The 4-4 Browns and the 5-3 Cincinnati Bengals are both coming off very disappointing losses in Week 8 and will look to get back on track in the critical Week 9 Battle for Ohio. This is a massive game for the Browns, who need to get back in the win column and earn their first division win of the season.
The Bengals are led by second-year quarterback Joe Burrow, RB Joe Mixon and a great trio of wide receivers, including Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd and the rookie sensation Ja'Marr Chase. That offense is averaging 27.5 points per game, seventh-most in the NFL. The Bengals defense has been a huge surprise as well, allowing 20.3 points per game, sixth-fewest in the NFL. Being in the top 7 in both scoring offense and scoring defense means that the Browns will have to play a complete game on both sides of the ball to earn the victory and get to 3-0 against Burrow in his young career.
Let's take look at just how the Browns can accomplish it in this week's Winning Mix.
1. Get out to a fast start and finish the game
Perhaps the single biggest difference between the 2020 Cleveland Browns and this year's team has been the inability to close out games to secure valuable wins. In 2020, the Browns were 10-0 when leading at halftime and an incredibly impressive 9-0 when leading after three quarters. This year, however, the Browns are 3-2 when leading at the half, and the real crusher is the Browns sit at just 4-3 when leading after three quarters. That's right, the Browns have held the lead going into the fourth quarter in seven of their eight games this year. That is a remarkable accomplishment and, by comparison, the 5-3 Bengals have been ahead after three quarters in five games, tied after three quarters in one, and yet all five of their victories have come in those six games.
The Browns must get out to a lead on the Bengals and, this time, close them out like they are capable of doing. The Bengals are 0-2 this year when trailing after three quarters. Under head coach Zac Taylor, they are 0-21 in such situations. That's right, despite 21 tries, the Bengals have never won a game under Taylor in which they trailed after three quarters. The Browns need to get out to a fast start, calm some nerves and then go on to close out the Bengals to get this very important victory. It should also be noted the Bengals are a good quick-start team, going 4-1 when tied or leading after both the first quarter and halftime, while going 5-1 when tied or leading after the third quarter.
Check out exclusive photos from the practice fields at CrossCountry Mortgage Campus of the Browns preparing for their Week 9 game against the Cincinnati Bengals
2. You must pressure and disrupt Joe Burrow
In his second NFL season, one thing is clear: If you do not pressure Burrow and let him operate from a clean pocket, he will make you pay. So far in 2021, Burrow is completing 72 percent of his passes for 1,774 yards (9.3 yards per attempt) and 15 touchdowns from a clean pocket for a quarterback rating of 116.0. Per Pro Football Focus, Burrow is third in the NFL in yards, touchdowns and yards per attempt from a clean pocket. He ranks sixth in PFF passing grade from a clean pocket and is seventh in quarterback rating. Burrow is also incredibly smart in the pocket and with the football, so he will rarely allow a pressure due to his own decision-making. In fact, Burrow has been responsible for only 4.7 percent of all of the pressure he has faced, sixth-fewest in the NFL. As it seems to always be the case against elite quarterbacks, this pressure must come organically as opposed to the blitz, as Burrow leads the NFL with 825 yards, is second with 11 touchdowns and is PFF's highest-graded quarterback (94.4) against the blitz this season.
The Browns should have some success around the edges against tackles Jonah Williams and Riley Reiff, who have been charged with a combined seven sacks and 28 pressures allowed. Myles Garrett had a critical sack-strip fumbles in both wins over the Bengals in 2020, and it would be a great time for the Browns' first of the season Sunday. The other clear path to the quarterback is up the middle against struggling center Trey Hopkins. Hopkins has allowed three sacks (most among centers) with 11 total pressures already this season en route to the third-worst pass blocking grade among all centers in the league, per PFF. Look for Malik Jackson and Malik McDowell to really push the pocket and try to make Burrow uncomfortable, which doubles the chance he will throw an interception, especially in the middle of the field (seven TDs, five INTs).
*3. Win the turnover battle *
This one always seems to find its way into the Winning Mix because, frankly, it pretty much tells the tale for the Browns. Winning the turnover battle always starts with a clean sheet on offense, and the Browns are now 9-1 all time under head coach Kevin Stefanski when they do not turn the ball over. Unfortunately last week, they lost the turnover battle, 1-0, and ultimately went on to lose the game against the Steelers. They can't afford to do that against a very good Bengals team.
The Bengals are 4-1 this year when they are even or win the turnover battle and are 1-2 when they lose the turnover battle. Under Taylor, the Bengals are just 1-18 when they lose the turnover differential with the lone win coming this season against Baltimore in Week 7.
Last year, the Browns won both games against the Bengals and both were within five points. The Browns generated a sack fumble in both games and they were turnover neutral in the first game and plus-one in the turnover differential in the big road win over the Bengals. Winning the turnover battle in Paul Brown Stadium will once again be key for the Browns to head back to Cleveland with a big division win and a 5-4 record.