The first time the two met, the Bengals came out with the 34-27 win. Considering they've pulled off the victory once before, less than one month ago, it should be simple for them to get the sweep, right?
Well, not so fast. This time, the game will be played in Cleveland, and the Browns, with no wins to their name, will be doing everything in their power to finally defeat their opponent.
So how should the Bengals approach the Browns this time around? Here's a three-step game plan they should take with them to Cleveland on Sunday.
Cornerbacks to the Rescue
Despite their 0-5 record, Cleveland Browns' rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden has put together a decent season for himself, with two games of more than 300 passing yards and a rapidly improving rapport with his receivers.
However, Cleveland's receiving corps is heading into Week 6 heavily depleted. Mohamed Massaquoi and Travis Benjamin are poised to sit out for a second consecutive week with hamstring injuries, and Jordan Norwood—who caught all nine passes thrown his way last week—is sidelined with a foot injury.
That leaves just rookie Josh Gordon, receiver/returner Josh Cribbs and drops-prone second-year Greg Little as the only healthy receivers. As such, Cleveland may need to activate rookie and Weeden's Oklahoma State teammate Josh Cooper from the practice squad to have enough receivers to be effective on Sunday.
Though the Bengals cornerbacks are dealing with an injury bug of their own—Jason Allen, Adam Jones and Terence Newman were all limited in practice on Thursday—it certainly will not help the Browns to have so few receivers at their disposal.
Last week against the Giants, the Browns had a tough time moving the ball through the air beyond their first-quarter offensive flurry and a late touchdown pass. Otherwise, the Giants corners kept Cleveland's receivers well-covered, and the result was just 22 completions on 35 targets.
It wasn't pressure from the front seven—they never laid a hand on Weeden—but the good coverage caused Weeden to throw two more interceptions, bringing his total on the year to nine.
If the Bengals can shut down Weeden's receiving options, they'll have quite the tough time moving the ball down the field and thus scoring points.
It seems fairly simple, but considering that they gave up 223 passing yards to Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill last week on just 17 completions, they cannot ease up on the Browns receivers this week. Pressure on Weeden, of course, wouldn't hurt either.
Watch Out for Trent Richardson
Cleveland Browns rookie running back Trent Richardson has just 303 rushing yards on the year thus far, on 81 carries—a 3.7 yards-per-carry average. However, he also accounts for five of the team's total nine touchdowns, and every time he's handed or thrown the ball, he's a huge threat.
Practically every other running back in the league would have far worse numbers than Richardson if they were trying to run behind Cleveland's offensive line. While it's one of the best in pass protection, it's not the best run-blocking unit. Richardson has fought for every yard and score he's had so far this year, and he'll continue to do so regardless of who is blocking for him.
With so many of the Browns receivers off the field with injuries, Richardson is going to be leaned on far heavier than he's been in weeks past. He'll be an integral part of the passing game as well as the sole power behind their run game (aside from third downs, when Chris Ogbonnaya continues to get the nod). So keeping him at bay will be of the highest priority for Cincinnati's offense this week.
Currently, the Bengals rank 21st against the run, giving up an average of 120.4 yards per game. They rank 28th in rushing touchdowns allowed per game at 1.4, are allowing 7.2 rushing first downs per game and 4.5 yards per rush attempt.
They'll have to do better than that on Sunday when they take on Richardson for the second time this season. Cincinnati will have to approach Richardson with the tenacity they did the Jacksonville Jaguars' Maurice Jones-Drew earlier this season. In that game, they held him to just 38 yards and no scores, thus forcing quarterback Blaine Gabbert to throw the ball.
With the Browns struggling in the pass game and their receivers hurt, the Bengals would be smart to repeat this approach on Sunday.
Bounce Back Offensively
Though Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has clearly avoided regressing in his second year in the NFL, he's still far from the perfect passer. His troubles when throwing under pressure reared their ugly heads last week against the Dolphins, and the result was a Bengals loss and Dalton's worst performance since the 44-13 rout at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens in Week 1.
Dalton not only threw two picks, he was also sacked three times, and when he did have time to throw and a receiver open, his rhythm was off, resulting in poor throws and incompletions. Both receivers A.J. Green and Andrew Hawkins were thrown to 13 times—Green pulled down nine of them and Hawkins just five.
To make matters worse, running back Bernard Scott—who looked good in his return to the field after suffering an ankle injury, rushing for 40 yards on five carries—tore his ACL in the game, leaving the running again primarily in the hands of BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
It's therefore imperative that Dalton not have another off-game if the Bengals are to sweep the Browns. Obviously, Cleveland will be studying the ways Miami successfully pressured him last week and try to recreate that situation, and the return of star cornerback Joe Haden will make things exponentially difficult for Green, who didn't have to deal with Haden in Week 2.
If Cincinnati can cut off the Browns' offensive options while returning to the offensive form we saw in Weeks 2 through 4, then the Bengals shouldn't have much trouble dispatching Cleveland and staying in the hunt for the AFC North's top prize.
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