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What to Look For: Bengals vs. Browns - Battle of Ohio Part II

Apparently players not named Johnny Manziel will be playing in the Battle of Ohio Part II. We take a look at the big questions like: Can Manziel keep the Browns in the playoff hunt? Can the Bengals run defense rebound from their Week 14 embarrassment? And can Andy Dalton register a double digit passer rating?

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Just four weeks ago, with first place on the line, the Browns dominated the Bengals in the Battle of Ohio Part I and snapped their streak of 17 straight losses to division opponents on the road. They also snapped the Bengals 14 game home unbeaten streak and became the hot pick to win the AFC North. That seems like ages ago. The Browns have since gone 1-3, cut their prize free agent running back (Ben Tate), replaced their starting quarterback with an immature rookie and are now clawing to try and stay in the playoff hunt. The Bengals, on the other hand, rattled off an unlikely three game road winning streak and lead the Steelers for three quarters before imploding in the fourth quarter for their second home loss in a row. Though the Bengals still lead the division by a half game, with a primetime game against the Broncos and an away game against the Steelers remaining, their lead is far from safe, making this game with the Browns a must win for both clubs.

Here is what to look for this Sunday when the Bengals and Browns meet for the Battle of Ohio Part II...

When the Browns Run the Ball:

Browns Run Offense: 113.7 YPG (15th); 3.6 YPA (t-28th)

Bengals Run Defense: 130.3 YPG (27th); 4.4 YPA (t-21st)

A lot has changed with this matchup since these two teams played just four short weeks ago. The Browns have released Tate, have replaced Brian Hoyer with Manziel and had their prized rookie quarterback called a "Midget" by Marvin Lewis. Meanwhile, the Bengals have gotten a bit healthier on the defensive side of the ball and will have two run specialists back this time around whom they sorely missed in the first matchup, Rey Maualuga and Brandon Thompson.

The release of Tate was more of a formality, because although Tate was one of the Browns' big offseason moves, he wasn't producing and had been passed on the depth chart by the Browns two impressive rookies (Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West). The Bengals will see both backs on Sunday and though West had the bulk of the carries and yards in their first matchup, Crowell is the better back (4.4 YPA vs 3.8 YPA) and has eight rushing touchdowns.

Most think the Browns will run all over the Bengals. I do not. While the Browns did pile up 170 yards in their last meeting, it took them 52 carries to get there. The Bengals, sans Thompson, Maualuga and Vontaze Burfict, held the Browns to a measly 3.3 YPA and the Browns didn't have a run longer than 14 yards. Yes, Le'Veon Bell torched the Bengals this past Sunday, he has made a bunch of teams look bad and for the first half, the Bengals had done a good job of bottling up Bell. His one big play, the 53 yard run, came against a defensive front of Will Clarke, Devon Still, Domata Peko and Robert Geathers - a lineup that should never occur. I believe the game against the Steelers was more of the exception than the rule because the Bengals run defense has been markedly better since the return of Thompson and Maualuga. In the three game road trip which followed the loss to the Browns, the Bengals held each opponent to less than 75 yards rushing and an impressive 2.9 YPA.

What does concern me in the running game is Johnny Manziel. The last time the Bengals played a running quarterback, Cam Newton racked up 107 yards (6.3 YPA) and 37 points. Manziel is no Newton, but if the Bengals can't keep Manziel in the pocket, he could hurt them with his feet and cause other opportunities to open up in the passing game.

Advantage: Push

When the Browns Throw the Ball:

Browns Pass Offense: 240.1 YPG (16th); 7.5 YPA (t-10th); 12 INTs (t-17th); 21 Sacks (t-6th); 76.2 Rating (28th); 55.3% CMP (32nd)

Bengals Pass Defense: 247.5 YPG (21st); 6.5 YPA (6th); 12 INTs (t-12th); 15 Sacks (t-32nd); 78.4 Rating (3rd); 59.8% CMP (7th)

The Browns pass offense numbers are essentially meaningless for this game as I suspect the offense will be totally different with a mobile rookie quarterback making his first pro start. The Bengals will also be facing three dangerous weapons they did not see in the last matchup - Josh Gordon, Andrew Hawkins and Jordan Cameron. Because of Manziel's ability to keep plays alive, the Bengals must hold their coverage longer than normal and be sure to keep the receivers from getting behind them (a la both Ravens games). If Manziel extends a play, a quick shifty guy like Hawkins becomes even more dangerous and the Bengals will need to make sure Gordon doesn't get behind the defense on broken plays. In his four games against the Bengals, Gordon has 13 catches for 300 yards and 2 touchdowns. However, both touchdowns have been on 70+ yard plays (71 and 74). Outside of the big play, the Bengals have fared well against Gordon, holding him to 155 yards, 11 catches and zero touchdowns in those four games.

The key for the Bengals pass defense will be twofold: 1) force Manziel to have to beat them - by shutting down the Browns run game, and 2) force Manziel to beat them from the pocket. Many will say the Bengals should blitz the hell out of Manziel and make him make quick decisions. I actually would do the opposite. I would rush only three to four guys and drop the rest into coverage. Try and confuse Manziel and force him to throw into coverage. More than anything, the Bengals need to keep Manziel from getting out of the pocket. I don't believe Manziel is going to hurt them from the pocket, but where he can hurt them is running around and making plays. Midget or not, Manziel excels in broken plays and by keeping him in the pocket, the Bengals can keep him out of his comfort zone.

Advantage: Bengals

When the Bengals Run the Ball:

Bengals Run Offense: 121.5 YPG (10th); 4.1 YPA (t-15th)

Browns Run Defense: 129.5 (26th); 4.4 YPA (t-21st)

The last time these two teams met up, it was easy to predict what the Bengals game plan would be - run, run and run. The weather called for the run (windy, rainy and cold), the matchup called for the run (the Browns were ranked 30th against the run) and the Bengals starting running back (Jeremy Hill) was fresh off a 154 yard, two touchdown outing against the Jaguars. The only problem? Hue Jackson decided to go against conventional wisdom and run the ball just 12 times with his bell cow back, despite the game being within reach for the first 40 minutes. The good news for Bengals fans? Hue likely learned his lesson. The better news for Bengals fans? When Hill did run the ball, he had success (4.6 YPA) and Marvin Lewis will be sure to remind Hue of this fact.

Since Week 10, the Browns have lost Phil Taylor and will be without their Pro Bowl caliber safety, Shaun Gipson, so the Bengals and Hill should find some space. However, it is safe to say the Browns will be hyped to see Hill again. After the Bengals were embarrassed on the field in the national spotlight, Hill decided to embarrass himself off the field by making the asinine comment that the Browns were "worse than [he] thought." However, angry or not, the Browns run defense still sucks and the Bengals ought to be able to expose it.

Advantage: Bengals

When the Bengals Throw the Ball:

Bengals Pass Offense: 227.0 YPG (20th); 7.3 YPA (t-16th); 13 INTs (t-21st); 18 Sacks (3rd); 85.5 Rating (23rd): 63.7% CMP (14th)

Browns Pass Defense: 231.1 YPG (9th); 6.4 YPA (t-3rd); 19 INTs (1st); 27 Sacks (23rd); 72.6 Rating (1st); 56.7 % CMP (1st)

In the Battle of Ohio Round I, Andy Dalton might as well have stayed home. "Good Andy" was nowhere to be found and "Bad Andy" entered homes all across America polluting said homes with one of the most abysmal displays of quarterback play that the NFL has ever seen. As a Bengals fan, I almost felt the need to apologize to the rest of the nation for what they were subjected to watch. How historically bad you ask? It was only the fifth time since 1960 that a quarterback threw more than 30 passes and had a quarterback rating of 2.0 or below.

In defense of Dalton, his receivers sucked that night as well and in the four games since, Dalton has looked solid (at least in games where he wasn't puking). Since that dreadful night, Dalton has completed 70.8% of his passes (80/113) for 931 yards, nine touchdowns (seven passing two running) and four interceptions for an average passer rating of 104.5 and average QBR of 69.5. Most importantly, he has got the Bengals back on track for the playoffs. The move of Clint Boling to right tackle has helped, as has a healthy A.J. Green.

Key for the Browns will be shutting down Green. Easier said than done, but they may have the perfect man for that job. Joe Hayden is arguably the best corner in the league and has played very well against Green in the past. If Hayden can take Green out of the game, Dalton will be forced to rely on Mohamed Sanu, who, after a hot start in 2014, has struggled of late and now leads the NFL with 13 drops. Despite the loss of Tashaun Gipson, the Browns lead the NFL in interceptions (19) as well as opponents' passer rating (72.6) and completion percentage (56.7%).

I expect Dalton to play much better in this re-match, but with Tyler Eifert, Marvin Jones, James Wright and possibly Jermaine Gresham out, the Bengals will be short on passing weapons. As a result, I think this is a fairly even matchup.

Advantage: Push

Special Teams:

Kickoff Returns: Browns: 21.4 Avg (t-26th); 0 TD; Bengals:26.9 Avg (5th); 0 TD

Punt Returns: Browns: 5.9 Avg (30th); 0 TD; Bengals: 10.0 Avg (8th); 0 TD

Kickers: Browns: Garrett Hartley: N/A

Bengals: Mike Nugent: 19/25 (76.0% - 28th); Long 49 (1 blocked)

Punters: Browns: Spencer Lanning: NET 40.7 (t-18th); Inside 20: 21 (28.7%); TB: 7 (9.6%)

Bengals: Kevin Huber: NET 45.3 (1st); Inside 20: 25 (39.7%); TB: 4 (6.3%)

Kick Coverage: Browns:22.7 Avg (11th); 0 TD; Bengals: 25.0 Avg (23rd); 0 TD

Punt Coverage: Browns: 6.7 Avg (8th); 0 TD; Bengals: 5.1 Avg (2nd); 0 TD

The Bengals special teams has been the most consistent part of this year's team and I like them again in this matchup. Despite not having a field goal attempt in his last two games, Mike Nugent has been a perfect 8/8 (knock on wood) since he missed that overtime kick to win the game against Carolina; Kevin Huber is having a Pro Bowl season and Adam Jones is one of, if not the top, return man in the NFL. The Browns, on the other hand, have a bottom five return unit in both punt and kick return, their punter is below average and on Friday the Browns signed Garrett Hartley off the street in hopes that he would be an upgrade over Cundiff.

Advantage: Bengals


Mike Pettine is having a successful rookie season as a head coach, but he is still a rookie head coach with just 13 games under his belt and trying to tread water in the playoff race. With just 13 career games as an NFL Head Coach and a .538 career winning percentage (7-6) I have to give Marvin Lewis the rare nod.

Marvin Lewis has 189 career games as an NFL Head Coach, a .524 career winning percentage (98-89-2), 3 division titles in 11 years, and an impressive 0-5 playoff record. For those of you counting at home, that is a playoff winning percentage of .000.

Advantage: Bengals

Key(s) to the Game:

1) Keeping Manziel in the pocket and forcing him to beat them with his arm, and 1a) turnovers. 2) Despite the hype surrounding Manziel, he is a rookie quarterback and making his first ever NFL start in a must win game. The key will be to keep Manziel out of his comfort zone and where Manziel is most comfortable is in chaotic broken plays. Therefore, the Bengals want to keep him uncomfortable by keeping him in the pocket. 2a) The Bengals can make Manziel as uncomfortable as they want, but if they turn the ball over four times again, they won't win. Andy Dalton and Jeremy Hill have to protect the football and not give the Browns extra drives and short field opportunities as they did in the first matchup.


Between Hill and Marvin's mouths, the Browns have plenty of bulletin board material, but all the bulletin board material in the world means nothing when the teams step on the field. Despite the four turnovers and 170 rushing yards the Bengals surrendered in the first matchup, they were still in the game for the first three quarters. I honestly believe the Bengals are the more talented team on offense, defense and special teams and should win this game comfortably. I believe the Bengals take offense to all the Johnny Football talk and the "Bengals are done" talk and take it to the Browns.

Bengals 31, Browns 17