Thursday Night Football! This week will mark the first edition of the 2015 Battle of Ohio, and it will also be the first of five primetime games the Bengals have scheduled down in the second half stretch.
Going into the contest, the undefeated Bengals will look to extend their record-breaking season to 8-0. They got the "W" against Pittsburgh, but the performance certainly wasn't without flaws. Kyle Phelps and I sit down to talk about how the Bengals rebound on a short week and the main points of interest in Thursday's game.
Alex: Kyle, Thanks for taking the time. Before this discussion, I know we briefly talked about the problems that we saw in the game against the Steelers last Sunday. What do you think the most glaring weaknesses were, and how do the Bengals address those weaknesses against Cleveland?
Kyle: Hey Alex, well I think we can both agree that certain members of the Bengals' offensive line looked really bad against the Steelers. Dalton was sacked three times, hit 6 times, and Jeremy Hill was the most effective runner with 60 yards. Tyler Eifert and Russel Bodine alone allowed three QB hurries on the day, and that's the kind of thing that just cannot happen long term. The Browns aren't exactly a strong pass rushing team, but it is still a hole that could be easily exploited by anyone on the Browns' front seven. Another glaring issue? Missed tackles. That's big against the Browns' passing game that has come alive lately under Josh McCown. That said, Johnny Manziel will be starting and the Browns' running game isn't very good, so the Bengals might actually be able to afford to miss some tackles this week. Obviously you don't want that to happen, but if they can fix their offensive line problems but they still miss tackles that would be enough of an improvement that I think they could still put the Browns away without much trouble.
What do you think, Alex? Is the Browns' pass rush going to be enough to put enough pressure on Dalton and prevent him from doing what he's done all season (save games)?
Alex: Missed tackles in the game against the Steelers, as well as in just about every other game I've watched have been very, very tough to swallow -- especially when it's something that simply goes back to fundamentals. To answer your question, I'd like to go back to our previous debate where I said I expected the Steelers to lie low on the blitz packages. This, they did not do. And our offensive line was under fire from the get-go.
That being said, the Browns don't blitz nearly as often, and even when they do, they typically aren't as effective. In a scary differential (for Browns fans), Cleveland has totaled just 13 sacks, opposed to the 27 they've given up! With that in mind, I think Dalton has all the time he needs for the majority of the game with his quick West Coast passing style. In fact, I'd expect them to take advantage of more than a few deep shots in Green's direction with Joe Haden out.
From the Browns' perspective, what do you think about Manziel as the starter?
Kyle: I'll go on record as saying I haven't agreed with a QB decision the Browns have made since they came back into the NFL. But, Josh McCown is injured, so that's what prompted this change. McCown has been very good so far this year (1,897 yards, 11 touchdowns, 4 interceptions). But, the reason why I wouldn't agree with starting Manziel under non-injury circumstances doesn't have so much to do with how McCown has performed - it has more to do with the fact that Johnny Manziel is a developing quarterback and the Browns have already benched him once. At this point, it's time to stick behind the guy you have under center already and quit switching things up on the team. The Browns have had had 23 different starting quarterbacks since they came back into the league in 1999 and that has a lot to do with the fact that they haven't stuck by any particular starting quarterback for more than five seasons, and that was their first starting quarterback - Tim Couch. The Browns haven't stuck by anyone for that long since he was released in 2003. I would argue that the best thing for the Browns to do is pick a guy and stick with them through thick and thin, much like the Bengals have done with Andy Dalton.
What are your thoughts on Manziel, Alex, can he overcome the horrible first start he had against the Bengals last year when his Browns lost 30-0 and Manziel exited the game with a 1.1 QB rating? Is he mentally prepared to put that performance behind him and show something different on Thursday?
Alex: I think he's had a lot of opportunity for growth since that proverbial beatdown at the hands of the Bengals last year. I also like McCown a lot more at quarterback. I won't lie -- the moment I realized that the Browns were starting Manziel over an injured McCown, I was able to rest easier.
That being said, Manziel had a very solid start to the year, posting a 4:1 touchdowns to interceptions ratio, and his ability to give pass rushers a tough time could make a difference in this game. At the same time, the Bengals are looking to get their eighth straight win, and I simply can't see them failing to do so at home against a quarterback they've had proven success against. Manziel hasn't started since Week 2, so it'll be interesting to see if he's able to pick up where he left off. The Bengals should remember that he and Travis Benjamin had very good chemistry when the duo was on the field together.
My last question surrounds the injuries going into this game. The Browns have Joe Haden and Donte Whitner out, while the Bengals have vacancies at linebacker and the O-line with Maualuga likely out and Smith having been ruled out for the game. How do you think those come into play on Thursday night?
Injuries are definitely an issue. Luckily, the Bengals have nowhere near the number of injuries that they had this time last year. If you'll recall, the Bengals listed 12 players on their injury report last year heading into their Week 8 home game against Baltimore. This year, only Rey Maualuga, Andre Smith, and Carlos Dunlap are listed. That alone is worth paying attention to, because injuries were really the driving force behind derailing the Bengals' good start to 2014.
Kyle: As far as how this year's injuries will affect the team, I think that we would be wise to not underestimate the impact. Sure, it's only three players and of the three only Smith is definitely out. However, Carlos Dunlap currently ranks top 5 in total sacks in the NFL (including J.J. Watt who hasn't yet sat out for a bye week). Not having him will be a huge blow to the pass rush. Rey Maualuga is also questionable, and losing him would be hard for a linebacker position that JUST got Vontaze Burfict back. Smith is already ruled out, but Eric Winston has experience filling in for Smith in the past. I think we're in relatively good hands with Smith's absence.
Now on the subject of injuries, I'm sure you know that the Browns listed 11 players on their injury report. It's not just Haden and Whitner who are out, but five others who are out, too. Is that as big of a deal as it sounds like? By most accounts, the Browns need a lot of things to go their way to have a chance on Thursday Night Football. Can that happen with so many players banged up?
Alex: I do expect Winston to fill in nicely. The biggest loss would be Maualuga (something I wouldn't have said two years ago), so it'll be interesting to see how Guenther works out a combination of Emmanuel Lamur, Burfict, and A.J. Hawk.
To answer your question, the short answer is a resounding "no." While Haden and Whitner are two of the standout injuries, the Browns will be employing the next-man-up approach from pretty much all angles of their roster. I wanted to focus on half of the immediate starting secondary being out because I think that will open up the deep ball game with Dalton and Green on Thursday.
The Browns have some key weapons on offense, but their defense is very much hurting right now. Their pass defense is the clear strength of that side of the ball for Cleveland, but it's hard to rotate two new players in like this and expect similar play from the group. The Browns have also managed the single worst rushing defense in the league for much of the year, though they stand outside the basement door at No. 31 at the moment. Overall, the defense ranks 30th. Rest assured, the Bengals are superior in virtually every facet of this game.
That being said, we both seem to be favoring the Bengals in this matchup (probably because we're both clinically sane by all accounts). What's your prediction, Kyle?
Kyle: I think clinically sane might be pushing it a little, but we're still sane enough to understand that the Browns are too banged up and just straight up too bad to really challenge the Bengals at home. Furthermore, even if they do find an advantage, this year has told us they'll probably just Brown it up. The Bengals have made their mark this season by dominating inferior teams (Raiders, Ravens) and coming back when their backs are against the wall (Seahawks, Steelers). Not to completely disregard the Browns as a threat, because they are an NFL team and can win any given Sunday (or Thursday), but I see this as a decisive two touchdown plus win for the Bengals. Final Score: 35-17.
What say you?
Alex: Don't worry Kyle. We're Bengals fans. To say were clinically sane is ALWAYS pushing it. I was merely giving us the benefit of the doubt. Because call me crazy, but the Bengals are going 8-0. I don't expect Cincinnati to have much trouble putting up points early and often, and I simply don't think the Browns have the ability to keep it close. The first round of the Battle of Ohio can be checked off the Bengals' list.
Bengals 27, Browns 13
What are your thoughts?