Winning has been something Cincinnati has done plenty of in recent years, especially when Cleveland is the opponent. Since 1999, the Bengals are 22-12 vs their in-state rivals, including a 11-4 mark in their last 15 meetings.
A big reason for that dominance has been stability at quarterback, or a lack thereof in Cleveland’s case. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis has had either Carson Palmer or Andy Dalton start in almost every game vs Cleveland since 2003. Having two franchise quarterbacks on his side is why Lewis has won more often than not against a Browns franchise that’s routinely had new faces at the NFL’s most important position.
This week, the Browns will be starting Cody Kessler at quarterback. The fourth-round rookie out of USC will be the 16th different starting Browns quarterback that Lewis has faced in his 27 games against Cleveland. Not to mention, he’s Cleveland’s third starter this season and one of five players who have thrown passes for the Browns this year.
Is Kessler finally going to buck the trend and provide the Browns with stability at this position? Lewis certainly is impressed with what he’s seen of Kessler thus far.
“The Browns come in here a much better football team than where their record stands right now. They’ve continued to progress. Their quarterback (Cody Kessler) has done a really good job. He hasn’t been careless with the football,” Lewis said on a Wednesday conference call with the media.
The rookie had the best game of his career in Week 6, throwing for 336 yards and a pair of touchdowns as the Browns almost pulled off a comeback against the Titans. Kessler was playing through an injury sustained last week while also dealing with the loss of his grandmother.
That and his overall play and effort this season is already endearing him to his Browns teammates.
"He's battling his butt off out there," All-Pro tackle Joe Thomas said via ESPN. "There were a couple times where he took some really big hits, scrambling on fourth down trying to make plays. You're thinking, 'Wow, he won't be able to get up from that.'
“He pops right back up and gets right back in the huddle like nothing happened. That's really admirable. That's the type of stuff that guys on this team like to see. You want to see a quarterback that's got that toughness."
But while Kessler has been decent for the Browns, being able to run the ball with Duke Johnson and Isaiah Crowell has been the real key to the Browns’ offense having consistent success for four quarters. That’s why stopping the run will be critical for the Bengals defense to keep the Browns’ offense grounded.
“They’ve been able to move the football. Until two weeks ago, they were leading the league in rushing,” Lewis observed. “That’s been a big part of the changes and the things they had to do at quarterback, where they were hanging their hat making sure they could run the football. It’s important we do a nice job in defending the run and being sound. That part of what they’ve been doing impressively.”
And in reality, this isn’t just coach speak by Lewis in hopes of convincing his team that their next opponent is better than they really are. Cleveland has been a competitive team that’s been in just about every game this year, and they probably have a few wins under their belt if not for some untimely injuries and bad breaks.
Among the guys who’ve missed time due to injury for the Browns are first-round rookie receiver Corey Coleman (broken hand), star guard Joel Bitonio (lisfranc, now on I.R.), Pro Bowl corner Joe Haden (groin), and starting center Cameron Erving (chest).
Most of those guys will be out this week, but the Browns have made progress and have stayed competitive with backups in place, who are now getting more comfortable in their roles.
“They’ve had some injuries but are getting guys back,” Lewis said.” Just like the offensive line, they’ve settled into some guys now over the last few weeks with getting the center back, and moving their old center to guard.
“It makes a stronger unit, having that continuity. That’s where they are with things. Our focus is us, and doing the things we need to do correctly, and then applying them to the Browns.”
Make no mistake about it: The Bengals should win this game with relative ease, but they’re not good enough to just skate by and beat this Browns team, especially with the road dogs playing with an extra edge as they look to end a three-game skid in the Battle of Ohio. The Bengals need all hands on deck and must come prepared to beat the Browns and avoid losing their third straight game.