For the Week 8 edition of Monday Night Football, we've got an old school AFC North rivalry as the Cleveland Browns host the Cincinnati Bengals.
The Browns have lost four consecutive games after beginning the season 2-1, and are seemingly in danger of falling too far out of the playoff picture for them to be a factor over the second half of the season. The Bengals have won four of their last five after starting out 0-2 and looked like they were about to go on a run... but they lost Ja'Marr Chase to a hip injury and will now have to re-adjust to life without their star wideout for at least the next few weeks.
Will the Browns get back on track, or will the Bengals keep rolling despite injury issues? We'll find out soon enough. Before we break down the matchup, here's how you can watch the game.
How to watch
Date: Monday, Oct. 31 | Time: 8:15 p.m. ET
Location: FirstEnergy Stadium (Cleveland, Ohio)
TV: ESPN | Stream: fuboTV (try for free)
Follow: CBS Sports App
Odds: Bengals -3, O/U 45 (courtesy of Caesars Sportsbook)
When the Bengals have the ball
We went deep on the early-season struggles of the Bengals' offense a few weeks ago, prior to their Sunday Night Football matchup against the Ravens. (Yes, Bengals fans, we know they have since gotten better. There's a reason we're mentioning the struggles. Just hang in there.) Here's an excerpt:
Much of this backslide seems to stem from the maddening predictability of their offense. Cincinnati has some of the most extreme run-pass splits when it comes to their quarterback's alignment that I can ever remember. This season, on plays where Burrow has aligned in shotgun, the Bengals have called a pass play 78% of the time. When he's been under center, they've called a run pay 75% of the time. Such extreme divergence in play-calling allows opposing defenses to key in on just one play type, and shut it down.
The average team has seen 29% of its under-center plays stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage this season, according to TruMedia. The Bengals have seen 35% of theirs stopped at or behind the line. The average team has gained 10 or more yards on 17.5% of under-center plays, while the Bengals have gained 10 or more yards on just 9% of theirs. Going by TruMedia's EPA-based success rate metric, only 38% of the Bengals' under-center plays have been positive, while the league average is 45.4%. Perhaps that's at least in part because opponents have stacked eight men into the box on 52% of Cincinnati's under-center snaps, considerably higher than the 47.6% league-average mark.
Similarly, when operating out of shotgun, Cincinnati has a 41.6% success rate, with 38.4% of its plays gaining zero or negative yards and 22.1% gaining 10 yards or more. The league averages for shotgun snaps are 44.7% success, 35.5% of gains with zero or negative yards, and 21.6% of plays gaining 10 yards or more. Again, the Bengals are behind league average in almost every category, and you have to think that it is at least in part because defenses pretty much know what's coming based on whether or not Burrow is taking the snap from under center.
Cincinnati has become much less predictable since we wrote that story, largely be abandoning its under-center offense altogether. (The below numbers don't account for situation, like with the Bengals kneeling and running out the clock late in recent games, which led them to go under center for a few extra plays.)
|Week||Opponent||Shotgun %||Non-Gun %|
This shift has brought with it a corresponding massive jump in pass rate relative to expectations. According to Yahoo! Sports, Cincinnati averaged a 2.2% pass rate over expectation in Weeks 1 through 5. In Weeks 6 and 7, that figure spiked all the way to 22%, as the Bengals torched the Saints and Falcons defenses for 781 yards and six touchdowns through the air.
Of course, the Bengals will now be without star wideout Ja'Marr Chase for an undetermined length of time after the receiver suffered a hip injury. His absence will obviously have a significant effect on Cincinnati's offense, especially its ability to throw the ball downfield, where he has been Joe Burrow's favorite target. The Bengals have the good fortune of sporting one of the best wide receiver trios in the NFL, so they can shift more of the workload onto Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. Tight end Hayden Hurst figures to be more involved as well, while Mike Thomas will presumably get more snaps on the perimeter across from Higgins while Boyd works in the slot.
The Bengals should resist the temptation to suddenly go back to being a run-heavy team, though, because Joe Mixon has been one of the most ineffective backs in the NFL so far this season and the offensive line is not positioning him for success. The Browns rank 27th in DVOA against the run and 28th against the pass, according to Football Outsiders, so the Bengals should be able to find openings through the air even without Chase in the lineup.
When the Browns have the ball
Cleveland bases its offensive attack around its ability to run the ball behind a strong offensive line. Key in that attack, obviously, is Nick Chubb, who may well be the best pure runner of the football in the entire league. Among the 46 running backs with at least 50 carries so far this season, Chubb ranks fifth with a 5.87 yards per carry average, fifth with 4.05 yards after contact per rush, this with a 43.7% tackle-avoidance rate, and second in the share of his carries (15.1%) that have gained 12-plus yards, all despite facing eight or more men in the box on 28.6% of his totes, the seventh-highest rate among the same group of players, according to Tru Media.
The Bengals have not been quite as strong against the run as the pass so far this season, but they still rank inside the top 10 in DVOA in both areas, according to Football Outsiders. (Seventh against the pass and 10th against the run.) Chubb will put a lot of pressure on their linebackers and safeties to make one-on-one tackles at the second level, but Cincinnati's biggest area of success against opposing run games has been in taking away big gains. They rank fourth in open-field yards per carry, indicating that they're doing a good job of limiting explosives.
Cleveland's pass game will look a bit different this week than it has during the early portion of the season thanks to the absence of explosive tight end David Njoku, who is dealing with a high ankle sprain. After catching just one pass for seven yards back in Week 1, Njoku averaged 5.5 receptions for 68.5 yards across the Browns' next six games, stretching the field vertically for Jacoby Brissett and both capitalizing on coverages rolled toward Amari Cooper and drawing coverage away from Cooper on occasion. The Bengals have limited tight end production in the pass game so far this season but Njoku is a different caliber of athlete than most tight ends. Harrison Bryant is more than capable of filling the role, but he's not the same type of threat.
On the outside, Cooper and Donovan Peoples-Jones take the majority of the snaps, and they'll work against Chidobe Awuzie (Cooper's former Cowboys teammate who is having the best season of his career to date, allowing only 18 catches for 219 scoreless yards on 41 throws in his direction, according to Pro Football Focus) and Eli Apple. It would be smart of the Browns to direct most of their attention toward Apple's side of the field, as he is the far easier target to take advantage of.
Being able to throw at Apple requires giving Brissett enough time to do so, and that entails finding a way to keep the likes of Trey Hendrickson (15th in pressure rate among 156 players who have rushed the passer at least 100 times) and Sam Hubbard (42nd) away from the quarterback. That's a tall task, but Cleveland is also 10th in opponent's pressure rate so far this season, so their offensive line could be up to it.
Prediction: Bengals 26, Browns 17