The Cincinnati Bengals have some energy going into “The Battle of Ohio” rivalry with the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, as they seek their first road win and AFC North victory.
Cincinnati (1-11) carries the momentum of its first win to Sunday’s matchup at First Energy Stadium, while the Browns (5-7) are coming off a 20-13 loss to Pittsburgh.
Cleveland swept the Bengals last year, but Cincinnati owns a 50-41 advantage in the series and has won eight of the last 11 meetings.
Here are five storylines to watch:
1. Two rookie head coaches
For just the second time in history, Sunday’s game will feature two rookie head coaches who are facing both each other and their Ohio rival for the first time in the same game, as Bengals coach Zac Taylor and Browns coach Freddie Kitchens get their first taste of the rivalry.
The first such instance occurred on Oct. 21, 1994, when Sam Wyche led the Bengals to a 12-9 win over the Browns and first-year coach Marty Schottenheimer.
Taylor replaced Marvin Lewis after 16 years, and Kitchens was hired after Gregg Williams stepped in as an interim coach midseason last year when Hue Jackson was fired. Williams is now the defensive coordinator for the Jets, who the Bengals beat last week.
2. Evolving offense
The Bengals turned back to Andy Dalton last week, and he guided them to their first win. Now, they get wide receiver John Ross back and that should open things up for the offense as the Browns will have to account for his speed and ability to get downfield.
Cleveland boasts the NFL’s sixth-best passing defense, allowing just 213.3 passing yards per game, so it’s a good time to get another weapon back. It also could help that the Browns are without defensive end Myles Garrett, who was suspended for the rest of the season after striking Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph with his own helmet in a Week 11 win on Nov. 14.
“He is a premier pass rusher in this league, but they still have a lot of talent right there behind him,” Taylor said of Garrett. “Those guys, I have been on teams with (DE) Olivier Vernon, he is a great pass rusher. You have (DT) Sheldon Richardson and No. 65 (DT Larry Ogunjobi). They have a lot of guys that can get after the passer and really get after you so we are going to have our work cut out for us up front.”
3. Containing Browns pass
The Browns have their own threats in the passing game with Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry. Beckham hasn’t produced the numbers he is capable of, as he’s only topped 100 yards receiving in two of 12 games this season, but Kitchens said this week he is trying to figure out ways to get him the ball more. Landry leads with 919 yards receiving, while Beckham has 805.
“They are big strong-handed guys, both of them,” Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said. “They go up and they snatch it out of the air. Odell’s athleticism and how fast he is. And Jarvis, his quickness in and out of his cuts and his toughness. Having been with both of those guys, they are two great players. Not good, great. It’ll be a challenge for sure.”
Baker Mayfield was limited in Wednesday’s practice with a hand/rib injury but resumed throwing Thursday and was a full participant Friday as well.
The Bengals have been pushing for more turnovers on defense in recent weeks, recording four in the last four weeks, and this could be an opportunity for more. Mayfield had two turnovers last week and has almost as many interceptions (14) as touchdowns (15).
Cincinnati’s pass rush also could play a factor. The Bengals have 10 sacks in the last three games, but they will be without Sam Hubbard, who has been declared out with a knee injury. Safety Brandon Wilson also is out with a hand injury. He was placed in injured/reserve Friday, and the Bengals picked up rookie offensive tackle Isaiah Prince, a former Ohio State player who was placed on waivers by the Dolphins.
4. Chugging along
Browns second-year running back Nick Chubb will test the improvement of the Bengals run defense, which at one point was allowing 189 rushing yards per game (it now is down to 157.6). Chubb leads the league with 1,175 yards rushing and also has help now from the addition of Kareem Hunt, but the Bengals have held opponents under 160 yards rushing for four straight games after allowing much more than that in five games.
Cleveland ranks 10th with 122.7 yards rushing per game.
Most of the opponents wracking up big numbers in the run game have quarterbacks who are much more mobile than Mayfield. The only other top 10 rusher the Bengals have faced in terms of running backs was Oakland’s Josh Jacobs, who rushed for 117 yards against them.
With the Browns’ offensive weapons, the Bengals are fortunate to have had success in the red zone on defense. They rank third in the league for touchdown percentage in red zone trips at 42.5 percent. Opponents have made it to the red zone 40 times against the Bengals and gotten touchdowns on just 17 of those trips.
Cleveland allows touchdowns on 59.5 percent of red-zone appearances (22 of 37).
5. Keeping momentum
The Bengals lost 13 straight games, dating back to last season, and 11 to open this year before Taylor got his first win. According to The Athletic’s Jay Morrison, of all the teams in the Super Bowl era to start at least 0-10, none of them have gone on the road the next game and gotten a second straight win. Nine teams have failed in that attempt, but the same Bengals who had never lost more than 10 in a row again will look to make history in collecting that next win on the road.
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