With an 0-6 Cleveland team coming to town, many Bengals fans might see that as an instant-win game for Cincinnati. While I’d love for that to be the case, you just can’t rule out what can happen on any given Sunday afternoon. Cleveland has hung around and been competitive in pretty much every game this year, and if it weren’t for a plague of injuries at the quarterback position, they probably wouldn’t have a goose egg in the W column. That said, this is obviously a must win game for the Bengals and one they need to be emphatic about. A three or seven point margin of victory won’t do much to motivate the team or fans, and Cincinnati needs to come swinging out of the gates for 60 minutes to build some momentum in the most important stretch of the year. To do so, these five Bengals are going to need to deliver.
1.) Andy Dalton
It’s always an easy out to pick the quarterback as an important player, because you’re always going to be right. But it’s even more correct when the team you’re playing against can’t stop the pass to save their lives. Cleveland ranks 29th in passing defense, allowing nearly 300 yards per game through the air. With a relatively young and inexperienced roster, Joe Haden is the only notable name in the secondary. Part of the problem is this is a Cleveland team that has only managed nine sacks in six games. They have a young defensive end in Carl Nassib who I believe can develop into a Pro Bowl player for them, but he’ll need time. If Dalton can stay upright, he should shred the Browns for his biggest game of the season.
2.) Carlos Dunlap
While the Browns still have Joe Thomas holding down the blindside of the line, the team lost their veteran right tackle Mitchell Schwartz to free agency. That leaves the young Austin Pasztor to fend off Carlos Dunlap, who is quietly playing at an extremely high level. Dunlap has recorded 4 sacks so far this year, and he should notch a few more this Sunday unless Pasztor is given some consistent help from a chipping tight end or running back. Pasztor isn’t necessarily bad, but he’s a big drop off from the man who previously held the job, and there’s a reason the Browns have allowed 19 sacks this season.
3.) Josh Shaw
One of Cleveland’s best offensive weapons right now is former Bengals receiver Andrew Hawkins, who made the jump when Cleveland put in a high priced restricted free agency claim during the 2014 offseason. His speed and agility out of the slot causes a lot of mismatches for teams, and he’s able to get separation quickly either across the middle or breaking to the corner. Shaw has been an excellent slot corner this season and he’ll need to do what he can to slow down the receiver who has been one of Cody Kessler’s favorite targets aside from tight end Gary Barnidge.
4.) Tyler Boyd
It’s probably safe to assume that Hue Jackson is going to make sure Joe Haden is trailing A.J. Green the entire game, as the Browns don’t have another corner on that roster remotely capable of doing it. As such, there’s going to be a lot of opportunity for the rest of the Bengals targets to get open against such a sub-par pass defense. With 4 catches for 79 yards last week, Boyd reached a season high for receiving yards in a game. His rapport with Andy Dalton is slowly but continuously building over the course of the season. This is the week where I believe he finally shines and gets over the 100 yard mark. Boyd has excellent route running ability for an NFL receiver, not just a rookie. His technique is polished and his breaks are crisp in addition to his ability to make tough, contested catches. He should find plenty of work with Dalton on short and intermediate routes this week.
5.) Domata Peko
Another Bengals player who has quietly been having a good season is Peko. While some fans don’t like Peko for various reasons, there’s no denying that he’s been a force at the nose in 2016. Poor run blocking last week aside, he looks five years younger this season and his play is some of the best it has ever been. He’ll be needed this week to stuff a ground game that led the NFL for the early weeks of the season. 23-year-old back Isaiah Crowell found plenty of success early in the season, but has been bottled up in recent weeks, showing that defensive coordinators caught on to the Browns scheme and shut it down. Make no mistake that Jackson will certainly have a few wrinkles to get the most out of both Crowell and the speedier Duke Johnson. Peko will need to clog up the middle and command blockers in order to allow Vontaze Burfict to make plays.
Who do you think will be the big play makers this Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium? Am I forgetting someone that you think is criminally underrated? Let me know in the comments.