Browns-Bengals Preview

Is this finally the year that marks the beginning of the end of the Browns struggles?

Rock bottom.

It's a place the Cleveland Browns franchise has found itself too often since returning to the NFL in 1999.

Pin-pointing the exact moment the franchise found rock bottom is a bit tricky.

Was it…

•Tim Couch's post-game tears because he thought Browns fans were cheering his injury during a game against Baltimore in 2002?

•Browns fans throwing bottles in protest of an official going to a replay – and eventually overturning a call in Jacksonville's favor – only after the next play started in 2001?

•The Spergon Wynn Era?

•Dwayne Rudd's helmet toss?

•Dwight Clark's draft picks?

•Butch Davis' draft picks?

•The resignation of team president John Collins after losing a power struggle battle to general manager Phil Savage in late 2005?

•The Charlie Frye Era?

Derek Anderson vs. Brady Quinn quarterback "competition"?

•Steelers 41, Browns 0 on Christmas Eve, 2005?

•The Steelers' 12-game winning streak over the Browns?

•The Browns' 1-11 record in 2009?

That's all I could think of. Perhaps there is something rock-bottom worthy that I missed? Let me know in the comments.

In my opinion, rock bottom was that 1-11 record two seasons ago. Granted, Eric Mangini stripped down the roster to bare bones and that team was arguably less talented than the 1999 version. Consider, during that 12-game stretch in 2009, the Browns averaged 12.1 points per game and were a 6-3 win over Buffalo in week five away from being 0-12.

(The snickers you hear are from the 2008 Detroit Lions, who at least averaged 16.8 points per game.)

Sunday marks another new season with another new head coach. Hope has returned to the north coast and the optimism for the Cleveland Browns extends outside northeast Ohio.

Why such optimism? Colt McCoy.

First impressions are important and McCoy's performance last season was lasting. In eight starts, two were wins over the New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints. While McCoy didn't do much to win those games, he didn't do much to lose them, either. In all, his rookie season netted six touchdowns and nine interceptions at a 60.8 percent completion rate.

If the Browns are to avoid another trip to rock bottom, McCoy needs to improve in 2011. That journey begins with the Bengals. Cincinnati's secondary includes 31-year-old Nate Clements, Leon Hall, former Browns player Chris Crocker, underwhelming second-year safety Taylor Mays - and don't forget about Pacman Jones, who is expected to play in nickel coverage.

This is not McCoy's first foray into The Battle of Ohio. Last December, McCoy was 19-for-25 passing for 243 yards and two touchdowns and no interceptions in a 19-17 loss to the Bengals.

A new offensive scheme coupled with a few new toys — Greg Little (WR) and Montario Hardesty (RB) — means McCoy should be able to move the ball against the Bengals defense.

If the Browns' new West Coast offense succeeds through the air Sunday, the key will be if the Bengals offense is unable to succeed on the ground.

The Browns run defense has been non-existent since 1999. The team is perennially ranked toward the bottom of the league in run defense and last season was no different as the team allowed 129.4 yards per game (27th out of 32 teams).

Cedric Benson, fresh out of a stint in the clink, and Bernard Scott lead the Bengals backfield. With rookie quarterback Andy Dalton under center, the Bengals are expected to rely on the running game Sunday. In 2010, Benson finished with 1,111 yards and seven touchdowns on 321 carries and Scott added 299 yards on 61 carries. Last December, Benson ran for 150 yards on 31 carries and Scott added 40 yards on eight carries against the Browns' battered defense.

The Browns defense features a new 4-3 defensive scheme, a revamped front seven and a new defensive coordinator in Dick Jauron. That front seven is anchored at the defensive tackle spot by rookie Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin. D'Qwell Jackson returned from injury and has thrived at the middle linebacker position during the preseason.

It's cliché, but if the Browns need to be able to stop the run and force rookie quarterback Andy Dalton to beat them. If that occurs, the Browns may be looking at an opening-week win.

As we are all aware, the Browns are 1-11 on opening days since 1999 with the only win coming in 2004, 20-3 over Baltimore.

Forget the past. Hope has returned in Cleveland on the shoulders of Pat Shurmur and Colt McCoy. Let's hope it doesn't quickly leave town with the Bengals come Sunday evening.

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