This week, the Cleveland Browns square off against the Cincinnati Bengals for the second time this season. The Browns won 17-6 back in Week 4, but a win this time around would put them in the driver's seat in terms of winning the AFC North. With the momentum seemingly on their side, will they come through with a victory, or will it be just another disappointment for our franchise? Our position-by-position evaluation and game prediction are below.
At the beginning of the season, the Bengals were pegged as the favorites to win the AFC North, and some even called them contenders for the Super Bowl. I felt they had the talent to win the division, but that only one player could possibly hold them back from taking that next step: Andy Dalton.
As much as I hate Joe Flacco, he has an amazing postseason on his resume from a season ago. Despite some of the nice-looking statistics that Dalton has had over the past couple of years, when you really watch him play, there is certainly some doubt as to whether he is the right man to lead Cincinnati to the promised land. His struggles have really come out over the past two games -- both losses -- where he's thrown six interceptions. The Browns also held him to without a touchdown back in Week 4.
Jason Campbell, meanwhile, has been clicking on all cylinders during his first two starts, throwing five touchdown passes and no interceptions during that stretch. Campbell has a lot more experience than Dalton, which he has used to apparently help revive his career in 2013. I don't know if Campbell's success will last, but honestly, right now, the Browns deserve to have the advantage at quarterback, based on the way he's been playing. I only made it "even" due to Campbell's limited sample size.
The Bengals' running game is pretty much the same as when these two teams first met. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is still the starter and tends to get more carries, but is rarely used as a receiver. Giovani Bernard has been incorporated into the offense a lot, both as a running back and as a receiver. His dual-threat role and his quickness makes him a dynamic threat, and probably the player Cleveland should be most concerned with on Sunday.
The Browns are still trying to figure out their running game problem. Willis McGahee has not been productive in the first half of games, and heading into the bye week, Rob Chudzinski hinted that Chris Ogbonnaya would start to get more carries. Whether that actually happens is still to be determined, considering Ogbonnaya is also the team's fullback. Maybe Chudzinski will surprise everyone and give Fozzy Whittaker a chance to carry the load, but I doubt it.
The Bengals are as deep as they come in the NFL with promising, young talent at the receiver and tight end position, including A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Brandon Tate, Andrew Hawkins, Tyler Eifert, and Jermaine Gresham. Part of the reason I am so down on Dalton is that I believe a better quarterback could turn Cincinnati into one of the AFC's most dangerous offenses; hell, Green himself is typically good enough to strike fear in opposing defenses.
With standout performances prior to the bye week from Greg Little and Davone Bess, Cleveland might just have the talent after all to compare to Cincinnati. The problem is that while Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron have been reliable producers, we need to see Little and Bess deliver again before Cleveland can be crowned as having a complete unit. Armanti Edwards and Brian Tyms had time to get familiar with the offense during the bye week, so we'll see if either of them are called upon to contribute.
As we stated in our injury report for this game, the Bengals will be without starting right guard Kevin Zeitler for the first time in two seasons. The Bengals have already been giving up more sacks than usual the past two weeks, so the shuffling on their offensive line can't be a good thing for them.
Cleveland's run blocking remains a problem, and you have to wonder how Montario Hardesty averaged 4.4 yards per carry last year behind this line. The Browns are a pass-first team, so they'd be well-suited to take advantage of things like the draw play more often. Cleveland gets the advantage here for continuity reasons, and because their pass protection continues to creep more toward the "above average" classification I had expected heading into the season.
Both teams are strong on their defensive fronts -- Cleveland running a 3-4 and the Bengals running a 4-3. The Browns got Billy Winn back the week before the bye, but only mixed him in for a few plays. It will be interesting to see how much of a role he has with additional time to get to 100%, compared to Armonty Bryant, who saw a career-high in playing time against Baltimore and made some nice plays.
The reason the Bengals didn't earn an "even" ranking here is their recent loss of Geno Atkins. Although Brandon Thompson (a third-round pick in 2012) has filled in fairly well, it's still a significant loss. The rest of the line -- defensive ends Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson and defensive tackle Domato Peko -- have been trying to pick up the slack in the mean time. Dunlap had 1.5 sacks when he faced the Browns in Week 4, but the only other guy who had gotten pressure that day was Atkins.
The Bengals will likely be without starting middle linebacker Ray Maualuga again, who is dealing with a concussion. Former undrafted free agent Vincent Ray has filled in for him the past two weeks. Last week against the Ravens, he had an off-the-charts game out of no where, notching 15 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 interceptions, and 3 passes defended. You can't count on that every week, but the Browns need to keep a watchful eye on him.
Vontaze Burfict, who has been a tackling machine, plays the other linebacker position. James Harrison has been playing the role of the third linebacker in non-nickel sets. Burfict and Harrison are both banged up too with knee and calf injuries, respectively.
Cleveland lost Quentin Groves for the season, but he has been hurt most of the year anyway and hasn't been able to play much. The Browns need their inside linebackers -- D'Qwell Jackson and Craig Robertson -- to be at the top of their games in coverage to stop Giovani Bernard and the Bengals' tight ends.
The Browns didn't face Leon Hall back in Week 4 due to an injury, and they won't face him this time around either since he's done for the season. Chris Crocker has been playing as the team's primary nickelback for the past couple of weeks, but he came down as doubtful on this week's injury report with a hamstring injury. The Bengals have been getting some good play from Adam Jones, but the Bengals' secondary has been susceptible to giving up some big plays.
Coming off of a bye week, Ray Horton called safety Tashaun Gipson the MVP of the defense up until this point. While I might argue that point a bit, I guess it makes sense -- by being able to trust Gipson enough to play a lot of single-high safety, Cleveland has been able to prevent a lot of big plays, which frees Horton up to be more creative in his play calls. Joe Haden vs. A.J. Green will be another fun matchup to watch -- hopefully Dalton gets greedy and Gipson is ready for some of those over-the-top double teams.
Mike Nugent is 13-of-17 on field goals for the season, while punter Kevin Huber continues to do a good job in his role. WR Brandon Tate continues to handle the majority of punts and kickoffs for the Bengals.
The Browns have gotten great production out of Billy Cundiff so far, but you just know that one of these weeks, he'll be called upon for a late-game kick that will have us on the edge of our seats. Spencer Lanning continues to do an admirable job on punts, while Cleveland tries to fine-tune their punt return game in the absence of Travis Benjamin.
The Bengals are 4-0 at home, but I don't put too much weight into their being a significant home-field advantage. Cincinnati is in a two-game slump, while the Browns, despite only having a one-game winning streak, has all of the confidence in the world on both sides of the ball.
I expect the Browns' defense to dial up some more creative blitzes, exploiting Cincinnati's recent offensive struggles and the lack of success they had against us in Week 4. Those short-field situations will benefit Jason Campbell, who has been making good reads to move the chain and put points on the board. This will be a similar game as the one in Week 4, with a slightly higher score.
Side note: severe weather could play a factor right as the game is coming to a close in the fourth quarter. That makes getting the lead heading into the fourth quarter all-the-more important.
Cleveland Browns 20, Cincinnati Bengals 13
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