Round one of the Battle of Ohio takes place at FirstEnergy Stadium on Sunday as the Cleveland Browns host the Cincinnati Bengals. With the Bengals' secondary hurting, can Brian Hoyer reproduce some of the spark he brought to the offense last week? Our position-by-position evaluation and game prediction are below.
It probably sounds like I'm biased against all of the AFC North quarterbacks, but my opinion on Andy Dalton remains the same as it has been in the past: I think he's a good, but not great, quarterback who would struggle mightily without a guy like A.J. Green. That's not to slam him; I have preached that Josh Gordon might be the same type of difference-maker for the Browns' offense. Dalton doesn't run very much, so Cleveland shouldn't have to worry about him scrambling like Ponder did last week.
Brian Hoyer will make his second straight start, this time in front of his home town. That should be an incredible moment for him, and I'd love for him to provide the same spark he did a week ago. The Bengals have had a chance to get some footage on him and will no doubt be looking to jump some routes when he tries to get rid of the ball quickly. Hopefully Hoyer makes some adjustments of his own.
The Bengals' running game has struggled this year, with BenJarvus Green-Ellis averaging 2.8 yards per carry. Rookie Giovani Bernard has been a ball of energy for them, though, and Dalton will likely try to get him the ball a couple of times in space as a receiver.
After the dealing of Trent Richardson, there is still a lot of uncertainty in the Browns' backfield. Willis McGahee got his first full week of practice in this week, and he promised to be better. Bobby Rainey and Chris Ogbonnaya split time with him last week. Cleveland is still taking a committee approach, but we've yet to see the running game have any level of success through three weeks. Until that changes, I can't pick Cleveland to be the favorite at running back.
A.J. Green has had a lot of success against the Browns the first four times he's faced them. The two other receivers the Bengals use are Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones. At tight end, Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert are a tandem who you can't leave open, although I would disagree big time with our Bengals affiliate, who said, "The Bengals have two outstanding tight ends. One is a Pro-Bowler, and the other is a rookie who is already pushing the Pro-Bowler."
Josh Gordon's impact in his debut last week was evident, and the Browns have come out and basically said that they aren't looking to trade him. Is Gordon on the same level as Green? Gordon still has more to prove, but in terms of impact goes right now, I think they are on the same level. Davone Bess has been running some good routes to get open on third down, and tight end Jordan Cameron is emerging as one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the NFL.
The Browns hope to have Shawn Lauvao back this week, but he is listed as questionable. Even if he does return, this offensive line still has a lot to prove: Lauvao would have to shake off the rust, and Mitchell Schwartz still needs to get back on track. Cincinnati hasn't opened many holes in the running game, but they've kept Dalton fairly clean to warrant the advantage here.
Cleveland has been very impressive on the defensive line. If you haven't read this article on Phil Taylor yet, do so now. I guarantee that you'll be an even bigger fan of Taylor's than you were before. The Browns will be without backup defensive end Billy Winn this week, but this is one of the deepest positions on the team.
I came close to giving Cleveland the advantage here, but I had to make it even because Geno Atkins remains one of the game's best at defensive tackle. His stats aren't flashy, but he commands a lot of attention to help free other guys up and is solid against the run. The Bengals also feature two quick pass rushers in Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap. Neither guy has gotten off to a great start this year, but they'll come along eventually.
Outside linebackers Jabaal Sheard and Quentin Groves are expected to be out this week, so Barkevious Mingo will make his first career start. He and Paul Kruger have looked very good in the early part of this season, but if either guy suffers an injury, the depth at the position goes to hell. Inside linebackers D'Qwell Jackson and Craig Robertson have helped generate turnovers this season, whether it be via tipped passes, forcing fumbles, or recovering fumbles.
This is a situation where it's simply tough to compare a 3-4 defense vs. a 4-3 defense in a position breakdown like this. Vontaze Burfict is drawing a lot of rave reviews for his play, and Rey Maualuga is the anchor at middle linebacker. Veteran linebacker James Harrison is now a member of the Bengals, but hasn't played very much. He has historically laid some illegal hits on Browns receivers and quarterbacks.
I would have given Cincinnati the edge here until I learned that their best starting cornerback, Leon Hall, and best starting safety, Reggie Nelson, are doubtful with hamstring injuries. Adam Jones will slide into the starting lineup at cornerback, and Chris Crocker (signed off the street) and Taylor Mays should rotate in place of Nelson.
Joe Haden has had some good battles with A.J. Green, but Green always still seems to emerge with at least one big play in each outing. Haden will be looking to avoid that this time around. Cleveland gets the edge in the secondary this week because they are the healthier unit; the guys after Haden must do a better job in third-down coverage, though.
It sounds like Billy Cundiff will be ready-to-go this week, and he has boomed kickoffs out of the end zone and been surprisingly reliable on field goals. Spencer Lanning was awesome in Week 3, but still has to work on being a more consistent punter. Greg Little should get some opportunities to return kickoffs this week, and Travis Benjamin needs to be more confident when fielding punts.
This is a tough one to decide. I was firmly set on the Bengals winning until I learned about the injuries in their secondary. Then, the possibility of Cleveland's offensive line getting back on track -- if Shawn Lauvao returns -- is playing in the back of my head, along with the fact that Cincinnati has had trouble getting to the quarterback through three games this year. This game has the makings of the Browns pulling it off.
With that said, I fear that the Bengals' defense will figure out something on Brian Hoyer and minimize the impact he can have compared to last week. Plus, I picked the Bengals to be the AFC North Champions, so I can't dismiss that fact just because I'm hoping the Browns pull this off. Fingers crossed, though!
24, Cleveland Browns 17
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- Bengals-Browns Injury Report: Will OG Shawn Lauvao Return?
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- 2013 NFL Season: Pokorny's Week 4 NFL Picks