It is often said in the NFL that you are never as good as you look and you are never as bad as you look in Week 1. Entering the Battle of Ohio, both the Cleveland Browns and the Cincinnati Bengals are banking on the latter being true. On Sunday, the Browns will take the familiar drive down I-71 South to Paul Brown Stadium to take on the Bengals in the first of two meetings this season. Both teams are desperately looking to bounce back after a rough opening week of the season.
The Browns want to avenge a heartbreaking 17-16 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles after a dominant defensive effort fell short in the waning moments, while the Bengals want to prove they're still the playoff contenders they were thought to be until getting throttled 44-13 on Monday Night Football by the Baltimore Ravens. Add the backdrop of not wanting to begin the season 0-2 to the pre-existing rivalry between the two teams and you have a recipe for a sizzling September showdown in the AFC North.
Matchups to Watch
Trent Richardson vs. Rey Maualuga - In case the blood between these two teams wasn't simmering enough, Bengals linebacker Rey Maualuga got the juices flowing earlier this week with a comment to the media that Trent Richardson was 'nothing spectacular' in his rookie debut against the Eagles. While that may have, in fact, been the case given Richardson's pedestrian Week 1 stat line, it was hardly what the first-year back out of Alabama wanted to hear. Or perhaps, it is exactly what he wanted to hear. That's where the intrigue factors into this matchup. When told of the remarks made by Maualuga, Richardson, who normally allows comments from notable doubters to roll off his back, surprised with his response. According to Mary Kay Cabot of the Plain Dealer, Richardson said, "I let my game speak for itself, so if they want to see how mad I am, or how upset they got me about the comment, you'll see Sunday."
I don't know about Rey Maualuga, but I'm sure excited to see how upset Trent is over his comments. It would help Richardson, however, if the Browns offensive line run block much better than it did last week. In addition to struggling to find running lanes against the Eagles, it was evident that Richardson wasn't completely healthy or fully confident in his surgically repaired knee to make the sharp cuts and turn on the burst he had in college. All indications are that Trent has responded well to his first game action and has yet to experience any setbacks on the road back from his August 9th procedure. The Browns have to hope he was able to shake off any rust from having no preseason, along with getting a feel for the speed of the NFL. If so, he should be able to make an impact in the Browns running attack on Sunday. Like Maualuga, we'll find out on Sunday just how 'spectacular' Richardson looks in Week 2.
Bengals Defense vs. Brandon Weeden - No one has to tell Brandon Weeden how badly he played against the Eagles. But they're trying. After posting the lowest quarterback rating ever for a rookie in his regular season debut, it's safe to assume Weeden is chomping at the bit to get back out on the field and prove his 5.1 rating was the exception, not the rule. Until he shows otherwise, however, the chiding from fans and media around the country will not relent. Unfortunately, neither will the Bengals defense, which will be licking their chops to get a shot at Weeden after allowing Ravens' QB Joe Flacco to have a breakout performance in front of a national TV audience.
Led by a ferocious front including tackles Domata Peko and Geno Atkins, the Bengals defensive line is strong, big, and has the ability to make life miserable for the Browns offense. Atkins, especially, can be a nightmare to stop for opposing interior linemen. He makes a living terrorizing the offensive backfield by disrupting the pocket and shutting down the inside run game. It will be crucial for Browns guard Shawn Lauvao to hold his own against Atkins and protect Weeden, while also creating space for Trent Richardson to run.
If there's one thing Weeden needs to improve on from Week 1, it's his ability to move around in the pocket so that he can follow through on his throws and improve his accuracy. The tandem of Peko and Atkins, along with Bengals pass rushers Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson, will challenge the Browns offensive line all day. There are plays to be made against a porous Bengals secondary, but Weeden needs time to throw the football without impediment.
Browns Secondary vs. Andy Dalton/A.J. Green - The Browns received a major blow this week when it was finally announced that star cornerback Joe Haden will serve a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy. The timing couldn't be any worse as the Browns look to try to limit the big play ability of Bengals' quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green. Normally, Haden would shadow Green all game and force Dalton to look elsewhere in the passing game. This week, Haden will be replaced by the solid veteran Dimitri Patterson for most of the game. When the Bengals line up a slot receiver inside, however, Patterson will move to the nickel back position and speedy second-year corner Buster Skrine will cover the boundary. Both Patterson and Skrine played admirably last week when Sheldon Brown went down in the first quarter with a stinger, but the Eagles don't have anyone that poses the receiving threat of an A.J. Green.
For the Browns to neutralize Green, they will have to move a safety over and double-team him, allowing a one-on-one matchup on the other side of the field. The likely beneficiary of this arrangement will either be Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham or the quick and shifty receiver out of the University of Toledo, Andrew Hawkins. As the Ravens worked to limit Green last week, Dalton targeted Hawkins 9 times. Hawkins finished with 8 catches for 86 yards and possesses the ability to gash the defense with his speed out in space. The Browns secondary will have their hands full covering the Bengals receiving threats, especially without the services of Haden. It's incumbent upon the Browns defensive line to get pressure on Dalton before he can get the ball out and make big plays downfield. If their play last week against a better offensive line is any indication, the Browns defense has a good chance to force Dalton into making costly mistakes that could be the difference in the game.
What To Expect: History says to expect the unexpected when these two teams line up against one another. Both teams are relatively young at the skill positions, with the slight edge going to the Bengals. Both teams are hungry for their first win and want to prove to their fans and to the NFL that their Week 1 performances were not indicative of what's to come for the rest of the 2012 campaign. The Bengals will undoubtedly be fired up for their home opener so the Browns will have to start fast and not give the home crowd a reason to rock the house. Fortunately for the Browns, their fans travel well. As for the Bengals fans, well, not so much.
Everyone wearing Orange and Brown, from the coaches to the players, has something to prove this week. Only a win will douse the flames upon which Weeden and head coach Pat Shurmur find themselves so early in the season. It will be interesting to see what tweaks the Browns' staff will make to the offense in order to capitalize on what Weeden does well. Having a healthy, seasoned (and angry) Trent Richardson can't hurt. If the defense can make up for the lack of Haden, as they did with notable veteran absences last week, the Browns have a chance to put themselves ahead in the division. For a team who many have left for dead one week into the season, nothing can resurrect hope like a win on the road against a bitter division rival.