Bengals Week 4 Preview: The Brown Litmus Test

Andy Lyons

The Browns are riding high but are limited in talent. The Bengals are out to prove that their serious this year and are dripping with talent. It's time to prove their legitimacy.

There are no easy games in the NFL. Even with an inexperienced quarterback and limited offensive weaponry, the Cleveland Browns will not simply lie down and allow the Cincinnati Bengals to eat them for lunch.

The Browns new front-office regime came into this season determined to get more pressure on the opposing QB. With the additions of Paul Kruger and Desmond Bryant in free agency, and the drafting of Barkevious Mingo, Cleveland has shored up the defensive front and it shows up on tape. Their back end also has a play-making duo in acclaimed cornerback Joe Haden and hard-nosed safety T.J. Ward. Defensive coordinator, Ray Horton, is known for sending pressure and it is likely his goal to see Andy Dalton on the turf a lot this Sunday.

The Bengals signal-caller has been shaky the last two games. His accuracy continues to be questioned after a second straight home game where he appeared to be "off" early in the game. The debate rages on if he can be good enough to take his team to meaningful heights and his recent inconsistency has not quelled those arguments against him. It will not be a picnic along the shores of Lake Eerie for him this weekend, and Jay Gruden should game-plan around significant pressure in the face of No. 14.

Sometimes it seems that Gruden puts too much faith in his main man on offense. Dalton's most reliable skill continues to be not fumbling the snap, which every NFL passer should be expected to do correctlyevery single time. Gruden is creative enough to get around Dalton's limitations, but at some point very soon, the red head needs to prove that he can carry his team with his arm.

One way to easily remove the pressure from Dalton is by handing the ball more to Giovani Bernard. Suddenly, I want to use the explosive rookie on every play now, as I marvel at his lightning quick feet and at his power-pack strength. Last week, Troy Aikman called him an exceptional player and he has done nothing to discourage such optimism. I know that BenJarvus Green-Ellis remains firmly in the running back picture, and I like what the Law Firm brings, but the team would be misguided to discourage the accelerated development of their budding young superstar. He was pre-packaged as NFL ready, showing that the pro game is not too fast nor too big for him to seriously impact the game right away. He is slippery, strong and fast and can turn the most mundane play into something special.

Because of the rather impressive running back tandem growing up before our eyes in Cincinnati, the team should resist the impulse to throw it 40 times a game and go with the traditional approach to the game. The offensive line looks comfortable in the ground game, the double tight-end sets help the cause and Mohamed Sanu is the perfect big-bodied blocking receiver to secure the edge on the outside. My fear is that Gruden gets too cute in his play-calling and sustained drives become ruined from mistimed throws. Running the ball until the defense can prove they can stop it is an ancient football philosophy and seems archaic and out-of-style these days, but I rather like running plays that can't be stopped no matter how basic or stripped-down they may seem. If Dalton is throwing it more than 30 times, something has gone wrong.

The good news-and simultaneously the bad news too-is that the only thing stopping this offense from churning out large yardage totals is itself. The turnovers got downright silly last week against Green Bay and the confidence that anybody in a striped helmet could hold on to the ball became staggeringly low. For as tough, strong, determined and supremely talented Jermaine Gresham usually seems to be, his inability to maintain total concentration on every play is hurting his reputation, legacy and most importantly, his team. Every time he has the ball, I worry it's coming out before he hits the turf. Whether the lack of concentration manifests itself in the form of fumbles, dropped passes or brainless penalties, it crops up nonetheless in almost every game. He looked good in Chicago, was called for holding penalties against Pittsburgh and had a fumble and a half against the Packers (one of his fumbles was called down-by-contact, but as a fan and as a coach, you still remember it being a fumble). Like Dalton and his throws, Gresham must find a way to play more consistently if this offense wants to maximize its capabilities.

I think running the ball early and often will allow the offense to settle into the game and not feel pressed to throw against a toothy pass rush. It should help cut down on turnovers and allow something of a rhythm to develop among the group as a whole.

Defensively, the Bengals are rock solid. What more can we say about the Zim Clan other than that they are a group of tough hombres that don't destroy their opponents in one fell swoop, but rather squeeze the life out of offenses like a weird Bengal-python hybrid. Despite the high points total, Aaron Rodgers and his mates were largely frustrated and stifled against the orange-clad defense a week ago. While the miracle play on fourth-and-one proved to be the difference, Mike Zimmer's boys continuously rose to the occasion against a quarterback some consider the best ever.

This week, instead of Aaron Rodgers, they face Brian Hoyer-and this may be the only time you see the two in the same sentence. Hoyer was obviously good enough to win the game last week in Minnesota, but any casual observer could see the training wheels he was riding with during that game. Only later in that contest did the Vikings begin to seriously blitz, and when they did, they had success. Hoyer doesn't want to move from the pocket, doesn't stand up to pressure well and will lose his accuracy almost entirely in the face of a decent pass rush. He stares down his intended receiver, tries to get the ball out very quickly and has trouble reading zone defenses. He is a player that the Bengals defense can rattle significantly.

One approach Zimmer may take is a similar one to last week. Rodgers likes quick timing routes that were disrupted by physical corner play and a bevy of effective blitzes. Hoyer too likes the quick hitters and will only go vertical when he has maximum protection. The defensive line emphasized getting their hands up and knocking passes down to frustrate the Packers; the same can be used against Cleveland. Hitting Hoyer would be nice, but he will try to get the ball out so fast that the defensive ends won't have time to touch him. Being tall and leaping on time could do as much damage to the Browns as sacks.

In the Cleveland games I've seen this year, I have noticed a significant weakness in the right side of their line. Look for the Carlos Dunlap-effect to not only be noticeable but become a vital element to the Bengals win. Both he and Michael Johnson have been excellent thus far this season, racking up a number of quarterback hits-a stat I think translates the most to tangible defensive success for this team. If Hoyer does take five to seven-step drops this Sunday, he will feel those hits. If he doesn't, the offense will be too limited to make enough of a difference.

The Browns offensive skill players are severely lacking in talent. In a bold move, they traded their most popular offensive player, Trent Richardson, a week ago and decided to ride the wave of mediocrity for the rest of 2013. What is left is a bunch of primarily random players and one source of excitement in receiver Josh Gordon. Tight end Jordan Cameron has been a pleasant surprise for the Brownies, but as far as game-planning is involved, Gordon takes precedence. Since it looks like Leon Hall and Reggie Nelson are out this week, some of the youngsters like Brandon Ghee and Shawn Williams will see more live fire this week than maybe any other time in their limited careers thus far. They don't have to be supermen, they simply have to keep their men in front of them and make the tackle. Giving up a first down here and there isn't the end of the world, but giving up explosive chunk plays from missing a tackle or blowing a coverage could do more harm than any of us are comfortable with. Emphasize Gordon and force the other lesser-knowns to make plays.

These trips to Cleveland are always called trap games. The Bengals have been snared by these traps before, but more often than not, they skirt around the hidden pitfalls and make it home alive. This week is no different. Browns fans are feeling good about their first win with a new quarterback and new coach, but that optimism is likely to evaporate once the whistle blows tomorrow. Cleveland, almost unbelievably so, is still in a rebuilding phase. They still don't have enough discernible talent to even sniff the postseason yet, and they are praying that their draft picks pay off. Cincinnati, on the other hand, has arguably never been more talented among the ranks of their roster and they are a hungry for real legitimacy. If the Stripes lay an egg this week, some of the team's character will be validly questioned, but I feel they are better than that at this point. There are no easy games, but there are certainly very winnable ones.

Bengals 24, Browns 10

Mojokong-bringing you the hits!

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