Before anyone hits the panic button and chalks up an easy win for Cincinnati, the history of this series says "not so fast". The Browns and Bengals have met 65 times in the history of these two franchises. The Bengals have a one game lead in the series with a record of 33 wins and 32 losses. It never seems to matter how good or how bad these two teams are. When these two teams face off, it is a game of big hits and big offensive strikes.
The Bengals did something last week that should scare defensive coordinators across the league: they showed a willingness to run the football with Rudi Johnson. Everyone recognizes how potent this offense can be with quarterback Carson Palmer and wide receivers Chad Johnson, Kelly Washington, Chris Henry and TJ Houshmandzadeh but a true commitment to the running game will be crucial in how far this team can go.
Rudi is a workhorse back that can and will wear down a defense before they grasp what has happened. He has tremendous power in his legs that can punish defenders play after play. He also has the speed to go for long yards, once he makes it past the first wave of would-be tacklers. Rudi is one of the most underrated backs in football - he simply does everything well. He can be effective as a receiver. He is excellent in picking up the blitz and his toughness wears off on the rest of the team.
The Bengals offensive line is one of the best lines in the league. This group, led by left tackle Levi Jones, has seemingly been together forever and thanks to several contract extensions they should remain intact for years to come. The line will open up running lanes and they understand how to protect the quarterback.
But what makes them special is how well they sell the play action pass.
They fire off the snap with force as they attempt to sell the run. The timing is flawless in when they go from run blocking attack mode to dropping into a pass protection stance. It is very difficult for defenses to read the play action with enough time to do anything about it. This forces the linebackers to come up to stop the run. The slot receiver will then run the quick slant into the area vacated by the inside backer.
Carson Palmer loves to hit the deep post off of the play action as well.
Any time the safety cheats up in run support or is forced to cover the slot, the
target becomes Chad Johnson on the deep post down the sideline. Palmer is the
best in the league at threading the needle on the deep post but it all begins
with the play action fake of the line and selling the fake handoff by Palmer.
The Bengals defense is designed for quick penetration, which forces the opposing quarterback into making a bad decision or taking the sack. The right side of the Bengals front four was virtually unstoppable last week. Defensive ends Robert Geathers and Justin Smith spent more time in the Chiefs pocket than quarterback Trent Green. They will provide a stiff test for Browns left tackle, Kevin Shaffer.
Sam Adams is expected to play despite an ankle injury. Sam is a run stuffing force in the interior of the front four. Without Sam this defense may find itself struggling to stop the run. His status is vital for the Bengals defense.
Most were expecting a drop off at the linebacker position with the Odell Thurman suspension but this group is proving to be better than advertised. They play the run very well by filling the gaps and forcing the run to the outside. If there is a weakness, it is their pass coverage. This will be the position to watch as they must keep Kellen Winslow in check or he could have a huge day.
The Bengals secondary is all about the turnover. From top to bottom, this is a group of risk takers. They make their living from under-thrown passes as they will jump the route any time the opportunity presents itself. To have success against this group, the quarterback must use the pump fake to sell the short pass and throw over the top, deep down the field. Look for the Browns receivers to use the double move in order to draw the defensive back in and then explode deep down the field.
Madieu Williams is on rapid pace to become an elite free safety. Madieu was beginning to shine last year when he suffered a shoulder injury that
sidelined him for the season. He is healthy and did not waste his time last year
while recovering from injury. He appears more instinctive, while his reads are
showing dramatic improvement. He also is much improved in single coverage.
The Browns offense will go just as far as the offensive line can take them. There has been a revolving door at the center position, but the problem with this line is not with the snapper. Hank Fraley is an excellent center and he will improve as he becomes more accustomed to the offense. Hank's ability to slide with the block will be needed this week as the Bengals will challenge the interior of this line.
Left tackle Kevin Shaffer has been a focal point of the media and fans as a problem position. Kevin is better than anyone is giving him credit for... in fact, his play is not an issue at all. There is an old saying that applies here. "You are only as good as the player next to you." The player next to Kevin simply is not doing his job.
The crisis is at the left guard position. Joe Andruzzi has struggled throughout camp and preseason, but last week exposed a player that is simply too slow of foot to man the position. This makes life very difficult for everyone on the line as his struggles produce a domino effect. The left tackle seals his man to the outside expecting the quarterback to step up to avoid the pressure. The left guard gets pushed into the lap of the quarterback. The quarterback can't step up into his throw. He either throws off of his back foot or is sacked by the defensive end. Many will see this as the left tackle being defeated but it is simply not the case.
The Browns running game may be in for change in the coming weeks. Reuben Droughns had an excellent year in 2005 but rookie Jerome Harrison is chomping at the bit to receive the bulk of carries. While most were expecting a potent 1-2 punch at running back, there is a growing feeling that the coaching staff is starting to believe that Jerome can be a focal point within this offense. Don't be surprised to see Jerome in the backfield a great deal this week. With teams stacking the box, Jerome's speed as well as his ability to become a receiving threat could play a vital role if the Browns decide to use the screen to slow down the rush.
Charlie Frye can be a very effective quarterback if he is allowed the time to step up into the pocket, plant his feet and throw. He can buy time with his feet and pick up a first down running but he will never develop into a pure passer if he is running for his life play after play.
Charlie's primary weapon has to be tight end, Kellen Winslow. Kellen should be a nightmare against the Bengals linebackers and safeties. The Bengals defense looks like a big doughnut as the middle of the field is often vacant. Kellen will have a huge day with runs after the catch. Kellen will also be the emergency option for the offense. When in doubt, find the tight end.
The Browns receivers must do a better job of hanging on to the ball. Joshua Cribbs and Dennis Northcutt killed drives with drops on 3rd down plays. Braylon's drop ended the game as the ball went through his hands and was intercepted. This is nothing new with the Browns receivers, as this team has been plagued with lack of concentration both in catching the ball as well as in route running.
With Joe Jurevicius out with a rib injury, the opportunity for rookie
receiver Travis Wilson is there for the taking. Travis can position himself into
possibly a starting role if he can show the skills that made him a dominant
player at the college level.
The Browns defense is going through an identity crisis. The Browns are building for an aggressive in-your-face defense but at the first sign of trouble, they return to the "bend don't break" philosophy. With the offense going three and out far too often, the defense simply can not afford to give up those long drives. If they go "bend don't break" against the Bengals, Rudi Johnson will break the back of the defense in the first half.
The key for the Browns front seven is a pair of rookie linebackers, D'Qwell Jackson and Kamerion Wimbley. When these two are not on the field bad things happen. Outside linebacker, Matt Stewart is simply too slow and totally ineffective at rushing the passer. Inside linebacker Chaun Thompson is a poor tackler and diving at the feet of Rudi Johnson will be as effective as it was against Reggie Bush last week. It is no coincidence that when Chaun replaced D'Qwell the Saints running game began to take over.
The match up everyone will be watching is Chad Johnson versus Leigh Bodden.
KW2 has been doing the talking for Bodden, but it will be Bodden that must back
it up. Leigh is becoming the star of this defense and his quiet all-business
approach is a breath of fresh air. He is the best pure tackler on this defense
and his coverage skills seem to improve every time he steps onto the field. He
will have his hands full as Chad Johnson is arguably the best receiver in the
game today. If Leigh can contain Chad in single coverage, it will allow the
Browns to concentrate on Rudi Johnson and Carson Palmer.
The Bengals are thinking Super Bowl while the Browns are struggling to simply find an identity. This should be a very physical game as both teams will look to impose their will upon the other. The team that makes the fewest mistakes - especially on special teams - is likely to leave Cincinnati with a win.