This week’s Thursday Night football game is the most paramount game that the Cleveland Browns have participated in since 2007. The Browns (5-3) will play in Cincinnati against the Bengals (5-2-1) in primetime for 1st place in the wild AFC North. The AFC North is the best division in football with all four teams above .500. The Browns have lost their last 17 road games in the AFC North, however first year head coach Mike Pettine has been successful and persistent in his efforts to overcome trends created by the losing culture that he inherited. A win tonight would go a long way in legitimizing his vision and affirming the Browns as a contender.
The Browns run game has been abysmal since the loss of pro bowl center Alex Mack. His replacement Nick McDonald has been scored by Pro Football Focus as the second worst player at his position in the NFL. He will be going up against the Bengals Geno Atkins tonight which is undoubtedly a vital matchup. The Browns have to get back to being able to run the football if they are going to win tonight. It is an area where the Bengals have been bad themselves ranking 30th in the league. The Bengal defense as a whole has been sporadic ever since they were exposed in a game against the New England Patriots. Teams have been using the Patriots offensive template to be successful against them ever since. This is a chance for the Browns to do the same and get back to being able to run the football. The Browns have been seeing 8 players in the box for weeks now and don’t expect anything different tonight.
The Bengals will be trying to follow the same game plan with RB Jeremy Hill. The Browns have also been terrible in stopping the run game and the Bengals come in feeling as though they are strong up front. A.J. Green and Joe Haden will be matched up in man to man all night which will be a treat as usual. Green played on just 39 out of 67 snaps after missing the prior three games to injury, but said he will be ready to go on Thursday Night. Mohamed Sanu emerged as a weapon for Andy Dalton when Green was out. Sanu will be matched up with Buster Skrine or (R) Justin Gilbert, both of which have struggled mightily for periods throughout the season so far. The Browns defense has been good in spots this season. They are very aggressive though and rely on man to man matchups in the secondary to create pressure which will make the performance that the Browns secondary puts out highly influential.
Look for the Browns to follow their standard game plan on offense; run the ball to set up the play action. A good sign for the good guys though is that is very much what New England used for great success against the Bengals defense. The Browns defense has been excellent in taking the ball away and they will need to again tonight to get what could be an epic win for this Browns organization as a whole. Despite giving up chunks of yardage in the run game and being vulnerable opposite Joe Haden at corner, HC Pettine and DC Jim O’neil’s defense has come up with big plays and not allowed the opponent to hit for the big ones. They have been opportunistic in getting off the field on third downs.
It is obvious that the performance put forth by both Andy Dalton and Brian Hoyer will be important but it’s the defense that can force the opposing quarterback into mistakes that will prevail. Neither quarterback is known for self-inflicting mistakes so expect both sides to try to apply pressure using exotic blitzes in obvious passing situations. Brian Hoyer has to be better than he has been in the past few weeks in order for the Browns to win. He has to be accurate from the start as the Browns cannot afford a slow start on the road.
By: Brad Ward