Don’t underestimate the significance of today’s matchup between the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns on FOX. Yes, it’s Johnny Manziel’s much-anticipated (and equally debated) first NFL start, but the Bengals (8-4-1) also need a win to keep the Steelers and Ravens (both 8-5) at bay for at least another week. For the Browns (7-6), their situation is a little more desperate – they need a win to keep their fading playoff hopes alive.
Cincinnati Bengals at Cleveland Browns
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Cleveland -1.5
Make no mistake, all eyes will be on Manziel, the flamboyant, media lightning rod who replaces an ineffective Brian Hoyer. What Cleveland’s offense will look like with Manziel at the helm is anyone’s guess, but keep in mind that offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan was in Washington when Robert Griffin III was the Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2012.
If anyone knows how to construct an offense around a quarterback with dual-threat abilities it’s Shanahan. It will be up to Manziel to execute the game plan and make the right decisions, particularly when to use his mobility to extend a play in the pocket or to try and gain as much yards with his legs out of it.
On the other side, Cincinnati’s defense no doubt wants to get after Manziel, and not necessarily to sack him. The thought is that any pressure placed on the rookie would either cause him to try to force a throw down field or make him so uncomfortable that he starts bailing early, essentially turning the Browns into a run-only offense.
The potential downside to this strategy, however, is twofold. One, the Bengals’ defense is dead last in the league in sacks with 15. The second part is that Manziel, similar to Griffin, had a reputation for making something out of nothing in college and certainly possesses the ability (i.e., athleticism and instinct) to make plays with his legs. And any success he has in doing so early will only increase his confidence as the game progresses.
And speaking of confidence, Cleveland did beat Cincinnati 24-3 on the road back in Week 10. The Browns outgained the Bengals 368 to 165 in that game and also intercepted Andy Dalton three times. Three different running backs scored a touchdown for Cleveland and whether it’s Manziel or Isaiah Crowell or Terrance West, the Browns need to try and replicate that success today on the ground against a defense that gave up 193 yards rushing to the Steelers last week.
Cincinnati may want to take a page out of Cleveland’s playbook for this matchup, as the Bengals have decided to turn to rookie Jeremy Hill as their primary running back. Hill, a second-round pick from LSU, who had been pushed into starting duty earlier because of injuries suffered by Giovani Bernard, does have two 150-yard games to his credit and is averaging 4.8 yards per carry.
Hill’s production is needed, as it would free up Bernard to be a threat in the passing game, especially since All-Pro wide receiver A.J. Green is facing a tough matchup against Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden. Haden limited Green to just three catches (on 10 targets) for 23 yards in their first meeting.
All of the buzz surrounding this game may be centered on Manziel, but I just don’t think Johnny Football is quite ready for the NFL stage. Cincinnati’s defense bounces back from last week’s second-half collapse against Pittsburgh by introducing the rookie to the big leagues. A balanced offensive attack led by Dalton and Hill does the rest, as the Bengals maintain their AFC North lead by putting an end to Cleveland’s own postseason dreams.