Nothing would help the Bengals move on from a dreadful off-season, more than a week one victory over their in-state rival. A win would also prove to fans that their team owner isn’t completely incompetent. It might also go a long way in showing that he does, in fact, know what he’s doing after releasing their starting quarterback and wide receiver and failing to even offer two big name free agents in Terrell Owens and Jonathan Joseph.
On the other hand, the Browns could use an opening day victory over the Bengals to prove to the fans – and themselves – that they really are a team heading in the right direction. You’d be hard pressed to find a player who was more active during the lockout, than Browns QB Colt McCoy. Cleveland’s front office has raved about McCoy’s willingness to be a leader on the offense, and are hoping that the “Camp Colt” sessions during the lockout will really pay off.
Both teams are clearly heading in opposite directions. The Browns are said to be a team on the rise by media “experts” and other insiders around the league. For the first time since 2004, the Bengals will be starting a rookie at QB. Andy Dalton will try to lead the Bengals offense along with fellow rookie wide receiver, A.J. Green. The team’s starting tailback, Cedric Benson, is probably the star on offense but will need to, once again, put his off-season encounters with law enforcement behind him.
Despite all their turmoil, the Bengals have just as good of a chance as the Browns to win the NFL season’s first edition of the “Battle of Ohio”. Beating the Browns, in Cleveland nonetheless, isn’t going to be an easy task for a young offense and questionable defense. The Bengals defense is going to be heavily relied on throughout this game, while the offense continues to try and improve around a core of rookies.
For the first time, in a long time, there is a positive vibe surrounding the Cleveland Browns. It appears as if the team has found their QB of the future in McCoy, and have worked hard during the off-season to improve the overall talent on the team’s roster. Unlike the Bengals, don’t be surprised if the Browns rely heavily on their offense and McCoy’s arm to win this game. If the Browns new-look 4-3 defensive scheme looks above average on Sunday, it’ll be because Dalton and the rest of the Bengals offense will give the Browns an above average amount of opportunities to expose their inexperience.
To win this game, both teams will need to execute their gameplans to near perfection. In order to do so, both teams will call on young – and relatively inexperienced – players on offense, and a talented, veteran laden defense.
Here’s a look at what both teams need to do in order to win the season’s first “Battle of Ohio”.
When the Bengals have the ball…
Keys to Success for the Cincinnati Offense
Keep Dalton Comfortable
For the first time since 2004, the Bengals will be starting a rookie quarterback on opening day.
The Bengals took Andy Dalton in the 2nd Round of this year’s NFL Draft to take over for Carson Palmer, who retired after team owner Mike Brown refused to trade the disgruntled quarterback.
If the Bengals hope to have any success scoring points, they’re going to have to insure that Dalton remains comfortable in the pocket. Best case scenario, Dalton manages just well enough to escape Cleveland with a victory. What’s likely to happen, however, is that Dalton’s inexperience will expose everything that needs to be fixed along the Bengals offensive line.
The team’s best offensive lineman, Bobbie Williams, was suspended the first four games of the season for violating league’s policy on performance enhancing drugs. Andre Smith, the team’s 6th Pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, has reoccurring foot issues and problems maintaining a proper weight. With Williams suspended, that leaves starting left tackle Andrew Whitworth as the team’s best offensive lineman.
Keeping Dalton comfortable doesn’t appear to be easy with an offensive line that’s in shambles, but the new west coast offensive scheme that’s been implemented by new offensive coordinator, Jay Gruden, will provide some relief.
With the likelihood that Dalton will be under immense pressure throughout the game, getting the ball out of his hand as quickly as possible will be key to the offenses’ success and Dalton’s confidence.
Fellow rookie, A.J. Green (WR), is a great weapon for Dalton, but Jermaine Gresham (TE) could be the main beneficiary of Cincinnati’s new offense. Jerome Simpson, Andre Caldwell and Jordan Shipley are also all vital pieces to the Bengals offense. There’s no denying that the Bengals have talent on offense, but it’s up to Dalton to find those targets and get them the ball.
In order to open up the passing game….
Expect to See Cedric Benson Early and Often
The team’s controversial tailback, Cedric Benson, once again put himself in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons this off-season. Benson has a history of run-ins with the law. He kept that tradition going this past off-season when he was arrested on assault charges.
Despite his arrest, the Bengals resigned the team’s leading rusher from 2010. Benson became a free agent after last season. After serving five days in a Texas prison, Benson has been released just in time for Sunday’s season opener.
Benson saw a spike in carriers last season (321) that lead to 1,111 yards and 7 TDs. He also compiled 178 receiving yards on 28 receptions for one TD.
The Browns have been notoriously bad against the run since their return to the NFL in ’99. Cincinnati doesn’t have the greatest offensive line, but they should be able to do just enough to open up holes for Benson to run through.
Establishing Benson and the running game early, will also help to relieve some of the pressure off of Andy Dalton. Cleveland’s defense showed during the preseason that covering backs out of the backfield isn’t it strong point. If Dalton can turn and hand the ball off to Benson for positive yardage, and then hit him with a quick pass out of the backfield a few plays later, the Bengals should be able to move the ball against the Browns new-look 4-3 defense.
Get the Ball to A.J. Green
Green was the team’s 1st Round pick in this year’s NFL Draft, presumably to replace long-time fan favorite, Chad Ochocinco, at wide receiver.
Replacing Ochocinco isn’t going to be easy for Green, especially with a rookie at quarterback throwing him the ball, but he’s talented and polished enough as a receiver to make plays for the Bengals on offense.
While playing for the University of Georgia, Green caught 166 passes for 2,619 yards and 23 TDs. The playmaking ability is certainly there, it’s just a matter of getting the ball in his hands. It’s not likely to be the easiest rookie debut for Green. Green is likely to face-off against Cleveland’s star cornerback, Joe Haden, during the game.
If the Bengals want to be successful on offense and move the ball, they have to get the ball in their playmakers hands. Green is one of those playmakers, though he faces a daunting task against the solid Cleveland secondary.
Stopping the Cincinnati Offense
Get Consistent Pressure on Dalton
Cleveland’s new Defensive Coordinator, Dick Jauron, showed throughout the preseason that he wasn’t afraid to blitz the quarterback.
He should look to continue that philosophy against the Bengals. With a consistent pass rush, the Browns should be able to pressure the Bengals rookie QB into making plenty mistakes.
The defensive line should have a big day being matched-up against a mediocre Bengals offensive line. Rookie DT Phil Taylor and veteran DE Jayme Mitchell, were nightmares for opposing o-lines during the preseason – just ask Eagles QB, Michael Vick. If Taylor and Mitchell can get some help from rookie, Jabaal Sheard, Dalton is in for a long day at the office.
MLB D’Qwell Jackson is primed to have a big year for the Browns defense. Jackson is hoping to stay healthy all of this season, after missing the previous two seasons due to a pectoral injury. It’s been said that Jackson is going to benefit tremendously from the Browns switch to the 4-3 from the 3-4. Many believe Jackson’s talents are better suited for the 4-3.
Getting pressure on Dalton is going to be critical for the Browns defense. Getting pressure, will lead to another key to success for the Browns defense, which is…
The Browns led the league in forced fumbles during the preseason, but failed to record a single interception. Creating turnovers has been a real issue for the Browns in previous seasons, but doing so is going to be key – not just for success against the Bengals – but for success throughout the season.
As mentioned, getting pressure on Dalton is likely to allow the rookie to create turnovers all by himself. Should the defensive front line be able to get pressure on Dalton all by themselves, it should allow CBs Joe Haden and Sheldon Brown, along with SS T.J. Ward and FS Mike Adams/Usama Young, opportunities to intercept some passes during the game.
Cleveland’s secondary only had 19 INTs last season, led by Haden – who was a rookie – who had 6. Ward’s inability to defend against the pass (although he’s improving greatly) has easily been camouflaged by the play of Haden and the rest of the Browns secondary.
Stop the Run – For Once!
Since their return in ‘99, the Browns have showed a clear inability to stop opposing teams from running the ball.
The team hopes that it will start a new trend in Cleveland, by actually stopping the run. For once, they have the personnel to do so in Mitchell, Sheard, Taylor and Rubin. Cleveland’s linebackers – Chris Gocong, D’Qwell Jackson, Scott Fujita – are decent against the run, but with the front four moving opposing offensive lines, they should be even better.
Cincinnati has a solid running back in Benson, and is likely to be the focal point for the Bengals offense. Shutting Benson down will force the Bengals to turn to the air, where Haden and Co. will be waiting for Dalton to make mistakes.
When the Browns have the ball…
Keys to success for the Browns Offense
Take Some Pressure Off of McCoy
It appears as if second-year QB, Colt McCoy, has put a ton of pressure on himself during this off-season. McCoy’s attempts to better himself – and his team – have been well documented, from his “Camp Colt” sessions, to visiting future Hall of Fame QB, Brett Favre.
It’s great that McCoy is willing to do anything in his power to succeed as a QB for the Browns, thus making the team around him better. However, it’s up to the opposing team to put pressure on the QB, not the QB himself.
McCoy should have a good game against the Bengals, but he must go out and simply play the game and not try to do too much by himself.
Many began to question just what Heckert and Holmgren were thinking, when the Browns didn’t sign a WR during the off-season. The preseason showed just how talented the team’s young receiving core can be in the new WCO.
If McCoy can go out and manage the game, continue to be accurate with his throws and get the ball to open receivers, the Browns offense should score at will against a make-shift Bengals defense.
Get Hillis and Hardesty Involved
The Browns have transitioned to a “pass first” offense with the west coast, but they absolutely can not abandon their running game.
Well all know – or at least expect – Hillis to produce once again for the Browns offense this year, but the key to Cleveland’s running attack could very well be Montario Hardesty, who returns after a season-ending knee injury his rookie season.
Hillis is going to start, and should carry the ball more often than not, but you can expect to see Hardesty and possibly both backs in the game at the same time.
Establishing the running game with both Hillis and Hardesty will help open-up the passing game for McCoy and his receivers. The Browns have had seasons in which they’ve done a great job running the ball, but if Hardesty can stay healthy and Hillis is as good as he was last year, this may be the best season yet for the Cleveland backfield.
Controlling the clock will likely fall on McCoy’s shoulders with short passes, but they must establish a run game – especially with Hillis.
Fans who are concerned that Shurmur will forget all about the potential the Browns have in their run game, Stephen Jackson put up 1000+ yards and 6 touchdowns.
Hillis and Hardesty should also be threats to catch the ball out of the backfield for the Browns. Last season, Hillis contributed to the passing game with 61 receptions for 477 yards and 2 TDs. By contributing to the passing game, Hillis is a legitimate “dual-threat” back. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of receiver Hardesty can be behind Hillis.
Take Advantage of Scoring Opportunities
Too many times, last season, the Browns were forced to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns inside the redzone.
That absolutely must change this season if the Browns hope to have a successful season this year.
Colt McCoy and the rest of the Browns offense should have a few scoring opportunities off of turnovers by the defense. Driving down the field and putting the ball into the endzone is absolutely critical for the Browns to pick-up a victory against the Bengals on Sunday.
Settling for FGs just simply isn’t going to cut it. The Browns certainly have talent on offense, and down by the goal line, McCoy must maintain his accuracy and hit open receivers in the endzone.
Leaving points on the field has, more often than not, been the difference between wins and loses for the Browns. Expect that to change this year, at least it should.
Final Score: Cleveland Browns 34 – Cincinnati Bengals 10
Other “Battle of Ohio” Notes
– The Cleveland Browns won the inaugural “Battle of Ohio”, 30-27 over the Bengals on October 11, 1970.
– The only time the Browns have had a winning record against the Bengals over a span of a decade, was in the ’90s, when they went 8-6 against Cincinnati.
– Since 2000, the Bengals hold a 13-9 advantage of the Browns.
– Last season, the home team won both games in the series – Browns won 23-20 in Cleveland, Bengals won 19-17 in Cincinnati.
– This season marks the seventh time the “Battle of Ohio” has taken place on opening day, with both teams winning three games apiece.
– The Browns have only won once on opening day since their return in ’99, a 20-3 thumping of the Baltimore Ravens.
– In the same timeframe, the Bengals have won just four opening day games and have lost their last three.
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