The first Battle of Ohio marks a huge game for the Browns, who were 0-6 under head coach Pat Shurmur in divisional games last season. Can Cleveland turn things around after coming oh-so-close to upsetting the Eagles last week, and collapsing twice to Cincinnati in 2011? Our full position-by-position breakdown for the Browns vs. Bengals game, as well as my prediction, is after the jump.
Despite making the playoffs in his rookie season, much of Andy Dalton's success was built off of having a great receiver in A.J. Green. I will remain on record in saying that he is just an average quarterback and will have a sophomore slump in 2012. For an average quarterback, though, he has shown the ability in the past to rally in the fourth quarter of games.
Unfortunately for the Browns, Brandon Weeden did not even receive an ounce of consideration for being ranked over Dalton this week because of how terrible he was in Week 1. I have faith that he will rebound against the Bengals. A lot of his issues against the Eagles stemmed from his receivers letting him down early, and then missing a couple of throws that he proved he could make in the preseason and during camp.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a solid, tough-running back who can probably offer some more consistency for the Bengals than Cedric Benson did a year ago. He does not break big runs and historically has not been much of a threat as a pass catcher, though, which limits what the team can do with him while he's in the game.
The Browns being ranked "even" here has to do entirely with Trent Richardson's potential. It should not have been a huge surprise to see him a bit tentative against the Eagles when he saw his first real contact in a long time. You can expect a lot of that tentativeness to disappear against a Bengals front seven that is not as strong.
When you have a receiver with the talent of A.J. Green, your team is going to be favored over most others more times than not. With Joe Haden out, it'll be interesting to see how both teams react regarding Green -- will the Bengals target him more often, or will he be targeted less if Cleveland throws a lot of double teams at him? 5'7" Andrew Hawkins looked like an intriguing player last week against Baltimore, and he could be the guy who makes Cleveland's secondary pay if they key in on Green too much.
The Browns really need their receivers and tight ends to come through if they want rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden to get out of his mini-slump. That means no drops from Greg Little, better playcalling, and better personnel decisions. Since the Bengals' defense doesn't boast as impressive of a pass rush, hopefully Jordan Cameron can receive a few more snaps in favor of Alex Smith at tight end.
The Browns' offensive line did not do a terrible job in pass protection to start off the season, but the real issues came in run blocking. Whether it was the guards, center, or the tackles, everyone needs to get coordinated better to help spring Trent Richardson.
The Bengals lost two of their starting offensive linemen during the preseason: left guard Travelle Wharton and center Kyle Cook. Cook has been replaced by former Brown Jeff Faine, who filled in better than one could ask for against the Ravens. Still, between two newcomers, and the fact that rookie Kevin Zeitler is at right guard, Cleveland's front four has a chance to do some damage for the second week in a row.
The Bengals hope to have defensive end Carlos Dunlap back against Cleveland. He suffered a knee injury during the first preseason game and has been absent since. If he returns, there is no telling on whether he'll be a full participant. Besides Geno Atkins, Cincinnati's defensive line really struggled to get pressure to start off the season.
The Browns' defensive line, meanwhile, are coming off a rather dominant performance in which they penetrated into the backfield a lot more than expected. One of the surprises was veteran defensive end Juqua Parker, who played half of the snaps and showed that he is over the injuries that plagued him a year ago. Rookie defensive tackle Billy Winn also displayed impressive power. This unit took advantage of a patched up Eagles offensive line in Week 1, and they can do the same against the Bengals.
The Bengals got bad news this week when they lost starting outside linebacker Thomas Howard to a torn ACL. It is expected that rookie Vontaze Burfict will start in his place, or at least somewhere at one of the linebacker positions. Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga brought a little bit of "trash talk" to Trent Richardson this week, but the bigger story is that he really hasn't been the force in the center of the defense that fans had hoped for.
D'Qwell Jackson is on the other side of the spectrum at middle linebacker, being one of the top players at his position...in the entire league. He may not have had many tackles against Philadelphia, but the impact he had on the entire defense was huge. Between someone like Joe Haden and Jackson, losing Jackson would be far more detrimental in my opinion. It'll be interesting to see how Scott Fujita gets worked into the linebacker rotation after L.J. Fort and Craig Robertson each had interceptions in Week 1 and played well.
No Haden? No problem? Cleveland's secondary has the depth to overcome his loss. Granted, they lose the ability to trust a guy like Haden one-on-one, but they can remain strong at the slot position with Dimitri Patterson there. Buster Skrine could receiver several assignments on A.J. Green during the game, and he's a fearsome guy who will try to match Haden's intensity. Like Jackson at middle linebacker, T.J. Ward can step up as a leader in the secondary during Haden's absence.
The Bengals' Leon Hall has had some good games against Browns quarterbacks in the past, but the rest of their unit has underachieved.
Both teams are confident in their special team abilities. While I would give the edge to Phil Dawson over Mike Nugent at kicker, Brandon Tate and Joshua Cribbs can match each others' productivity, and Kevin Huber did a nice job punting against the Browns a year ago.
After predicting a loss for the Browns to start off the season, I think Cleveland is going to turn things around offensively in Week 2. Brandon Weeden won't have the greatest game, but he will improve upon some of the major errors he made in the first week, and Trent Richardson will have more lanes available to run through against Cincinnati. The Bengals will find success moving the chains early in the game with Green-Ellis, but the Browns' defense seems to be built on staying patient and being opportunistic when the time is right. They will minimize the damage from Haden's loss by pressuring Dalton and double-teaming Green en route to a win.