round. This is a near-impossible position to be in as a fantasy player. Wait until Mixon has a good game or two and look to trade him. Do not attempt a trade now. His stock is far too low.
Although Green disappointed this week by only connected on three targets without scoring a touchdown, don’t panic yet. Burrow targeted him often during the game as he did last week. It’s just a matter of time before the two start getting on the same page. Remember, these players have had no preseason games and the Bengals have a brand-new quarterback. I think Green’s production will come to fruition sooner rather than later.
I am also intrigued with Boyd who dropped an early touchdown pass but did end up hauling one in at the end of the game. In 2019, Boyd didn’t live up to the WR1 hype with Green sidelined the entire season. That is because Boyd needs a true WR1 to occupy defenses to be productive. With Green back, healthy, and getting involved in the offense, Boyd should produce well as a WR2 in the right matchup.
Thursday Injury Update
Bengals’ TE C.J. Uzomah carted off the field holding his knee. … Bills’ WR John Brown fully participated in practice. … Cowboys’ WR Amari Cooper was limited in practice with an ankle injury that popped up late on the injury report. … Saints’ WR Michael Thomas did not practice again with a high ankle sprain. … WR Michael Pittman suffered a toe injury and was added to the Colts injury report. … Raiders’ WR Henry Ruggs did not practice. … Titans’ WR A.J. Brown missed practice with a bone bruise. … Steelers’ RB James Conner suffered an ankle injury in Monday’s game but is practicing in full. … Broncos’ WR Courtland Sutton remains questionable for Sunday’s game. … Denver’s RB Phillip Lindsay suffered a turf toe injury and is seeking a second opinion. He did not practice. … Buccaneers’ WR Mike Evans’ hamstring injury is getting better while fellow WR Chris Godwin has entered concussion protocol and is questionable for Week 2. … Lions’ WR Kenny Golladay missed practice again. … Jets’ WR Jamison Crowder is questionable for Week 2. … Eagles’ RB Miles Sanders practiced in full and should be a go for Week 2 against the Los Angeles Rams. … WRs JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson are fully healthy after acquiring questionable tags Wednesday. … Colts’ TE Jack Doyle remains sidelined at practice. … Dolphins’ WR DeVante Parker was limited in practice while WR Preston Williams fully participated. … 49ers’ TE George Kittle will not practice this week but may able to play in Week 2.
Bengals’ WR Auden Tate was a healthy scratch for TNF. … Steelers’ RB Benny Snell could have an increased role in offense regardless of Conner’s health. … Jets’ RB Frank Gore was named starter after RB Kalen Ballage was signed.