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Cincinnati Bengals vs. Cleveland Browns: Week 15 Game Preview & Prediction

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Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

This week, the Cleveland Browns take on the Cincinnati Bengals. The Browns need to go 3-0 to finish the season to have any realistic shot at making the postseason. Can they get it done again in the Battle of Ohio, this time with QB Johnny Manziel under center? Our position-by-position evaluation and game prediction are below.


Position-by-Position Evaluation

Pos Advantage Reason
QB -

Browns: Fans across the country are going to tune in to this game to see Johnny Manziel. I'm stoked, but I'm also cautious. Remember when the Browns faced the Redskins on Monday Night Football and everyone tuned in? It was a dud of a game, for all intents and purposes, and Manziel was a pedestrian 7-of-16 for 65 yards.

Now, he's working with the first-teamers in a game-plan that will be more focused. The advantage I'm looking for from Manziel is to make as many positive plays as possible, even if they are little ones. We've seen Hoyer roll out on first or second down and then throw the ball away, keeping it a 2nd-and-10 or 3rd-and-10. If Manziel can run for three yards, then 2nd-and-7 or 3rd-and-7 puts us in better position. If the defense creeps up to stop Manziel from running, we could have a crossing tight end open. Those are the elements I'm hoping to see on Sunday.

Bengals: Usually, unless the Browns were facing someone like Ryan Lindley this week, I'd say that I couldn't give the advantage at quarterback to a guy making his first career start. I can't give Andy Dalton the advantage either, though, because of how bad he's been against the Browns over his past three matchups against them (2013-2014).

During that three-game stretch, Dalton is 46-of-102 (45.1%) for 385 total passing yards, 3 touchdowns (all in one game), and 6 interceptions. Some quarterbacks have teams they struggle mightily against, and Dalton's struggles seem to come against Cleveland. I expect him to be better than he was in November, but nothing too spectacular.

RB -

Browns: After all of the hype surrounding Glenn Winston last week, he was inactive. Part of me wonders if the Browns want to unleash him on Cincinnati (like they did with Isaiah Crowell the last time these two teams met), but I'm not counting on it.

I expect Crowell and Terrance West to see the bulk of the carries, and just like the receivers need to keep their routes going to extend plays when Johnny Manziel takes off, the running backs need to be on high alert all game too. We saw Manziel shuffle a pass forward to West as he was about to be sacked a few weeks ago, and if our running back isn't paying attention, that could be a deflection-leading-to-a-pick.

Bengals: Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard have been sharing the workload at running back for Cincinnati, but the impression given this week is that Hill will be the team's new starting back and utilized accordingly in a featured role. The Bengals didn't have Bernard available the last time Cleveland faced them.

Hill will be a marked man by the Browns' defense. Although Cleveland shut him down well enough the last time (and forced a key fumble by him), he didn't give Cleveland's defense any credit in his post-game interview. The Bengals average 4.15 YPC to the Browns' average of 3.62 YPC.

WR
TE
-

Browns: Will Josh Gordon be able to get his timing down this season? I think we'll see improved results statistically from Gordon this week, but not necessarily because he's running more precise routes. Instead, it'll be because of the change at quarterback. I view Hoyer as a guy who depended on the receiver being in the right spot and trying to anticipate where they will be. I think Manziel will be more of a guy who waits for Gordon to get open, maybe buys some time, and then fires a laser in to him. If Gordon gets the separation, the precision of the route won't be as important.

When it comes to the other receivers, Andrew Hawkins will finally get to face his former team after missing the last matchup to injury. We saw Travis Benjamin take some third down work away from Gordon last week, but I'd prefer to see Gordon in on third down against the Bengals. Jordan Cameron could end up being Manziel's best friend when it's all said and done, especially on the rollout plays if Cameron's man bit for the run fake.

Bengals: In the four games since he faced the Browns, A.J. Green has started to tear up the league -- he has 33 catches for 529 yards and 3 touchdowns during that stretch. In his past three games against Joe Haden, though, Green has just 12 catches for 81 yards. While I'm confident in Haden's ability, it's still nervous any time Green goes up against Cleveland because you know what he's capable of on his deep routes.

Mohamed Sanu has cooled off since his hot stretch earlier this season. Over his past five games (including the one against Cleveland), he has 14 catches for 126 yards and 1 touchdown. Greg Little hasn't seen many snaps lately. Jermaine Gresham, the team's top targeted tight end, is questionable with a toe injury.

OL -

Browns: Cleveland might have finally found the right center to replace Alex Mack (for this season) in Ryan Seymour. The young center played without many issues against the Colts last week, and now he'll contend with the likes of Geno Atkins. The Browns' offensive line played a good game the last time these two teams met as Cincinnati doesn't feature a prolific pass rusher or dominant run defender.

Bengals: Our Cincinnati affiliate described the Bengals' situation at right tackle: "[After Marshall Newhouse struggled against the Browns], Andre Smith returned the following week, but tore his triceps and was put on IR after their week 11 win in Houston. With Smith on IR, the Bengals have shuffled their offensive line. Marshall 'The Turnstile' Newhouse has been benched in favor or Clint Boling. Boling is a fourth year player out of Georgia and is the Bengals normal starting LG.

Last week was his first start at RT and he played well, allowing one hurry and one hit on 42 pass plays. Pro Football Focus graded Boling’s effort at RT at a +0.6 in pass protection and +1.8 in the run game. With Boling sliding over to RT, Mike Pollak is filling in for Boling at LG and Pollak is a solid veteran guard – nothing special, but not a liability either. Either way, the line this Sunday should be much more stable than the line the Browns faced in Cincinnati"

DBN's Tim Miller discussed how Cleveland could still take advantage of the Bengals' patchwork solution at right tackle.

DL -

Browns: Ahtyba Rubin's play continues to improve as he gets healthier. He had two inside pass rushing plays against the Colts last week, one of which helped lead to Justin Gilbert's pick six. Desmond Bryant also had the sack last week that helped lead to Luck's fumble for a touchdown, and Billy Winn and Ishmaa'ily Kitchen continue to fill out their roles well. The Browns did have a good game from Phil Taylor the last time these two teams met, and they'll be without him this time.

Bengals: Not much has changed with Cincinnati's defensive line since the last match-up. The Bengals still feature Domata Peko and Geno Atkins as their two interior defensive linemen, and Carlos Dunlap and Wallace Gilberry as their defensive ends. Dunlap still has a team-high 6.0 sacks on the season. Cleveland was able to prevent the Bengals' defensive line from penetrating into the backfield the last time, aside from a play or two from Atkins.

LB -

Browns: Could last week's effort be the new and improved Barkevious Mingo? As PFF noted, the Browns rushed him from a variety of angles, and it paid dividends. It's worth noting that Mingo had been on the injury report all season with a shoulder problem, but he was removed from the report this week.

Craig Robertson has played two straight games at a very high level at inside linebacker, and Karlos Dansby could be ready to return this week as another leadership boost to the defense. Paul Kruger and Jabaal Sheard should both take turns going up against the Bengals' right tackle to see if they can exploit that matchup again.

Bengals: Cincinnati is still without Vontaze Burfict -- he was placed on injured reserve this week, so he'll have missed both contests against the Browns. The Bengals were without Rey Maualuga in November, but he's back now and will start at middle linebacker. Emmanuel Lamur and Vincent Rey will start at outside linebacker. The Bengals' linebackers combined for 31 tackles against the Browns last month, but only one of them was for a loss.

DB -

Browns: Simply put, Cleveland's secondary could be the best in the NFL, even without Tashaun Gipson on the field. I talked about Andy Dalton's struggles against this unit earlier, and that could continue today. The one X-factor this week is the fact that K'Waun Williams is out with a hamstring injury, which means a big bump in playing time for Justin Gilbert. Will Gilbert be able to avoid giving up the big play?

Bengals: Leon Hall has missed three straight Battle of Ohio games due to injury, but he'll finally be back for this matchup. Terrance Newman, Dre Kirkpatrick, and Adam Jones fill out what is still a talented secondary name-wise, but without a pass rushing threat in the front seven, they aren't a shutdown unit. George Iloka is a good strong safety, so Manziel needs to pay attention to where he lines up on the field.

ST -

Browns: The big news for Cleveland's special teams is that they signed Garrett Hartley this week. He is an 81% career field goal kicker, which isn't great. He is 6-of-8 (75%) in his career from beyond 50 yards, though, which makes it encouraging that Cleveland could try some field goals from long range now. He hasn't handled kickoffs since 2010, though, so it'll be interesting to see whether he or Spencer Lanning tries those duties.

Travis Benjamin had a breakout day on kick and punt returns last week, and the coverage units for Cleveland were awesome.

Bengals: Kicker Mike Nugent hasn't tried a field goal in his past two games, and he is 42.9% in his career from beyond 50 yards. The Bengals get the advantage here because Kevin Huber is the best statistical punter in the NFL and Adam Jones, when factoring in kick and punt returns, is probably the best return man in the NFL. If Hartley does kickoffs for the Browns, Jones may have several very returnable kicks to field.



Prediction

I would be more concerned about QB Johnny Manziel's first start, but the Bengals don't feature a solid run defense, and they are the worst team in the NFL when it comes to sacks per pass attempt. The Browns won't have Manziel throw it often, but when they do, he should have some space to roll out to and hopefully some open receivers. Defensively, the Browns are coming off of a great performance against the Colts, and they've had QB Andy Dalton's number for awhile now. The stars align this week for Cleveland.

Cleveland Browns 27, Cincinnati Bengals 17


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