The Cleveland Browns are already mired in another dreadful season and have a rash of injuries. The Cincinnati Bengals are off to their best start in franchise history and have been one of the healthiest teams in the NFL this season.
Fresh off a fourth-quarter comeback win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, Andy Dalton and the Bengals (7-0) will look to avenge last year’s dreadful 24-3 loss against the Browns, also in prime time. Dalton was a dismal 10-of-33 for 86 yards and three interceptions, adding fuel to the fire that he can’t perform under the bright lights of nationally televised games. But we’ve seen a different Dalton this season, as the quarterback has 15 touchdown passes to go with just four interceptions. And even when he hasn’t been at his best, like on Sunday in Pittsburgh, he found a way to win rather than implode like he has in seasons past.
Johnny Manziel knows the Bengals all too well after they spoiled his first NFL start last season in Cleveland. The Browns (2-6) were shut out 30-0 as Manziel looked completely overmatched, but the former Heisman Trophy-winning QB has shown some progress in his second year in the league. With Josh McCown bruised and battered from the punishment he’s endured over the last two games, Manziel will make his second start of the season. He won his first in Week 2 against the Tennessee Titans.
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Here are three keys to the game for both the Browns and Bengals.
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1. Attack the Bengals’ right tackle
The Bengals have one of the NFL’s best offensive lines and protecting Dalton has been one of the biggest reasons for their success. However, a new right tackle will be in the lineup this week since Andre Smith is out with a concussion. That leaves veteran Eric Winston or rookie Jake Fisher as the likely replacements. Based on the practice reports, it looks like the Bengals will go with Winston. The Browns need to exploit this vulnerability since going after left tackle Andrew Whitworth is basically a fool’s errand.
2. Aggressive up front, conservative on back end
If the Browns fail to get pressure on Dalton, they’re going to be in for a long night, thanks to all of the injuries in the secondary. Defensive backs Joe Haden and Donte Whitner are out and Tashaun Gipson has been battling an ankle injury. With rookie fourth-round pick Ibraheim Campbell making his first NFL start alongside Gipson, the defensive backline would be wise to employ a bend-but-don’t-break philosophy. With all of the weapons at Dalton’s disposal, expect more zone coverage to keep the offense in front of them.
3. Win on special teams
The Browns need to shorten the field. Wide receiver Travis Benjamin could help with a few long returns to help his team win the field-position battle. Manziel can’t be expected to engineer long drives throughout the night. A special-teams touchdown would be nice too since TDs may be hard to come by on offense.
1. Shadow Travis Benjamin
When Manziel replaced McCown earlier in the season, he connected with Benjamin for three long touchdowns. No other receiver has emerged for Cleveland since then, meaning Manziel will continue to look for Benjamin. As long as the secondary keeps Benjamin in front of him, the Bengals should be fine.
2. Collapse on Manziel
Manziel is at his most dangerous when he improvises out of the pocket. The Bengals won’t see the deer-in-headlights look they saw last season, but their game plan shouldn’t change much. Contain on the edges and pressure from the inside. Having Geno Atkins back will only make Manziel’s life more difficult.
3. Get Jeremy Hill going
Hill has yet to show his 2014 form and facing the worst run defense in the league is a great opportunity to right the ship. Hill ran wild for 148 yards and two touchdowns last year in Cleveland. The Bengals should feed Hill for the benefit of this game, and the rest of the season.