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Browns vs. Bengals: NFL Week 9 Preview and Prediction

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Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

On Thursday, the Cleveland Browns (2-6) take on the Cincinnati Bengals (7-0) in Week 9 of the NFL regular season. Our position-by-position evaluation and game prediction are below.


Position-by-Position Evaluation

Pos Advantage Reason
QB Andy Dalton is playing the best football of his career for Cincinnati, throwing for 15 touchdowns and just 4 interceptions on his way to a 7-0 record. His completion percentage is also a career-high 66.2%. The next hurdle he has to climb is in prime time games, though, where he has a record of 3-7, including a 24-3 loss on Thursday Night Football last year where he was 10-of-33 (30.3%) for 86 yards and 3 interceptions.

Johnny Manziel gets the start for Cleveland in relief of the injured Josh McCown. Manziel is 1-0 this year as a starter and has been praised for the turnaround he's made in his second year with the team. Manziel also has a chance to avenge the awful performance the Browns had in the first start of his career last year, a December game against the Bengals. Manziel was 10-of-18 (55.6%) for 80 yards and 2 interceptions in a 30-0 loss.

RB The Browns' lack of utilization of Duke Johnson in the second half of this past Sunday's game was as close to a coaching sin as you could get. Manziel could be looking to scramble and check down to his blocking backs against the Bengals, which could make for some nice plays via improvising. Part of me fears that we'll rotate Isaiah Crowell and Robert Turbin again, though, trusting them to be better blocking backs than Johnson. That rotation has to stop to allow either back to find a groove -- stick with either Crowell or Turbin, please!

Jeremy Hill has been in a sophomore slump for the Bengals. He's only averaging 3.3 yards per carry, far below Giovani Bernard (5.6 yards per carry). Hill won't be used as a receiver much -- that role will belong to Bernard. Cincinnati distributes the reps among their two backs pretty evenly, as they know it's just a matter of time before Hill breaks out (probably this week against Cleveland).

WR
TE
The Browns are hurting at the wide receiver position. Andrew Hawkins and Brian Hartline are both out with concussions, which means that either Marlon Moore or Dwayne Bowe will be the No. 3 receiver. If last week's game was any indication, Moore will be the No. 3 guy, but Bowe might actually catch his first pass of the year. Gary Barnidge's least productive days as a receiver this season game the first two weeks when Johnny Manziel was under center most of the time. Will that trend continue, or will Manziel also find Barnidge as a security blanket like McCown did?

If there is one player who A.J. Green could never beat, it was Joe Haden. In two games against Haden last year, Green had 8 catches for 72 yards. No one doubts Green's ability as a No. 1 receiver, as he continues to be Dalton's go-to-guy. Tight end Tyler Eifert has become a second security blanket for Dalton, catching 32 passes for 381 yards and 6 touchdowns this year. Marvin Jones is the team's No. 2 receiver; he goes hot-and-cold from week-to-week. Mohamed Sanu isn't getting as many catches this year but can be a big-play receiver.

OL - The Bengals' starting offensive line is as follows: LT Andrew Whitworth, LG Clint Boling, C Russell Bodine, RG Kevin Zeitler, and RT Andre Smith. Whitworth is a great left tackle, just a couple of shades behind Joe Thomas. Cincinnati gets strong play from both of the guard positions, but Bodine and Smith have been moderate liabilities as center and right tackle. Smith is out this week with a concussion, so veteran tackle Eric Winston should fill in.

Fans don't want to believe it, but PFF continues to praise the Browns' offensive line, ranking their performance second in the NFL. My counter-arguments to the number of sacks and struggling running game would be this: the sacks pile up because Cleveland eventually become too one-dimensional, and many of the run game issues have been due to the running backs or incredibly poor blocking from the tight ends and fullback, so much so that a free rusher gets in the backfield every time. Fortunately, Joe Thomas is still with the club for this game (and the season), too.
DL In the Browns' Thursday victory over the Bengals last year, Phil Taylor made a glorious return and was a major factor in stopping the Bengals up front. Then, he got injured again and is no longer on an NFL roster. Can Danny Shelton, who has made steady progress but been subject to ridicule because of the rest of the team's defensive struggles, break out for a similar impact?

While Cleveland is relying on promise, the Bengals already have the established talent up front. The Bengals' starting defensive line consists of Carlos Dunlap, Domata Peko, Geno Atkins, and Michael Johnson. Dunlap has 6.5 sacks on the year and is among the best in the league at pressuring quarterbacks. The Browns faced one of the best interior defenders in the game a few weeks ago in Aaron Donald of the Rams, but Atkins is right on par with him.
LB The Bengals' depth chart is not indicative of who is playing at linebacker, in part due to several injuries or recent comebacks. Vontaze Burfict made his season debut last week against the Steelers, and although the team took his reps light, he was effective and had to play more due to inside linebacker Rey Maualuga suffering a calf injury. Maualuga is questionable this week, which might mean more reps for Vincent Rey, who actually leads the team in tackles. A.J. Hawk  and Emmanuel Lamur will also see some reps in the rotation. When Lamur is in the game, the Browns will try to get Duke Johnson or Gary Barnidge on him, as he struggles in coverage.

In the limited plays Barkevious Mingo plays, I remain impressed with what I see. If Cleveland wanted a third-round pick for him, why don't they dedicate more reps to him already? Sorry for sounding like a broken record. We're all frustrated with Paul Kruger's inability to get to the quarterback, but I'm sure it's killing him with every snap too. You have to wonder if he is in his own head to an extent.
DB The Browns will be without Joe Haden, Donte Whitner, and Jordan Poyer for this week's game, so that means Ibraheim Campbell has been jettisoned to the top of the depth chart at strong safety. It will be refreshing to finally see what one of our rookie draft picks in the secondary has to offer. I expect Pierre Desir to start in Haden's place; I think Johnson Bademosi relieved Haden last week because of the team's week-of-practice philosophy.

The Bengals' secondary features Dre Kirkpatrick and Adam Jones as the starting cornerbacks, and George Iloka and Reggie Nelson as the starting safeties. While Jones has been one of the league's top cornerbacks this year, Kirkpatrick has been one of the worst and is the matchup the Browns will most want to exploit. Cincinnati gets above average play from both of their safeties. Leon Hall will serve as the team's nickelback.
ST Alright, our go-to advantage of the week! Travis Coons missed an extra point last week, his first miss of any kind this season. Mike Nugent is 10-of-13 on his attempts this season. Neither kicker gets many opportunities from beyond 50 yards. Nugent gets a touchback 52.5% of the time on kickoffs.

Andy Lee remains solid in punting average (48.9) and net (42.8), but I'm still waiting for that one game where we go, "Lee was the big-time difference maker today, pinning [this team] inside the five twice." Kevin Huber is the Bengals punter and is around the middle of the league; he shouldn't be a liability.

Both Brandon Tate and Adam Jones handle kickoffs and punts, and the reps are split pretty evenly among them. Both players are dangerous return men, but I'd still give the edge to Travis Benjamin. Benjamin's lone return touchdown this year came in Johnny Manziel's first start, so how about channeling that energy again?



Prediction

I'd really like to buy in to the Bengals' prime time struggles, but they look like a different team this year and have come through in several late-game pressure situations against Seattle and Pittsburgh. With the Browns missing players in their secondary again and still failing to stop the run and generate a pass rush regularly, Cleveland's hopes are squarely on the shoulders of QB Johnny Manziel. Manziel won't lead the offense to an embarrassing performance like last year, but you can't expect the guy to pull a Houdini act in this type of game.

Cincinnati Bengals 27, Cleveland Browns 14

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