Battle of Ohio: 5 storylines to watch in Sunday’s Bengals-Browns game

Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb, center, rushes for an 11-yard touchdown during the first half of an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)
Caption
Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb, center, rushes for an 11-yard touchdown during the first half of an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

Credit: AP

The Cincinnati Bengals return home with a bit of a chip on their shoulder following a three-game road stretch.

After surrendering an 11-point lead in the fourth quarter and losing to the one-win New York Jets, the Bengals want to show that game was a fluke, and what better opportunity to bounce back than against the in-state rival.

The Bengals (5-3) host the Cleveland Browns (4-4) in the first Battle of Ohio matchup of the season Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, and the Bengals will be looking to complete a sweep of their first round of AFC North games and head into their bye week on a high note.

Here are five storylines to watch:

1. Protecting the quarterback

The Bengals have done a better job protecting Joe Burrow since allowing 10 sacks over the first two games. He’s been sacked 10 times combined in the last six games, but the Browns are another challenge.

Myles Garrett leads the league with 10.5 sacks, marking his fourth straight season recording double-digit sacks, and he sacked Burrow three times over two games last year. The Browns have 22 total sacks this year, but Garrett is the biggest concern, especially with defensive ends Jadeveon Clowney (ankle/knee/hip) and Takk McKinley (groin) both questionable after being limited in practice Friday. Clowney didn’t participate in Wednesday or Thursday practices at all, and McKinley missed Wednesday but was limited the rest of the week.

“It’s kind of what everyone sees when they watch him -- how explosive, fast and powerful he is,” Bengals left tackle Jonah Williams said of Garrett. “And he has a good arsenal of moves and a different variety of things that he uses. It’s definitely a challenge for me and anyone who goes against him. I’m excited about that challenge and get another opportunity this Sunday.”

Cincinnati’s offensive line has benefited from continuity across the board, aside from right guard, where Xavier Su’a-Filo has been out because of injury and Jackson Carman in and out for different ailments. Carman hurt his back last week but was a full participant in practices this week.

2. Ogunjobi faces old team

Bengals defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi may have a little extra edge Sunday going up against his former team for the first time. The Browns drafted him in the third round in 2017 and he spent his first four NFL seasons in Cleveland.

He’s already on pace for a career-high in sacks with 3.5 through eight games. After a down season last year led to him moving on in free agency, Ogunjobi found an opportunity to be even more effective in his natural position with the Bengals.

The Browns had him playing the nose tackle position, but he’s been a solid addition at the three-technique spot next to D.J. Reader, and he will play a big role up front as the Bengals try to impact Baker Mayfield, who already is playing with an injured non-throwing shoulder.

Ogunjobi wasn’t available to media this week, but linebacker Logan Wilson said he likely wouldn’t share any emotion about playing his old team.

“Larry’s pretty even-keeled,” Wilson said. “He’s like the same guy, pretty much, every day. He just goes to work, regardless of who we’re playing. He kind of carries that same mindset. This game probably might mean a little bit more to him. But you’re not going to see it.”

3. No OBJ, plenty of other threats

The Bengals defense won’t have to worry about Odell Beckham Jr. after the Browns released him Friday amid controversy brought on by his father questioning whether OBJ intentionally has been overlooked by Mayfield in the passing game.

However, Cincinnati will still have to worry about the league’s best running game and especially Nick Chubb. The Bengals’ tackling was terrible last week in a loss to the Jets, and stopping Chubb is just the first part of defending the Browns offense, which also features a lot of screens and underneath passes to the running backs, tight ends and slot receivers.

Cincinnati has limited opponents to 94.4 yards rushing (seventh best run defense in the league), but the Jets last week exposed some issues with the linebackers dropping too deep and leaving players in open space to make plays on short-yardage passes.

“They’re just very good at downhill running, outside zone schemes, pullers, stretch game, and they do it in a variety of different packages with personnel,” Wilson said.

With Beckham gone, Jarvis Landry, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Rashard Higgins are the top players to watch, though both Landry and Peoples-Jones were limited this week. Landry (knee) is full-go despite that, while Peoples-Jones (groin) is questionable. Tight end Harrison Bryant (thigh) also is questionable, but tight ends David Njoku and Austin Hooper have been the top contributors.

4. Burrow’s third Battle

Cleveland is the only team Burrow has faced twice before, and he’s looking for his first win in the rivalry. He had one of his best games against the Browns in Cincinnati last year, throwing for 406 yards and three touchdowns with one interception in a 37-34 loss.

The Browns defense will be a challenge for the Bengals offense even beyond what they can do in the pass rush. Cleveland ranks third in net defense, allowing just 304.9 yards per game, including 84.8 yards rushing (third best) and 220.1 yards passing (seventh).

Cornerback Denzel Ward is questionable with a hamstring issue, which could help Burrow’s chances with Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins. The Bengals need to get the running game going, especially on third-and-shorts and fourth-and-goal situations that proved a problem against the Jets. Joe Mixon had two big games against the Browns in 2019 but was quiet in his lone matchup with them last year, and he’s coming off a 33-yard performance on 14 carries last week at New York.

5. Important game

The Bengals were swept by the Browns last year and have lost five of the last six meetings. They’re trying to change the narrative this season on a lot of fronts, and a win Sunday would be a strong end the first half of the season.

This is the Bengals’ first home division game, and they’ve already beaten the Ravens and Steelers.

The Browns have been impacted by injuries recently, while the Bengals are relatively healthy and looking forward to being back home after a difficult three-game road stretch.

“Our guys have enjoyed our home environment, our home crowd. We’ve been able to feed off that energy,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “They’ve done a great job getting in their seats and cheering hard and making it hard for the opposing teams’ quarterbacks. It’s a big one for us. It’s a chance to be 6-3. It’s a chance to more importantly be 3-0 in our division with a win against each divisional opponent. … We need to finish this first half of the season with some momentum, and what better way to do it than to play against Cleveland at home in front of our fans and be 3-0 in the division going into the bye week. Our players understand the importance of this and what it will do for our momentum for the rest of our season.”

TODAY’S GAME

Browns at Benglas, 1 p.m., CBS, 700, 1290, 1530, 95.7, 102.7, 104.7

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