Paul Brown Stadium will host back-to-back prime time games, starting with this Thursday when the Cincinnati Bengals (7-0) welcome in-state rival Cleveland (2-6) to the Queen City.
Here are three predictions for the first round of the “Battle of Ohio.”
1.) Hill breaks 100-yard mark
If there has been one negative mark on the Bengals’ first 7-0 start in franchise history, it’s the slow start of running back Jeremy Hill.
After bursting onto-the-scene in his rookie campaign with 1,124 yards and nine touchdowns, Hill has not been able to carry that momentum into 2015.
Despite five rushing touchdowns, Hill has rushed for only 292 yards in seven contests, good enough for an average of just 41.7 yards-per-game. In a week one win over the Oakland Raiders, the LSU-product ran for 63 yards, which has stood through the first eight weeks of the season as his highest output.
When the Browns come to town on Thursday, however, Hill has a fantastic opportunity to turn around his early-season struggles.
Cleveland comes into this matchup ranked dead-last in the NFL against the run, allowing an average of 147 yards-per-game on the ground.
Just look at how opposing running backs have fared against the Browns this season:
Week 1: Chris Ivory, NYJ: 20 carries, 91 yards, 2 TD
Week 2: Dexter McCluster, TEN: ten carries, 98 yards
Week 3: Latavius Murray, OAK: 26 carries, 139 yards, TD
Week 4: Danny Woodhead, SD: eight carries, 54 yards
Week 5: Justin Forsett, BAL: 21 carries, 121 yards, TD
Week 6: Ronnie Hillman, DEN: 20 carries, 111 yards
Week 7: Todd Gurley, STL: 19 carries, 128 yards, 2 TD
Week 8: Chris Johnson, ARI: 30 carries, 109 yards
As you can see, opposing running backs have had a field day when Cleveland appears on their collective schedules.
In four straight games (and five of the last six), the Browns have allowed a 100-yard rusher. In seven of eight contests this season, a running back has tallied 90 or more yards, with Ivory and McCluster finishing just seven and two yards away, respectively, of hitting triple digits.
Next in line is Hill and he hopes to continue his success from 2014 against the Browns.
Last season, Hill ran for 148 yards and two scores on 25 attempts in Cincinnati’s 30-0 win in Cleveland in week 15. In two contests combined against the Browns, Hill rushed for 203 yards on 37 carries—an average of 5.5 yards-per-attempt.
In Hill’s tenure in the league, the Bengals are 9-0-1 in the regular season when he scores a touchdown (8-0-1 rushing, 1-0 receiving). He has not eclipsed 100 yards since week 17 of 2014.
2.) Dalton posts passer rating of 100+
Bengals’ quarterback Andy Dalton has been the most heavily scrutinized member of the Bengals since his arrival in 2011; arguably more than head Coach Marvin Lewis.
From going 0-4 in the playoffs and 3-7 in prime time games during the regular season, Dalton has been under fire (not a hair pun) for his inability to shine in the game’s biggest stages—despite owning a 47-23-1 career record, a winning percentage of 77.
In 2015, Dalton is playing the best football of his five-year career, leading the Bengals to their best start in franchise history and earning early consideration as an MVP candidate.
If any team has been Dalton’s statistical Achilles heel, it has been Cleveland. Despite a 5-3 record against the Browns, he has had notable struggles when the two teams square off.
Since throwing for 381 yards (stood as a career-high until week three of this season) in a losing effort against the Browns in 2012, Dalton has not performed well in the past four meetings.
@ CLE: L 17-6-23/42, 206 yards, INT
- CLE- W 41-20: 13/27, 93 yards, 3 TD 2 INT
- CLE- L 24-3: 10/33, 86 yards, 3 INT
@ CLE- W 30-0: 14/24, 117 yards, INT
Despite being 2-2 in those four games, Dalton has been held without a touchdown in three of them and under 100 yards passing in two. In his career, he has averaged just 194-yards-per-game against the Browns, with an equal amount of touchdowns and interceptions (11:11).
Much like Hill, Dalton’s poor performances could turn around on Thursday night.
Cleveland comes in ranked 24th against the pass, and opposing quarterbacks are averaging nearly 300 yards passing against them in the last six games (284.8). This coming after the Browns were ranked 8th overall against the pass last season.
To make matters worse for Cleveland, injuries have impacted their secondary in a big way. Cornerback Joe Haden and safety Donte Whitner are both out for Thursday’s game against Cincinnati due to concussions.
Fellow safety Tashaun Gipson and linebacker Craig Robertson are both listed as questionable.
Robertson recorded an interception in each game against the Bengals last season.
The Browns’ banged-up defense as well as Cincinnati being loaded with a full complement of weapons is why the second prediction from Thursday’s matchup is that the Red Rifle will post a passer rating of over 100—something he has not done against Cleveland since week two of the 2012 season.
It was nearly one calendar year ago when Dalton threw three interceptions on 10 of 33 passing and just 86 yards in a Thursday Night loss to the Browns—a career-low 2.0 passer rating.
Tight end Tyler Eifert, wide receiver Marvin Jones, and running back Giovani Bernard did not play in that loss.
Those three have combined for 46.6 percent (1,305 of 2,803) of the Bengals’ yards-from-scrimmage this season.
3.) Defense allows 10 points or less
In case you haven’t heard by now, the Browns will start second-year quarterback and former Heisman Trophy-winner Johnny Manziel against Cincinnati.
Manziel, 22, has started just three games since being taken 22nd overall by the Browns in the 2014 NFL Draft. His first career start game against the Bengals last season, and it is one he hopes to not duplicate on prime time this week.
In that game, Manziel threw for just 80 yards on 10 of 18 passing, resulting in a 30-0 loss and a QBR of 1.1, the lowest in the NFL last season.
After losing the quarterback battle to Josh McCown in the pre-season, the Texas A&M-product has seen action in four games this season, all came when McCown was sidelined due to injury.
McCown’s first year of a three-season deal with the Browns has been one full of injuries. After suffering a concussion in week one against the New York Jets, McCown has since dealt with shoulder and rib injuries, causing him to miss this week’s game against the undefeated Bengals.
Manziel earned his first professional win in place of McCown in week two, throwing a pair of touchdowns in a 28-14 victory over the Tennessee Titans.
With a young quarterback starting on-the-road against an undefeated divisional opponent, a strong running attack would be imperative to take the pressure off.
However, that’s exactly the opposite of what the Browns have had this season.
Cleveland ranks 29th in the NFL at running the football this season; 12 spots less than their spot in the same category at the conclusion of 2014.
Isaiah Crowell is the team’s leading rusher with 295 yards, but he, along with rookie Duke Johnson Jr. each have only averaged 3.2 yards-per-carry (tied-46th in the NFL) this season and have just one rushing touchdown between them.
In fact, Cleveland only has two rushing touchdowns this season (Crowell and McCown), which is tied the for second-lowest total in the NFL with the San Diego Chargers and Detroit Lions.
Manziel will have to use his two biggest weapons, wide receiver Travis Benjamin and tight-end Gary Barnidge, if he wants to have success against Cincinnati.
Benjamin has been on the receiving end of all three of Manziel’s touchdowns this season, each of those three have been from 50+ yards (54, 60, and 50).
If you remove Benjamin’s two receiving touchdowns against Tennessee, Manziel only completed six of 13 passes for 62 yards.
Barnidge has put up numbers better than any tight end in the NFL not named Rob Gronkowski, with 40 receptions for 567 yards and a team-high six touchdowns.
This prediction has the Bengals’ defense holding the Browns to 10 points or less, and here’s why.
After recording a league-low 20 sacks last season, Cincinnati has already matched that number in seven games.
Former-Cincinnati draft selections Michael Johnson and Pat Sims came back via free agency, Geno Atkins has returned to elite status, and Carlos Dunlap continues to be the anchor of the defensive line.
The Bengals chased around Manziel for all four quarters and flashed his signature, and now retired, “money-sign” in last year’s 30-0 victory—Thursday they will look to do the same, minus the money sign.
The Bengals’ secondary has the depth to stick with Cleveland, and they showed how talented they are when they intercepted Ben Roethlisberger three times in last week’s 16-10 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The key to the Bengals forcing turnovers and punts from the Browns’ offense comes down to three things.
First, stopping the run—
On paper, Cincinnati is the 14th ranked rush defense in the NFL, but that number seems high when you look a little closer.
Opponents have only attempted 154 runs this season against the Bengals, second fewest in the NFL behind the Jets. On those 154 attempts, Cincinnati has allowed five yards-per-carry, tied with San Diego for the worst mark in the NFL.
If the Bengals can force Manziel to throw more times than handing the ball off, it could spell a long night for the Cleveland offense.
Second, limit short throws—
Any offensive coordinator will tell you that, with an inexperienced quarterback, you want to establish a rhythm—you do that by hitting quick passes.
To defend this, Cincinnati will need to lock down the Browns’ receivers by playing tight, bump-and-run coverage, which will force Manziel to make accurate passes downfield, something he failed to do the last time these two teams met.
Lastly, keep Manziel in-the-pocket—
Since his days with the Aggies at College Station, Manziel has been able to extend plays with his feet by getting outside the pocket and finding receivers down-the-field or moving the chains with his legs.
Cincinnati needs to keep Manziel in the pocket, and avoid him from extending plays with his legs. In his first start against the Bengals, both interceptions came after leaving the pocket as Dre Kirkpatrick and Adam Jones each took advantage of poorly-thrown passes.
How accurate will these predictions be? Tune into NFL Network on Thursday Night as the undefeated Bengals look to add to their franchise-best start to a season when Cleveland comes to town.
Kickoff is scheduled for 8:30 pm (ET).
Cincinnati leads the all-time series, 44-39.
In the Lewis’ era, the Bengals are 9-3 against the Browns at home.
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