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

The Cincinnati Bengals get another shot at the Cleveland Browns when the “Battle of Ohio” returns to Paul Browns Stadium on Sunday.

Rookie quarterback Joe Burrow insists the second matchup will be different, calling the first one “weird” because of the 61 passes he threw trying to rally the Bengals as they trailed much of the game. The Browns won 35-30 and account for one of four losses Cincinnati has suffered by five points or less.

That victory for Cleveland was the start of a four-game winning streak that came to an end last week in a 38-7 defeat to Pittsburgh. The Bengals are trying for their first AFC North win. These teams split games last year with Cincinnati closing Zac Taylor’s first season with a 33-23 win against the Ohio rivals in the finale. The Bengals lead the all-time series 51-43 and have won nine of the last 14.

Here are five storylines to watch Sunday:

1. Running game concerns

Both teams will be missing their top rushers Sunday as Bengals running back Joe Mixon is out with a foot injury suffered Sunday against the Colts and Browns running back Nick Chubb remains on injured reserve since suffering an MCL strain in Week 4.

The Browns have turned to Kareem Hunt, but he already was serving a consistent role as the No. 2 back and has the benefit of knowing he can run against Cincinnati. Hunt finished with 86 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries against the Bengals in Week 2, while Chubb racked up 124 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries.

For the Bengals, the loss of Mixon leaves lots of questions. Giovani Bernard will start for Mixon. However, he has played more of a role in the passing game under Taylor and it’s unclear how much of a load he is capable of handling in the runnin game. Samaje Perine and Trayveon Williams have one carry and no yards between them (Perine came in on a third-and-1 and couldn’t get it Sunday), and Williams hasn’t appeared in a game yet this season.

2. Defensive line sees more change

The Bengals defensive line has the task of trying to keep Baker Mayfield from breaking to the sidelines after he hurt Cincinnati on misdirection bootleg plays the last game.

That means more pressure from the edge rushers but there’s still some uncertainty there with Sam Hubbard out and Carlos Dunlap still sitting in a backup role. He wasn’t seen during the portion of practice open to the media Friday but wasn’t listed on the injury report.

Cincinnati added defensive end/tackle Margus Hunt to the roster earlier this week, bringing back a familiar face after three years away from Cincinnati, and the interior line gets a boost with the return of Mike Daniels from injured reserve. Taylor said Friday that Daniels is expected to play Sunday.

3. Offensive line continued improvement

Bengals center Trey Hopkins feels like the offensive line is starting to have some fun again now that things are progressing with some consistency up front. He almost makes it sound like they’ve been winning games.

The offensive line will be key for Burrow this week after he faced heavy pressure from the Browns defensive line last time, including getting sacked three times and fumbling on the 1-yard line when Myles Garrett got to him. Garrett is one of the best pass rushers in the league and the Bengals have shown better protection against non-blitzing defenses in recent weeks, allowing three sacks over two of the last three games.

Hopkins said it helps having the same five guys playing together on the offensive line the last three weeks with Alex Redmond stepping in at right guard. Redmond wasn’t on the roster the first meeting with Cleveland.

“It’s amazing to see finally, finally we get this thing moving in the right direction where we’re able to take our shots as linemen, we’re able to have fun and not just be on your heels,” Hopkins said. “Trying to get guys that have their ears pinned back ready to rush the passer. It’s good to be in those types of situations where you can take the fight to them.”

4. All eyes on Burrow

Burrow said he doesn’t expect to need to throw the ball 61 times this game, but with Mixon out, it seems likely he will be leaned on even more than he anticipated.

He now has three solid starters contributing at a high level with A.J. Green making some big grabs last week to finish just under 100 yards receiving. Tee Higgins topped 100 yards for the first time at Indianapolis, and Tyler Boyd has been consistent throughout. Wide receiver John Ross, who started the last matchup against Cleveland but hasn’t been involved since, is questionable with an illness.

The Bengals should have plenty of opportunities to challenge the Browns' secondary, which is led by cornerback Denzel Ward, who had three passes defensed in the last matchup.

“He’s probably one of the top guys we faced so far,” Boyd said of Ward. “And looking back at the last couple games, against the Steelers he played very well. He got beat on a double move by Washington, but I think he played very sound. He can cover, he’s got great speed. He’s everything you want in a corner. He’s got to stay disciplined on double moves and things like that but it just take some receivers to break the tendencies, to find openings and figure out how to beat corners like that.”

5. Missing William Jackson

The only other Bengals player who is a definite “out” for Sunday is William Jackson (concussion), which means they are now without both their top outside cornerbacks. Trae Waynes, who was expected to start opposite Jackson this season, has been out since training camp and remains on injured reserve.

Darius Phillips and LeShaun Sims likely will start Sunday, as both have stepped in to replace Waynes. Phillips had moved to nickel corner a couple weeks when Mackensie Alexander was out because of injury but upon Alexander’s return last week, Phillips found himself back on the bench behind Sims. Now he should get more opportunity to show he can play on the outside as well as he did in the slot – he’s struggled in that outside cornerback role this season.

The Browns will be without tight end Austin Hooper (illness), linebacker Jacob Phillips (knee) and guard Wyatt Teller (calf), and safety Karl Joseph is questionable with a hamstring injury.


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

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