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Setting The Scene: Bengals at Browns for 100th Battle of Ohio

Bengals defense takes down Browns QB Deshaun Watson during the Week 8 Bengals-Browns game in the 2022 season.
Bengals defense takes down Browns QB Deshaun Watson during the Week 8 Bengals-Browns game in the 2022 season.

The Bengals open the regular season with the 100th installment of the "Battle of Ohio," as Cincinnati heads to Cleveland to take on the Browns on Sunday at Cleveland Browns Stadium. After five weeks of training camp and preseason preparation, the Bengals now turn their attention to a 2023 campaign in which they look to secure a third consecutive AFC North Division title and third straight appearance in the AFC Championship Game.

Cincinnati had a busy offseason which included the additions of several notable unrestricted free agents and an eight-player draft class, as well as the re-signing of multiple core pieces — all with the goal of bolstering what already is considered by many to be a championship-caliber roster. Head coach Zac Taylor, who retained virtually the entire coaching staff from a season ago, looks to further establish a culture centered on a solid work ethic and a team-first approach, and for Bengals players to carry those high standards into this week's matchup.

I feel like they’re in the place they need to be right now,” Taylor said. “Now we just have to go show it on Sunday. I really like what our guys are about. I really like the effort and attention to detail they’ve put forth in these last couple weeks, so I feel very confident that we’re going to get in a good week of work and be ready to go on Sunday. Zac Taylor

Cincinnati's success over the past two seasons can largely be attributed to complementary football. Offensively, the Bengals boast a young nucleus fueled by an air attack that ranked fifth in the NFL in passing yards per game (265.0) in 2022. The offense once again is led by QB Joe Burrow, who enters his fourth pro season as the league's all-time leader in career completion percentage (68.2; minimum 1500 passing attempts). Burrow holds Bengals single-season records in nearly every major passing category, including completions (414) and TD passes (35), which he set last season.

He is flanked by arguably the top receiving trio in the NFL, composed of eighth-year slot WR Tyler Boyd, fourth year veteran Tee Higgins and third-year pro Ja'Marr Chase. Higgins and Chase both have eclipsed 1000 receiving yards in each of the past two seasons, while Chase and Boyd have the most individual TD catches of 50-plus yards leaguewide since 2021 with six and four, respectively.

As he heads into his third season with his current array of weapons as well as his second with a revamped offensive line, Burrow acknowledged a reliance on chemistry as much as talent. "It's critical as a quarterback — you have to have guys that you trust to make those plays," Burrow said. "Sometimes it's not going to be pretty. There's not always going to be 10 yards of separation, and the pocket is not always going to be perfect. But when you have guys that you trust and guys that you love to make those plays, it makes you feel good as a quarterback."

The Bengals' defense features a crop of contributors which has consistently stepped up in key moments over the past two seasons. Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo's unit ranked sixth in the NFL during the 2022 regular season in points allowed per game (20.1), while holding opponents to the seventh-fewest rushing yards per contest (106.6). Cincinnati's front office secured multiple core members of the defense this offseason with contract extensions for DE Trey Hendrickson, LB Germaine Pratt and LB Logan Wilson.

They join fellow veterans DT DJ Reader, DE Sam Hubbard and CB Mike Hilton — among others — in forming an experienced, battle-tested group, but the defense this year also will lean on several young players. Dax Hill, the team's first-round draft choice in 2022, along with free agent acquisition Nick Scott make up a new-look safety duo, while second-year CB Cam Taylor-Britt looks to build on an impressive rookie campaign.

According to Wilson, the contributions from all three levels of the defense — combined with a shared commitment to winning — is what has allowed it to improve over the past three seasons into one of the league's strongest units.

That’s what makes football so unique in general, is you’ve got guys coming from all sorts of different backgrounds ... It doesn’t matter where they came from, but you’re all coming together with one goal in mind and that is to win a Super Bowl. When guys have that same goal in mind, you can help each other get better and push each other. Logan Wilson

Sunday marks the Bengals' first road season opener since 2019. Cincinnati snapped a five-game losing skid to its in-state rival in Week 14 of the 2022 campaign, claiming a 23-10 home win over the Browns that was highlighted by the defense holding Cleveland's strong rushing attack (ranked No. 4 in the NFL at the time) to just 71 yards on the ground — its second-lowest output of the season. The Browns finished 2022 averaging 146.5 rushing yards per game (sixth in NFL), and Pro Bowl RB Nick Chubb's production against the Cincinnati defensive front is expected to be one of several key matchups on Sunday.