For the 85th time, the Bengals and Browns will get together for a football contest and the Bengals will be looking for their first sweep of their northern Ohio brethren since 2011. The Bengals lead the all-time series 45-39 and will be playing for a top playoff seed, while the Browns will be starting their 24th quarterback since rejoining the league in 1999 and will be playing for a top draft pick.
Q: I hate to do this to you right out of the chute, but the elephant in the room is Johnny Manziel. When does Mike Pettine let him out of timeout (or does he ever let him out this year)? And, what do you see the organization doing with Manziel after the season?
A: Mike Pettine will not play Johnny Manziel unless Austin Davis sustains an injury (which is a relatively likely scenario considering the Browns' poor pass blocking this season). Pettine is old school, and unlikely to go back on his decision, unless threatened by owner Jimmy Haslam. Pettine told Manziel to avoid partying during the Browns' bye week, and Manziel disobeyed him. In Pettine's mind, that's a grave sin not likely to be forgiven this season.
Johnny Manziel is likely gone after the 2015 season. Manziel has shown glimpses of greatness during limited time under center, but his off-field issues are not something the Browns are willing to deal with. The organization seems sick of Manziel's tendency to ignore team instructions, even though Manziel has the talent to succeed. Manziel can survive in the NFL, and even thrive, under the right regime. Pettine's Browns are not a good fit.
Q: Since purchasing the Browns in 2012, Jimmy Haslam and his management group have had a number of off-field issues to go along with the teams' on-the-field (and draft) failures. Now, there is a former radio personality threatening to expose some inappropriate behavior inside the organization. 1) Does there seem to be any validity in this claim? And 2) Who (if anyone) loses their job after the season (i.e. Ray Farmer, Pettine, etc.)?
A: The claim has at least some validity. The former radio personality (Joe Lull) has previously broken big stories and has a significant amount of credibility. The president of the team, Alec Scheiner, even sent a direct message to Lull on Twitter, and later called Lull to explain things. I'm not sure if the full truth will ever come out, but I believe the story has a shred of validity. I don't believe it's an organization-wide problem, but there's likely something there we're not hearing about.
Both Farmer and Pettine are likely gone at the end of the season. Haslam preaches stability, but this franchise is anything but stable with Farmer and Pettine in charge. Farmer came under fire in the offseason for texting allegations and Pettine has handled the quarterback situation poorly this season. Farmer has also drafted poorly and Pettine cannot manage the clock late in games, as seen in the Browns' loss to the Ravens on Monday. Unfortunately, the Browns are a bad joke, and will continue to be one until the club hires the right GM/coach and finds a franchise QB.
Q: OK, enough off the field stuff, let's get into some actual on the field questions! Now that we know Austin Davis will be starting on Sunday, does the offense look any different with Davis at the helm - as opposed to when Manziel or Josh McCown were running the show?
A: Austin Davis is a little bit of an unknown in Cleveland, so few know how the offense will look with Davis at the helm. With McCown at quarterback, the Browns typically use play action frequently, while the team uses more bootlegs with Manziel. With Davis playing quarterback, expect to see more medium and long-range throws. Davis does not have an exceptional arm, but he has enough arm strength to throw the deep ball better than McCown and Manziel. Pettine and the coaches were impressed by a deep out Davis threw late in Monday's game.
Two plays to look for on Sunday: 1. Deep passes to wide receiver Travis Benjamin - Benjamin is one of the fastest players in the league and quite dangerous in the open field; 2. Short-to-medium passes across the middle to tight end Gary Barnidge - The Browns will use a variety of looks and routes to create openings for Barnidge in the middle of the field. These two plays are the Browns' bread and butter.
Q: When these two teams met a few weeks ago, the Bengals' offense moved fairly easy and Tyler Eifert caught three touchdowns. How do you think the Browns will alter their defensive game plan - particularly in terms of covering Eifert (assuming he plays)?
A: The Browns will likely (or at least, should) jam Eifert more at the line of scrimmage. On Eifert's first red zone touchdown, the Browns did not jam Eifert, and it led to a quick touchdown. The Browns' linebackers need to physically attack Eifert at the line of scrimmage while generating pressure on Dalton. With this Browns team, that's easier said than done. Besides jamming Eifert, look for the Browns to place a safety on Eifert instead of a linebacker. Pettine's team play primarily man coverage, and I don't expect that to change Sunday, even with Joe Haden and Justin Gilbert likely out of the lineup.
Q: In their first matchup, the Browns mustered just 213 yards of offense and never got the ground game going. How do you see the Browns' offense attacking the Bengals in the re-match? And what is the key to a Browns victory?
A: The Browns will likely attempt to use the tried-and-true approach of establishing a run to set up the play-action pass. Unfortunately, due to the team's ground woes, this likely won't work and the Browns will abandon the ground game by the third quarter. Expect a busy day for Austin Davis, as the Browns will start him off with short passes before graduating Davis to more medium and long range throws. Most of the Browns' points come on lengthy drives eating up a lot of clock time. Look for the Browns to take their time on offense.
The key to a Browns win is victory in the trenches. If the Browns allow Davis enough time in the pocket, he can be successful. Davis can win you games if you protect him, as he showed during his stint in St. Louis. However, if the Browns continue to struggle picking up stunts and pass blitzes, watch out. On the opposite side of the ball, the defensive line needs to play a big role for the Browns. The Browns have not enjoyed much success in pressuring the quarterback, and that needs to change on Saturday if this team expects to win. The defensive line and linebackers also needs to improve in stuffing the run. The front seven has shown an inability to shed blocks and fill holes. If the Browns allow the Bengals to run and pass, it will be a long day.
Bonus: What is your prediction for Sunday?
A: Bengals: 30, Browns: 17