This week, the Cincinnati Bengals. This is the Browns' opportunity to show they are ready to take the next step as possible favorites to win the division, but it'll be a tough task given Cincinnati's home record and Cleveland's road woes. Our position-by-position evaluation and game prediction are below.take on the
Browns: Thursday Night Football was not kind to Brian Hoyer last year. I absolutely love the guy, but the thought of a tragedy happening to him again has gone through my mind several times. Hoyer is having a better season than Andy Dalton in all major statistical categories except for completion percentage. It's tough to be critical of Hoyer's performance the past few weeks, knowing that he's actually done reasonably well when you consider the non-existent running game.
A.J. Green for nearly a month. Dalton struggled against Cleveland's defense in 2013, throwing for just 299 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions over two games in which Cincinnati went 1-1.: I remain pessimistic about Andy Dalton's ability to ever be enough of a quality quarterback to lead the Bengals to a Super Bowl. He only has 8 touchdown passes (along with 6 interceptions) on the season, which puts him on pace for career lows. However, that's not indicative of him being in decline. Cincinnati has a greater commitment to the running game, and Dalton has been without
Browns: Running back has unquestionably become the most difficult position to rank in these positional previews for Cleveland. The ranking is supposed to assess the running backs, but should I lessen their ranking because of the offensive line's struggles? I think a lot of fans, including myself to an extent, have cooked up this theory that Isaiah Crowell hasn't played the past two games because the coaches were saving him to be fresh for the Cincinnati game. While that is awesome to fantasize about, we can't expect Crowell to just magically find holes that aren't there, so Ben Tate and Terrance West might remain the top two guys again.
Giovani Bernard healthy for this week's game. Instead, Jeremy Hill, the team's second round pick, gets the start again. Hill had 24 carries for 154 yards and 2 touchdowns this past Sunday against the Jaguars. While that is very impressive, it should be noted that as a backup in the month of October, Hill had 24 carries for just 63 yards (2.63 YPC). I don't think we can call him enough of a proven commodity yet to give Cincinnati a clear advantage over Cleveland.: In all sincerity, I would have given the Bengals the advantage if they had
Browns: Jordan Cameron is out again as he recovers from a concussion. The big concern at wide receiver is the status of Andrew Hawkins, the team's leading receiver. In my mind, I imagine he absolutely wants to play in this game since it's against his former team, but the coaches wouldn't want to risk his longer-term health. Taylor Gabriel has really been turning it on with the big plays -- he's actually on pace for 800+ yards receiving this year and had his first career touchdown this past Sunday.
: A.J. Green returned to action this past Sunday, and this week, he's off the injury report entirely. Mohamed Sanu has emerged not only as a great No. 2 threat, but he's looked like a legitimate No. 1 receiver, which makes for a scary combination to cover. Fortunately for opposing teams, injuries have taken out the team's two next best weapons, Marvin Jones and Tyler Eifert. Jermaine Gresham remains a drop-happy tight end, but he historically has pretty good games against Cleveland. Greg Little has actually been playing as the Bengals' No. 3 receiver, even with Green's return last week, so I expect him to see significant reps again this week.
Browns: Well, I guess the good thing is that it can't get any worse than we've already seen from Nick McDonald, right? In his debut two weeks ago, McDonald held his own against a less-than-stellar Raiders defensive line. Last week, he was pushed around like a ragdoll against one of the better defensive interiors in the NFL. This week, he gets Geno Atkins -- a guy who Alex Mack could always handle, but I don't know if McDonald will share the same fate. Overall, Cleveland still gets a respectable offensive line ranking due to their pass protection.
: Cincinnati spent a fourth-round pick on center Russell Bodine, and he's done an admirable job for the team. Offensive guard Kevin Zeitler, a 1st round pick in 2012, has missed several games this season, including last week against Jacksonville, but he's expected to return against the Browns. Andrew Whitworth remains a high quality left tackle. I would have given the Bengals the advantage had it not been for the fact that Cincinnati will be without starting right tackle Andre Smith. It'll be the first game he's missed since 2011. His replacement is Marshall Newhouse, a former starter in Green Bay who was never ranked as a very good offensive tackle.
Browns: Phil Taylor practiced for the first time in nearly a month and is listed as questionable. I can't imagine him returning to the lineup on a short week, though. Billy Winn is questionable with a toe injury, but I imagine he'll play due to the lack of depth on the line. Cleveland will need a big week from Desmond Bryant to help prevent Cincinnati's committed ground gain from getting traction early.
: Cincinnati features Domata Peko and Geno Atkins as their two interior defensive linemen, and Carlos Dunlap and Wallace Gilberry as their defensive ends. Dunlap has a team-high 4.5 sacks on the season. The story of the game will be whether the Bengals' defensive line can cause problems for Cleveland's running game like Jacksonville and Tampa Bay did.
Browns: Paul Kruger is getting to the quarterback consistently for Cleveland, which is good news because fellow linebackers Barkevious Mingo and Jabaal Sheard haven't been as productive in that department. The Browns get the advantage at linebacker this week not only because they have more stability (translation: no injuries), but because Craig Robertson has come up big the past couple of weeks against the run and in coverage, at least in the eye test.
Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga. We might see Cincinnati go with a nickel look most of the game, so the linebacker who will step up in Burfict's place is Vincent Rey. When Rey received an opportunity to start last year against Baltimore and Cleveland, he combined for 27 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 interception, and 3 passes defended in two games. Yikes. It was such an impressive performance that I wanted the Browns to sign him as a restricted free agent this offseason (we signed Andrew Hawkins instead).: This is where you can punch the Bengals in the mouth: they operate a 4-3 defense but are without two of their starting linebacker,
Browns: Cleveland's secondary has done very well the past three weeks, logging a bunch of passes defended and interceptions. This week, they are back to facing a competent quarterback, so will they still be able to execute as effectively? Joe Haden appeared to have Andy Dalton's number the last time these two teams played with two first quarter interceptions, one of which was a pick six. Both of Cleveland's safeties, Tashaun Gipson and Donte Whitner, are making game-changing plays. One big side storyline will be which defensive back goes up against Greg Little. You don't want to be a goat who gives up big catches to him.
: I don't know what's up with Leon Hall when Browns week comes, but this will be the third straight Battle of Ohio that he has missed. Veteran Terence Newman will start at one of the cornerback positions, and he's played pretty well in 2014. Taking Hall's spot will either be Dre Kirkpatrick or Darqueze Dennard. Dennard, the team's No. 24 overall pick, has not received much playing time. You'd hope that Cleveland can exploit the inexperience of Kirkpatrick or Dennard, much like teams have taken advantage of Justin Gilbert. The Bengals' safeties are Reggie Nelson and George Iloka.
Browns: Spencer Lanning had his worst punting day of the season this past week, and relatively high winds are expected for tonight's game. Cleveland will also be without their special teams ace, Johnson Bademosi, who is out with a concussion. Lanning needs to directional kick the ball away from dangerous return man Adam Jones, and Billy Cundiff needs to boot the ball out of the back of the end zone on kickoffs. In the return game, will we see Taylor Gabriel on kickoffs like we did last week? Also, Travis Benjamin had a career day on punt returns in prime time last year.
: Bengals kicker Mike Nugent is 14-of-20 on field goals this year, the worst mark of his career. He's also one of the worst kickers in the league on kickoffs, so Cleveland might have some return opportunities. In all other areas, Cincinnati excels on special teams. Kevin Huber could be the best punter in the NFL, and he gives credit to his gunners for getting the opposition down quickly. Adam Jones averages 15.8 yards per return on punts and 32.8 yards per return on kickoffs, both of which are the best in the NFL.
I'm excited and pumped up for tonight's game, but I can't go against the odds. Cincinnati is 13-0-1 in their last 14 home games, and Cleveland hasn't won a road division game in a long time. Are the tides changing for Cleveland? Yes, but Cleveland's road woes this year are evident -- we couldn't even score a touchdown against the Jaguars a few weeks ago. Cincinnati's injuries put this game on somewhat of an even playing field in terms of talent, but the big advantage the Bengals have is that their running game is still working, while Cleveland's is broken.
Cincinnati Bengals 31, Cleveland Browns 20
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