1. A.J Green’s presence, or lack thereof
A.J. Green might not return for Sunday’s game, after all. The Bengals star receiver didn’t practice this week despite targeting Sunday’s game for his return. It changes everything for the Bengals offense.
The Bengals are 0-2 without Green in the lineup this season and average 190.5 passing yards per game in those losses, down from 251.5 in the eight games Green played.
Linebacker Joe Schobert said Green’s presence makes quarterback Andy Dalton feel more comfortable, which means he passes better and the Bengals run better. Green is the linchpin to the Bengals’ offense, so without him, the plan (and perhaps the Bengals’ offensive ceiling) changes.
2. The impact of familiarity
Both teams know the other’s scheme, regardless of whether a former coach for one is on the sidelines for the other.
The Browns have spent this week downplaying Hue Jackson’s impact on this matchup. The latest was Myles Garrett, who said Friday, “I’m not playing against Hue Jackson. I’m playing against the Bengals on the field.”
Even if you’re familiar with an opposing player — like Baker Mayfield is with Bengals running back and former Oklahoma teammate Joe Mixon — it doesn’t matter. Mayfield can’t give a scouting report on Mixon better than any of the defensive players can.
The Browns maintained no one is fooled by tactics in divisional games; these teams know each other’s schemes, personnel and tendencies. The winner will be decided by who makes fewer mistakes and who employs their plan more effectively.
“It is one of those things where you know what they are going to do, but can you stop it.,” defensive back T.J. Carrie said. “You might have a competitive edge here or there or with a matchup or two, but it is really about executing, doing what we do best and not really focusing on them but focusing on ourselves to make sure we are sound offensively, defensively and (on) special teams.”
3. Run the ball, but with the right player
The Freddie Kitchens-led Browns offense has emphasized running the ball. The Bengals are coming off a loss to the Lamar Jackson-led Ravens in which Jackson ran for 119 yards against the Bengals defense.
Did the Ravens expose a weakness in the Bengals defense? Should the Browns try a few more quarterback runs this week?
“If you are asking me to run the ball like Lamar Jackson, that is not happening,” Mayfield said. “We always try to run the ball, but not with me. I am not the athlete that he is. I would love to do that, but that is God given talent that I do not have.”
The Bengals’ run defense ranks last in the NFL. Nick Chubb and Duke Johnson should be more than enough for the Browns on the ground.
4. Stop the run yourself
The Browns may have the better run defense Sunday, but they still ran 28th in the league in rushing yards allowed. And Mixon is talented enough to take advantage of any holes in the Browns defense, both as a runner and a receiver.
The Browns held the Falcons’ stable of running backs to 71 yards, but their attempts were minimal in the second half because the Browns led for most of that game.
In the previous week, the Browns allowed 141 yards against Kansas City’s Kareem Hunt and 212 against Pittsburgh’s James Conner. If the Bengals don’t have Green, Mixon could be even more heavily featured than he usually is. Stopping him will be a point of emphasis.
“Our main goal every Sunday is to stop the run,” safety Jabrill Peppers said. “But when you have a workhorse like that back there who gets their offense going, you definitely want to make it a big issue to stop.”