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Behind Enemy Lines: Bengals vs. Browns in Battle of Ohio Part I

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Thanks to Joe Ginley of Dawgs by Nature for joining us on a short week to talk Bengals vs Browns Part I.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Q: The Browns sit at 5-3 at the mid-way point, and have been much better in 2014 than I - and many - expected. However, I am having a tough time wrapping my head around the Browns season thus far. The Browns have beat the Saints and pounded the Steelers, yet were crushed by the Jaguars, struggled to beat the Buccaneers and Raiders (both at home) and needed a miraculous comeback to pull out a win over the Charlie Whitehurst led Titans. Is this a team that simply plays to the level of their competition? And, how good are these 2014 Browns?

A: The Browns definitely play to the level of their competition. As you mentioned, the Browns beat solid Steelers and Saints teams, and should have beat the Ravens. At the same time, the Browns lost to the Jaguars. It's hard to predict what this team will do from week to week.

The best word to describe this team is "average." The Browns are not stacked at any one position or on either side of the ball. This is not a flashy team filled with playmakers. Browns General Manager Ray Farmer has compiled a team full of average to above average players. In other words, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The Browns are a quintessential 8-8 type of team. On any given Sunday, this team can pull out a win. But without key pieces such as Josh Gordon, Alex Mack, Jordan Cameron, and Phil Taylor, there is simply not enough talent there to take this team to the playoffs.

Q: Prior to the season, I thought the Johnny Manziel circus would be a horrific distraction around this team. So far, that couldn't be further from the truth. However, a story surfaced about a week ago that Manziel is frustrated with his playing time. Is that true? And if so, is this something that could become a distraction in the second half of the season?

A: Unless Brian Hoyer leads the Browns to the playoffs, this will be a significant distraction at some point this season.

Cleveland loves backup quarterbacks. Johnny Manziel is no exception. Even as Hoyer continues to win, a small contingent of fans quietly clamors for Johnny. Their cries are muffled, but should the Browns struggle over the next few weeks, Manziel mania may take root once again, providing a large distraction.

I can't say for sure if Manziel is frustrated with his playing time. Head coach Mike Pettine told the media last week that he "can sense" Manziel's frustration. However, Manziel told Cleveland.com's Mary Kay Cabot, "I don't necessarily think that's the right word."

It's simply pure speculation at this point. However, if I had to guess, Manziel is itching to play. Whatever the case may be, Manziel continues to make headlines, which can't be helping his cause.

Manziel was caught laughing on the sidelines even as the Browns were losing by 25 points earlier in the season, as reported by WEWS-TV. More recently, Manziel tweeted about how happy he was to see Mike Evans put up big numbers against the Browns on Sunday. He then caused another stir on Monday by tweeting out a friend's phone number as a prank.

You could make a case that Manziel is a distraction right now. However, he's not disrupting the team, only making himself look foolish. That's the one bright side for Browns fans.

Q: Brian Hoyer is playing very well but is a free agent at the end of the season. If he continues to play well and lead the Browns to victories, what do you see the Browns doing at the quarterback position in 2015?

A: Great question - that's the million-dollar question in Cleveland at the moment.

In all likelihood, Johnny Manziel will be the starting quarterback for the Browns in 2015.

The Browns likely won't sign Brian Hoyer to a long-term deal. It's not in either party's interest to sign anything more than a one-year deal. In fact, both Hoyer and the Browns might be better off by parting ways at the end of the season.

Hoyer loves his hometown, but at age 29, he is in the prime of his career. If Hoyer wants to be a long-term starting quarterback, which is his dream, then he will have to find that team quickly before he gets too deep into his 30's. With first round pick Johnny Manziel waiting in the wings, the Browns are likely not that team. As long as Manziel remains in Cleveland, Hoyer's job will never be totally secure.

The Browns are also likely better served by allowing Hoyer to walk in free agency. The team has a first round pick in Manziel sitting on the bench. First round picks are valuable and Manziel is an unknown quantity. The Browns want to see what Manziel can do.

At some point, Cleveland fans want to see Manziel, too. Until that time, the Hoyer-Manziel debate will continue, providing a significant distraction for the franchise.

In my mind, there are only two conceivable scenarios in which Hoyer is Cleveland's starting quarterback in 2015. 1. Brian Hoyer leads the Browns to the playoffs. 2. Manziel receives significant playing time this season and performs terribly enough to lose the support of owner Jimmy Haslam.

I personally wouldn't mind seeing Hoyer under center in 2015, but at this point, it seems unlikely.

Q: Prior to Alex Mack going down with a broken leg, the Browns were one of the better running teams in the NFL averaging 4.4 YPA. In the three games since Mack's injury, they have averaged just 1.9 YPA. Is the dramatic drop off simply a result of losing one of the better centers in the league? Or is there something else at play?

A: Alex Mack's absence accounts for a large portion of the Browns' struggles in the ground game. But you can't place all the blame on the injury to the Pro Bowl center.

To back up for a moment, the Browns run a zone blocking scheme, pioneered by Alex Gibbs, which relies on simplicity. The scheme has two plays - the inside zone and the outside zone runs. As Christopher Harris at ESPN.com noted, the Browns have begun to move away from the outside zone to make things easier for both the offensive line and running backs.

Despite this change, the Browns ground game continues to struggle. Why?

First off, running back Ben Tate has lost his confidence. Tate consistently fails to hit the hole once it opens, dancing around in the backfield. He doesn't trust the offensive line, and you can't blame him. Terrance West has been moderately better, but not much. He's a talented young rookie, but not yet experienced enough to work with a so-so offensive line. Isaiah Crowell hasn't been a factor since putting the ball on the ground twice during the team's 31-10 win over the Steelers.

Secondly, since Mack went down, the offensive line has had no cohesiveness, which was to be expected. A zone blocking scheme requires the linemen to work as one unit, which is simply not happening. There have been far too many breakdowns by all members of the offensive line.

It doesn't help that opposing defenses know what's coming. The Browns are going to run to set up the pass, and keep running until it works. With Hoyer at quarterback, Kyle Shanahan's offense revolves around runs and the play action pass. As soon as the running game deteriorates, so does the passing game.

All defenses have to do to stop the Browns offense is load up the box and maintain gap integrity. A good defense can shut down the Browns' offense by staying disciplined on the ground game and blitzing Hoyer on passing downs.

Q: Like the Bengals, I expected the Browns defense to be very strong in 2014. Like the Bengals, they have struggled. Why?

A: In a word - injuries.

The defensive line has been ravaged by injuries. Linemen Phil Taylor, Ahtyba Rubin, Billy Winn, John Hughes, Desmond Bryant, and Armonty Bryant have all missed time this season. Ray Farmer has been forced to work the waiver wire nearly each week to assemble a motley crew of no-names to fill out the depth chart.

Pettine's 3-4 defense relies heavily on the defensive line to generate pass rush and penetrate the backfield to stop the ground game. To do so, the coaching staff often rotates players at all three positions. With a suspect defensive line, the Browns can't substitute as much, leading to a tired bunch of big uglies.

The linebacker core has big playmakers such as Paul Kruger and Karlos Dansby, and the secondary has made big strides. Standout cornerback Joe Haden started the season sluggish, but has since recovered. Justin Gilbert has been hot and cold, but emerging star Tashaun Gipson has stolen the spotlight.


This defense will be much better when everyone is completely healthy.

Q: At 5-3, the Browns are in great position to make a playoff run, however, their second half schedule looks fairly daunting. Where do you expect this team to finish (record wise)?

A: I expect the Browns to finish at 8-8.

As I mentioned earlier, the Browns have suffered through critical injuries to key pieces of the offense and defense. If these injuries ever subside, the Browns could make a run at the playoffs. Everyone talks about the Browns' tough road ahead, but the combined record of Cleveland's opponents is 30-30-2.

But if there's one thing being a Browns fans has taught me, it's this: don't get to optimistic. I think most Browns fans would be satisfied, though not overjoyed, with an 8-8 record.

Q: What are the biggest strengths and biggest weaknesses of this Browns team?

A: The biggest strength is the Browns' secondary. Haden and safety Donte Whitner are respected veterans and two of the best players at their respective positions. Gipson and Gilbert have the potential to blossom into great players.

Before Mack's injury, the Browns offensive line was its greatest strength. Now, this is the team's most glaring weakness. Joel Bittonio and Joe Thomas are phenomenal on the left side of the line, but the rest of the line is atrocious. New center Nick McDonald was manhandled against the Buccaneers. Right guard John Greco can't do his job without Mack. Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz has been beat on multiple occasions. With an above average center, this offensive line is respectable, but with a below average center, everything falls apart.

Q: If you were the Bengals offensive and defensive coordinators, how would you attack this Browns team on each side of the ball?

A: My game plan would be simple. On offense, pound the Browns with Jeremy Hill. Jam the ball down the defense's throat to set up Andy Dalton. Once the safeties start to come up in run support, toss a deep ball or two to A.J. Green.

On defense, I would load the box and stop the run early on in the game. If I was Paul Guenther, I would tell my players to play in control and to stay disciplined. Control the gaps and avoid over-pursuit, and you stop the Browns rushing attack. Shut down the Browns ground game, and you take away the play action pass. Take that away, and the Browns are going to have a tough time getting points on the board.

These tactics might sound simple, and they are. Other teams have already found the formula to beat the Browns. The Raiders and Buccaneers just didn't have the talent to do so.

Q: On Thursday, the Browns win if...

A: The Browns' run game works. If the offensive line can open holes for Tate and West, Hoyer will have an easier time. When given a run game and some weapons to work with, Hoyer can be dangerous.

Another scenario involves the Bengals underestimating the Browns. This is a team perfectly representative of Cleveland - this group never gives up. When you get a lead on the Browns, don't stop playing. The Titans did that and lost.

Q: On Thursday, the Browns lose if...

A: The Browns fail to turn early drives into touchdowns. The Browns have a maddening habit of scoring field goals early instead of touchdowns. This failure to reach the end zone early in a game often bites the Browns in the backside. It didn't sink them against lesser teams like the Bucs or Raiders, but it would against the Bengals.

The other way the Browns lose is if Dalton has a monster game. The Browns would have a hard time winning a high scoring slugfest. The Browns simply aren't built to put up huge numbers on offense.

Q: What is your prediction for Thursday night's week 10 first place showdown?

A: Bengals - 28   Browns - 20. Two early field goals come back to haunt the visitors, as the Browns are unable to overcome a large deficit in the second half, despite a valiant comeback effort.