At 2-4, the Bengals need to win on Sunday to stay alive in the AFC playoff race. The Steelers lost quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to injury last week and neither the Ravens or the Browns are powerhouses, so there’s time to right the ship. In fact, the Browns are the only remaining winless team in the NFL, and Cincinnati can’t afford to lose this one at home, and be the team the Browns beat.
Cleveland is without two veteran quarterbacks and several other contributors and also could be missing two of their best three players in Terrell Pryor (questionable to play) and Joe Haden (doubtful to play). Even with so many valuable players hurt, don’t ever count Hue Jackson out, as he’s shown a tremendous ability to adapt and improvise.
Here are five Browns players you should watch for on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium:
Gary Barnidge, tight end:
If Pryor doesn’t suit up for the game, the fantasy football breakout star from 2015 would be the de facto primary weapon for Jackson and the Browns offense. Barnidge hasn’t been as productive as he was last season thus far, but he is a very talented 6-6 tight end who can hurt the Bengals cover 3 defense and get a lot of attention on play action fakes.
Rob Gronkowski had some big gains on those last Sunday in Foxboro, so expect Cleveland to have paid attention and try to attack the Bengals’ linebackers. Jackson knows his former team, and without Pryor, his best option for the passing game is Barnidge.
Danny Shelton, nose tackle:
The 6-2, 335 pound tackle is a force in the Browns rushing defense, but is also developing as a complete three-down player, as he showed last week against the Titans. He is really big but also somewhat athletic for his size and weight, and plays for a defensive coordinator, Ray Horton, who’s known for his limitless defensive fronts. Shelton even dropped into coverage at least once in Nashville.
Cincinnati has struggled mightily to get their running attack going so far this season, and Russell Bodine could be in line for a long afternoon against Shelton, especially fighting off an ankle injury. Again, Jackson knows the Bengals and their weaknesses, so Shelton should be even a bigger part of his defensive game-plan.
Cameron Erving, center:
Speaking of bad centers, Erving might be the only one willing to give Bodine a run for his money among the worst. The second-year offensive lineman is a former first-round pick who is disappointing after making the move inside from left tackle in college. He was bad at guard and has been bad at center thus far.
This is the matchup Geno Atkins should have circled in his calendar going into the season, and he’s due for a big game.
Austin Pasztor, right tackle:
If Atkins could have a huge game this week, the same should be said for Carlos Dunlap. After losing a couple of starters from last season’s vaunted offensive line, the Browns have struggled, even though playing with a ton of new receivers and a third string quarterback sure doesn’t help, even though Cody Kessler has been playing well, considering his circumstances.
Cedric Ogbuehi has been frustrating to watch but his counterpart in Cleveland isn’t much better, and he had a lot of trouble against a speed rusher like Cameron Wake in their overtime defeat in Miami. Pasztor is also one of the most flagged linemen in the NFL for false starts, and that could be in part because of his fear to get beaten by speed. Enter Dunlap, and he Pasztor should be getting into trouble on Sunday.
Briean Boddy-Calhoun, cornerback:
Assuming Haden doesn’t play, and it’s more likely than not that he won’t, Boddy-Calhoun is the next man up. I like him and I think he’s a nice role player, but he lacks the size at 5-9 to cover most wide receivers effectively and the Bengals should try to pair him with A.J. Green as much as possible.
Boddy-Calhoun is smart and tries to use his IQ to make up for his lack of speed and physicality. He showed good things against Miami when filling in for Haden. Despite being better suited for the slot, Jackson and Horton keep playing him outside and Ken Zampese must take advantage if he’s starting.