This Sunday, the Cleveland Browns take on the Cincinnati Bengals to kick off the regular season in Week 1. Below, we analyze a few advantages, disadvantages, or general thoughts about the two teams before getting to our predictions for the game.
Thoughts as Cleveland’s Defense to Open the Season
- In Week 1, it’s often difficult to predict how a revamped team will perform, regardless of the opponent they are facing. We have degrees of optimism from the preseason, but also plenty of questions.
- Let’s start with the defensive side of the ball, where there is optimism with new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. During the preseason, the Browns ranked first in the NFL in interception rate and ninth in the NFL in sack rate. I am not one who takes preseason statistics as gospel, but the eye test showed a nice mix of aggressiveness and timing of blitz calls by the defense to have me intrigued for the regular season, especially when Myles Garrett gets unleashed again.
- The defensive side of the ball has seen upgrades up front with DE Za’Darius Smith, DE Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, and DT Dalvin Tomlinson. In the secondary, S Juan Thornhill seems like he could be a playmaking upgrade over John Johnson III, who turned out to be a mediocre player over the past couple of years. I think of the increased speed and instincts with that group, something that will force quarterbacks to have to make their decisions a tick quicker. I’ve been dying for years for the cornerbacks to actually be allowed to play man coverage on a more consistent basis, and the pressure up front might finally allow that. But what about the run defense?
- Tomlinson is going to be leaned on up front to play a lot of snaps and help shore up the run defense, but he can’t do it alone. Veteran Shelby Harris has been a decent run defender, but was a late arrival to Berea this camp. Rookie Siaka Ika is a massive load, but unproven. Jordan Elliott drew the most ire from fans for even making the 53-man roster, despite all the reps he’s had over the past few years. The linebacker situation showed intrigue last year with the play of Anthony Walker, Sione Takitaki, and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, but you’re also talking about three guys who are either coming off of serious injuries, or who are injury-plagued in general. I certainly don’t think we’ll see the porous run defense that was walked all over by the Atlanta Falcons (in 2022) and then by many other teams the rest of the year, but it’s too early to tell how good the run defense will be.
Thoughts as Cleveland’s Offense to Open the Season
- There is a lot more consistency with the Browns’ offense. The offensive line has five players up front who play at an above average to Pro Bowl level (even if there are some inconsistencies with left tackle Jedrick Wills). Nick Chubb is always among the best running backs in the NFL. Amari Cooper and Donovan Peoples-Jones are solid receivers, and Elijah Moore figures to be a dynamic addition to the offense. David Njoku is an all-around player who is comfortable in Cleveland. What did we leave out? Quarterback.
- The success of this season hinges on Deshaun Watson (well, and the kicker position, potentially). I don’t think the regular season will see Watson revert to the insane amount of rust he had at the tail end of the 2022 season. More time has passed since his off-the-field drama, he’s had a full offseason and camp of reps with the starters. The one thing that I look at, though, is how Kevin Stefanski deploys this offense and makes all the pieces work together. In Houston, Watson was used to heavily throwing the ball, oftentimes in come-from-behind situations. That shouldn’t be the Browns’ blueprint — the team has to leverage Chubb and the ground game. But at the same time, they can’t lean on the run too heavily, and then not feel like all of the weapons in the passing game aren’t being capitalized on. What is the right middle ground? Some will say, “by any means necessary — whatever gets the win, gets the win,” and I would agree with that. But there is still that fine line of thinking that, and actually executing it. Just because Watson shook off his football rust, it doesn’t mean his decision-making is all the way back yet. What do you lean on when a game starts out rough and you need to come back?
- The ideal blueprint for me is a three-way attack: running the ball for half the snaps, throwing intermediate to deep routes on most of the passing attempts, and then on a smaller scale, getting the running back screen and read/option passes in. Let’s see if this offense can elevate itself to one that is among the cream of the crop in the AFC.
- The Bengals have two big changes this offseason, one on each side of the ball.
- On offense, they added left tackle Orlando Brown Jr, which then bumps former left tackle Jonah Williams over to right tackle. In one move, they upgraded two positions on the offensive line. Despite Joe Burrow’s talent and success over the years, the one thing I could always point out is that his protection was suspect, making it possible to disrupt the offense. Now, that flaw is negated, and Burrow is one of the best in the business at making picture perfect throws.
- On defense, the Bengals saw the departure of their two starting safeties, Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell. It was very much a patchwork attempt to fill the voids there, which has me thinking about the downfield passing attempts that Watson is craving, as well as Njoku going down the seam or on flag routes.
- Cade York was a disaster in the preseason in terms of making clutch kicks. There is no way that you should have four preseason games, and in all four of them, see situations where the game was potentially lost based on a missed kick or missed extra point. He had to go. Is Dustin Hopkins a long-term solution? Time will tell, but at the very least, he didn’t have the yips like York did.
- Jerome Ford as the backup running back is the other question mark that comes to mind. How much will he be worked into the offense?
- According to DraftKings Sportsbook, the Browns are 2 point underdogs against the Bengals.
Here are predictions from multiple staff members at DBN.
Chris Pokorny: “We got a glimpse of the Browns’ defense, and they’ve added some speed and depth to the pass rushing department, and Juan Thornhill already seems to be an upgrade over John Johnson III at the safety position. On the flip side, I see a great deal of uncertainty for the Bengals at their safety position — if both offenses get their shots in, is the Bengals’ uncertainty there the straw that allows Cleveland to get the slight edge?” Browns 27, Bengals 24
Thomas Moore: “Five wins in a row at home in the series. Eight wins out of the last 10 played overall in the series. As absurd as it may sound, the Cleveland Browns are the big brother slappy around their annoying younger sibling when it comes to playing the Cincinnati Bengals. As good as the Bengals are - and you have to acknowledge that they have made it to the AFC Championship Game the past two seasons - they have had no answer when it comes to stopping defensive end Myles Garrett or running back Nick Chubb, which provides the Browns with a major edge. That becomes even truer now that the Browns have beefed up the defensive line and have decided to employ an actual functioning defensive coordinator in Jim Schwartz.
This Sunday should be more of the same as the defense will be eager to show its improvement, Chubb will continue to show why he is the league’s best running back, and quarterback Deshaun Watson will have the offense operating smoothly, which combined will be enough to offset any shenanigans that Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow and his talented wide receivers in Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins can get up on offense at Cleveland Browns Stadium.” Browns 31, Bengals 24
Barry Shuck: “Difficult to think what this Browns team on both of the ball will become. The defense should be solid with Schwartz at the helm. Expect a constant pass rush. It’s the offense that is confusing. Will they use four receivers with an empty backfield then four-wides with one tight end? Deshaun’s play will dictate what happens this year. Hopefully, he has another Pro Bowl season. Until then, I am in wait-and-see mode. The good thing is the Browns usually split with Cincy and maybe this is that game. The division still runs along I-75 through Cincinnati.” Bengals 27, Browns 20
Jared Mueller: “The Browns have owned the Bengals even when Cleveland has finished in last place and Cincinnati has won the division. The home team has bulked up their defense, especially on the line, while adding weapons for QB Deshaun Watson. The visiting Bengals went all in for Orlando Brown Jr. on the offensive line but it cost them Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell.
Brown is good but Cleveland’s defensive line is much better. That Kansas City and Baltimore were willing to let Brown move on while still young is a strong sign that Cincinnati may have overpaid.
They also left their defense with holes.” Browns 30, Bengals 24
Ezweav: “Expectations for the Browns seem to be Sky-high, as we aim to extend our opening game win streak to two (which would be a record for us in this millennium).
The Cincinnati Bengals are on deck and to listen to the National punditacy, this game is over if Joe Burrow plays. It’s almost like nobody knows that the Browns are 7 out of their last 9 against our cross state rivals, including 4-1 against their golden boy. Coach Kevin Stefanski is 5-1 against Zack Taylor.
But none of that matters because…reasons. Well, Myles Garrett has been a singular wrecking crew against this team and he’s got complementary help such as he’s never had during his (incredibly productive) tenure in Cleveland.
Denzel Ward may or may not play and that’s an issue (since he lives in Jamar Chase’s head). But if the pass rush performs as advertised it’s not going to matter. Oh and also good luck stopping Nick Chubb (which they’ve always had a problem with) now that you can’t stack 8 in the box.” Browns 36, Bengals 14
Matt Wood: “NON-BELIEVERS LOOK AWAY!!
The Browns are about to donkey-punch the Bengals. A team that suddenly has one of the cockiest fan bases on planet earth now for some reason. Come Sunday Myles Garrett is going to wreck the Bengals and their so-called “improved” OL as he announces to the NFL that he has somehow gotten even better.
On offense the Browns look night and day better than the offense we saw last season. Elijah Moore has his first TD as a Brown and a combined 100 yards. Chubb looks like a future rushing King as he piles up 130 yards and a score and maybe even a smile on the sidelines.
But the brightest star is Watson as he does whatever he wants to do on Sunday completing 25 of 31 passes for 265 yards and 3 TD’s, two going to Njoku.
The Browns control the game after halftime turning Joe Burrow and company to 0-1 and showing the rest of the NFL that the Cleveland Browns are a force to be reckoned with this season.” Browns 38, Bengals 13
Who do you think will win, Browns fans? Let us know in the comments section below.