1) Another big opportunity for Manziel
The circumstances surrounding Johnny Manziel's upcoming start against the Bengals couldn't be more different than the first time he faced the Browns' in-state rival. The opportunity, though, is just as big.
The Browns were similarly banged up and coming off consecutive losses when Cleveland hosted Cincinnati last December, but Manziel stepped in as an unprepared rookie. He struggled with just about everything in a loss that saw the Browns dominated from the game's first snap. He entered the game with a 7-0 deficit and finished 10-of-18 for 80 yards and two interceptions. The Browns ran five plays in Cincinnati territory.
Manziel's next start wasn't much better and his season ended with a hamstring injury.
Now, Manziel enters with some confidence knowing he's capable of leading his team to a victory. He did just that Week 2 against the Titans and has waited patiently to return to the starting role. His presence in the pocket has improved greatly and so, too, has his handle of the offense. The task at hand, though, is far more difficult, as the Bengals defense, particularly its front seven, has served as the team's backbone en route to a 7-0 start.
There's no telling what Manziel's future holds beyond Thursday's start. No matter what, he'll take a big step forward in his development if he produces against a team of this caliber.
2) Who's in the defensive backfield?
The Browns are poised to play without two starters in their defensive backfield for the third time in the last four weeks. This time, it's safety Donte Whitner and cornerback Joe Haden who are sidelined with concussions, thrusting rookie safety Ibraheim Campbell and the combination of Pierre Desir and Johnson Bademosi into the primetime spotlight.
Though Andy Dalton wasn't his best in either of his starts against the Browns last season, Cleveland can't bank on that kind of outing Thursday. Dalton has been one of the league's most efficient signal-callers (153-231, 1,992 yards, 15 TDs, 4 INTs) and is connecting with star wide receiver A.J. Green at his best clip yet. The Bengals also are utilizing tight end Tyler Eifert on a level similar to what the Browns do with Gary Barnidge.
"You really have to respect the possibility of them being able to make a play any down that you are out there," Campbell said. "I think the multitude of threats that they have and the fact that (Dalton) spreads the ball around well is something that you have to stay aware of."
3) Pressuring the passer
A major key to Dalton's success has been Cincinnati's offensive line, which has been one of the stoutest in the NFL. The Bengals quarterback has been sacked just nine times, and he's used the extra time to pick apart opposing defenses in every single one of the Bengals' wins.
The Browns defense, meanwhile, is coming off a game in which it was burned on downs when Arizona's Carson Palmer had significant time in the pocket. With a depleted secondary squaring off against the Bengals talented wide receivers and tight end, this facet of the game couldn't be more critical.
In last year's rout at Cincinnati, the Browns defense registered just two sacks, but it clearly rattled Dalton from start to finish.
4) Sticking to the run
The Browns are coming off their second game this season in which they rushed for just 39 yards. It was a product of numerous rushes for negative yards and a pass-heavy focus throughout the second half.
The Browns have been one of the NFL's best on third downs, and that's included a number of third-and-long conversions. The way Pettine sees it, that's a problem rooted in the Browns' inability to consistently run the ball on first and second down. He wants that to change starting Thursday.
"That is the challenge to the guys up front, that is the challenge to the backs, that is a challenge to the tight ends and everybody involved in the run game," Pettine said. "We cannot be one dimensional. If we are more of a pass team than a run team so be it, but to me, you can't live at an extreme end of either spectrum."
The Bengals rank in the top half of the NFL in rush defense, but there's one stat that stands out when you dig a little deeper. Cincinnati is tied for last in the league in yards per attempt (5). The reason why it hasn't made much of a difference? The Bengals have been in the lead so much that only the Jets (152) have had fewer running plays attempted against them.
5) Defending the run
Lost amid all the Manziel-related storylines from the last meeting of these teams was Cincinnati's dominance on the ground. The Bengals set the tone early with the combination of Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard and finished with 244 yards on the ground.
The Browns run defense struggles have been well-documented, but the team took a small step forward against Arizona. The Cardinals forced the issue and ultimately finished with 119 rushing yards, but it took them 38 attempts to do it. The longest rush allowed went for 13 yards.
Though Hill led the way in last year's matchup, it's been Bernard who has picked up the most yards this season, averaging 5.6 yards per attempt. Hill is the goal line weapon but has struggled a bit with an average of 3.3 yards per carry.