I can’t help myself. I think I’ve accomplished roughly 3 hours of work this week. I keep thinking about how the Bengals match up with the Browns for the game on Sunday. Partly because the long NFL drought in nearly over. And partly because, the more I think about it, the more I believe that the Bengals have a real shot at riding out of Cleveland with a win.
There are a bunch of interesting match-ups to watch in this game that will have a big impact on who comes out on top. More of them favor the Bengals than most people (and all the pundits) assume.
When the Bengals have the ball:
LT Andrew Whitworth v. rookie RDE Jabaal Sheard. Yesterday I heard ESPN1530′s Mo Egger interview Kendall Lewis of Cleveland’s 92.3 The Fan. He was very excited about the two rookies on the Browns’ defensive line: DE Jabaal Sheard and DT Phillip Taylor. He expected good things from this year, including against the Bengals. Sorry, Kendall, but Whitworth is going to eat Sheard like a 6′ stack of pancakes. He held his own against guys like Terrell Suggs and Dwight Freeney last year. He can handle a rookie in his first game in Sheard.
Rookie RG Clint Boling v. rookie DT Phillip Taylor. Pay close attention to this matchup, because it will prove to be a pivotal one. Reports on Taylor from preseason are good. If Taylor can get through Boling to put pressure on Dalton, he will at least force incompletions if not turnovers, forcing the Bengals to try out their new addition to the O-line in Mike McGlynn. But Boling did well in the preseason too. If he can contain Taylor, the Browns will not get pressure from their front 4, which will force DC Dick Jauron to blitz in order to get to Dalton, and so opening up the short passing lanes for Gresham and Shipley.
Taylor has garnered a lot of good press from his performance in Preseason Game 4 against the Eagles, where he toasted the rookie first-round guard opposite him. It is worth noting, however, that the guy he toasted was his former Baylor teammate, Danny Watkins. I am not minimizing his performance. Taylor will be special. But familiarity can’t hurt, either.
FB Chris Pressley v. MLB D’Qwell Jackson. The Bengals’ running game flailed in 2010 when they opted not to keep a fullback. This year, Chris Pressley has been a virtual atomic bomb, detonating holes for the running backs. The Browns finally have D’Qwell Jackson healthy after struggling with injury the two last years, and he will be tasked slowing down Cedric Benson. Chris Pressley will be tasked with not letting him.
WRs A.J. Green and Jerome Simpson v. BCs Joe Haden and Sheldon Brown. Haden is good enough that I figure the Bengals will not throw in his direction. Why risk it? That puts the pressure on Brown to stay close enough to get his man to bobble the ball. (Or bat it in the air.) The Browns may need to cheat a safety to help him, because in his 10th season he cannot be as fast as Simpson or Green.
TE Jermaine Gresham and WR Jordan Shipley v. LBs Scott Fujita and Chris Gocong. Gocong is just returned to limited practice yesterday for the first time in nearly a month after suffering a neck stinger. He said, “It felt like I haven’t missed a day.” Gresham and Shipley will do all they can to change that feeling. Fujita also missed time in the preseason.
QB Andy Dalton v. Pressure and Nerves. Dalton is the single biggest wild card for the Bengals. He has been handed a huge task to start as a rookie. He looked good the the final two preseason games, when the O-line kept the pressure away from him. If he feels pressure and rushes plays, his mistakes could give the game away.
When the Browns have the ball…
LT Joe Thomas v. RDE Michael Johnson. Thomas gets a lot of praise around the interwebs. Rightly so. But I raised my eyebrows when I read this little item yesterday from John Thornton on his blog, AllProBlogger.com:
And DE Michael Johnson vs LT Joe Thomas is probably the biggest match-up of the day. I would usually say that Thomas wins easily, but Johnson played well vs top LTs in the preseason and seems to have his game going. If Johnson can win a few times and at least do enough to keep Thomas from helping his young LG in pass protection, the Bengals will have success getting to the QB.
If Johnson has the type of year he seems poised to have, around mid-season you are going to start hearing comparisons to Dwight Freeney. You heard it here first!
DT Geno Atkins v. rookie LG Jason Pinkston. Talk about a baptism by fire for Pinkston! While Johnson and Thomas war, Atkins will create big problems for Colt McCoy. Look for McCoy to get flushed to his right regularly.
DTs Domata Peko and Pat Sims v. C Alex Mack. What Sims did to a really good center in Jeff Saturday of the Colts was almost unfair. Mack is younger, and certainly no slouch himself, but he will have all he can handle on Sunday. Peko has been good in run coverage, and Sims is a beast on passing downs.
Rookie RT Tony Pashos v. LDE Carlos Dunlap. Imagine Dunlap going up against Andre Smith. Last year’s slow-footed, walking boot, manboobs Smith. Yeah. Pashos’ weak game is pass protection. Atkins will chase Colt McCoy right into Dunlap at least once, just like the “Fisher Price package” did so often last year.
RB Peyton Hillis v. MLB Rey Maualuga. I did a little reading on a Cleveland fan site, and they have gone from bemoaning the fact that Cleveland did not draft Maualuga to now thanking Cincinnati for sparing them from him. Methinks those Browns fans have not watched Rey’s return to the middle. I hope Marvin shows him those comments as a little extra motivation.
Hillis had a strong game in the teams’ first meeting last year, running for 102 yards on 27 carries. Maualuga has been a key piece to slowing the run in the preseason, but he is prone to over-aggression at times. Will Hillis be able to use that over-aggression against him?
TEs Ben Watson and Evan Moore v. LBs Manny Lawson and Thomas Howard. The Browns will want the Bengals to key on Hillis so they can dink-and-dunk with their tight ends. I’m not sure I’ve seen the Bengals cover a tight end since the 80′s, so it is a plan that makes sense. Limiting yards after catch over the middle will be key to getting the Browns’ offense off the field.
WRs Greg Little and Joshua Cribbs vs. CBs Leon Hall, Nate Clements and Morgan Trent. As of Thursday, ClevelandBrowns.com listed Brian Robiske and Mohamed Massaquoi as the starting receivers. That is either complete disinformation or a lineup that is destined to change quickly. Neither has been terribly effective. It’s roughly equivalent to the Bengals starting Caldwell and Tate, simply because they are the most experiences receivers on the team.
Then again, who starts may be of little consequence as the Browns will in 3 receiver and double tight end sets often, trying to exploit a soft Bengals’ secondary. But I just don’t see the deep threat that can abuse the secondary at its weakest point. If that is going to come from anyone, it would probably be Cribbs. And his impact on the passing game has been minimal up until now. Little should turn into a nice player, but Hall and Clements should keep his impact Sunday, well, little.
QB Colt McCoy v. Pressure. Remember, this is only McCoy’s 9th start. We get focused on this being Dalton’s first start, and we forget that McCoy is not yet in double-digits for starts himself. If his front line gives him time, he will have a good day. But as I read the matchups, he is going to have to call on all of capacities to extend plays frequently. His ability to scramble and connect (a la Ben Roethlisberger) will largely determine the Browns’ ability to score points.