(Four points of interest in Sunday’s game)
Tackling Bengals running back Joe Mixon takes commitment and courage.
“He is a powerful, run-over-your-face kind of runner,” Browns interim coach Gregg Williams said. “You can have everything sound and you can have everything gap-sound, force-sound, and then all of a sudden he runs over your face or he is able to cut and run through two people.”
Mixon, a second-round pick in 2017 and Baker Mayfield’s teammate at Oklahoma, has been a focal point of the Bengals offense all year but especially since quarterback Andy Dalton and receiver A.J. Green were placed on injured reserve. In the two games, Mixon has 60 touches for 268 yards, including 53 rushes for 240 yards, a 4.5 average and three touchdowns. He had a season-high 129 rushing yards and two touchdowns last week in a win over Oakland.
“They’re trying to pump the ball through him, let him make plays to carry their team to a win, and they were able to do that last week,” middle linebacker Joe Schobert said. “Mixon’s a great back, he’s one of the best in the AFC, if not the NFL. So the more they’re going to try to get the ball to him, the more we have to focus on shutting it down.”
Despite missing Weeks 3 and 4 with a knee injury, Mixon leads the AFC and is fourth in the NFL with 995 rushing yards. He has three 100-yard games, including the last two, a 4.8 average and eight touchdowns. In Cleveland’s 35-20 win in November, he rushed 14 times for 89 yards and had seven catches for 66.
“I have Marshawn Lynch vibes when I watch him. AP, too,” said defensive end Chris Smith, referring to Adrian Peterson. “He’s a guy that we have to stop, make them one-dimensional.”
Cleveland’s run defense ranks 24th with 126.1 yards allowed a game and 19th at 4.5 an attempt. It shut down Denver’s Phillip Lindsay last week, holding him to 24 yards on 14 carries, and will take the same approach into the matchup with Mixon.
THE NEW GUY
Cincinnati’s Jeff Driskel had thrown seven passes in his three years in the NFL before Dalton suffered a season-ending thumb injury against the Browns last month. Driskel has made three starts since and got his first win last week. Dalton’s injury happened at the start of the third quarter, so the Browns should know what to expect from Driskel, who went 17-for-29 for 155 yards against the Browns with a touchdown and an 84.7 rating as the Bengals tried to make it a game. For the season he’s completed 60.2 percent for 775 yards with four touchdowns, two interceptions and an 80.2 rating.
“He’s poised, he knows where to go with the ball and he knows how to get the ball out of his hand on time,” Bengals offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. “Plus he can stay alive if there is pressure there.”
Driskel, a sixth-round pick in 2016, has rushed 18 times for 96 yards and two touchdowns. He is at quite the disadvantage without Green and Boyd, who had seven catches for 85 yards and a touchdown in the first meeting.
“It gets to be almost like his preseason reps and snaps where he is working with younger guys, but they are all aspiring to be great pros,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. “They all have something to prove. I think from that they can rally together.”
Driskel will have his work cut out for him against the Browns, who are 6-0 when holding opponents to 20 points or less but have a loss and tie when allowing 21. The defense has 17 interceptions, from 11 players, after only seven last year, and its 82.1 opponent pass rating is second in the league to Chicago’s 73.0.
Rookie running back Nick Chubb considers a 1,000-yard rushing season a special accomplishment. He has two games to get the 140 yards needed.
“Something I take pride in every year,” he said. “Dating back since high school, I always get at least 1,000 yards. It is definitely a goal I set for every year.”
Chubb, the No. 35 pick, had no trouble hitting 1,000 yards in his three full seasons at Georgia. He had 1,547 as a freshman and bounced back with 1,130 as a junior and 1,345 as a senior after being hurt as a sophomore.
He’s tied for 12th in the NFL with 860 rushing yards, has a 5.2 average and eight touchdowns. Since taking over the starting role in Week 7, he’s third in the league with 687 yards. He had his third 100-yard game last week against Denver and could become the first Browns rookie with four in a season. The rushing yards are fourth in team history for a rookie, and he needs 91 to take the top spot, passing William Green, Jim Brown and leader Trent Richardson, who had 950 in 2012.
Chubb, voted a second alternate to the Pro Bowl, faces a Bengals rush defense that’s 29th in the league with 142.4 yards allowed a game but limited the Raiders to 68 last week. He was held to a 3.0 average on 28 carries in the first meeting and will be looking for much more.
STRENGTH ON STRENGTH
The Bengals defense depends on the front four. Tackle and Pro Bowl starter Geno Atkins leads the team with 10 sacks, followed by eight from end Carlos Dunlap and six from backup end Sam Hubbard, as the threesome accounts for 24 of the team’s 33 sacks (73 percent). Atkins had three sacks and Hubbard, a third-round rookie out of Ohio State, two last week against the Raiders.
“To be honest, you’ve got to get on those guys fast,” right tackle Chris Hubbard said. “Geno’s a smart guy, Carlos is a smart guy, too, he’s got long arms, rangy guy. And they depend on those guys. Once you get on them, like we did the first time, they slow everything down. They kinda get out of the game. They start to depend on the other guys to start making plays. Sometimes they can start arguing amongst each other. You just want to get on them fast and start early, no matter what, just to take them out of the game.”
The Browns scored 28 points in the first half in November and Mayfield wasn’t sacked. The offensive line has done a tremendous job since the coaching change in Week 9, allowing a league-low five sacks in the span.
“We’re playing great football and we’re sticking together as a unit and we’re communicating, we’re playing on the same page,” Chris Hubbard said.
The line has an extra dose of motivation after line coach Bob Wylie broke an ankle Thursday. They will dedicate the game to him.
“I think that’s just a given,” right guard Kevin Zeitler said. “We’re going to do the things we need to do and obviously we want to do our best for him.”
Consecutive years Bengals have failed to qualify for the postseason, including this season, after making it for five straight
Touchdowns by the Browns in 16 trips inside the red zone since Freddie Kitchens took over as offensive coordinator
Percent of third downs converted by Bengals opponents, the highest in the league
The Bengals put up a fight, but the Browns deliver the second knockout blow in a month. Browns 27, Bengals 17.