CLEVELAND _ On the day the Browns honored the late Jim Brown, the Bengals lined up their defense in this Sunday's opener to face his Pro Bowl descendant. Running back Nick Chubb came in averaging 88.6 yards in nine games against Cincinnati and it's no coincidence his team is 7-2.
So Bengals head coach Zac Taylor dressed all five defensive tackles when he handed in an inactive sheet that also included offensive linemen Jackson Carman and Trey Hill, cornerback DJ Ivey, running back Chase Brown and defensive end Joseph Ossai, ruled out Friday with that ankle injury suffered in the preseason finale.
That left the Bengals with the obligatory eight offensive linemen and the options of D'Ante Smith or Cody Ford as the first tackle off the bench and Max Scharping as the first center off the bench. Scharping and Ford can also play guard.
Brown and Ivey are the only rookies not making their NFL debuts. Even though running back Trayveon Williams (ankle) missed all three preseason games, he has been practicing for the last two weeks and joined fellow veteran Chris Evans backing up starter Joe Mixon. Both can return kicks while rookie wide receiver Charlie Jones is expected to return punts.
YOUTHFUL TEAMS: Speaking of special teams, Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons agrees this is his youngest unit in quite some time. For one thing, it's his first opener in 13 years without punter Kevin Huber and long-snapper Clark Harris. Not only is Jones making his debut catching punts, but rookie Brad Robbins is making his debut punting them. And if the preseason translates, rookie safety Jordan Battle or safety Tycen Anderson in his NFL debut could be in front of Robbins as his personal protector with sophomore snapper Cal Adomitis the grizzled veteran in his 17th game.
They're also extremely young at gunner with rookies DJ Turner and Andrei Iosivas potentially called on to make contributions early.
"A lot of young guys are going to get the opportunities to make the plays we need," Simmons said last week. "The good thing is we've certainly got guys that can run and are explosive."
The fleet Anderson could end up being a gunner because of that speed, Turner is the defending champion in the NFL scouting combine 40-yard dash, and Iosivas broke the NCAA indoor heptathlon sprint record. So the kicking game speed is there. And while Battle is a candidate for the punt protector job that is basically the quarterback out there, Simmons has also trained other guys to do it and in a pinch, starting safety Nick Scott could do it.
But he's also got two reliable veterans against the Browns in linebackers Akeem Davis-Gaither and Markus Bailey. Davis-Gaither is another guy who could quarterback the punt team.
"They've played a lot of ball for us and linebacker is the spot you want to have experience," Simmons said.
Two of Simmons' core guys are still around the practice squad. Safety Mike Thomas, who had been the protector in the Super Bowl and two AFC title games, has been working with the young guys while wide receiver Stanley Morgan Jr., has lent his gunner expertise.
"The nice thing is we can standard elevate guys (from the practice squad) if needed," Simmons said. "But for now, these young guys are getting their chance."
PRO BOWL MATCH: The bad news is the Bengals are trying to protect quarterback Joe Burrow from Brown Pro Bowl sacker Myles Garrett, who has been insane against them. He's got 11 sacks in nine games against them, eight of them on Burrow. The good news is he figures to take at least take some snaps against the Bengals' own Pro Bowl pass protector as left tackle Orlando Brown Jr., makes his Bengals debut.
Brown has held his own against Garrett, although he says he gave up a sack against him last season in a four-minute drill.
"He's a Hall of Fame level player with the production," Brown said. "He's an incredible athlete with a unique set of fundamentals. There's a reason he's the most double-teamed defensive end and still has the production he has with 16 sacks last year."
Plus, the Browns added another top pass rusher in the offseason with Za'Darius Smith gunning for a double-digit sack season with his third different team. Throw in new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz's funky wide 9 look with his ends and it's a formidable opponent for not only Brown, but Jonah Williams playing his first NFL game at right tackle.
Still, offensive line coach Frank Pollack is heartened by their work in training camp.
"You've got to realize, they've been going against our own ends and they're very good pass rushers themselves," Pollack said. "Certainly Sam (Hubbard) and (Trey) Hendrickson are one of the top three or five tandems in the league."
SLANTS AND SCREENS: Offensive coordinator Brian Callahan showed tape this past week of the last three openers. Two were decided in overtime and the other one was decided on the last snap in Burrow's debut when wide receiver A.J. Green appeared to catch the winner with seven seconds left, but was called for pushing off.
"Just to remind us that the little things decide it and it's a long game," said wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase …
Another example of the Bengals came in emphasizing defense. Taylor made slot cornerback Mike Hilton and left end Sam Hubbard his game captains …