With a win on Sunday, the Cincinnati Bengals will have made a clean sweep of the AFC North Division. This would be a tremendous accomplishment, which has the potential to mentally propel the Bengals into elite status, as they enter the final quarter of the regular season. To reach that achievement, they must get past a sometimes-feisty Browns team that took the Bengals to overtime in week four.
The Bengals stubbed their toe in a trap game against the Raiders one week ago. This loss was not very surprising as it had all the ingredients for upset stew: The Bengals were coming off a huge win against the Pittsburgh Steelers. They traveled across country to face a Raiders team that was happy to have replaced their starting quarterback. It was simply too easy to look past the struggling Raiders with the Battle of Ohio looming.
The Cleveland Browns have obstacles to overcome, if they are to find success against the division leading Bengals. The Browns have won but a single game and that lone win may have been the worst performance by a Browns team since the return... but the Bills just happened to play even worse. The Browns are also coming off a gut wrenching loss to the Detroit Lions after leading 24-3 after the first quarter.
Browns Offense vs. Bengals Defense
The Browns may have answered at least one question during last week's performance. That was the question surrounding Brady Quinn's ability to air it out deep. Quinn put together the single greatest performance of his professional career. The Lions could not stop him but, sadly, the Browns own play calling could. After getting out to the early lead, the Browns pulled the plug on the high-octane offense and returned to the run, run, pass philosophy resulting in frequent three and outs.
The Browns cannot afford to play the predictable game on offense against the aggressive smash mouth defense of the Bengals. They have to mix up the play calling and use the play action fake to freeze the defense and buy enough time for the receivers to get open. This will also assist in opening up the run game as the aggressive defense may become hesitant to attack the runner until they know for sure where exactly the ball is.
For some reason, after ripping up the Bengals defense in the first contest, Jerome Harrison has once again become "the ghost" as he has vanished from the lineup. Harrison's speed and decisiveness can be a huge asset against the Bengals. A true one two punch of Harrison and Jamal Lewis may be just the trick to slow down a relentless pass rush and can help in keeping that potent Bengals offense on the sidelines and out of the end zone.
Tight end Michael Gaines continues to impress with terrific hands and the blocking prowess of an offensive linemen. Gaines does not just chip block but he moves the defender, while also showing excellent mobility for a man his size, as he can then slide into the open area and become a reliable target.
The right side of the line remains the glaring weakness for the Browns passing attack but this side has become effective in the run game. They are also the side that understands how to block for a screen pass. Screens to the left simply have yielded little to no gain.
The Bengals have put together one of the most physical, hard-hitting linebacker corps in the NFL. Rookie Rey Maualuga will forever be compared with Browns rookie receiver Brian Robiskie, as the Browns passed on Rey to select Brian with their second round pick. While Rey is having a terrific year, Brian rarely makes the gameday roster. Before giving up on the young receiver, remember the NFL is a much harder transition for a receiver compared to a linebacker, especially when the linebacker is playing in a similar scheme to what was employed in college.
Bengals Offense vs. Browns Defense
The Bengals have a balanced offense with two number one type backs in Cedric Benson and newly acquired Larry Johnson. Benson is quick, shifty and elusive but he runs hard and with power. Johnson is a much more powerful back that likes to make one move and go. It will be a difficult challenge for the Browns to keep these two dynamic backs in check.
The Bengals also have one of the most prolific passing attacks that the NFL has to offer. Laveraneus Coles has been an excellent addition as well as a replacement for TJ Houshmandzadeh. His value has also increased due to an injury to fellow receiver Chris Henry.
The real threat, however, is Chad Johnson. Chad is more focused than in the past and he is having fun on the field making plays rather than just making headlines for his off the field antics You have to give it to Chad - he makes it interesting and entertaining, even though he still finds a way to be fined by the NFL on a rather consistent basis.
Carson Palmer is playing with the same confidence that he had before the injury suffered during their playoff loss to the Steelers. With each pass that he completes, he grows in confidence. If the Bengals watched what happened during the Browns loss to the Lions, his confidence should be at an all time high.
I expect the Browns to come out and test the struggling Browns secondary by throwing the ball all over the place. Once they lock in the pass, then they will pound it out with their two big backs but the Browns should realize that this Bengals offense is going to test the secondary in every way imaginable.
If the Browns want to slow down Palmer's passing attack as well as the Bengals run game they have to attack. You simply cannot sit back and allow the Bengals to throw it all around, without making the quarterback pay for it. If you do not pressure the pocket, Carson will pick apart this defense with ease.
The Browns have the tools to challenge the Bengals offensive line. Shaun Rogers is getting back to his old form. Robaire Smith is playing arguably the best football of his career. Kamerion Wimbley is reborn under the Browns more aggressive defensive philosophy. Newcomer Jason Trusnik has exploded onto the scene since his arrival. Jason combined with Wimbley has given the Browns something they have needed for some time and that is two outside pass rushers.
This has allowed David Bowens to slide into the middle linebacker position. Bowens has performed admirably adding to the inside pass rush but also adding physicality to the position. Rookie Kaluka Maiava is playing well for the Browns, but in recent weeks, he has become a focal point for the opponents passing attack. They have taken advantage of the rookie's inexperience and you can expect the Bengals to do the same.
The Browns secondary was exposed and shredded by the Lions. Eric Wright and Brodney Pool are playing fairly well but the remaining defensive backs are not. The Browns need help in the secondary but none is likely to come until the off-season.
These two teams find a way to make almost every game entertaining when they clash and I do not expect this one to be any different. If the Browns are to make it interesting, the special teams must find what made them special once again.