Even though the Cleveland Browns are winless in 2016, the first chapter of this season’s “Battle of Ohio” has a bit more sizzle to it than usual. Of course, the big storyline on Sunday resides in Hue Jackson going up against his old mentor in Marvin Lewis.
Even though almost every aspect of the matchup points to a Bengals win, Jackson’s familiarity with Cincinnati’s roster poses a threat. Here are five keys for a Bengals win as they host the Browns this Sunday.
Show Hue Something New:
When Jackson re-joined the Bengals’ coaching staff in 2012, he held three different roles while working with a number of players. In the first year of his return, Cleveland’s new head man worked with the secondary and special teams groups, and then switched to offense as running backs coach and eventually offensive coordinator. The point? Jackson is very familiar with many players on Cincinnati’s current roster.
Jackson’s successor, Ken Zampese, will need to give different looks on offense than those he has occasionally borrowed from his predecessor this year. Utilizing the new weapons Jackson didn’t have at his disposal last year could be one of the differences in the game on Sunday. Brandon LaFell and Tyler Boyd might need to step up if Joe Haden ends up suiting up and rekindles his rivalry with A.J. Green once again.
The Tale of the Tight Ends:
Both the Browns and Bengals employ tight ends who made the Pro Bowl last year. Unfortunately for both teams, both Tyler Eifert and Gary Barnidge haven’t had the same results in 2016. Quarterback issues have Barnidge blanked in the touchdown category this year, while the familiar injury bug has kept Eifert out of the first six games. Eifert has practiced all week, though he was limited on Wednesday and Thursday, so he finally might make his debut this Sunday in Cleveland. At least, he says he’s ready.
For the Bengals, rebounding from the twin tower tight ends in the loss at New England by sticking like glue to Barnidge has to be a priority. If Eifert does suit up, using him in the red zone, where issues have been abundant this year, should be a major part of Zampese’s game plan.
Continued care of the Football:
Though the Bengals’ offense hasn’t been great on third down (31st) or in the red zone this year (28th), one of the things they have done well is take care of the football. Jeremy Hill has seemed to remedy his fumble issues and Andy Dalton has thrown just two interceptions this season, making the 2-4 record even more frustrating.
The last thing Cincinnati wants to do is get sloppy with the football against a team struggling to find a spark. Dalton will need to outsmart his former coordinator and continue to limit the interceptions, while the backs will need continue to be sure-handed. If they don’t, the winless Browns might gain improbable momentum, creating a difficult afternoon for Cincinnati.
Get an early lead:
Part of the root of the trouble that has plagued the Bengals this year is their constant playing from behind. In four of their six games, opponents have scored first and in the contests against Pittsburgh, Dallas and New England, Cincinnati was playing catch-up in the second half.
Part of what made the Bengals’ offense so potent in their 3-0 start in 2014 and a franchise-best 8-0 start last year, was their ability to jump on opponents early and often. In a perceived lesser opponent in the Browns, the Bengals need to get into the end zone early to quell any hopes for an improbable Cleveland win.
Make Cody Kessler beat you:
It’s a total cliche, but sometimes it’s just too true to ignore. Cleveland’s on its third-string quarterback in Kessler, and even with the pre-Draft knocks on the former USC Trojan, he’s been relatively impressive in a bad situation. Marvin Lewis has taken note of his play, but also knows the importance of taking away the running game to make life hard on the rookie.
The Browns’ running back duo of Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson are both averaging more than five yards per carry this season and Jackson is undoubtedly hoping to use them to take pressure off of Kessler. The normally-stout Bengals defense is currently sitting at No. 20 against the run so far this year, so they will need to stiffen up against the thunder-and-lightning approach of Crowell and Johnson.