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After two weeks on the road, the Browns return home to play the Bengals for the second time in five weeks. At 0-5, Ryan Alton calls it an absolute must-win week.
Didn't we just do this? I imagine that's what a lot of the players in the Browns and Bengals locker rooms were thinking this week as they began preparing for their second of two meetings, uncommonly occurring before the halfway point in the season. The Browns are hoping this go-around produces a different result than the Week 2 edition of "The Battle of Ohio."
In the first meeting, at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, the Bengals won after Adam Jones returned a punt for a touchdown in the opening minutes. Both offenses went on to have solid afternoons, but ultimately, that score ended up being the difference in the game as Cincinnati held on to win 34-27.
Four short weeks later, the Browns are in desperation mode at 0-5 and the Bengals are sitting at an uncomfortable 3-2, after dropping a game they should‘ve won last week when the Miami Dolphins came to town. Meanwhile, the Browns currently have the longest losing streak in the NFL (11 games) dating back to last November. More importantly, they haven't won a game in their division since October of 2010. With another game against the Baltimore Ravens on the way and both contests versus the Pittsburgh Steelers still to go, this is absolutely a must-win game for embattled head coach Pat Shurmur.
Quite frankly, at this point, they are all "must wins."
Shurmur, like his team, has come under fire in recent days for not only losing, but how he's responded to the adversity he has faced in the press. Nothing would calm the nerves along the lakefront like a win on Sunday. While beating the Bengals wouldn't completely douse the flames under Shurmur's seat, as new Browns owner Jimmy Haslam III is set to be approved by league owners on Tuesday, it would certainly allow everyone in Berea to breathe a little easier.
Helping the Browns cause this week is the long-awaited return of star cornerback Joe Haden, who has been reinstated after serving his four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy. The Browns secondary has been torched, to put it lightly, in Haden's absence. Furthermore, his replacement, Dimitri Patterson left last week's game against the Giants with an ankle injury. He is expected to be out a few weeks, and Haden's return could not come at a better time.
Second-year corner Buster Skrine, who has received the brunt of the punishment from opposing quarterbacks, will likely move inside to play the nickel back role on passing downs. Haden will have his hands full as he will be assigned to cover Bengals all-everything wide receiver A.J. Green. It will be a tough assignment, even for a guy as talented as Haden, to cover Green in his first game back. But his return will greatly improve the Browns chances and will limit the options of Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, who had his way with the Browns secondary in their first meeting.
Also likely returning for the Browns will be middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, who left the Giants game with a concussion. His presence was sorely missed as the Giants running game blew the doors off the middle of the Browns defense with both Jackson and defensive lineman Atybha Rubin leaving the game early. Unfortunately, the Browns will still likely be without Rubin who has a lower leg injury, and will have to rely on rookie defensive tackles Billy Winn and John Hughes to plug up the middle of the defense. The Browns had success stopping the run the last time they played the Bengals due to the fact that running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis is more of a straight-line runner, where the Browns have been stout up front. Expect the Bengals to test the Browns on the ground without Rubin there to eat up space. Thankfully, Jackson will be there to provide a wall of defense at the second level.
The Browns will also be short-handed on the offensive side of the ball as they will likely be without wide receivers Mohamed Massaquoi, the leading pass-catcher the last time the two teams played, speedster Travis Benjamin, and the sure-handed route-runner, Jordan Norwood. Filling the void will be emerging rookie Josh Gordon, who broke out with two touchdowns in New York, the reliable veteran receiver/return man Josh Cribbs, and the oft-inconsistent second year receiver Greg Little.
The Browns also may promote undrafted rookie receiver Josh Cooper from the practice squad. Cooper will hopefully provide Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden some familiarity in the passing game as the two played together in college at Oklahoma State. He displayed the ability to catch the football in the preseason but has yet to play in a regular season game where the real speed of the NFL may take some getting used to.
While the passing game may take some time to find its legs, though the Bengals remain banged up in the secondary, the Browns running game, led by star-in-the-making rookie Trent Richardson should set the tempo. Richardson had his breakout performance against the Bengals four weeks ago, running for 109 yards and a touchdown. He also caught a check-down pass from Weeden that he then turned up field and broke four tackles on his way to the end zone for another score. There is little doubt that the Bengals are licking their chops to get a second chance at shutting down the rookie from Alabama.
Pat Shurmur drew the ire of the fans and media last week for taking Richardson out on a crucial 3rd-and-1 play deep in Giants territory, where Brandon Weeden made an errant throw resulting in a momentum-shifting interception. Shurmur indicated this week that he, along with offensive coordinator Brad Childress, are trying to steadily increase Richardson's reps while he continues his return from minor knee surgery in August. Richardson played 51 of 60 offensive snaps last week against the Giants, his highest total of the season.
The Browns are aware of Richardson's rare skill set but don't seem to be willing, at this point, to commit to having him in the game on every down. They feel confident in the ability of backup running back Chris Ogbonnaya to spell Richardson on third down situations. To their credit, Ogbonnaya is a worthy pass blocker and has found success in the passing game with his ability to catch the ball and turn up field for big gains on third down. The area that raises concerns for most onlookers is the Browns tendency to seem to telegraph their intentions by taking Richardson out and bringing Ogbonnaya in off the bench -- loudly signaling the following play will most likely be a pass. Richardson is an able pass catcher in his own right and the general thought is that keeping him in on third down would at least keep the defense guessing as to the play call, especially on 3rd and short. But as Childress noted in his press conference before Thursday's practice, even Trent Richardson needs "a drink of water sometime, too."
It will be interesting to see if Weeden and Richardson can duplicate the success they found against the Bengals the first time through. However, with the teams playing once already and having put more of themselves on tape, it wouldn't be a surprise if the Bengals were better prepared for the Browns from a defensive standpoint this time around. And vice versa. It's worth mentioning the Bengals will also have the services of talented defensive end Carlos Dunlap back this week, who missed the first meeting due to injury.
Somehow, the Browns absolutely must find a way to win this game on Sunday. For the sake of their head coach, their new owner, and for the sake of the morale in the locker room, a win is crucial. Not to mention, the sake of the fan base who want desperately to find a flicker of hope in this season of discontent. There aren't too many "winnable" games on the Browns schedule this season. This is one of them.