The second edition of the 2015 "Battle of Ohio" comes this weekend, with one team eyeing the playoffs while the other wonders about the future of their team. At 9-2, the Cincinnati Bengals have been largely dominant, with their losses coming against teams who are in the playoff race as we sit here in early December. Meanwhile, the Cleveland Browns are on their third starting quarterback this year and are desperate to find a winning formula.
A lot of big stars have either been declared out or doubtful for this game, including Browns first round cornerbacks Joe Haden and Justin Gilbert, as well as star Bengals tight end, Tyler Eifert. Even so, those injuries and other matchups make this an interesting game to watch on Sunday.
OLB Nate Orchard versus TE Tyler Kroft:
With Eifert listed as doubtful as of Friday with a pinched nerve in his neck, suffered against St. Louis last week, the Bengals' rookie third round pick will likely get his shot to start. Cincinnati liked Tyler Kroft's current skill set and thought they could improve upon it with their solid coaching. He wasn't known as a great blocker, but had the willingness, and also made plays as a receiver in college with limitations at quarterback. He'll need to be stout as a blocker and be able to keep some form of the security blanket Eifert has given Andy Dalton all year. He definitely can't keep the current stigma he has with having more penalties than catches this season.
Both in running plays and coverage, rookie Nate Orchard will be up against Kroft at times. It's been a less-than-stellar year for the rookie second-rounder, as he has just 26 tackles and one forced fumble on the season. He's dealing with a groin injury and is questionable against Cincinnati, but with the myriad of other big injuries the Browns are facing, we'll take a bet on him suiting up on Sunday.
OG Cameron Erving versus DT Domata Peko:
The first round offensive lineman got his first start a few weeks ago against Pittsburgh and was obliterated by the likes of Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt. Penalties and letting up of pressures and sacks on Johnny Manziel were painfully apparent. He's settled in and taken over the starting left guard spot from Joel Bitonio, who also is questionable this week, but has a big task against the Bengals' solid defensive line and the Bengals' massive nose tackle, Domata Peko. The Browns hope to have struck gold with Erving, and if he is to give them a glimmer of it, he'll have to play well against the Bengals.
Peko is having one of his best seasons as a pro. He has three sacks and has come up big in on a multitude of plays for the revamped Bengals' front. Maybe he's simply rejuvenated by the returns of Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson or he's heard the bad things said about him for a year and is playing a more inspired brand of football. Then again, maybe he just isn't as bad of a football player as some think. Regardless, it will be Peko's 325 pounds against Erving's 313 in a heavyweight clash up front.
RB Duke Johnson versus LB Vontaze Burfict:
This one is obvious, but maybe not in the way you think. Sure, linebacker against a running back is always a clash to watch, especially when one is an exciting rookie like Johnson and a Pro Bowl player like Burfict. Johnson's best asset is his versatility, making plays as a runner and receiver in 2015. He only has 216 rushing yards and a 3.1 per-carry average this year, but almost double the yardage in receiving (410) to go along with two touchdowns on 44 catches. One of those touchdown grabs was against Cincinnati on Thursday Night Football.
The Bengals linebackers can run well in short areas, dissect plays and hit. Not many of them are great coverage guys, Burfict included--if you need evidence, take a look at David Johnson's touchdown catch in the Cardinals' win over the Bengals a couple of Sundays ago. With receivers Taylor Gabriel and Andrew Hawkins ruled out, the young and inexperienced Austin Davis will look to get high completion passes to Johnson. Burfict will at least be partially assigned to the task of looking after the rookie back.
TE Gary Barnidge versus FS Reggie Nelson:
It's big-play guy against big-play guy here. Barnidge could be coined a "poor man's Gronk" or even "a poor man's Eifert", with his seven touchdown receptions this season. He, along with Johnson and Travis Benjamin, will be the biggest receiving threat on the afternoon. Given the previous statement on the Bengals' linebackers and coverage, it might be up to the safeties to contain big Barnidge from getting big plays. The defense clamped down on him in the first matchup, allowing just two catches for 35 yards and hope to emulate that success again.
Nelson should be in consideration for a Pro Bowl nod, given his league-leading six interceptions on the season. Nelson has played the best center field The Queen City has seen since The Big Red Machine. Nelson will likely play more zone than man, but will shift looks to confuse Davis. He might make a play while getting physical against Barnidge or by roaming around him, hoping for an errant throw.
WR Travis Benjamin versus CB Dre Kirkpatrick:
The fourth-year corner and first-year full-time starter has had a roller coaster of a year. He's had a few games where he's swatted away multiple passes and helped stifle the opposition's pass offense. Other times, there have been bad bouts of miscommunication, leading to big-play touchdowns. Kirkpatrick has speed and length to frustrate a smaller guy like Benjamin, but he can't let the little speedster find holes deep in the secondary.
Would it surprise you to know that Benjamin is having just a slightly-lower statistical season in receiving than Cincinnati's A.J. Green? Garnering 826 yards and five touchdowns while going on his third starting quarterbacks this season has to be admired. This matchup might continue on to special teams as well, if Kirkpatrick is used as a gunner in the game.