NFL

TNF Takeaways: Bengals Make It 8-0 With Rout of Browns

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The Cincinnati Bengals continue to exorcise demons of their past and leave them in their wake, the latest accomplished with a thorough beating of the Cleveland Browns in primetime on Thursday night.

After a tight first half, the Bengals exploded for 17 unanswered points in the second half to down the Browns in a 31-10 rout at Paul Brown Stadium, for their eighth straight win to begin the season. With that victory, Cincinnati became the first AFC North team ever to start a season 8-0 since the division was formed in 2002. It’s also the first 8-0 start in Bengals franchise history. Cincinnati now holds a four-game lead in the division with eight games to play.

“It’s huge to put ourselves in the position we’re in, to stay undefeated,” quarterback Andy Dalton said. “Not a lot of teams have been 8-0 before. We understand that. It’s hard to do.”

While the Bengals as a team have been vanquishing old narratives about them, no individual player has done more in that regard in 2015 than Dalton. Thursday was just the latest example. Dalton completed 21-of-27 passes for a modest 234 yards, but threw three touchdowns and had his fifth game without an interception this season. He had just six games where he didn’t throw an interception all of last year. Thursday also marked Dalton’s third game this season with three touchdowns and no picks and it was his highest rated performance of the season.

That’s in stark contrast to what Dalton did against Cleveland on a Thursday night last November. One year ago today, Dalton went 10-of-33 for 86 yards and zero touchdowns with three interceptions in a 24-3 loss to the Browns. His passer rating that night was a 2, by far the lowest of his career, adding fuel to the fire as it related to his performance in primetime, when the lights are brightest.

But in his first such game this year, Dalton was nothing short of excellent.

“A little different than last year, huh,” Dalton joked to reporters as his postgame press conference began. “I wasn’t focused on what happened last year. Was it in the back of my mind? Yes, absolutely. It was the exact same circumstance last year…there was so much that was so similar to last year. But I wasn’t worried about what happened last year because I feel like I’m in such a better place and such a better player this year than I was last year. So, it feels good to be sitting here now, rather than how I was last year.”

Dalton wasted little time getting the monkey off his back from last year’s performance. After the Bengals defense halted the Browns on the opening drive of the game, Cincinnati’s offense went to work on a long drive. The key pickup on it was a 3rd-and-11 pass from Dalton to Marvin Jones for 29 yards to the Cleveland 22-yard-line. A few plays later Dalton found Tyler Eifert over the middle for a nine-yard touchdown pass to put the Bengals in front. It was first of three times Dalton would connect with Eifert for six over the course of the evening.

The second such play came late in the second quarter with the Bengals in front 7-3. Dalton engineered a long drive starting from Cincinnati’s own 20 deep into the red zone, however that drive stalled inside the 10 when the Cleveland defense forced a 4th-and-2 at the six.

However, rather than take the points from a chip shot field goal and re-establish a seven-point lead, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis opted to go for it. It was the ensuing play that was perhaps Cleveland’s undoing. Though Dalton threw incomplete to A.J. Green on the fourth down play, before the ball was snapped, he got the Browns to jump offsides, giving Cincinnati a brand new set of downs later. Two plays later, Dalton found Eifert again to give the Bengals a two-score lead. The mistake by the Cleveland defense would come back to haunt them.

“It’s a shame because we had a third down stop and [we thought that] was going to force them to at least attempt a field goal,” Browns coach Mike Pettine said. “That was a big drive for us defensively and unfortunately it was self-inflicted wounds that ended up resulting in points for them.”

Cleveland did answer with a long touchdown drive of their own engineered by Johnny Manziel right before halftime, but they still trailed 14-10 at the break and the second half was all Cincinnati.

The teams traded punts to open the half, but the Bengals were able to tilt the field position battle in their direction and the Cincinnati offense started their second drive of the half near midfield, already in Browns territory. From there, they marched into the red zone and although their drive stalled there again, this time they opted for the points to make it 17-10.

After a quick three-and-out from the Bengals defense, the offense went back to work and finished the job on their next possession. Another big pass play from Dalton to Jones on the second snap of the fourth quarter got Cincinnati from midfield to the fringe of the red zone at the Browns 25-yard-line. Then, on the very next play, the Bengals reached deep into their playbook for a trick play that worked to perfection.

On 1st-and-10 from the 25, Dalton handed off to Giovani Bernard running right, who then handed off to Mohammed Sanu running a reverse to the left. The play was so unexpected that Cleveland had no one on that side set to stop Sanu, and with Dalton leading the way the speedy wide receiver took the ball all the way to the end zone untouched for six. That touchdown gave Cincinnati its largest lead of the night to that point, and was perhaps the strongest indication all evening that something was different about this year’s Bengals.

“We got the right look we wanted and we did a good job of selling the run,” Dalton said after the game. “I was looking for someone to block — I was trying to help A.J. but the guy was already in the end zone — and I didn’t realize that Mo was right behind me…I had to turn around and try to find him. It was perfect execution and a great play call at a big part of the game. It was a huge score for us.”

The early fourth quarter score essentially put the game out of reach for a Browns team that had nothing for Cincinnati’s vaunted defense in the second half.

After picking up 11 first downs in the first half, including four on the 92-yard touchdown drive late in the half, the Browns picked up just two first downs for the entirety of the second half, both on their last drive of the evening with the game already well in hand. Over the course of the second half, the Cincinnati defense held Cleveland to just 32 yards on 21 plays, including four straight three-and-outs before the Browns’ final drive of the game.

“We settled down,” said defensive end Carlos Dunlap, who had a pair of sacks in Thursday’s game. “I looked up and saw that it was like 250 yards (of offense) to their seven. But that’s our team, that’s what we do. Early in the game, we were a little messed up because you can’t really game plan for Johnny. You don’t know what offense they’re going to give him, if they’re going to get him the option stuff — it didn’t work for them last time — or whether they’re going to let him be a quarterback. That’s why you make those adjustments at halftime, and go back to doing what we do best and getting three-and-outs.”

The third three-and-out of the half led directly to Cincinnati’s final touchdown, an eight-play drive that culminated in a 19-yard touchdown pass from Dalton to Eifert, their third scoring connection of the game. The Browns later blocked a punt to gain good field position at the Cincinnati with 3:27 remaining, but the Bengals defense stepped up once more to complete their second half shutout.

Though proud of their 8-0 mark, to a man the Cincinnati players acknowledge that they still have a long way to go to truly exorcise their past demons with a deep playoff run.

“It means a lot for the city, a lot to Coach Lewis and the organization and shows how hard the guys in the locker room have been working,” cornerback Adam Jones said of the 8-0 mark. “But at the end of the day, we’ve got to get past the playoffs. That’s what everyone wants to see and we know what it is. You can’t beat around the bush acting like we don’t we know what the business is. All we can do is take care of the games we’ve got right now and take care of them one by one.”

JOHNNY BE GOOD AND BAD

On Thursday night, the Browns got yet another glimpse of what a future with Johnny Manziel at quarterback might look like and once again the experiment was equal parts illuminating and frustrating.

“I think it was just inconsistent,” Browns coach Mike Pettine said afterward. “I thought he did some good things, but I just thought in the second half, especially after we fell behind, he was just trying to make too many big plays instead of just taking completions. It’s also a function of and you guys are probably sick of hearing me say this, but it’s how well did we play around him. I don’t know if in the second half we played well enough around him for him to play well.”

In the first half, Manziel looked solid. This was particularly true on a touchdown drive late in the second quarter, where he led the Browns 92 yards in 10 plays. That drive featured three big pass plays, including a 12-yard red zone strike to Duke Johnson in the end zone after Manziel rolled out and bought time with his legs. It was the type of play, to end the type of drive, Cleveland has been dying to see out of Manziel.

He finished the half 11-of-18 for 128 yards and a touchdown. That score put the Browns right in the thick of things against an unbeaten Bengals team, down just four points as the second half began, and planted seeds of hope for what they could accomplish on Thursday night.

Instead, the second half was a nightmare for Manziel and his offense.

After a stop by the Browns defense on the opening drive of the half gave the offense the ball back with a chance to take the lead, the ensuing drive started ominously with a false start by center Alex Mack. Then running back Isaiah Crowell was stopped for a loss. Two plays later on 3rd-and-12, Manziel took off running and appeared to pick up a first down, but the Bengals challenged the play and upon review he was marked a yard short.

The next two drives didn’t go any better. On the first, Manziel three straight times, with a pair of incompletions sandwiching a six-yard gain and forcing a punt. Then on the next Browns drive, Manziel was under constant duress, and sacked on back-to-back plays by Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins. By the time he got the ball again, Cleveland was down by 21 and three straight heaves fell incomplete, the fourth consecutive three-and-out for the Browns offense.

It wasn’t until after a punt block by Cleveland’s special teams unit with under three-and-a-half minutes remaining that the Browns offense gained any traction. But that drive too showed the good and bad of Manziel. He did some good things, with passes of 16 and 11 yards to Dwayne Bowe, and had a good nine-yard scramble on 3rd-and-21. But also some bad, firing five incompletions and taking the sack that set up that 3rd-and-21. His scramble made it 4th-and-12, but his attempt to reach Travis Benjamin fell incomplete with a 44 seconds remaining, ending his evening on a sour note.

Manziel finished the game 15-of-33 for 168 yards — meaning he was just 4-of-15 for 40 yards in the second half — with the late first half touchdown and no interceptions. He also gained 31 yards on four runs, but lost 24 yards to three sacks. Afterward, Manziel assessed his inconsistent performance.

“I think there were some good things done in the first half, but there’s two halves for a reason. I did some good things tonight, and some things I wish I could have back,” he said. “We didn’t have any turnovers tonight. It didn’t make much of a difference tonight, but that’s something we struggled with earlier in the season. Knowing when to pick your battles. Sometimes I stood in there and took a shot and other times I was able to check down and go into another play. I think things slowed down for me. Live game reps for me are good.”

If the Browns know what’s best for them, they’ll continue to give Manziel live game reps and put him back out there as the starter in a week-and-a-half when they face the Pittsburgh Steelers. Inconsistent performances have been par for the course with Manziel thus far, but Cleveland has also never given him a chance to establish a rhythm as the number one guy. At 2-7, with the season circling the drain and a bye week following the Pittsburgh game, this is another great opportunity to give Manziel the reigns and find out once and for all what they have in him.

But after the game, Pettine didn’t sound like someone who would start Manziel over Josh McCown unless he was absolutely forced to again, like he was this week by McCown’s injury.

“When we get in and get back from this time off, we will assess what pool of players are available and go ahead and make those decisions from there,” Pettine said. “This will be a good time to step away and reassess where we are moving forward.”

If where they are once again ends up being with Josh McCown at quarterback, Cleveland won’t be moving forward at all.

LIONS CLEAN HOUSE

Before Thursday night’s game set the pace for Week 9, the Detroit Lions, who are on bye this week at the midway point of their season, sent shockwaves through the league when they hit the reset button in their front office.

Lions owner Martha Ford announced on Thursday the firing of team president Tom Lewand and general manager Martin Mayhew, effective immediately. Allison Maki, the Lions’ senior vice president of administration and chief financial officer will take over as team president and chief operating officer in Lewand’s stead and report directly to Ford. Sheldon White, the team’s vice president of pro personnel, takes over as interim general manager.

“I want to assure our fans that we intend to identify and hire the very best leadership in order to produce a consistently winning football team,” Ford said Thursday. “Our fans deserve a winning football team and we will do everything possible to make it a reality.”

Lewand had been with the Lions since 1995 and served as the team’s president since the end of the 2008 season. Mayhew, who joined the team in 2001, also ascended to his role as general manager during the 2008 season after Detroit fired Matt Millen in the midst of an embarrassing 0-16 campaign. Things had gotten considerably better since then, and the Lions made two playoff appearances under Lewand and Mayhew, including last season when they won more than 10 games for the first time since 1991. But a lack of results in the postseason continues to plague the organization and things came to a head with a 1-7 start to the current season. The duo that built the Lions’ currently underachieving roster exits Detroit with a record of 41-63 over six-and-a-half seasons.

“We are very disappointed with the results of the season so far and believe a change in leadership was necessary,” Ford said.

The one change the Lions didn’t make was at head coach, where Jim Caldwell, who led the Detroit to that 11-5 mark and a postseason appearance in his first year as Lions coach, remains in place, at least for the time being. Ford and her new staff are putting their faith in Caldwell to engineer at least a slight turnaround.

“We have no intention on giving up on the season,” the 90-year-old Ford said. “We expect our team to compete and improve and win.”


About Devon Jeffreys

Devon Jeffreys