Week Four Preview: Cincinnati at Cleveland

Cleveland Brown Stadium may as well be perched along the river Styx these days with Charon himself there to escort Browns fans into the NFL netherworld. Nothing is currently working for the organization the color of mud and, like the recession, experts are forecasting that the situation will worsen before there’s any hope of turning things around.

Cincinnati knows the feeling; it too was out to sea without a sail for countless agonizing seasons. As early as last year, Bengal fans openly questioned how the team would repair itself after a four-win 2008 campaign. But Marvin Lewis had enough useful existing parts to pull off a quick-fix with key draft picks and free-agents; Cleveland, on the other hand, has a scarcity of salvageable parts and a complete team-demolition seems like their only sensible alternative for their long-term future.

In fairness, a losing season in Cleveland was expected by most prognosticators of the game. They disappointed their fans with a letdown season a year ago, and brought in Eric Mangini to turn things around. That sort of task doesn’t happen overnight and the situation was clearly going to be a work in progress, but the lack of response from Mangini’s team, coupled with some curious ways of handling the quarterback controversy, and compounded by a locker room scuffle last week, has warmed Mangini’s seat to an uncomfortable temperature after only three games.

Meanwhile, in the Southern tip of Ohio, the Bengals feel like a million bucks after slaying the Steeler dragon and defending their home turf. People in Cincinnati are still randomly chest-bumping and exclaiming “Who-Dey” as they walk past each other on the streets; crime is down!

Yet, being the consummate professionals they are, the Bengals’ players and coaches have put on their somber faces and have listed off all the reasons why the Cleveland Browns are still talented and dangerous. It’s the polite thing to do within the league.

But who couldn’t like their chances against the worst team in football? The Browns have done so little offensively that it’s difficult to discern any actual game plan they have prepared. Against the Ravens, they ran lots of screens to Jerome Harrison and tried to throw to Braylon Edwards anytime they could. Brady Quinn looked completely ineffective but Derek Anderson looked Barnum & Bailey hilarious.

The defensive priority, with or without known Bengal-killer Jamal Lewis, is to not let Edwards make the big play. Lewis has slowed since peaking with the Ravens many years ago, and despite his big games against Cincinnati, he no longer frightens me at all. Edwards has physical talents and can make the amazing catches at times, but he remains high on the list as a player who has yet to maximize his potential. Leon Hall has had some rough days going up against Edwards in the past, but Hall is playing well these days and Edwards isn’t. I expect Zimmer to call the blitz on passing downs to further rattle whichever Browns QB Mangini decides to throw to the wolves, which should also hamper Edwards from busting loose.

The Browns defense is pretty dismal as well. Last week, they played soft zone and Joe Flacco methodically ran short passing plays out of the shotgun formation all day on them. Every play the Ravens ran appeared good for at least five yards and Baltimore had no problems dominating them on the ground and in the air. I’d expect that Cleveland will play deep zones against us too and try to limit the explosiveness that the Bengals would prefer not to use anyway.

Look for the Bengals to try to run on the Browns until everyone is tired of watching Palmer hand it off every time. Instead of reliving the shootouts that strangely manifest when these two Ohio teams meet, I would think Marvin would want to use his new-found muscle to grab Cleveland in a headlock and keep them there until it’s all over. With an improved running game and a skyrocketing defense, the best way of handling a weaker opponent is to pulverize them into submission.

Bengals 23, Browns 10

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