WR A.J. Green vs. CB Sheldon Brown/Dimitri Patterson. After losing his appeal for testing positive with Adderall, a violation of the league's policy on performance enhancing drugs, Joe Haden began serving his four-game suspension this week, causing concern in the Cleveland Browns secondary in regards to Green; arguably one of the league's most talented wide receivers in the game today.
Haden gave Green some difficulties last season, limiting Cincinnati's starting receiver to only four receptions. However when Green made receptions, they were for chunks of yards. The lone reception against the Browns in Cincinnati's regular season opener last year was a 41-yard touchdown reception while the Browns were still receiving the play when Bruce Gradkowski took the snap. In last year's sequel, Green posted 110 yards receiving with gains of 51, 35, 24.
Last week against the Baltimore Ravens, Green posted five receptions for 70 yards receiving, playing multiple positions, including the slot. One can only imagine Jay Gruden's gameplan with the passing offense this weekend.
Cincinnati Bengals Rushing Offense. We really hung our hat this week on the one positive following Baltimore's 44-13 win over the Bengals last week. It was Cincinnati's running game. The Bengals rushed for 129 yards with a 4.6 yard/rush average, the highest against a Ravens defense since 2003. During his Bengals debut, BenJarvus Green-Ellis pounded the football for 91 yards rushing, including a perfect conversion rate on third/fourth downs with two yards or less -- situations that the Ravens expected a run.
More importantly the Bengals rushing offense featured the emergence of guard Clint Boling, who projected as a backup until free agent signing Travelle Wharton was lost for the season during the third snap of the preseason. But he was hardly alone. Andre Smith played massive, Andrew Whitworth reverted to a younger age and Jeff Faine held his own against two of the bigger interior linemen in the league. Even Chris Pressley had a handful of monster hits that opened lanes for Green-Ellis.
Last weekend the Cleveland Browns rushing defense allowed 150 yards to the Philadelphia Eagles.
Effect of Thomas Howard's Absence (And Where Is Vontaze Starting). It's unfortunate when a player is lost for the season before the leaves even change color. It's even more disconcerting when that player's injury is suffered during practice heading into the second game of the regular season. But these things happen.
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis withheld any hints on who would start in Howard's place this weekend, however rookie linebacker Vontaze Burfict told reporters on Friday that he was starting. Based on the depth chart Vincent Rey is Howard's backup but there's some speculation that Manny Lawson could move to the weakside, putting Burfict on the strongside. And the more radical anti-Maualuga fanbase could be suggesting a straight-up change at middle linebacker.
The fact is no matter how you break it down, none of Cincinnati's linebackers are viewed with strong pass coverage instincts.
Now the reports could be premature and the team may use a combination of Burfict, Vincent Rey, Dan Skuta and recently returned Roddrick Muckelroy at weakside, depending on the situation. Either way it'll be a point of interest this weekend.
The Walking Wounded Sprinting Back Into The Lineup. Or not. Who knows. Defensive end Carlos Dunlap, running back Bernard Scott and cornerback Jason Allen were limited during practice this week heading into Cincinnati's home opener on Sunday.
Dunlap, who suffered a sprained knee during an eery preseason opener when starters were dropping with injuries, helps a defensive pass rush, though recording three quarterback sacks last week, were very inconsistent allowing Joe Flacco enough time to pick Cincinnati's secondary apart.
Bernard Scott's return from a hand injury enables the team to apply the running back by committee philosophy they've promoted during the offseason. However if BenJarvus Green-Ellis keeps playing like he did against the Ravens, we're not sure if Scott will fit into a roll much greater than backup to give Green-Ellis time to rest. Think last year, when Cedric Benson started, played two possessions and sat during the third for Scott. After that it was mostly Benson. We could see the same thing this year, especially this weekend as Scott, who missed the preseason, needs to get into football shape (which doesn't happen with a handful of weeks).
Jason Allen, who signed an $8 million two-year deal during the offseason, has been useless with leg issues (thigh, quad) since training camp. This team needs to find something in the secondary after last week's performance, and Allen can improve their overall depth. Even if he does return though, we can't see him playing a role greater than fourth-string cornerback -- and that's when Nate Clements' shifts to safety. So call it a push.
All three are listed as questionable at this point.
Can The Disappointing Rebound. Jermaine Gresham, Rey Maualuga and Taylor Mays spent this week as recipients of major criticism for their performances against the Baltimore Ravens last weekend. Though Anquan Boldin's 34-yard touchdown in the second quarter wasn't really a touchdown (based on our totally objective review of the play), Taylor Mays promoted historical struggles in coverage and mindless detonation of players that led to a personal foul. Though Mays still played a handful of snaps later in the game, Jeromy Miles took the bulk of the team's snaps at safety with Reggie Nelson.
Rey Maualuga's play on Monday was obviously disappointing. He couldn't avoid blockers, seemed somewhat hesitant and lacked the aggressiveness we've seen out of him in the past -- though that aggression has often led to overpursuit. But Maualuga's play wasn't entirely his fault. Quite frankly Cincinnati's defensive line failed at their job to prevent Baltimore's offensive line from reaching the second level. If you watch the best linebackers in NFL history, it's not their ability to fight off blocks that made them great. It's a combination of avoiding blocks with a defensive front that allowed the linebacker to roam free. Yet Maualuga wasn't impacting plays, or dive-bombing with much instinct into the point of attack. Call it a combination of the two.
Jermaine Gresham's first reception against the Ravens last weekend happened with :50 seconds remaining in the first half. His second came with 14:04 in the fourth quarter when the Ravens had already established a 41-13 lead. He admits that he ran the wrong route during Andy Dalton's interception that Ed Reed returned for a touchdown. However Gresham was targeted eight times and posted only three receptions. One of those receptions were actually meaningful before the game went out of hand.