Most football fans outside of the Midwest don’t understand the allure of “The Battle of Ohio”. Unfortunately, it’s largely because both the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals are poster children for NFL ineptitude.
It wasn’t always that way, though. Back when the great Paul Brown ran both franchises, old NFL Championships and Super Bowl appearances were engrained in these teams’ DNA.
Both are hoping to get back there in the near future, thanks to a pair of quarterbacks taken No. 1 overall over the past couple of years. Unfortunately, from those same outsider perspectives, this Week 2 matchup between the Bengals and Browns brings more of that apathetic sentiment on the rivalry, as both sit at 0-1 to start the 2020 season.
The Bengals are a team in transition. There are fan hopes that a playoff berth could be had this year, thanks to roster turnover and a high influx of young talent, but realism tempers the euphoria generated by so many high-profile offseason additions.
Conversely, some believe the Browns are in more of a “win-now” mode, with Baker Mayfield entering his prime and his being armed with an arsenal of veteran talent around him. To Cleveland’s dismay, he’s given them just a 12-18 record as a starting quarterback throughout portions of the last three seasons.
One could make the argument that this little Week 2 game between two teams at the bottom of the AFC North means a lot not only to their season outlook, but also for the continued development of two franchise quarterbacks.
Mayfield has shown a troubling regression trend since 2019, which is ironic, given the Browns’ willingness to throw an insane amount of money to high-end talent as a support system. Two Pro Bowl wide receivers and running backs in each position group, multiple pass-catching tight ends and upper-tier offensive line talent have netted just a dozen wins in the Mayfield era.
For Burrow, continued progression and a performance more closely resembling his 2019 LSU days is the name of the game right now. A win against the hated Browns on the road in a primetime venue?
Sure—that’ll work, too.
However, as much as the fanfare of this game center around two No. 1 pick signal-callers, it might be more of a display of talented running backs. Both coaches are seeking balance and the easing of pressure on their two young quarterbacks after a preseason-less summer, as every NFL player is attempting to get their feet under them.
As previously mentioned, Cleveland boasts two top backs in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, posing a huge challenge for the Bengals. The former had 60 yards on a six yards per carry clip against the Ravens last Sunday, while the latter had 72 rushing yards on a 5.5 average.
In 2019, Cincinnati had one of the worst overall defenses and were constantly gouged against the run. They made great strides to improve that side of the ball, including five offseason acquisitions at linebacker and the signing of Mike Daniels and D.J. Reader to help anchor the interior of the defensive line.
Noticeable improvements were seen in Week 1 against the Chargers, but the Bengals’ defense still allowed 155 rushing yards in total. A good chunk came when Reader briefly left the game with cramps though, so he’s a key player once again this week.
Complicating things for both teams going into this clash is an alarming amount of early-season injuries to very important players.
Unfortunately for Cincinnati, they’ll be without three key defenders. Daniels is out, so is future Hall of Fame lineman Geno Atkins and defensive back Shawn Williams, both of whom missed last week, are all slated to miss this critical divisional game.
Cleveland appears to be in huge trouble on the offensive line with tackles Jedrick Wills, Chris Hubbard and Jack Conklin, as well as center J.C. Tretter all being questionable. They’re also decimated in the secondary with rookie safety Grant Delpit on I.R., as well as corners Kevin Johnson and Greedy Williams being out for this week.
Given the short week, the injuries and their sporting of a rookie quarterback (even one as talented as Burrow), Cincinnati will want to hog the ball a bit with Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard. It was a tough go for both against Los Angeles, with Mixon garnering just 69 rushing yards, while giving up a costly fumble—his first since his rookie year back in 2017.
In that vein, it was a tale of two halves for the Bengals’ offensive line, as things began to be more palatable to the eye around the mid-point of the third quarter. Still, the patchwork line is finding its way, as everyone hopes it won’t take until Week 14 for the run game to dominate—as has been the case the past two seasons for Cincinnati.
The biggest spotlight may be shining on two inexperienced head coaches and their staffs, though. Zac Taylor remains a high-ceiling NFL commodity, but continued game management issues reared their ugly heads against the Chargers, as he traverses through his second season.
Burned timeouts, questions on whether or not Taylor should have given Burrow one final shot at the end zone with seven seconds left (notice how the two are intertwined?) and a failure to give wideout talents like Tee Higgins and Auden Tate targets could all be points of criticism from last week.
On the Cleveland sideline, Kevin Stefanski takes over the reins with a pedigree of working with quarterbacks, as he is now Mayfield’s fourth head coach in just his third season since being drafted by the Browns. Joining him is Alex Van Pelt as the team’s offensive coordinator after spending two years as the Bengals’ quarterback coach.
Yet, even with these offensive-minded coaching changes, the Browns scored just six points in the opener in Baltimore. The Bengals, you ask? A paltry 13 at home.
A major question in these two teams resides in just how much stock should be placed in their respective losses because “it’s Week 1”. Furthering that wild card notion is the massively-altered training camp process because of COVID-19.
Regardless, these will be two angry teams taking the FirstEnergy Stadium turf on Thursday Night. Cincinnati is stewing about a questionable officiating call at the end of the contest and their inability to take the necessary advantages throughout a game they feel they should have won.
Cleveland is trying to shake off the massive disappointment that has lingered with the franchise for the past 17 regular-season games (and a lot longer, in some Dawg Pound fan minds). There isn’t Hue Jackson patrolling the sidelines for Mayfield to goad as added fuel, but he’ll want to right the ship against a familiar, despised foe.
As it was last week, this is a game that could easily go either way. Cleveland would love to be able to set up big plays off play-action, while Cincinnati undoubtedly wants to spread out their personnel to keep the Browns’ defense on its heels with many pass-catching options and the possible big Mixon run.
If Cincinnati wasn’t missing three key defensive players this week, I’d be inclined to choose them over the Browns. But, this reeks of a game that snowballs a slow start to the season in a rebuilding year for the Bengals.
Bengals 21, Browns 26
AC — Woke up this morning feeling dangerous.