Sometimes, things are not as easy to predict as they seem. Heading into Week 1 last year, I predicted that the Cleveland Browns would blow out the Tampa Bay Buccaneers by a final score of 34-16. We lost. As much of a walkover as the Cincinnati Bengals might seem compared to other opponents we'll face, nothing should be taken for granted. In other words, we need to be "cautiously optimistic."
Here are some notes heading into the game, followed by my positional breakdown and prediction for the game:
- I'll be attending the game, but the game threads will post automatically. I hope there is no rain; we've seen enough of the Browns play poorly in those conditions. Right now, it's expected to be 72 degrees with thunderstorms.
- I wonder how much of tight end Evan Moore we are going to see. He was involved a lot in training camp and the preseason, and I've made no secret about how much of advantage it seems to be when he is lined up against...anybody. His catch rate seems to be pretty darn high. If a receiver happens to crack the 100-yard barrier on Sunday for Cleveland, I'd put my money on it being Moore.
- At right tackle, Tony Pashos remained limited on Thursday and Friday and is listed as doubtful/a game-time decision. I don't want to think about the game happening without Pashos in there, as I believe it would hurt our running game and some of the timing McCoy has with his receivers.
- How sweet will it be to see a healthy Joshua Cribbs finally returning kicks and punts? It was a depressing year to watch Cribbs struggle in 2010, and it would be a much-needed boost to the 2011 Browns if Cribbs returned to his pre-2010 form.
- I have no opinion on who should start at safety between Mike Adams and Usama Young, simply because I haven't seen what Young has to offer. I'd be in favor of there being a rotation between the two though, and Young might be better suited in the red zone given the fact that quarterbacks picked on Adams last year down there.
- This is a perfect game for Jayme Mitchell, Marcus Benard, and Jabaal Sheard to demonstrate the pass rush they can put together. A rookie quarterback, playing with young receivers in a new system? Our linebackers should be ready to bring the pressure too. If we have confidence in our secondary to play one-on-one, I'd like to see Dick Jauron challenge Dalton to beat us down the field.
- We'll see who the slot receiver is on Sunday. I think we should have two different sets, and rotate them in and out. The first set is Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie starting, with Jordan Norwood in the slot. The second set is Joshua Cribbs and Evan Moore starting, with Greg Little in the slot. The key is to get everyone involved.
- One thing I hope the first play isn't? A pass play to Owen Marecic. We should try to get him a play at some point in the game, but I'd rather the Browns already have a lead.
Montario Hardesty will make his regular season debut against the Bengals, and if things go to plan, we should see a healthy dose of him. Less Hillis means a more effective Hillis, with his reps still being well higher than Hardesty's. I haven't seen much of Hardesty as a receiver, so hopefully he feels comfortable still in that department. Picking up blocks on the right side will be key too if Pashos is out.
- My prediction for the seven inactive players? I think you can still name a quarterback as inactive, but then you cannot play him. So, I'll go with QB Thaddeus Gibson, WR Carlton Mitchell, OL Oniel Cousins, TE Jordan Cameron, DE Emmanuel Sanders, LB Titus Brown, and S Eric Hagg.
|QB||You have some quarterbacks who are able to pull their team to victory in their first game, but that usually requires a strong supporting cast. Of course there are some good potential players the Bengals have, but I don't think Andy Dalton showed us anything in the preseason to say that he had great chemistry with his teammates.
Colt McCoy, on the other hand, looked well in-sync with his receivers for the first two preseason games, and even had some nice throws in the third game that the team struggled in. It's tough to pick up a new system in such a short period of time, but McCoy seems up to the task and has become a leader in the locker room.
Peyton Hillis did not get much work in the preseason, but you know when he is most effective? When he's fresh. That's how he blew away the Ravens the first time he faced them last year, and he's going to have that same intensity when he faces the Bengals. A key will be finding a way to get Montario Hardesty into the flow of the game, while keeping the ball out of the hands of Armond Smith.
For the Bengals, it has been a troubling offseason for veteran running back Cedric Benson. If Dalton does not look sharp, Cincinnati is going to have to rely on their running game to keep them in the game. When you combine Benson's age, off-the-field issues, and other factors, I favor the Browns in this category.
|WR||When a team loses Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens, both of whom were "star" receivers at certain points of their career, you expect the team's group of receivers to deteriorate. I'm not so certain that the Bengals aren't a little better off at the receiver position in the long-term though. They have three receivers in A.J. Green, Jordan Shipley, and Jerome Simpson who could develop into a pretty good trio down the road. Tight end Jermaine Gresham is also a good target.
I have loved what I've seen from the Browns receivers and tight ends during the regular season. The reason I didn't give Cleveland the edge here is because they, along with McCoy, need to prove they have what it takes during the regular season now. I think the real strength here is going to involve Ben Watson, Evan Moore, and Joshua Cribbs, even though two of those guys aren't starters.
|OL||The offensive line for Cleveland took a big blow with the season-ending loss to Eric Steinbach. Other than that though, I was really high on the four other positions, assuming right tackle Tony Pashos (listed as doubtful) can play. The question is at left guard, where Jason Pinkston will start. The rookie has held up better than expected, perhaps because he's sandwiched between two Pro Bowlers. Still, some uncertainty remains there.
The Bengals have a similar situation at one of their guard positions, where fourth-round pick Clint Boling will start in place of right guard Bobbe Williams (suspended).
|DL||The Browns have three new starters along their defensive line. The Bengals have two new starters. Both of these units definitely got younger this season, but the Browns put a more significant investment in there line by spending their first two picks on Phil Taylor and Jabaal Sheard.
Taylor has looked very good, and while our defensive ends seem like they can get some pressure, there is concern that they will be going for a pass rush and not adjust quick enough to a run play that goes right by them. For the Bengals, Geno Atkins will start at defensive tackle after being a fourth-round pick with limited work a season ago. The Bengals did add pass-rushing specialist Carlos Dunlap. He missed the entire preseason with an injury, but is expected to play Sunday.
|LB||The Bengals had a big switch at the linebacker position over the offseason, adding veterans Manny Lawson and Thomas Howard as their outside linebackers while Rey Maualuga switches to middle linebacker. Lawson and Howard have had their down periods, but overall, I think it makes Cincinnati's linebacker unit much better than it was a year ago.
The Browns are taking a risk at linebacker that they hope pays off. A lot is riding on the durability of middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, because they have nobody after him. Scott Fujita is a leader of the defense, but when he went down last year, we saw how quickly things went south. Chris Gocong is expected to start, but missed the entire preseason.
|DB||Losing Johnathan Joseph is a tough one for the Bengals because he's been a steady veteran presence for them. They added Nate Clements to replace him, and at safety they added Reggie Nelson to start alongside Chris Crocker at safety.
If it weren't for the Browns still having a major question mark at one safety position, they would've gotten the edge here. I'd take Joe Haden over Leon Hall, but Hall has had the Browns' number with five career interceptions against them.
|ST||How much of a bummer will it be if Richmond McGee shanks a few punts in his first game? I've been eased by his lack couple of positive performances, but the lack of regular season experience is still in the back of my mind. I can't wait to see Joshua Cribbs in the return game.
The Bengals' Mike Nugent has had a good training camp, and the Bengals added a good return man off waivers this week in Brandon Tate from the Patriots. He is expected to return kickoffs and punts.
I think the Browns are going to look good on offense throughout the game, but the Bengals' defense isn't one we can just walk all over. Cleveland's running game is a bit questionable right now because we didn't get to see it on display during the preseason much, and the offensive line is shaky too. Dalton is going to have a tough time to start off the game, and I see Cleveland jumping out to an early two-possession lead. From there, I expect Cincinnati to grind things out on the ground and Dalton to start hitting a couple of throws to put the pressure back on Cleveland. The Bengals will score with a couple of minutes left in the fourth quarter, but Cleveland will close out the game from there.
CHRIS' OVERALL NFL PREDICTIONS RECORD: 1-0