Bengals (14-5 in 2022, AFC finalist) at Browns (8-9 in 2022) Sunday, Sept. 10 at Cleveland Browns Stadium (natural grass), 1 p.m. ET, TV: Bengals Preseason Network Ch. 12 CBS-WKRC-TV (Cincinnati) Ian Eagle, Charles Davis, Evan Washburn. Radio: Dan Hoard, Dave Lapham. WEBN-FM (102.7 FM), ESPN1530
CLEVELAND — The Bengals are hoping Joe Burrow celebrates his new contract extension in grand style Sunday in the 100th meeting in the Battle of Ohio, a rivalry the Bengals lead 52-47.
The quarterback, fresh from his $275 million, five-year re-up with the team that drafted him in 2020 plays a team that has given him fits over the years.
Burrow is 0-2 lifetime in Cleveland. He didn’t play in the 2021 season finale as the Bengals had already clinched the AFC North.
The reason the Browns have given him such fits is pretty simple: DE Myles Garrett, CB Denzel Ward and RB Nick Chubb. Burrow is 1-4 vs. Cleveland and in all four losses those three players have played key roles in decimating the Bengals offense and running through the Bengals defense.
The game plan Sunday is to make sure all three don’t kill them again.
But the Browns do have a supporting cast.
There’s also Deshaun Watson and $100 million receiver Amari Cooper who are fully capable of doing big-time damage. The Bengals beat Watson and the Browns last December at Paycor but Donovan Peoples-Jones and tight end David Njoku have also had big games against the Bengals.
The Bengals have made moves to address a lot of what Cleveland has done to them over the years. Cleveland mirrors Kansas City in this way: they both have explosive and consistently disruptive pass rushes that can get to Burrow.
Chris Jones did that last year in the AFC Championship game. Garrett did it to Burrow on Halloween, not only with pass rushing but deflecting a ball up in the air as the Bengals were driving down the field on the game’s opening drive. That pass was intercepted and the Bengals could never get their offense on track in a 32-13 loss.
Here’s what to look for:
How does Joe Burrow look after not taking a competitive snap in camp or preseason? Last year he was coming off appendicitis. This year, he didn’t suffer nearly the trauma or weight loss to his frame with the right calf strain of July 27. By all indications, he’s close to 100 percent and fully participated in practice all week. Now, can he move around in the pocket like he’s done in the past and avoid the pass rush when it comes? Where will his timing be with Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd and new tight end Irv Smith Jr.? Physically, he said he’s feeling as good as he ever has in his career, with the ball “spinning out of his hand” very well.
This is the first game with Orlando Brown Jr. at left tackle. Time to start earning some of that massive contract the Bengals paid out in free agency for him to take over Burrow’s blindside. No better place to start than Myles Garrett. If Garrett moves around, then Jonah Williams could face a test from his new position of right tackle. The middle of the line should be rock solid with Ted Karras in the middle at center and Cordell Volson and Alex Cappa assuming the guard roles.
This is finally the time for Irv Smith Jr. to show off what he flashed in training camp. Good hands and downhill speed after the catch. He figures to be a big, big target in the red zone and Joe Burrow loves to feed his tight ends on third down and in scoring areas.
First test for rookie Brad Robbins comes outdoors in the Lake Erie breeze. Shouldn’t be a problem for him as he was drafted in part because of his terrific work at Michigan in the elements. We’ll start finding out Sunday.
Maybe defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo and defensive back Chido Awuzie do head out before the game to the spot of grass where the Bengals cornerback became entangled with friend Amari Cooper, twisting his knee and tearing his ACL last Halloween. Awuzie spoke this week about putting that to bed and going out and playing at full speed, something he’s fully confident he can do. If Awuzie is close to 100 percent, that means great things for a Bengals secondary that is sporting two new safeties in Dax Hill and Nick Scott.
When healthy, Awuzie is a top five corner in the NFL and was having as great a season in coverage as anyone last year when he went down. Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect Awuzie to come back at that level but no one has worked harder in the offseason than the veteran corner. Put Awuzie back in there with Mike Hilton and Cam Taylor-Britt, along with Hill and Scott, and you have one of the fastest and most athletic secondaries the Bengals have ever fielded.
No Joseph Ossai (right ankle sprain) for the opener means more from Cam Sample and rookie Myles Murphy. Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard get to show off their skills right out of the chute against a Browns offense line that allowed 44 sacks in 2022, the same number as the Bengals.
There’s been plenty of talk in the preseason about the Bengals wanting to get off to a fast start and avoid the 0-2 hole and the 0-3 division start that they had to overcome in the race to a 12-4 record last year. That slow start is what kept them from hosting the AFC Championship instead of traveling to Kansas City. They want to change that this season and it starts with a strong showing against a Browns team that feels some urgency with Kevin Stefanski as a coach considered on the hot seat if things don’t go well this year. Burrow will be focused and out to put all those Cleveland demons in the past. He’ll get rid of the ball quickly to negate some of the Myles Garrett pass rush. The Bengals defense, with the return of Chido Awuzie, will force three turnovers and the Bengals will make a statement out of the gate.
Bengals 27, Browns 17