The Cincinnati defense has held its own through a winless first three weeks of the season.
That group will have reason to believe it will be even better Sunday against the Browns, who are similarly gunning for their first victory of the season. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who served a three-game suspension for an illegal hit he delivered during the preseason, will make his 2017 debut when the Browns and Bengals meet Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium.
"He is their spark. He is their energy. He is definitely one of their key guys on that side," Browns quarterback DeShone Kizer said. "Every week, it is our job to stop their key players. He is definitely a guy to be eyeing."
The 6-foot-1, 255-pound middle linebacker brings plenty of swagger and toughness to a Cincinnati defense that has largely bottled up the Browns in the teams' last five meetings, all of which were won by the Bengals. The veteran-laden group enters Sunday's game ranked 10th in scoring defense (20 points per game) and seventh in total defense (292.7 yards per game).
"He is a good player, he is tough, he loves football. He is kind of the straw that stirs the drink for their defense," Browns coach Hue Jackson said. "They have a good defense and he will just make it better. He is a really good player, really fine player."
Jackson grew close to Burfict during their time together in Cincinnati. Undrafted out of Arizona State, Burfict entered the NFL with off-field question marks but promptly shined on the field as a starter in the middle of Cincinnati's defense. After appearing in all 16 games in each of his first two seasons, though, Burfict has been limited to 11 or fewer in each of the past three because of various injuries.
Jackson expects Burfict to be well-rested and raring to go.
"He is the type of football player you want," Jackson said. "He plays the game with everything he has and every now and then he right on the line. Obviously, in the National Football League you get in trouble for going across the line, but he plays it like you want it played. He is a good player."
Kizer, of course, doesn't have any on-field experience against Burfict and the rest of the Bengals, but he's relying on film from previous seasons. The Bengals have been stable and consistent on that side of the ball, and Kizer hopes that familiarity will help as he prepares to lead the Browns to what he hopes is their first win of the season.
"The grit and the toughness that comes in this division makes when we play other divisions, it just gives us a different mentality," Kizer said. "That toughness that you have is what football is all about. When you are playing against three of the better defenses in the country twice a year, you are going to create a mindset that allows you to go elsewhere and dominate teams. Our ability right now to play against these guys and get these experiences are going to be things that motivate us and drive us to once again leave our division, leave our conference and go out and have success."