Nothing but a grinding, taut, one-score game can be expected when the Bengals go to Cleveland on Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) because that's the way it always seem to go no matter who is playing quarterback for the Browns. And that's saying something since this is the 12th different starting Browns quarterback playing against Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis in his 21st game against Cleveland.
The Bengals.com media roundtable gives the visitors the unanimous nod, but you only have to go back a week to know what that means. The Table tapped the Packers last week in a sweep before the Bengals pulled off that wild 34-30 win at Paul Brown Stadium.
Jay Morrison, who covers the Bengals for The Dayton Daily News, believes Sunday won't be as wild but that the Bengals defense is going to carry the day despite the loss of two secondary starters.
NFL Network's Solomon Wilcots, who started in the secondary for the Bengals in this game a generation ago back when Cincinnati also dominated the series, thinks the Browns are putting together a good team, particularly on a defense coordinated by former teammate Ray Horton. But he says the Bengals have a 30-game head start in the process of building a contender.
Tony Grossi, the long-time Cleveland scribe now penning for the city's ESPN radio Web site, projects a Bengals win, but not because of their defense. He doesn't think the hosts are going to be able to contain both a good runner and a good passer even though the Browns defense is ranked sixth in the NFL.
Vic Carruci of clevelandbrowns.com is calling this one a measuring stick for a young Browns team that looks like it is going to be better than people thought sooner. But he says the kids just aren't there yet in a process the Bengals already went through in 2011.
Let's go around the table:
I think we're going to see a lot more of Bengals rookie running back Giovani Bernard. Cleveland has the best pass rush a lot of these guys have seen so far. The best way to slow down a rush like that is screens and draws. The trend has already gone to working him more into the game plan and I think that's going to continue this week.
The Bengals went to Cleveland last year and got beat by a winless team, but they didn't play that bad of a game. Andy Dalton threw for a career-high 381 yards, wide receiver A.J. Green had his first two-touchdown game, tight end Jermaine Gresham made some big plays. It's not like they went up there and laid an egg. But they made just enough turnovers with four to lose.
I don't know if the injuries in the secondary are going to hurt them. I think they've got a luxury in playing an inexperienced quarterback in Brian Hoyer. I don't think we'll see cornerback Leon Hall or safety Reggie Nelson, but they bring in a guy like Chris Crocker and he can keep everyone lined up. I'm sure they're anxious to see what cornerback Brandon Ghee can do. He's looked good in the past, but he's been snake-bit by injury and he seems healthy now. I would think he plays.
You saw the way Andy threw it wild when he came out for that Monday Night because he was so pumped up and he's a three-year veteran. It makes you wonder what it will be like for Hoyer running out of that tunnel for the team he grew up cheering for. If he gets off to a fast start, that place will be up for grabs because it is going to be loud and rocking.
Hoyer threw three interceptions last week. There was a lot of underneath stuff when he locked on to the receiver and the guy covering him and he missed underneath. It could be a big day for linebackers Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga to make stuff happen underneath.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 28-24. They're the better team on paper, but we've seen in this series that doesn't mean anything. The underdog it seems wins one of the two games every year. Even if they are nicked up in the back end, I think the Bengals defensive front will get after it.
This is a Mike Zimmer game.
The Bengals defense has to win this game and the offense just can't turn it over. The defense has to force Hoyer to turn it over and they've got to make the running backs put the ball on the ground. The defense has to win this game. When you go on the road, if you can just play a clean game and your defense just plays, you've got a shot at winning. The defense can't let Josh Gordon get going. It can't let Jordan Cameron get going. That tight end is good. Running back Willis McGahee won't be the guy that gained eight yards last week.
The defensive line has to take advantage of the Browns offensive line. Their offensive line is a little banged up. The defense has to be playmakers. You just can't rely on A.J. Green, Giovani Bernard and Andy Dalton every week. Those other dudes have to make some plays and I think this is that kind of game. They did that last week against Green Bay. If they did that against them, what are they going to do there?
You've got to play Chris Crocker. If you don't the official is putting up both hands. That wide receiver for the Browns, Josh Gordon, is special. When you're weak in the back end, it's about can the protection for Cleveland hold up long enough for Brian Hoyer to do something about it? To me, pressure leads to picks. If they bring the pressure on the front end it will protect a weakened secondary.
THE EDGE: Bengals. I don't give scores, but the Bengals have too many offensive weapons, they know how to score and they come in with a more experienced bunch on defense. When you think about it, the Browns are a much-improved team. They've been drafting very high over the last few years. Don't sleep on that team. But they are in Game 4 of a new offense, Game 4 of a new defense, Game 4 of a new everything. How many games is this for Andy Dalton in the same system? How many games for Geno Atkins, Michael Johnson, Carlos Dunlap in the same defense?
The Browns are going to push the ball. They can't sit on it because they don't have a running game. I think Hoyer will be able to distribute the ball and do a little more than Brandon Weeden would. Gordon is turning into a great player. Cameron stretches the field, he's athletic, he can run about a 4.5. He can go vertical and he's having a heck of year with four TDs.
They go double tight ends a lot. They need the second one to block and the right side of their offensive line is struggling.
The big matchup is who they put on Gordon and Cameron. Cameron lines up anywhere. They can go two tight ends but it's a three-wide look and Cameron can be outside.
When it comes to the Browns defense, Joe Flacco and Ryan Tannehill were able to make plays in the fourth quarter. It's going to come down to Dalton making some plays. The Browns haven't been able to stop a team that has a good runner and a good quarterback. They stopped Peterson and quarterback Christian Ponder but couldn't beat them. They could stop one thing; I'm not sure they could stop both. I just don't see how you stop all the Bengals weapons. If you don't win 12 games with that I would think they're looking for another quarterback.
Barkevious Mingo vs. Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth is a big matchup. It's Mingo's first NFL start; he's got a relentless motor, quick, two sacks in two games. He's definitely got star potential. He's got a Wow factor. They try to hide where he's coming from. They'll drop the other outside backer, Paul Kruger, or Mingo, and mix it up. Their front seven is pretty good. The Minnesota game is the first time they played 60 minutes. They only played three quarters in the other games.
Haden vs. Green is another big matchup. Haden will shadow him. The coaches like him to shadow the best receiver. He has done that with Green in the past, but that's not how the Browns previously played defense before this year when Haden didn't always shadow the best receiver after playing Green. Now he's doing it every week.
Anybody in the front seven can rush. They mix up the front. Sometimes there's only two down linemen down. He mixes it up. Everything is based on that front seven. They are going to be down a couple of players, outside backer Jabaal Sheard and backup defensive lineman Billy Winn. Plus, Kruger's backup, Quentin Groves, is out. They're down to five of their original eight up front. They have secondary problems. The good passers find the problems. Tannehill and Flacco did it. Ponder couldn't do it. We'll see about Andy Dalton.
They're using three running backs. Willis McGahee, who hadn't played since last November, was rusty last week but he'll be better this week. Any one of them could be the third-down back. Not much of a running game.
Hoyer makes quicker decisions. He's very analytical. He showed a better arm than I expected, but that was in a dome. The weather is nice now, so he'll probably look good. I'm anxious to see him in December, A very good leader. He overcame three interceptions last week to bring them down the field to win in a tough place to play. Weeden had never done that in 17 starts. Having Gordon back is a big help. He targeted him 18 times. He's a much better receiver than he was when the Bengals played him last year. He can run any route now instead of just fly patterns. He is their A.J. Green.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 31-28. Nobody plays defense anymore. The Browns played their butts off in Minnesota and still gave up 28 points. The Browns are going to lure them into a fast-paced game. I just think the Bengals have so many more weapons than the Browns. The Browns can't control the ball. They have no running game. Their best shot is to come out firing. The Browns and Bengals have ended up having some shootouts and I think it's going to be another one.
A tremendous challenge for the Browns. The best of their challenges to date, including the trip to Baltimore. I've felt all along the Bengals are probably the class of the AFC North and one of the better teams in the AFC and one of the better teams in the NFL. I think this will be the kind of game that is a great measuring stick for a young Browns team with a lot of new parts to it.
Especially on the defensive side, they've got a new philosophy both on and off the field, and you need that ability to see where you are next to high-level competition. For the longest time it had been the Pittsburgh Steelers, but right now the Bengals qualify as that.
It starts with their defense, which is overpowering. Especially that defensive line and front seven. I think the Browns have an excellent front seven. It's the strength of their team. I'm not sure it's as good as the Bengals. That's one good place to start as a standard.
There are so many ways the Bengals can beat you offensively now. We already knew what they had in A.J. Green, now you add Tyler Eifert to the talented Jermaine Gresham at tight end and the addition of Giovani Bernard has brought a dimension to their running game that they've long been seeking. Now you have that home-run hitter in addition to the steady guy like the Law Firm; having Bernard opens so many things for an offense and is explosive as a runner and receiver. He'll most always have a favorable matchup in the passing game.
The biggest matchup in this game is how does the Browns offensive line handle the Bengals defensive front because Brian Hoyer is making only the third start of his career and second with the Browns. Can they give him enough time to do what he did last week in Minnesota? They had their best pass-protection game, but that is not the font they're seeing this Sunday. It starts there.
Hoyer has to be far more efficient than last week when he had three interceptions. Two were horrible throws. One he got his arm hit as he was throwing. He can't afford to do that this week. What he did well was run the offense at a quicker pace than had been done previously. He sees things and processes things quickly. Can he do that against a Mike Zimmer defense?
Can the Browns have some semblance of a running game? They got nothing last week. It's going to be a tall order against this defense. The hope is without Leon Hall and Reggie Nelson, that could be an opening for the Browns to have some hope. No question the Bengals are going to try and counter that with their pass rush, but it looks like there are some exploitable parts in the back end.
The other key is the Browns front seven making a long day for Dalton and they don't let the running game going. The Browns have been so good against the run, but they can't have a let up. But Bernard is a different back than they've seen and I know they've seen the best back in the league in Adrian Peterson last week. But I think this kid brings a special dimension. I want to see how they handle that.
And Browns cornerback Joe Haden has to be what he's been. He's been an eraser. He's literally taken away the best receiver of each of the here previous opponents. That's not easy against A.J. Green. Haden had in Miami, Mike Wallace (one catch, 15 yards). In the Baltimore game he had Torrey Smith (7-85) and last week in Minnesota, Greg Jennings (3-43) is their most-targeted guy.
The other Browns cornerback spot has struggled. They're nicked up front. If outside backer Jabaal Sheard doesn't play (doubtful-knee) that will be a big hole because he's been playing extremely well. He's been one of their better players up front. The best guy they've had up front is end Dez Bryant with 3.5 sacks. Stout at the point of attack. Very strong. Very physical. Very good. Sheard has been right up there coming off his best game. His replacement, rookie Barkevious Mingo, has been a high-impact player with two sacks in two games.
THE EDGE: Bengals. I don't think it will be lopsided. I think the Browns defense will make them competitive in every game they play. It's fair to expect it to be close and very competitive. I'm not expecting a very high-scoring game.
The Bengals go into it as the better team. Their health on the back end of the defense could be a leveling-off point. But it's hard to look at the Bengals position by position and make an argument that the Browns are better. What the Browns have to hope for is being at home is a plus and if there is a chance, to take advantage of the injuries in the secondary.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Bengaldom's institutional memory makes it a little uncomfy.
In 2010 and 2012 a heavily-favored Bengals team went into Cleveland and the perennially-rebuilding Browns won their first game of the season each time.
But this one has the whiff of 2007 when the Bengals came off an exciting, rollicking Opening Day win on Monday Night against the Ravens and then six days later an up-and-coming quarterback (Derek) Anderson torched them in a 51-45 loss.
Enter Cleveland-area native Brian Hoyer. With two Bengals secondary starters not expected to play, including arguably their best defensive player in cornerback Leon Hall (the NFL's top-rated corner this week according to Pro Football Focus), the Browns faithful is banking on Hoyer to conjure up another 300-yard effort like the one he put on the Vikings last week. Throw in the emergence of two difficult guys to cover vertically in wide receiver Josh Gordon and tight end Jordan Cameron and there's more than a little angst.
But Hoyer is going to get more pressure than he did last week and the Trent Richardson trade was a boon for the Bengals. He hurt them in both games last year and Sunday's projected starter at running back, Willis McGahee, has averaged just 3.2 yards per carry against the Bengals in 10 games and he has just one 100-yard game in eight shots against Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. Zimmer is particularly dangerous when he gets a team in passing situations.
But remember when Bengals rookie running back Giovani Bernard said after last week's game the defense bailed out the offense that the offense owes them one? This is it already.
After a grueling 81-snap effort that cost the defense two starters and nicked up a couple of others, the Bengals need a break on the road against a hot offense. And that doesn't mean Green needing to beat Haden in his mega matchup with cornerback Joe Haden, although it would be nice if he channeled his rookie year when he beat the Browns and Haden late with an acrobatic haul down the middle.
But Green's fellow wide receivers Marvin Jones (a TD and huge third-down catch) and Mohamed Sanu (a game ball) came up big last week and they need to do it against the non-Haden DBs that have struggled. Buster Skrine is ranked No. 75 and Chris Owens No. 83 among PFF corners.
Yet Horton isn't going to let the Bengals throw it without a fight. He's more exotic and aggressive than his mentor, Dick LeBeau, and the Browns have 12 sacks to show for it. The Browns may be great against the run (2.8 yards per go) but, just like against the Steelers back in the day, opponents still have to try and run it even if it is an ugly quagmire. Cleveland's pass rushers are good enough that if offenses sit back and jack it up 32-40 times the Browns rushers will get to the quarterback. The Bengals need to get the Browns safeties into the box to stop the run so Green can flex his muscles in pure one-on-one, a la the toasting of Packers corner Sam Shields last week.
But maybe the key thing for the Bengals is to grasp the situation they're walking into. It is a hostile, nothing-to-lose environment. Horton has let it all hang out on defense with 12 sacks. On offense the Browns have gone for it on fourth down already nine times. They faked a field goal and a punt last week on special teams.
The solution? Let the edge in rosters speak for itself with a competent, stable effort, don't turn it over, and thankfully take the next plane south after another grind job.