CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals have a clear game plan on defense going into Monday’s game at Cleveland: Stop the run.
If that is successful, cornerback Chidobe Awuzie will get more opportunities in a matchup he is looking forward to as he likely will be going up against former Dallas Cowboys teammate and friend Amari Cooper.
The Browns’ offense is built around the running back tandem of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt Cooper, in his first season with Cleveland, has been the top target for backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett. Cooper leads the Browns 422 yards receiving. He also has four touchdowns and 34 catches.
“He’s one of the best route runners of our generation, the way he puts it together, the way he sticks his cuts, acceleration, deceleration all that stuff,” Awuzie said. “And having been his teammate, I’ve seen it firsthand, so I know how much of an impact he could have on offense.”
Awuzie spent two and a half seasons with Cooper in Dallas before leaving for Cincinnati last March, and the two battled on and off the field. When not matching up in practices, they often competed in chess and were known to get into quite a few debates in the locker room, where they had lockers next to each other.
Both enjoyed how competitive the other was, Awuzie said, so they “connected on a lot of different levels,” but Awuzie would love to get his first interception of the season against Cooper.
The difficulty Awuzie faces is trying to stick with his matchup in play-action situations when there might be a tendency to get sucked up the field to try to help defend a possible run. Cincinnati expects a lot of carries for Chubb, so Awuzie said he will just have to keep his eyes up and make sure he’s following the play.
Chubb leads the league with 740 yards and eight touchdowns on 126 carries.
“He just has a combination of a lot of things, obviously, speed, power, quickness, ability to force missed tackles,” Awuzie said. “Particular to him is just that the offense revolves around him. You might have a great running back, but in this passing league, they’re not getting as many touches. In this offense, Chubb is gonna get his touches, so we know that when they’re gonna go over 20 carries or whatever, they’re winning a lot of games. So we’re gonna have to definitely make them one dimensional.”
The Bengals’ run defense struggled against the Saints two weeks ago but bottled up a strong Falcons ground attack on Sunday. Cornerback Mike Hilton said Cleveland is the best running team they have seen so far, but if the Bengals can put Brissett in more drop-back situations, that’s how they will be able to win.
Hunt adds 263 yards and three touchdowns on 66 carries, helping the Browns to the third best rushing average in the league.
“They are the best two-tandem back in the league, and they both bring their own similar styles, but it starts with Chubb,” Hilton said. “Obviously we got to slow him down but Hunt comes in and they’re not losing a beat. So we expect those two to get a lot of carries and we just got to turn them around and make them one-dimensional.”
Hilton said even though Chubb is just 5-foot-10, he’s 225 pounds, “well put together” and has breakaway speed defensive backs might underestimate because of his size.
“He’s just a load and he can wear on you for four quarters,” Hilton said.
The Bengals have struggled against the Browns the past two years while getting swept in all four matchups, and coach Zac Taylor attributed those difficulties to how well Cleveland runs the ball. Cincinnati had the fifth-best run defense in the league last year and Chubb still rushed for 137 yards and two touchdowns against it in the first meeting of the season.
“They run the ball well, not just against us, but versus everybody,” Taylor said. “Then they have all the things that come off of that. When you’re in some of these heavy personnel groupings per say, they’ve always done a good job with their tight ends, they put you in binds. They’re putting bigger people on the field oftentimes because they run the ball so well. Then they push the ball vertically down the field off play action and nakeds. They create space that way. They create discipline issues in terms of run fits and coverage responsibilities. And that’s where they get a lot of explosives from. They do a lot of play action screens. Their screen game, they do a great job with that as well. It’s a really good football team. It’s a really good offense. They can be very tough to defend.”
Bengals at Browns, 8:15 p.m., ESPN, ESPN2, 700, 1290, 1530, 95.7, 102.7, 104.7
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