The 80th edition of the Battle of Ohio may be one of the more intriguing ones in quite some time.
Then again, it is still very early in the season, so maybe not.
Yes, in general, victories have seemed to elude both teams throughout their long tenures. But perhaps the winds have shifted this year. With a new quarterback and a revamped offensive look after the blockbuster trade of their biggest young star, the Cleveland Browns enter the game buoyed by a win and believing in Brian Hoyer.
For the Cincinnati Bengals, hope and hype have meshed this season as their fans think this might finally be the year Cincinnati gets past its first-round playoff hurdle.
As you get set for Sunday afternoon's contest between the 2-1 Bengals and 1-2 Browns, check out the spirited exchange between Coley Harvey and Matt Williamson as they pondered a few storylines:
Matt Williamson: The Browns' pass protection improved dramatically in Week 3 in Minnesota. Joe Thomas and the edge protection did a great job against Jared Allen & Co., but Michael Johnson is coming off a spectacular performance himself. Do you think the Bengals’ pass-rushers continue their dominant ways?
Coley Harvey: It certainly seems the Bengals’ pass rush has finally hit its stride. All season their fans had been waiting for a performance like Sunday’s against the Packers, when they hurried quarterback Aaron Rodgers for eight sacks, and limited him to just 244 yards of passing offense. The week before, he threw for 480. The line also accomplished something that hadn’t been done in five years: batting down three of Rodgers' passes at the line of scrimmage. Johnson was key in those deflections, coming away with arguably the game’s biggest when he swatted Rodgers’ fourth-and-5 passing attempt on Green Bay’s last play of the 34-30 Cincinnati win.
One name that hasn’t appeared much on stat sheets through the first three games is Geno Atkins. The newly re-signed defensive tackle has been swallowed up by double-teams and has been chipped by virtually every player on the offensive lines he has faced. The attention teams are giving him has benefited players such as Johnson and fellow defensive end Carlos Dunlap. You have to imagine that trend continues.
Pressure is something Hoyer seemed to handle pretty well in his start against Minnesota last week. If he gets the nod behind center again this week, do you think he’ll pick up where he left off?
Williamson: I like Hoyer quite a bit ... as the Browns’ long-term backup quarterback. It has surprised me a great deal that he bounced around the league so much in a short amount of time, and I respect how he played in Minnesota, but again, I think his ceiling is that of a high-end backup. Can he spark this team, though? For sure. He clearly has eyes for Jordan Cameron and especially Josh Gordon -- for good reason. Gordon being out of Cleveland’s lineup had a much bigger effect on this offense than many realize. But overall, yes, I think Hoyer can have a nice day once again targeting Gordon and Cameron.
A.J. Green is obviously a very special wide receiver, but the Bengals have gotten away from him at times. They now have a wealth of other receiving options, including the rookies Giovani Bernard and Tyler Eifert, but if Joe Haden can slow down Green one-on-one, much as Ike Taylor did in Week 2, could the Bengals struggle to create offense through the air?
Harvey: Yeah, I suppose that could happen, but I’m not banking on it. There’s just something about playing on the road that seems to get Green going. His home-road splits are actually quite creepy. In the 16 road games he has played in his career, Green has 106 receptions for 1,619 yards and 16 touchdowns. In the 18 games he has played at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, he’s caught just 75 passes for 1,037 yards and eight touchdowns. He’s even been targeted by quarterback Andy Dalton about 8 percent more often on the road than he has been at home. The two games in which Green was stifled this season? Yep, you guessed it: They were at home.
OK, so maybe I’m reading too far into the home-road splits, but I have a feeling Green will do well this weekend. He had a tough matchup in Week 1 at Chicago. Even though Charles Tillman intercepted two passes while covering him, Green still caught nine passes and two touchdowns. Still, Browns fans should watch Bernard and Eifert. The two rookies figure to be an even larger part of the offense.
There obviously has been a lot made of Cleveland’s offense in the past few weeks, but it looks like D'Qwell Jackson has been the unsung hero of the defense. He had 10 tackles last week. How much should Bengals wideouts and running backs be wary of going across the middle with Jackson out there?
Williamson: Jackson has played very well and is highly productive, for sure. He has excellent range, reads plays well and is excelling against the run and in coverage. But I would say the true unsung heroes are those in front of him. Phil Taylor is a personal favorite of mine as a dominant interior presence that demands extra blocking attention. Taylor makes room for everyone, especially Jackson, to do what they do best, but Desmond Bryant, Ahtyba Rubin, John Hughes and others are also playing very well on the interior for Cleveland and should give Cincinnati’s guards and center all they can handle against both the run and pass.
I briefly mentioned Gio Bernard earlier and I must say, I don’t think it will be long before he is putting up Pro Bowl numbers year after year for the Bengals. But right now, he and BenJarvus Green-Ellis split carries, which makes some sense so early in Bernard’s career. However, coach Marvin Lewis needs to unleash his rookie running back. When do you see that happening?
Harvey: I agree with you, Matt. At some point, Lewis needs to start going even more with Gio. And that’s not a slight to Green-Ellis. He’s been a solid back since he arrived in Cincinnati, and has even benefited from having Bernard on the field. When they’re on the field together, Green-Ellis’ yards-per-carry average is higher than it is when he’s back there in a one-back formation.
I suspect the Bengals will keep bringing along Bernard slowly, but before the season is over he should be seeing 20 touches.