The 88th renewal of rivalry between the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns could be dubbed the Battle of 0-hio.
Not only are both teams winless in 2017, the Bengals are 6-13-1 in their last 20 games, while the Browns have dropped 18 of 19 games since Hue Jackson took over as head coach, and 28 of 30 dating back to 2015.
The Bengals are 0-3 for the first time since 2008, while the Browns are 0-3 for the sixth time since 2008.
Sunday’s game at FirstEnergy Stadium will mark just the third time in rivalry’s 48-year history that both teams have been winless when meeting in Week 4 or later.
Here are six things to watch as both teams strive to secure their first win of the season:
Vontaze Burfict’s return from a three-game suspension comes with the Bengals already established as a Top 10 defense, ranking four in passing yards allowed (163), seventh in total yards (292.7) and ninth in points (20.0).
Burfict is an undisputed difference maker , and he should have plenty of opportunities to make an impact against the Browns. A fair expectation is for Burfict to play about 70 percent of the snaps in his first game back.
“Obviously he’s one of our best players, so it’s good to get him back,” defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. “He’s a good, emotional leader. He knows the defense inside and out. It’s nice to have him back. We can use him in a lot of ways. He’s a versatile guy. He’s a big part of what we do.”
Burfict’s return also should have an effect on special teams, with captain Vinny Rey returning to full-time duty on the kickoff and punt units after leading the defense with 28 tackles through the first three games. Rey has played 178 of 202 snaps on defense (88.1 percent) and just 20 of 84 (23.8 percent) on special teams. Last year Rey played 48.2 percent of the snaps on special teams.
Rook vs. Rock
Carl Lawson had a breakout game last week at Green Bay when he recorded 2.5 sacks and had another wiped out by penalty teammate William Jackson was a fraction of a second late getting off the field.
Lawson became the first rookie since 2002 to have at least 2.5 sacks in one of the first three games of his career, but that came against a backup tackle who was hurt and placed on Injured Reserve after the game.
Sunday in Cleveland, Lawson will be going against a future Hall of Famer in Joe Thomas, who has played 10,131 consecutive snaps in his 11-year career.
Led by Lawson and defensive tackle Geno Atkins, the Bengals are tied for fourth in the league with 10 sacks. The Browns have allowed 11, which is tied for the fourth most in the league.
Lazor vs. Williams
New Bengals offensive coordinator Bill Lazor will call his second game against an old friend.
Lazor and Browns defensive coordinator Greg Williams worked on the same staff in Washington from 2004-07
“Guys tend to play really hard for Gregg,” Lazor said. “He has a dynamic personality. He’s a good leader. I’ve witnessed it. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him on the practice field and how he built it back in those days. I know they’ll be well coached, I know they’ll play fast and they’ll play hard because they always do with Gregg.
“He’s certainly not afraid to call a blitz,” Lazor added.
Williams is in his first season with the Browns, and under his direction they lead the NFL in blitz percentage, bringing pressure 44.7 percent of the time.
That could be an issue for a Bengals offensive line that has surrendered 11 sacks, which is tied for fourth most in the league.
Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett is questionable to make his NFL debut Sunday.
Garrett, the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft, has been battling an ankle injury suffered in the preseason. If he plays, it would be the fourth time in the Marvin Lewis era the Bengals have faced that year’s top pick.
The Bengals are 3-0 in those games, beating Houston’s Jadeveon Clowney (three tackles, one for loss) 22-13 in 2014; Detroit’s Matthew Stafford (11 of 26 for 143 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions) 23-13 in 2009; and the New York Giants’ Eli Manning (19 of 37 for 201 yards, no touchdowns, one interception) 23-22 in 2004.
Dating back to 2000, the Bengals are 5-0 in their last five games vs. No. 1 picks. They also beat Houston’s David Carr (18 of 32 for 199 yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions) 38-3 in 2002; and Cleveland’s Courtney Brown (seven tackles, 0.5 sack) 12-3 in 2000.
The Bengals have won five in a row against the Browns dating back to 2014, tying their longest winning steak against their in-state rivals since the Battle of Ohio began in 1970.
It also would tie for the second longest winning streak against any opponent. The Bengals won seven in a row against the Houston Oilers from 1981-84, and they prevailed in six straight against the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1988-90.
The Bengals have gone 14 games without recovering an opponent’s fumble, the longest streak in modern NFL history (1933) .
Guenther’s defense has done a good job of forcing turnovers against the Browns with 12 in the last six games, but only two of them came on fumble recoveries.
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