WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL**
WR Chad Johnson vs. Browns CB Anthony Henry:** Last month, Henry primarily covered Johnson one-on-one and Johnson left the field upset about his worst performance in two years with just three catches for 37 yards. Browns strong safety Robert Griffith suggested earlier this week that Johnson himself aided their cause with three drops, two on third down.
Johnson vowed that Sunday to use the game like he used the bad outing in Indianapolis in 2002 and springboard it to a big season. He did respond with his biggest game of the year eight days later against Denver (149 yards), and has pulled within 66 yards of the AFC receiving lead, but that's his only 100-yard day of the season. He's looking for his first 40-yard catch since catching two 50s against the Broncos.
This isn't an easy defense to throw on. It's ranked 12th and has allowed just eight touchdown passes in 10 games and just one since the Eagles' Donovan McNabb threw four back on Oct. 24.
RG Bobbie Williams vs. Browns DT Gerard Warren:Warren got his team in trouble when he talked a couple of weeks ago about head-hunting for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger before they lost to the Steelers. Yet, he's got just three solo tackles and 2.5 sacks in seven games. Still, the fact is, since the Browns drafted Warren No. 1 in 2001, the Bengals haven't had an easy time running on them. In the last three games against Cleveland, running back Rudi Johnson hasn't hit 60 yards rushing, and they have had two 100-yard rushing days in the last seven games against the Browns.
WRS T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Kelley Washington vs. Browns FS Chris Crocker:** Last month, Crocker, said the Browns knew if Chad Johnson and running back Rudi Johnson couldn't make plays, the Bengals didn't have a chance to win. He said the Browns knew if Chad didn't get going early in the game, it would affect him and he would be frustrated the rest of the way. Crocker, a third-round pick out of Marshall in '03, has been promoted to starter and has a chance to make his words ring true.
The Bengals are looking for some consistent play to fill the vacuum of No. 2 receiver Peter Warrick, and there have been signs pointing in that direction. Houshmandzadeh had seven catches two weeks ago, and Washington caught his first touchdown of the season last week. But of the 52 balls the pair has caught, only one has been longer than 28 yards, so they need some other people to go long if Chad Johnson is going to be able to go long.
With the four other active receivers combining for 101 fewer yards than Chad, and Rudi accounting for 87 percent of the rushing yards, that's why guys like Crocker are saying what they're saying, and why guys like Houshmandzadeh and Washington know they have to come up with some numbers.
And, remember, this is the game five weeks ago when receivers dropped about 10 balls and Washington dropped what would have been a go-ahead touchdown pass.
**WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL:
Bengals LE Duane Clemons vs. RT Joaquin Gonzalez:**
Sound familiar? The Browns come into PBS much as they did for last season's finale, when a makeshift offensive line consisting of mainly backups blew up the Bengals running game.
Now the right side of their line is gone with guard Kelvin Garmon and tackle Ryan Tucker out, necessitating changes on each side as they piece together their fifth different line combo this season. But the Bengals defensive line is playing so much better than at the end of last season, led by the nine-year veteran Clemons and his team-leading 5.5 sacks.
Circle this one as Clemons goes against a guy with eight career starts. The Bengals' pass rush, which has yielded 13 sacks in the past two games, is particularly key with immobile Browns backup quarterback Kelly Holcomb getting the start.
Clemons plays like he rides his bike. Which must be fast because head coach Marvin Lewis says he worries about the way Clemons rides his motorcycle. But he loves how he is playing, not to mention his leadership in a passing-downs package that can have as many as four rookies in there regularly.
"He's basically coming into his own before our eyes," Lewis said. "He's kept his body in great shape. He's really grown over the past four or five weeks."
The 6-5, 275-pound Clemons is gunning for his most sacks since he had 7.5 and seven in 2000 and 2001, respectively for the Chiefs, and has his career-best nine for the '99 Vikings in sight after the tenth game of his career he had a multi-sack effort last week against the Steelers.
"He's always been on the verge of being a really elite player," said Browns safety Robert Griffith, who played with Clemons in Minnesota. "Every two or three games he's going to come out and show, 'I'm a first-rounder.'
"The last time we played, he said this is the healthiest he's been in his career," Griffith said.
Clemons' versatility (he slides into tackle to make room for rookie Robert Geathers on the edge on passing downs) has helped the Bengals mix up their three- and four-man looks along the defensive front.
"We're trying to be more multiple in our looks so (the offenses) have a hard time figuring out what we're doing," said Bengals defensive line coach Jay Hayes. "Most of his sacks have still come from off the end, and he's also had them as the end on a three-man line."
The rush the Bengals have been getting out of the three-man line has been a bonus because they don't have to blitz their defensive backs to get pressure. Clemons, 30, says he's got a lot of experience playing with great pass rushers on the inside (John Randle) and against great ones on the edge, such as one of the all-time sack leaders, Reggie White, and he didn't hesitate picking their brains. He still remembers White's advice.
"Reggie is more powerful than I am. He told me to use leverage," Clemons said. "'You've got long arms. Use them to your advantage. That's really going to be the thing that makes you a great pass rusher if you develop it.'"
With second-year tackle Langston Moore getting more comfortable, Clemons says the line is getting into a rhythm with the games they can play with each other. He says it's to the point now where the communication is down to a nod or wink and "I know if he's going to do a spin move and I have to cover for him."
For instance, one of his sacks last Sunday came when tackle John Thornton basically set a pick and Clemons came around him. But it came down to hustle, anyway, because Clemons had to chase down the play when it broke down.
There are certain things Clemons likes about playing tackle on passing downs. He's closer to the quarterback and he can get his 6-5 arms on more balls at the line of scrimmage. No one is enraptured with the constant double-teaming inside, and tackles have to make doubly sure they don't caught off balance in the running game.
"But if you get lined up one-on-one, you won't have of those big tackles and you can end up on a guy more your size or smaller," Clemons said. "I'm probably a lot better end."
Bengals CB Deltha O'Neal vs. WR Andre' Davis: It wasn't all O'Neal's fault, but O'Neal is the guy that Davis got behind when he caught that NFL-record 99-yard touchdown pass from Jeff Garcia last month in the first quarter, and hasn't caught a ball since. Davis sprained his toe in the next quarter, and has been inactive for three games. He is supposed to be back, but how fast will the speedster be?
O'Neal missed last week's game with an elbow injury, but he's having a much better stretch since the Davis play than Davis. Since then, O'Neal has had two interceptions and is part of a secondary that has gone 17 quarters without allowing a wide receiver a catch longer than 27 yards, and a touchdown catch from anyone longer than 13 yards in the last five games. **
Bengals CB Reggie Myles and Bengals WR Kevin Walter vs. Browns KR Richard Alston and Browns PR Dennis Northcutt:**
Myles and Walter are the two gunners on the punt cover team (they're on either end) that is under heavy scrutiny after it allowed the Steelers' Antwaan Randle El to tilt field position early and often last week with four plus-20-yard returns.
Northcutt has three returns this season of 25 yards, and two came last week.
Alston, a wide receiver, was selling cars last year after the Browns cut him. Now he's driving foes nuts. Watch out for him on the opening kickoff, where he has hurt the other two AFC North teams. He went 93 yards for a score against the Ravens and just barely missed another one on a 74-yarder to open against Pittsburgh. He also had a 52-yarder against the Jets last week, giving him three straight games of at least one 50-yarder.
It's a nice matchup because the Bengals are fifth in NFL kick coverage. But thanks to Randle-El, they slid seven slots to 24th in punt coverage.
Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons (Kansas) is also working on getting a higher punt out of rookie Kyle Larson (Nebraska). He has empathy for his fellow Big 12 punter because they both had to fight the prairie's wind tunnels in college. But he says they can't keep having the ball get to the returner 15-20 yards before the coverage.
"It's a misnomer. You can't kick the ball high into the wind because the wind pushes the ball down," Simmons said. "Kyle does a nice job in bad conditions, but he's got to do better when the conditions are at an optimum."
Special teams sub-plot: Browns kicker Phil Dawson had his NFL-long streak of 27 field goals snapped with misses from 42 and 34 yards last week. Bengals kicker Shayne Graham had his last miss against the Browns last month from 44, and has hit his last 10 at 19 of 21 for the season.