The Bengals and Browns don’t usually meet for the first time in a season after Thanksgiving, but that is the hand they’ve been dealt with this year. Because of this, each team has a good read on what the other squad is now that the season is more than halfway over.
For Cleveland, fresh life has been injected into the team since the firing of both head coach Hue Jackson and Todd Haley and the offense seemed to resonate this in their last game against the Falcons two weeks ago. Their defense isn’t exactly elite but it may as well be when compared to the Bengals, and Cincinnati probably hasn’t been this humbled entering a game against their in-state rival in quite some time.
With that said, these five players need to take it upon themselves and play up to their potential in what should be a close AFC North slugfest:
This week last year, Mixon and the Bengals hosted the Browns for the second time in the 2017 season and Mixon popped off. On 23 carries, Mixon ran for 114 yards and a touchdown, eclipsing the century mark for the first time in his young career. This was against a Browns defense that was first against the run at the time as well.
The Bengals won that game 30-16, and it ended up being the performance that put Mixon on the map while fellow rookie running backs Kareem Hunt and Alvin Kamara were already tearing up the league.
Mixon has been far more efficient with his carries this season with a 4.6 yards per carry average thus far, but he’s been an after thought in the struggling Bengals’ offense. Considering the Andy Dalton-led passing offense isn’t exactly a juggernaut without Tyler Eifert and A.J. Green, the Bengals should probably give the ball to Mixon more than they have done so in recent weeks, but also do it creatively to keep the Browns on their toes.
It’s hard to watch someone who doesn’t get on the field, but how much longer can Tate be ignored for Cody Core?
Last week against the Ravens, Tate received one target on his one snap, and possibly would’ve gotten another one on his second snap had he not gotten taken off the field before a timeout. Tate was replaced by Core on the offense’s last snap, Core gets thrown the ball and drops it. Tate is left on the sideline presumably with his face in his hands.
Lewis did not offer positive words of encouragement for Tate following the loss, and we can only imagine what his thoughts on Core are at this point. Tate is only relevant right now because Green is still nursing his foot injury, and Lewis has expressed confidence that Green will suit up this week, but Green has not practiced all week. If Green can’t go, Tate will once again be the better option over Core. This time, he may get more than just a single snap.
Focusing on the defensive side of the ball, what in the world are the Bengals going to do at the defensive tackle position? Josh Tupou was just placed on injured reserve on Thursday, and a day later, Adolphus Washington met the same fate. Both are joining Ryan Glasgow who tore his ACL back in late September.
This game may feature Hubbard inside more times than the Bengals would like because they simply have no one else. The Browns posses some of the best interior offensive lineman in the NFL in guards Kevin Zeitler and Joel Bitonio, and it could be a long day for Hubbard trying to get past that duo when he’s relieving the Bengals’ starters inside.
Speaking of the Bengals’ starting defensive tackles, Billings will also naturally be asked to play more snaps due to Tupou’s season-ending injury. And like Hubbard, Billings has a touch matchup with the Browns interior offensive line in a game where he likely plays well over 50% of the defense’s snaps.
In his second season playing, Billings hasn’t been a bad run defender by any means, but aside from the Chiefs game back in Week 7, his lack of impact plays has been slightly disappointing. Going against red-hot running back Nick Chubb this week, the defense is going to need Billings to step up in a big way.
Dre Kirkpatrick is looking at his first missed game since Week 14 of last season, and in his place would most likely be KeiVarae Russell. Thankfully, the Browns’ receiving corps is not their strongest unit, and that should be good news for Jackson.
The switch from Teryl Austin to Marvin Lewis at defensive coordinator has not changed Jackson’s role in the defense. He’s still been playing all of his snaps on the right side of the defense playing both man and zone coverage, and he’ll most likely be going up against rookie Antonio Callaway for most of the game. The rookie connection between quarterback Baker Mayfield and Callaway has not been particularly strong this season, so expect Jackson to have a good game even without Kirkpatrick out there with him.