Five key matchups to watch in Sunday’s Cleveland Browns-Cincinnati Bengals game:
Trent Richardson vs. Rey Maualuga
When the Bengals middle linebacker said he saw “nothing spectacular” from Richardson last week, no one should have batted an eye. He’s right. The rookie running back missed the entire preseason recovering from knee surgery and ran 19 times for 39 yards last week with a long carry of 9 yards. The Browns need more out of their running game for many reasons: to support rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden, to keep the defense off the field and to find some way to score touchdowns. The simplest, most efficient way to do those things is to establish the run. The Bengals will look forward to playing some base defense after chasing the Ravens’ four- and five-wide receiver looks last week. They will try to be the aggressors, stacking the box on running downs and begging Weeden to beat them deep. It’s safe to say Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has some different looks dialed up for the rookie quarterback, and those will work better if the Bengals can keep Richardson in check.
Jay Gruden vs. Dick Jauron
Jauron, the Browns defensive coordinator, is bringing his finest duct tape and smoke machine yet again as he loses Joe Haden, is without Phil Taylor for half the season and saw linebackers Craig Robertson and L.J. Fort come from nowhere last week to produce big plays. About all we know for sure is that Jauron will roll coverage towards Bengals star WR A.J. Green and play his safeties very deep again for the second straight week. We saw Gruden’s Andrew Hawkins package in full effect last week, and it gave the Ravens fits. But the Bengals know they need to run the ball right at the Browns and get Jermaine Gresham involved to attack the middle and open things up for Green on the outside. The Browns have to stop the run and force Andy Dalton into must-pass situations. The Browns were successful with blitzes from the secondary last week and probably will try to replicate that.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis vs. The Browns’ front seven
The Bengals didn’t come away with many highlights or positives from their Week 1 drubbing at Baltimore. Green-Ellis getting rolling, specifically in the second quarter, kept the Bengals in the game. The tape will show he did it despite a Bengals offensive line that’s still very much in the transition stage getting tossed around for much of the night, and it’s up to the Browns to make those struggles continue. Winning the trenches and winning the running game are popular NFL clichés for a reason, and if the Browns want to play a 16-13-type game and fluster Dalton the way the Ravens did last week, it will start with keeping Green-Ellis from getting to the second level of the defense.
Joshua Cribbs vs. Dan Skuta
Cribbs averaged 13 yards per punt return last week, mostly because the Eagles punted way too much and Eagles punter Chas Henry kept kicking them too far. This isn’t so much a one-on-one matchup as it is an overall key in what the Browns hope will be a tight, low-scoring game. Maybe the team that plays better on special teams will win it. Skuta almost blocked a punt at Baltimore, and the Browns somehow got two punts blocked in the preseason. Both teams have kickers — Mike Nugent and Phil Dawson — who are the designated franchise players and are proven clutch. Cribbs gives the Browns a big edge in the return game, but the Bengals have shown signs of putting together very solid special teams units across the board and think that will pay dividends going forward. Maybe even this Sunday.
Brandon Weeden vs. History, confidence, the Bengals, his own receivers, etc.
The Bengals have secondary issues, but the Browns — because of game plan and personnel — won’t line up and attack the Bengals the way the Ravens did. Weeden’s debut last week was historically bad and featured a little of everything — dropped passes, terrible passes, four interceptions, two fumbles (that he recovered), two sacks and nothing to inspire any confidence from the fan base that he’s the right guy. In maybe the most puzzling statement of the week, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said he “didn’t think Weeden played nearly as bad as some of the criticism he’s getting.” It was only one week, and it can really only get better from here. But until Weeden shows that he can handle pressure and changing defenses and get the Browns into the end zone, it’s the same movie it’s been for much of the past 13 years. With full apologies to Lewis, it’s a movie that really is as bad as the critics say it’s been.