It's on. After all of the statements from those associated with the Bengals and the hype surrounding Johnny Manziel, the critical "Battle of Ohio" 2014 re-match will kickoff on Sunday. The game will have major playoff implications for both squads, which is an interesting time and situation for the Browns to make a quarterback change. Regardless, all eyes will be watching Cleveland's rookie signal-caller.
The Bengals are in a familiar situation that they have seen for the past four seasons, namely towards the top of their division. Still, things seem a little more uncertain going into this week and the two that follow in the regular season. The defense is a shell of its former self and the familiar prime time/postseason issues haven't been remedied. Furthermore, the few losses that they have accrued have been in embarrassing fashion, so questions arise as to just how good this 2014 Bengals team really is.
Let's take a look at some of the biggest keys to this week's game in order for the Bengals to emerge victorious:
Giovani Bernard Heavily Involved, Even As A "Backup":
Word emerged this week, directly from Bernard's mouth, actually, that Jeremy Hill will get the start against the Browns. While it will likely means some less touches for Bernard, it doesn't mean that he'll be almost wholly ignored. Cincinnati didn't have the luxury of having Bernard available for the Thursday Night match-up a few weeks back, so having his shifty services available will be a plus.
If the Bengals are wise, Bernard's biggest impact should be as a receiver. A.J. Green has a tendency to get locked down by Joe Haden, so a second receiver will need to emerge. Mohamed Sanu immediately springs to mind for that capacity, but he's had great moments and a number of drops. Using Bernard in the slot and out of the backfield would bring a nice wrinkle that the Browns didn't see last go-round and would provide a nice security blanket for Andy Dalton.
Emmanuel Lamur The Spy?:
With Johnny Football's penchant for ad-libbing and scrambling for big plays, someone in the middle range of the field will need to be around to limit those types of big plays. Common sense has the middle linebacker as one who would play "spy" and roam sideline-to-sideline, but with Vontaze Burfict (the natural first choice to do so) landing on IR and Rey Maualuga having perceived range issues, there leaves a question. Undoubtedly, the Bengals would like to keep Manziel in the pocket and force him to make throws from there instead of becoming "Big Ben Lite".
The next candidate might be Emmanuel Lamur, who has good range and speed for his size. The issue he's shown in his first year as a starter does lie in questionable angles to the ball-carrier and that raises concern here, but he is the fleetest of the available 'backers. He has shown the penchant of being able to run with tight ends and some receivers, given his two interceptions and multitude of other dropped interception opportunities this season, though and that brings some hope. Other spy ideas could be safeties Taylor Mays or Reggie Nelson.
Andy Dalton With Strong Play In The Elements:
It was cold and windy on that Thursday Night where with Browns beat the Bengals 24-3. It was clear that Dalton wasn't sharp and those weather conditions didn't help matters any. Now, it appears that more extreme weather is on the way, with the high temperature looking in the mid-40s with times of light rain.
It's entirely possible that Hill will get a lot of carries because of a re-focus on offense and these conditions, so perhaps it will take the onus off of Dalton to be Superman in harsh conditions. Inevitably though, Dalton will need to make critical throws in this game and anything coming close to resembling the two-point quarterback rating in the first bout and the Bengals could be looking at another three-touchdown loss.
Learn From Defensive Mistakes Against Read-Option Versus Panthers:
Cam Newton had a career day against the Bengals, accounting for almost 400 yards of offense and three total touchdowns all by himself. The read-option allowed Newton to churn out 107 rushing yards at a 6.3 yard per carry clip in that game that ended in a tie, and the Bengals didn't have an answer on stopping it. In fact, the issues could be traced back to early 2012 when Robert Griffin III had almost 300 total yards, including 74 and a touchdown on the ground that afternoon.
The Browns will likely be calling this play often on Sunday, for two reasons. One, it's something that Manziel will be comfortable with, as he was successful on those opportunities at Texas A&M. Two, Kyle Shanahan is Manziel's offensive coordinator and he ran a similar system in Washington with RG3. The Bengals haven't shown anything to prove that they have found the answer on defense to the read-option, so why wouldn't Shanahan and Manziel try and gash Cincinnati with it?
Excellence On Third Down From The Offense:
At almost right at 40%, the Bengals offense is ranked No. 20 in terms of third down efficiency through the last 14 weeks of the 2014 season. They have been only a bit better than that over the past five games, at a 42% rate (30-of-72), which would place them in the top-15 in the NFL if that was their efficiency rate the entire year. Still, it doesn't feel good enough, does it?
Keeping Manziel off of the field disallows him the opportunity to find a rhythm or break big plays. Furthermore, if the Bengals are able to use the supposed new plan with Hill by grinding out yards and moving the chains, it could put Cleveland in a scoreboard hole, increasing the likelihood both the Bengals teeing off with the pass rush, and of subsequent forced throws by JFF.