The difference between starting the year 1-2 and starting the year 0-3 is astounding. Especially when you get your first victory on the road, with your third-string quarterback and just four days after you trade the face of your franchise.
Instead of going into full tank mode, the Cleveland Browns will now try to pull into a tie for the AFC North lead. It will not be an easy task, as the 2-1 Cincinnati Bengals make their annual visit to FirstEnergy Stadium.
The Bengals hold a 42-37 all-time series lead over Browns, including a 13-5 advantage since November of 2004. So far, Cincinnati has looked like the most complete in team in the division, and this should be a measuring stick for the young Cleveland squad.
It should also be a measuring stick for quarterback Brian Hoyer, who will be making his third career start. While he was impressive last week against the Vikings, the Bengals are on a completely different level of the NFL hierarchy this season.
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis is 81-81 in his career and the second-longest-tenured head coach in the NFL. Ironically, Browns coach Rob Chudzinski needs a victory to even his career mark to 2-2, which would drop Lewis below .500 for his career.
The Competitive Edge
While Andy Dalton had a rough start to the year against Chicago, he has resumed his efficient ways. With five touchdowns and just three interceptions and a quarterback rating of 93.2, Dalton is proving he is more than a flash in the pan QB. He is a legit signal-caller on whom the Bengals can rely for the long haul.
Both the Browns and the Bengals are in a similar situation with their starting running backs. Neither team can get solid production out of their front line. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is averaging just 2.8 yards per carry and has been limited this week in practice with an ankle injury. The deciding factor in this category is rookie Giovani Bernard, who looks to be a big-time playmaker for the Bengals.
The Bengals also have the edge in this category. While Josh Gordon is emerging as an elite playmaker for the Browns, AJ Green has been that for the Bengals for a few years. They also have a much better supporting cast of receivers who can legitimately hurt you from anywhere on the field.
Jordan Cameron is as good as it gets in the NFL. Defenses won’t be able to key on him with Gordon on the outside, and that makes him even more dangerous than he was previously. He is second in the NFL in tight end receiving yards and tied for first in touchdown catches.
The Bengals boast one of the best pass-blocking lines in the league and keep Andy Dalton off his back more often than not. He has only been sacked five times this season. Their line is completely healthy and playing to their potential.
Every week, the Browns climb further up the defensive line rankings. Now they sit near the top. While the Bengals do have some elite pass-rushers, the Browns might have the deepest defensive front in the entire league. John Hughes, who is a backup defensive end, was graded as one of the best lineman in the NFL last week per ProFootballFocus.com (premium stats behind pay wall).
While James Harrison and Vontaze Burfict make a mean combo at linebacker, the Browns boast one of the most solid units in the NFL. The great equalizer here is injuries. The Browns will most likely be without Jabaal Sheard and Quentin Groves this week, which thrusts rookie Barkevious Mingo into an every-down spot. Because of injury concerns, this one goes to Cincinnati.
There won’t be many weeks when the Browns win this category, but this is one of them. Coming into this week, the Bengals have one of the top pass-coverage grades in the NFL, according to ProFootballFocus.com. Unfortunately, they are decimated by injuries. With Joe Haden’s elite abilities and Buster Skrine’s improved play, the Browns take this category.
Browns kicker Billy Cundiff may not play this week, and Cleveland just changed its kick returner—again. This time, Greg Little will try to make plays on kickoffs. I will take Brandon Tate and Adam Jones over the Browns unit any day of the week.
Browns Offense vs. Bengals Defense
The Browns were somewhat lucky last week in that Hoyer did not have to face a very good secondary in his first start. The luck continues this week, as the Bengals are riddled with injuries in their secondary. Leon Hall and Dre Kirkpatrick both did not participate in practice on Wednesday for the Bengals. It does look like Brandon Ghee will be able to make his first start of 2013 after a concussion in the preseason, however.
The Bengals have a fairly stout pass defense and can stop the run as well. While they are prone to giving up yards on the ground they do not allow many touchdowns. They are most vulnerable through the air. Hoyer will need to take advantage of that.
Last week, Hoyer did a great job of finding Gordon and allowing him to make the plays for the offense. If the Bengals take that option away, can Hoyer adjust and find Cameron or Bess? These are the questions that will be answered about Hoyer each week he gets to start.
The Bengals have not been able to get to the quarterback very often this season, sacking opponents only six times. If the Browns are able to keep Hoyer upright, he should be able to do some damage against their secondary.
Browns Defense vs. Bengals Offense
AJ Green and Joe Haden have already formed rivalry in their short time facing each other. It is not a loud rivalry or even a venomous one but one built on respect. Both players have gotten the better of the other at some point, and this week will be a continuation.
While that is a sexy matchup, the true test will be on the other side of the field. Can Buster Skrine continue his solid play and limit Mohamed Sanu? Another big question is the Browns linebackers covering Bernard out of the backfield. He is quickly becoming one of the most exciting young weapons in the league.
The biggest concern, however, is the outside linebacker position. Mingo will have to take full time snaps for the first time in his career. The Bengals will surely go after him both in the run game as well as the pass. If he is forced into coverage, he could be exposed.
This is a huge spot for the rookie.
Adam Jones has been fighting injuries, even though he played last week, and Brandon Tate is as an explosive kick returner as you can find. Mike Nugent continues to be one of the most efficient kickers in the league.
The Browns have quite a few question marks on their side of the ball. While Travis Benjamin is explosive, he did turn the ball over after a muffed punt last week. Greg Little will now return kicks, and everyone knows about his history of drops. Billy Cundiff is also injured and may not even be able to play.
If he cannot go, the Browns will most likely bring in kicker Shayne Graham to face his old team.
What They’re Saying
“Like I’ve said all along, we’ll just approach it from a week-to-week basis and see where everybody is at. We’ll make the best decision for what I’ve determined gives us the best chance to win.”
--Browns’ head coach Rob Chudzinksi on who will start at QB when Brandon Weeden returns healthy
“He is probably one of the best corners I’ll face this season. It’s always great to have a guy like that on the other side to see where you measure up. He always plays me good, so it’s going to be tough.”
--Bengals’ wide receiver AJ Green on his matchup with Joe Haden
Browns’ Wednesday Injury Report
Did Not Participate
Quarterback Brandon Weeden (thumb), outside linebacker Quentin Groves (ankle), kicker Billy Cundiff (quad), outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard (knee) and defensive lineman Billy Winn (quad)
Weeden has already been ruled out for Sunday, and Hoyer was named the starter by Rob Chudzinski. Sheard and Groves are not expected to play this week, even though they have not been ruled out officially. Cundiff and Winn have an outside shot at playing.
Right guard Shawn Lauvao (ankle) and offensive lineman Oniel Cousins (chest)
If Lauvao is able to play this week, Cousins’ injury will not affect the team. The Browns have been patiently waiting for Lauvao to come back and help solidify the offensive line. If he returns anywhere near his former level it should make the line much better than it has been through three weeks.
Defensive lineman Desmond Bryant (wrist) wide receiver Josh Gordon (ankle) and defensive lineman Ahtyba Rubin (calf)
None of these guys should be an issue come Sunday. All three played last week and did not miss significant time.
This Week’s Game Stats and Facts
(Courtesy of the Browns’ communications department)
Tight end Jordan Cameron tied a Browns single-game record with three receiving touchdowns at Minnesota.
Joe Thomas will be appearing in his 100th career game this Sunday. Thomas has played in all 6,054 offensive snaps, the NFL’s longest active stretch.
Defensive coordinator Ray Horton was a second-round pick by the Bengals in 1983.
Brian Hoyer could become the first quarterback to win his first two starts in a Browns uniform since Mark Rypien in 1994.
All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise noted