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5 Questions with the Enemy: Chris Pokorny of Dawgs By Nature

We get the skinny on the Cleveland Browns from the head honcho over at SB Nation’s Dawgs By Nature as the latest chapter of the “Battle of Ohio” kicks off this Sunday.

The Cincinnati Bengals’ 2023 season kicks off with a huge clash on Sunday afternoon in the form of a divisional matchup. With two AFC North games right out of the gate, Cincinnati is hoping for a hot start against a team they’ve struggled with in recent history.

We take a peek over the other side of the fence with Chris Pokorny of SB Nation’s Dawgs By Nature to get his insight on the impending matchup.

1.) AC: The Browns had trouble defending the run last year (No. 25 in rushing yards allowed, No. 29 in rushing touchdowns allowed, No. 25 in YPC). Some early Twitter Bengals discourse this year has centered around Cincinnati establishing the run this week (as weird as that may sound with Joe Burrow and Co.’s air attack). How has Cleveland remedied the woes from last year and is that still an area the Bengals should exploit this week?

CP: “Ah, you are drumming up memories of Week 4 from the 2022 season, when Cleveland was facing the Atlanta Falcons. Browns fans knew that our run defense wasn’t in the best of shape, and we had some injuries at linebacker; and yet, Atlanta kept throwing the ball with Marcus Mariota to the tune of god-awful results.

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Late in the third quarter, they finally wised up and had a drive in which they ran the ball literally every play, leading to a touchdown. They did the same thing on their next drive (although it ended in a field goal after they tried throwing with Mariota in the red zone). From there on forward, there were many weeks in which teams knew they could attack the Browns’ run defense.

As far as the 2023 season goes, it’s tough to make definitive conclusions, considering how little the first-team defense plays in the preseason and how little teams run in preseason and/or training camp. With that said, when you think about the personnel changes alone (adding DE Za’Darius Smith, DT Dalvin Tomlinson, and S Juan Thornhill), in addition to getting the team’s linebackers back healthy, I think the team has a lot more well-rounded players now so that the run defense won’t be a glaring liability.

I don’t think focusing on the run is something Cincinnati can exploit per se; I would imagine the team would just want to have that balanced attack to try to keep Cleveland guessing.”

2.) AC: How has Deshaun Watson been looking with much more time with the team and in the playbook? Last time we saw him against the Bengals, rust was prevalent, but the flashes of greatness were also there. Is he totally ingrained in the system now, and he’s looking like the guy with the Texans, or are there still some hiccups?

CP: “That rust was so frustrating to watch last year for Deshaun Watson. On one hand, it was understandable since he hadn’t played in two years. On the other hand, there were times when it looked like he’d never picked up a football in his life, which was hard to comprehend.

The good thing is that through training camp and the little bit of preseason action that he’s had, that level of “what the hell?” type of rust is completely gone. He has made some nice throws in camp, and the chemistry has been building with his top receivers, particularly TE David Njoku. I don’t think we can say he’s back to the guy who was with the Texans, as I think we may still see some decision-making lapses until he is truly entrenched in weeks of in-game action again.”

3.) AC: From a Browns’ perspective, which element(s) of the Bengals scares you the most in this particular matchup?

CP: “I know it’s strange, but because Cleveland has had Cincinnati’s number (for whatever reason) over the past couple of years compared to the rest of the NFL, there hasn’t been that normal level of “fear” for any particular match-up. Even this week, I’ve been telling myself that maybe Joe Burrow will be out of sync a little bit after having had his calf injury for much of camp.

With that said, the element that creates the biggest unknown for me is the Bengals’ addition of Orlando Brown Jr. Even though the Bengals’ line has made great strides from Burrow’s rookie campaign, I still felt that Burrow excelled despite the lack of protection from the line. With Brown at left tackle and Jonah Williams getting to shift over to the right side, how dangerous can Burrow be with more time to throw, and does that set off a snowball effect of the rest of the offense thriving even more?”

4.) AC: What are you expecting as the plan of attack from the Browns offense this week? Nick Chubb has been a Bengals killer for years, no matter the quarterback, but if Watson is looking like his old self and Elijah Moore joining the fold, could we see more “fireworks” (as Watson himself put it earlier this week) from the passing attack than potentially expected?

CP: “Browns fans have been worried about the team having Nick Chubb (one of the best rushing threats in the NFL) and not utilizing the rushing attack in favor of an aerial assault. I don’t think that will be an issue — I see the plan of attack being to utilize Chubb on the ground and then work in a lot of chunk plays and deep patterns with Watson for big plays in the passing game.

This offense should be able to shift its focus often to have a lot of variety with which they approach a drive — they can go run-heavy one drive, pass-heavy on another, or a balanced attack on the next.”

5.) AC: How do you see this one playing out? DraftKings has the line set at Bengals -2.5. Have a score prediction?

CP: “I’m going with the Browns winning 27-24. We got a glimpse of the Browns’ defense, and they’ve added some speed and depth to the pass-rushing department, while Juan Thornhill already seems to be an upgrade over John Johnson III at the safety position.

On the flip side, I see a great deal of uncertainty for the Bengals at their safety position — if both offenses get their shots in, is the Bengals’ uncertainty there the straw that allows Cleveland to get the slight edge?”

Bonus: How are some of the local, young Cleveland backups developing (Luke Wypler, Dawand Jones, James Hudson, etc.)? I know Bengals fans have had their eyes on these guys during and after the draft because of the Ohio connections.

CP: “There has been some praise for James Hudson and the progress he’s made this offseason, but I haven’t been as optimistic as others have been. As for the two Ohio State rookies, the reviews have been glowing. Dawand Jones played very well this preseason at right tackle, to the point where many were proclaiming that he already looks like a starting-caliber player.

The Browns are already more than happy with their current right tackle, Jack Conklin, but it’s nice to have that type of depth if an injury occurs. I didn’t get to watch as much of Luke Wypler, but there was a similar sentiment among people who do Browns analysis — despite Nick Harris being drafted higher a few years ago, because of Wypler’s play, the thought was that Harris could be cut or traded in favor of Wypler. The team ended up keeping both, but Harris might be slotted in as a backup guard instead of a backup center.”

Our thanks to Chris Pokorny and all of the fine folks over at DBN. Check out our Q&A with them at Dawgs By Nature.