Both young teams are coming off a week one loss to try and bounce back on the short week in prime time.
For the Bengals, it was a crushing 13-16 loss to the Chargers with a missed FG in the dying seconds costing them the opportunity to level the scores. They also had a key touchdown called back for a somewhat questionable OPI. For the Browns, an embarrassing 32-point demolition at the hands of the best team in the division, and perhaps the entire league.
Cincinnati will come in to the game with all the momentum. Their young team performed admirably against a more talented and experienced LA Chargers outfit, almost coming away with the upset. The Bengals allowed 362 yards total, without recording a turnover and only recording two sacks, but they kept the Chargers in check when it mattered most and kept the score low.
Their first overall quarterback Joe Burrow looked good on debut. He was efficient with the ball and played with confidence and a firm grip of the offense, although their play calling was undoubtedly custom to try and protect the young man from himself. It wasn't a perfect debut, but there were a lot of reasons for optimism in Cincinnati.
Burrow finished 23/36 for 193 yards and 1 interception with 8 carries for 46 yards and 1 TD. The numbers don't quite reflect how well he did play in spots on a team clearly rebuilding from the worst record in football last year.
For the Browns, such a promising season was quickly overcast with doubt as everything went wrong. In all three phases of the game, the Browns failed to impress as the reigning division champs had the game sealed before half time.
For both teams this is a big opportunity. For the Bengals to show they can quickly build upon last week and are well positioned for a bright future. For the Browns, well, I don't really know. At this stage it feels like *one of the most talented rosters in football* is just trying to keep their heads above water and prove they're not actually a bunch of busts.
Keys to the game:
For the Bengals, shutting down the Browns rushing attack is key. The Ravens didn't shut down the Browns with Kareem Hunt rushing 13 times for 72 yards and Nick Chubb rushing 10 times for 60 yards. That's a great day but both backs weren't allowed to take over the game - they were held to two yards or less on almost one third of carries (8) and in almost every instance this led to Stefanski pushing to pass on second down or an uncomfortably long third down passing attempt. This forcing of the ball in to Baker Mayfield's hand was a big part of the Browns failures on offense.
On offense, they need to avoid negative plays. As it stands, it feels like the Browns offense will struggle to generate points and put themselves in difficult positions with negative plays. Baltimore consistently benefit from mistakes and failures which prevented Cleveland from ever posing a threat offensively en route to just six points scored and four points missed - which doesn't mean much when you lose by 32.. The Bengals need not pressure Joe Burrow to do too much, but instead move the ball efficiently. The Browns haven't proven they can win, but they have proven other teams can beat themselves.
For the Browns. where to begin? It has to start with Mayfield. He needs to clean up the mistakes, take opportunities as they come to him, stop forcing passes where they don't belong, stop bailing on clean pockets, stop holding on to the ball for an eternity, find some accuracy and, in general, look like an NFL quarterback. It's a long list on a short week but winning without decent quarterback play is almost an impossibility in the NFL.
Limiting mistakes is the first step.
Mayfield stared down his receiver so heavily on 3rd down on the opening drive it allowed a 6'8", 34-year-old DE read the quarterback and tip the coverage for an interception. This gifted the Ravens territory to drive for an opening touchdown. The following drive stalled immediately and Stefanski panicked, leading to a fumble on a punt fake which Baltimore turned in to a FG.
That's spotting maybe the best team in the NFL a 10-0 lead in the first quarter by stacking mistakes, and it cannot happen.
Taking advantage of opportunities is the next step.
The Browns quietly got themselves back in to the game. The third drive was successful and the Browns powered their way down the field for a nice TD on blown coverage by the Ravens. Baltimore's following drive resulted in a fumble on a great play by Larry Ogunjobi. The Browns followed this up with a promising drive and a golden opportunity to take a 14-10 lead and build momentum. This quickly resulted in punting on 4th and 41. An opportunity left on the field, Baltimore quickly extended their lead and any chance at getting back in to the game was over.
On defense, overcoming injuries is the magic ticket. Each player filling in for an injury was a main culprit for the loss. Sendejo turned in a performance so bad that I kinda missed Randall as he gave up consistent plays, Tav Thomas got burned for a touchdown and dropped an interception. B.J Goodson just didn't do anything out there. This is a next man up league, and our next men up can't get burned so badly.
On a side note, Stefanski needs to do a lot better. Do we remember him bragging about running or passing from every set? He proceeded to run empty backfield shotgun on 18% of Mayfield's passing attempts. His play calling was uninspired and nothing was drawn up to help Mayfield. No clever wrinkles which opened an intended receiver, no moving pocket to help Mayfield and very little creativity to help get Mayfield back in the groove. Not even the vanilla package of mesh, rubs and well-executed screens. For all the mockery of his predecessor, Kitchens never got blown out that badly, and Stefanski has far more talent to work with.
Cincinnati are vulnerable. They didn't do a good job of protecting Mayfield and our DL is very good, consistently pressuring Lamar Jackson, although he was utterly incredible in the face of that pressure. We should be able to get after Burrow on a four man rush with consistency if we can shut down the shallow offense and force him to hold the ball.
The run game looked decent but there were too many nothing plays and it's all for nothing if Stefanski can't get through to Mayfield.
Prediction: I'm going to say the Browns bounce back in a 26-10 thumping of the Bengals.
One thing I didn't emphasize enough this week is holy crap are Baltimore a great team. It was poetry, and even when they Browns did good they still made plays and just couldn't be stopped. The loss wasn't entirely Cleveland being awful, but Baltimore just being so unbelievably good. I think I counted just two plays in which Lamar Jackson didn't do well - a sack and a dropped interception. That was it. Meanwhile, the Bengals are just starting out and a clear vision of attacking them is already opening up. They can't block for their quarterback, he hasn't impressed downfield and he can get rattled by pressure.
At this stage, it's already a must-win game for the Browns. Another collapse will result in this thing getting ugly. Especially for Mayfield.