It was only a few weeks ago when I talked about the Cincinnati players who would be key in this matchup. If you read that, you'd know that I didn't think particularly highly of the Browns. Nothing has changed. In fact, the Browns are probably even worse now. The Bengals will trek north to the garbage receptacle of Ohio, where the Browns will greet them with their 24th starting quarterback since 1999 and play the 15th Browns quarterback Marvin Lewis has faced as the Bengals' head coach. That quarterback is something called an "Austin Davis." While it's easy to make fun, I would wager that Davis will bring a similar level of effectiveness to the position that we have witnessed in Cleveland for all of these years. While that may be construed as an insult, that level of play has dealt the Bengals what I would consider more than their fair share of losses. The Browns have split with the Bengals four of the last five years, despite the Bengals being an objectively better team each year. The performance of these players can ensure that the Bengals do not suffer that same fate this year and are able to sweep the Browns.
1) Reggie Nelson
After all of the trash I talked about the Browns quarterback situation, you have to remember that those guys are still professionals playing at the highest level. Austin Davis didn't get to the NFL by accident. And by virtue of injury, Nelson may be tasked with a ton of responsibility on Sunday. Adam Jones, George Iloka, and Leon Hall are all banged up to varying degrees. That leaves a lot of real estate to be covered by backups and/or hobbled players. Nelson will be tasked with keeping a lid on an offense that will surely be looking to convert a few big plays as moving the ball consistently should be a daunting task for their personnel.
2) Rey Maualuga
A strong running game is a young quarterback's best friend. While the Browns may not boast a particularly daunting rushing attack, they will certainly want to establish Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson Jr. to keep Austin Davis from having to win the game by himself as well as keeping Andy Dalton and company off of the field. We saw last week what happens when a struggling offense has to become one-dimensional against the Bengals. With both Vontaze Burfict and Emmanuel Lamur banged up, Maualuga will likely be on the field for significant snaps. He plays a pivotal role in the Bengals' rush defense and if they can stuff the run early, the Browns may be forced to air it out, allowing the pass rush to pin its ears back and give the secondary chances to make plays.
3) Russell Bodine
As long as the Bengals don't shoot themselves in the foot, this game should end with a Bengals win. I believe that the 2015 season has given us a reasonable sample size to feel comfortable in saying that Andy Dalton isn't going to lose a game for us as he may have done in the past. One thing that can give an outmatched team life is turnovers. It has been awhile since we have seen any snap issues between Bodine and Dalton, but a ball skipping to Dalton's ankles could spark the Browns. Past that, Danny Shelton is the type of big and powerful nose tackle who has given Bodine problem's in the past. If defenders break through the center of the line, there can be problems regardless of the playcall. I'm not asking Bodine to be an All-Pro. We just need him to not be a part of any catastrophic mistakes. He did a great job last week against the Rams and we should expect him to again in Cleveland.
4) A.J. Green
Normally, I'd look to one of the secondary targets when the Bengals matchup with the Browns due to Joe Haden's excellence against Green. However, Haden has had a lackluster year due to a broken finger, bruised ribs and two concussions. The Browns are now considering placing him on the IR. With those factors in place, there is no reason not to take advantage of whichever matchup Green is given. A big play or two will absolutely submarine the Browns who just don't have the offensive firepower to go toe-to-toe with the Bengals.
5) Ryan Hewitt
While the Bengals can certainly earn a win without Hewitt having a fantastic game, they should cruise if he produces. We all know what he brings as a lead blocker. If he is playing well in that respect, the ground game is likely having success. In this game, he may have some additional responsibility depending on Tyler Eifert's health. Eifert has been the best red zone target in the NFL this year. If he is unable to go, or even if he is limited, that could greatly affect the Bengals approach inside the 20. A tight end who can bail a quarterback out in tight situations can make a huge difference. If that situation arises and Eifert isn't available, I think it will be Hewitt, not Tyler Kroft, who draws Andy Dalton's eyes.