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Behind Enemy Lines: Week 15 - Bengals vs Browns

Battle of Ohio Part I was about as lopsided of a game as the series has seen. Part II comes four weeks later with the excitement of Johnny Manziel making his NFL starting debut. Chris Pokorny of Dawgs by Nature joins us again to talk about the new look Browns.

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

1. Since the Browns dismantling of the Bengals in Week 10, the Browns have gone 1-3, despite the return of Josh Gordon. In those four weeks, the Browns have also released Ben Tate and have replaced their starting quarterback (Brian Hoyer for Johnny Manziel). What happened?

The departure of Ben Tate was not too concerning. All season, Cleveland had been trying to go with a three-man approach, but nobody seemed to know heading into gameday who the featured back would be. Tate was also vocal about his displeasure with not getting enough touches. With two capable rookie running backs on the roster and Tate not making a lot of money, releasing Tate allowed Cleveland to shift to a two-back approach. The productivity at the position hasn't been lights out, but the continuity has been a welcome relief.

The biggest reason for the team losing three out of four games is the decline of Brian Hoyer. It is 100% true that other players on the offense have been coming up small in big moments too, but it has been a running theme with Hoyer. I was never against Johnny Manziel, but for the first half of this season, my heart was in it to emotionally throw my support at Hoyer, even if he struggled for a game or two. Seeing him throw 1 touchdown compared to 8 interceptions over the past four games drained all of the support I had for him.

Hoyer's value game in the fact that he was money off of play action and didn't turn the ball over. During the four-game stretch, he missed a lot of wide open targets and threw passes into coverage. Teams started coming after Hoyer more, and his lack of mobility showed. He's also seemed to lock on to Josh Gordon a bit too much since his return - while I think one could argue that is a good thing given Gordon's talent, the two never seemed to be on the same page chemistry-wise.

The defense has played quite well over the past four games, and even just a little spark offensively could have made us 4-1 during that stretch. That is why there is some optimism that Cleveland can still run the table to finish off the regular season if Manziel offers even average play at quarterback.

2. The Browns have announced Manziel will make his first start this Sunday. How do you expect the offense to differ? And how do you expect Manziel to look?

In terms of play-calling, I think we'll see Cleveland stick to a run-heavy approach and then using Manziel off of play action rollouts. It's the same thing that Kyle Shanahan did with Kirk Cousins (against Cleveland) two years ago, and it's the same thing the Browns did with Brian Hoyer earlier this season. It seems to be an element that Shanahan likes to utilize to cut the field in half and hopefully minimize the decision-making process for quarterbacks who are in the early stages of their starting career.

Either the intended receiver is open short, open medium deep, or you can take off and run. I'm hoping we don't see too much of the read-option with Manziel. That was utilized in camp and the preseason, but it's been too long since the offensive line and running backs have been able to dedicate significant time toward it. My expectation is that Manziel will run for a lot of three yard gains while also running the risk of taking a big sack. It will be a little bit of chaos, but those one or two plays during the game when he makes magic happen with his mobility will be the difference maker compared to Hoyer.

3. Since Josh Gordon returned, the Browns are 1-2. Is it just coincidence? Or has his return thrown off the chemistry the Browns had going?

There have been some definite chemistry issues with Josh Gordon, but altogether, I'll say this about his three games: it hasn't been the defining reason for a win or loss. In that regard, it's been a bit of a disappointment. The expectation was that he would be an X-Factor who you can point to and say, "I don't know what we would've done this week without Gordon." Every play he runs is being scrutinized - did he run the wrong route? Is he slacking? Is he in football shape? Is he mentally there yet?

One thing I've seen with Gordon over the past three years is that very often, it looks like he's not trying. I don't believe that is the case - it's just the way he plays. For anyone who doesn't believe me, re-watch the play where Gordon catches a pass against Aqib Talib last year, stiff arms him, and takes it the distance. In terms of effort, it looks like Talib is busting his tail off while Gordon is taking it easy. The tape doesn't lie as you see the separation form between Talib and Gordon, though, and that's the point where I was convinced that it's unfair to question how Gordon's effort looks. He's just that good.

Mentally, I'm sure he isn't there yet. I think there is a great deal of uncertainty when he's running his route, whether he's at the right depth and distance, and then pressing a bit - he wants to light up the league so much in a shortened season that I think his demeanor isn't the most aspiring if he's not involved early. Hopefully Manziel can find some more chemistry with him than Hoyer did.

4. Phil Taylor is out for the season and Tashaun Gipson is out a few more weeks as well. How is the Browns defense different without these two? And are there any other injuries to key contributors (offense or defense)?

Phil Taylor had come back on a short week against the Bengals after missing most of the season, and he re-injured his knee in that game. While he no doubt could have been a force for Cleveland's defense, the defensive line has played better against the run over the past couple of months. Some of it has been attributed to Ahtyba Rubin being more healed up instead of constantly working through nagging injuries. Tashaun Gipson was having a Pro Bowl season, but veteran Jim Leonhard hasn't missed a beat in his place. If you extended Leonhard's play over the past two weeks to an entire season, he'd be putting up Pro Bowl stats, which is a testament to how well the secondary in general is grooving.

Cleveland is getting good news on the injury front. Karlos Dansby might return this week at inside linebacker, Gipson could be back next week, and our best run-stopping defensive lineman, John Hughes, will be back in Week 17 from the short-term IR list. If the Browns can put together a win this week, things line up pretty well for them heading into the season finale against Baltimore.

5. Four weeks ago we both picked the Bengals to win. We were both way off. What is your prediction for this Sunday's rematch?

Manziel is the definite wildcard. Cleveland's defense had the Bengals' number the last time these two teams met, and while I don't think Andy Dalton is a big-time quarterback, I also can't fathom him playing that bad again. The Browns' defense is playing at a very high level, though, and their formula in beating the Bengals last time was to run the ball down their throats. I think Cleveland can stick to the same formula and come out with a victory, especially after Le'Veon Bell demonstrated last week that Cincinnati's run defense is still a major liability.