The Cincinnati Bengals have dominated the “Battle of Ohio” the past three years, but could the competitive balance be returning to the rivalry series?
The Cleveland Browns (3-6-1) roll into Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday fresh from a bye week that followed a 28-16 win over Atlanta, while the Bengals (5-5) are hobbling off their fourth loss in the last five games.
It’s a matchup of two teams seemingly headed in opposite directions.
Cincinnati has won the last seven meetings dating back to 2014 and hopes the addition of former Browns coach Hue Jackson can be an advantage, but injuries continue to be a problem as two more players ended up on injured reserve this week on an already full injury list. Cleveland, clearly improved from last year, had just two players either limited or held from practice this week, and interim coach Gregg Williams said the team is the healthiest it’s been since training camp.
Here are five storylines to watch Sunday in the first of two meetings:
1. The A.J. Green factor
Browns cornerback Damarious Randall made headlines this week when he declared the Bengals would lose if wide receiver A.J. Green doesn’t play.
It’s no secret Green’s status will be a big factor in the game, though.
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said Wednesday that Green was expected to practice this week but by Friday he still hadn’t been on the field. Somehow he still is listed as questionable instead of the doubtful designation he held last week without playing, and Lewis told reporters the plan was to try to get him some work Saturday.
Cincinnati has produced its two lowest yardage totals in the games Green hasn’t played while he’s been out with a toe injury, and the offense hasn’t seen production from the running game in weeks, so somebody has to step up if Green can’t play. Perhaps the Bengals will find out if John Ross really is emerging into a more reliable receiver. He caught his first contested touchdown of the season last week and can help open things for Tyler Boyd, if not Green, if he can continue to fight for balls and do everything he can to help Andy Dalton.
2. Stopping the run
Cincinnati ranks worst in the league in run defense (and total defense), and even Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap said he would be running the ball on them right no
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Cleveland has the ability to pound the ball in the ground, bringing a fifth-ranked running game, and the Bengals know to be able to turn around their defense, it has to start with trying to stop the run.
“I would try,” Dunlap said when asked if he thinks the Browns will try to take advantage of the Bengals run defense struggles. “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, and right now it’s broken so we have to fix it.”
Rookie Nick Chubb has rushed for 579 yards this season and racked up 176 yards against the Falcons and presents a different kind of challenge than the shifty quarterback that ran all over Cincinnati last week.
“Chubb is a good running back,” linebacker Vontaze Burfict said. “He understands the game well, he understands the linebacker schemes well, box spill, he’s elusive, he has a great jump cut. It’s going to be exciting to play him.”
3. The X factors
Two former Oklahoma teammates have a chance to be difference-makers for their teams. Browns rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield and Bengals second-year running back Joe Mixon had some big games together while playing for the Sooners but now have something to prove as rival opponents.
Mayfield, the No. 1 overall draft pick, has been up and down at times since becoming the full-time starter in Week 4, but he completed 17 of 20 passes for 216 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions in his last game against Atlanta and if he is able to keep turnovers down and hit his targets, the Browns will be hard to stop.
Mixon was held to 14 yards on 12 carries last week, but could be a big spark to the Bengals if he is able to get into a rhythm. He has received 13 carries or less in half of his games this season and only once topped 100 yards rushing, despite a strong start to the season when he ran for 179 yards combined the first two games.
4. Offensive line concerns
Cincinnati left tackle Cordy Glenn is questionable with a back injury, and the Bengals have relied on both their starting tackles playing every snap this season. Glenn had struggled the past two games, allowing his first two sacks and nine total pressures, but his backup, Jake Fisher has played just 25 snaps on offense and most of them are in sixth linemen situations when the Bengals needed an extra blocker.
The line has seen some moving pieces in recent weeks since center Billy Price returned. Trey Hopkins moved back to guard while Alex Redmond was injured one game but was back to the bench last week, and the unit hasn’t seemed on the same page.
Price had a rough game at Baltimore, especially in run blocking, and said it just takes a few tweaks here and there to correct the issues up front that prevented the ground attack to be effective.
“There’s a lot of meat on the bone,” Price said. “If we fix one or two small little details, then it pops. For those people who actually watch the film and understand the zone aspect of what we do, he’s got to run through an arm tackle here or I have to get cleaner on a block here. So it’s something that you can carry over and bring a chip to, because I know I do. I take a lot of pride in that. So I have to get better at these things. I take the big responsibility to make sure that his hole is a little bit wider and cleaner for him to read and say ‘let’s make one cut and run as hard as I can.’”
5. Turnover battle
The Browns are among the bottom five defenses in the league, but turnovers early in the season helped them stay in games and they have potential to be disruptive to an already struggling offense.
Cleveland leads the league in forced fumbles (14) and recoveries (12) and is third in interceptions with 13. The Bengals have only lost one fumble this season, and that was the first game. Interceptions likely will be the bigger concern, as Dalton is seeing more pressure and has fewer trustworthy targets to throw to if Green is out. He has thrown 10 interceptions and has been sacked 21 times. The Browns have 24 sacks as a defense.
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