Thursday's prime-time matchup between the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals is like a tale of two cities. The Browns are already mired in another dreadful season and have a rash of injuries. The Bengals are off to their best start in franchise history and have been the healthiest team in the league.
Fresh off a fourth-quarter comeback win over the Steelers, Andy Dalton and the Bengals (7-0) will look to avenge last year's dreadful 24-3 loss against the Browns, also in prime time. Dalton was a dismal 10 of 33 for 86 yards and three interceptions, adding fuel to the fire that he can't perform under the bright lights of nationally televised games. But we've seen a different Dalton this season, as the quarterback has 15 touchdowns to go with just four interceptions. And even when he hasn't been at his best, like on Sunday in Pittsburgh, he found a way to win rather than implode like he has in season's past.
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Johnny Manziel knows the Bengals all too well after they spoiled his first NFL start last season in Cleveland. The Browns (2-4) were shut out 30-0 as Manziel looked overmatched, but the quarterback has shown some progress in his second year. With Josh McCown bruised and battered from the punishment he's endured over the last two games, Manziel will make his second start of the season. He won his first in Week 2 against the Titans.
Here are three keys to the game for both the Browns and Bengals.
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1. Attack Bengals' right tackle
The Bengals have one of the best offensive lines in the league and their protection of Dalton has been one of the biggest reasons for their success. However, a new right tackle will be in the lineup this week as Andre Smith is out with a concussion. That leaves veteran Eric Winston or rookie Jake Fisher as the likely replacements. Whoever it is, the Browns need to exploit this vulnerability since going after left tackle Andrew Whitworth is basically a fool's errand.
2. Aggressive up front, conservative in the back
If the Browns fail to get pressure on Dalton, they're going to be in for a long night, thanks to all of the injuries in the secondary. Joe Haden and Donte Whitner will likely miss the game with concussions and Tashaun Gipson has been battling an ankle injury. With rookie fourth-round pick Ibraheim Campbell will be making his first NFL start alongside Gipson, the defensive backline would be wise to employ a bend but don't break philosophy. With all of the weapons at Dalton's disposal, expect more zone coverage to keep the offense in front of them.
3. Win on special teams
The Browns can't matchup wiith the Bengals' talent, so they'll need to shorten the field. Benjamin needs to pop a few long returns to help his team win the field position battle. Manziel can't be expected to engineer long drives throughout the night. A special teams touchdown would be nice too since they may be hard to come by on offense.
1. Shadow Travis Benjamin
When Manziel subbed for McCown earlier in the season, he connected with Benjamin for three long touchdowns. No other receiver has emerged for Cleveland since then, meaning Manziel will continue to look for Benjamin. As long as the secondary keeps Benjamin in front of him, the Bengals should be fine.
2. Collapse on Manziel
Manziel is at his most dangerous when he improvises out of the pocket. The Bengals won't see the deer in headlights they saw last season, but their game plan shouldn't change much. Contain on the edges and pressure from the inside. Having Geno Atkins back will only make Manziel's life more difficult.
3. Get Jeremy Hill going
Hill has yet to show his 2014 form and facing the worst run defense in the league is a great opportunity to right the ship. Hill ran wild for 148 yards and two touchdowns last year in Cleveland. The Bengals should feed Hill for the benefit of this game, and the rest of the season.